Not the worst Christmas.
‘NANI! Mom has booked our tickets,’ Alisha grips the phone tightly as she jumps up and down on the bed.
‘Oh, Alisha, my dear. I can’t wait to see you,’ Shelly Nani smiles, rocking on her chair, her phone on speaker as her hands work her knitting needles rapidly.
‘Alisha, give me the phone,’ Gianna calls out. ‘Let me speak to Nani now.’
‘Oh, alright Mom,’ Alisha grumbles.
‘Finally!’ Gianna says.
‘Mum! How are you? I’ve got lovely news. We are going to spend Christmas together. Alfred has booked the tickets. We’ll be coming next week. I’ll send Samuel our flight schedule.’
‘I’m so happy to know. Last Christmas was so lonely without you and the children,’ Shelly exclaims. ‘Your father missed them so much. Have you spoken to Samuel?’
‘Not yet, he didn’t take my call. I think he is in a meeting or something. I’ll call him later tonight.’
‘How is Patrick doing?’ Shelly lovingly asks. ‘What is he up to?’
‘Oh, he’s fine. He’s packing his school bag for tomorrow.’
‘He just turned seven a week ago. They grow up so fast,’ Shelly replies. ‘And how old is Alisha? I forget.’
‘Alisha is four now. And your little granddaughter, who is not so little anymore, is still jumping on the bed. She was so excited when I told her the news that we are all going to spend Christmas together.’
‘I can’t wait, Gianna,’ her mother smiles through the phone.
‘I think they are most excited to get on the aeroplane after all this time,’ Gianna giggles. ’So, I’ll call you tomorrow. I’m going to get the kids to bed. It’s already past their bedtime. And tomorrow is a school day.’
‘Sure...sure. Gianna. It reminds me of when I had to put Samuel and you to bed. You two would get so crazy if I didn’t get you tucked up early,’ she chuckles and cuts the call.
In due course, Samuel arrives home from work. Like every other day, his mother, Shelly patiently waits for him to come home. She keeps herself busy knitting sweaters for her grandchildren, Patrick and Alisha. She is never at a loss for things to do with a myriad of crafts and creative endeavours.
‘I just hope these will fit them,’ she says to herself, placing one of the half-knitted sweaters in her craft bag. She pushes herself up from her rocking chair with her old wise hands and makes her way to the kitchen.
Samuel steps out of his bedroom and pulls a dining chair out for his mother to take a seat. Even though she eats an early dinner, Shelly always keeps her son company when he eats. There is often a card game for the pair post-dinner. The mother and son share a relationship of deep understanding. There is no subject they are not willing to touch on. Nothing is taboo for these two. Several times, Samuel has even brought his sweetheart, Nancy home to meet his mother. Shelly absolutely adores Nancy and feels the twosome make a lovely and compatible couple.
Samuel and Nancy work together in the same office but in different departments. As time has passed, their casual friendship has grown into something special. The couple are planning to tie the knot next year.
‘Did you speak to your sister Gianna?’ Shelly asked.
‘No, I missed her call and didn’t get a chance to call her back. I forgot,’ Samuel dropped his head tiredly. ‘I’m sorry. But I shall give her a call after dinner.’
‘Well, they are coming over next week. I better tell Raju to get the house organised. My little darlings are going to have a lovely Christmas with their grandma.’
‘Oh! How exciting,’ he replies, taking the next bite of food. ‘There is so much that needs to be done.’
‘We can put up the tree on the day they arrive. The kids really enjoy decorating.’
‘Oh! And ...and we have to put up the star too,’ she adds.
‘Oh, Mum. Don’t worry. I will get everything organised tomorrow morning itself. It's been a while since we deep-cleaned the house.’
Shelly sighs. ‘What can I do, my dear. I’m getting old. My legs aren’t strong enough to keep me standing for too long. My arms get tired. I feel so worn out.’
‘Mum, listen to me, you don’t have to lift a finger,’ he says, taking her hand and folding it in his. ’I’m here for you. And the day after is Saturday. I’ll take the day off and get everything ready. Raju, our house help will give me a hand.’
Over the weekend, Samuel cleaned, arranged and decorated their home. Both Raju and Samuel worked very hard to make his mother feel relaxed to receive their company.
‘It looks so beautiful, just like how your father used to help do it up,’ Shelly grins, nudging her specs up. ‘Come and give me a big hug Samuel.’
Samuel walks across the hall and wraps his long arms around his frail elderly mother, and holds her gently and lovingly.
‘Do you want to come with me tomorrow to the airport to pick up Gianna and the kiddos?’ he asks.
‘Oh, no! It’s such a long drive to the airport. And what if their flight gets delayed. You know how Delhi fog is - Unexpected. And don’t get me started on the ridiculous traffic. Even when I go for my doctor’s appointment it takes forever.’
‘Alright, so I’ll pick the gang up after work and bring them straight home tomorrow.’
‘Is Nancy going to join us for our Christmas dinner?’ Shelly asks.
‘No, Mum. She has gone to her parent’s place for Christmas. But hopefully, by the next Christmas, we shall be together.’
The following evening, Shelly’s home is filled with chitter-chatter, chaos and joy. Shelly sits on her rocking chair, watching her grandkids running around, playing and having the time of their lives. She takes a deep breath and imagines her sweetheart, Neville, singing and dancing with grandkids like he used to. ‘It’s going to be difficult this Christmas,’ she thinks to herself. ‘It’s the first time I’ll be spending Christmas without my dearest Neville. Oh, how I miss him so much. We could still be having such a great time together.’
‘Why hasn’t Alfred come along with you Gianna?’ Shelly asks.
‘He would join us on Christmas Day. His flight lands in the afternoon, Mum,’ Gianna says. ‘But it’s ok. What matters is that we made it and the children are here with their Nani.’
Shelly’s thoughts are interrupted when Alisha calls out for her grandmother. ‘Nani, come see, Raju uncle has taken down the tree from the loft.’
Shelly gets up from her rocking chair and walks towards them. She feels the love and warmth but in her heart, she feels a vast emptiness as well. She tries hard to mask her sadness so it doesn’t affect the Christmas joy amongst the family.
‘Let’s bake some Christmas cookies tomorrow, shall we?’ Shelly says to her little ones.
‘Yes...yes! Can we bake them now?’ Patrick smiles ear to ear.
‘Not today, dear. You all must be so tired after your flight. I think we should sit down, say grace and eat a family dinner. And then you all can snuggle up in my bed, and I can read you a special bedtime story.’
‘Sounds like a plan, Mum. I remember how hard it used to be for you to get Samuel and me to bed. We never agreed to stop at one story,’ Gianna giggles.
‘We would make her go on and on until your Nani fell asleep reading,’ Gianna tells her kids. ‘Now, come on, wash your hands before dinner. Raju has laid the table already. I don’t want the food to get cold.’
The next morning was Christmas Eve. A day of big preparation in this family. Everyone helps. Shelly and the children bake Christmas cookies and cake. They spend the rest of the day decorating the tree, running off to exchange secrets and to wrap presents. Alisha and Patrick lovingly make Christmas cards and hang them on strings near the tree.
‘These are the best cookies Mum,’ Gianna says. ‘I’m definitely going to put on all that weight I lost over the past few months.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous my dear,’ Shelly replies. ‘You’re not fat at all.’
‘Oh, please Mum. Don’t you remember how she was when she was a kid? All rolly polly?’ Samuel teases.
‘Will you shut your mouth,’ Gianna frowns.
‘Now, now! Hush down you two. What will the children think? Are you kids never going to grow up? ‘Shelly demands.
‘Only the Christmas Star is left to put up on the tree,’ Patrick says. ‘Where is it?’
‘Oh, goodness! Haven’t you found it in any of the boxes?’ Gianna says.
‘Did you check all the boxes?’ Samuel asks, sounding worried.
‘Yes, I did. All the boxes are empty now. Everything on the tree and no star,’ Patrick replies.
‘Are you sure?’ Shelly asks, sounding distressed.
‘Don’t worry, Mum. We shall find it,’ Samuel says reassuringly.
‘Maybe we can buy a new one?’ Patrick suggests.
‘Or maybe we can make one?’ Alisha adds excitedly.
‘No, no! If we can’t find the same Christmas star, then…’ Shelly begins to tear up. ‘Let’s just forget for now.’
‘Oh, Mum, don’t say that. And please don’t cry,’ Gianna says, hugging her mother close.
‘I want the same Christmas star. We’ve been putting that same star on for the past sixty years. Your father gifted me that star on our first Christmas. The truth is I’m already feeling so low and lost without him. You must all realise this is the first Christmas my dearest Neville and your wonderful father is not with us.’
‘Of course, we miss Dad too,’ Gianna says. ‘We just didn’t say anything thinking you might feel even worse.’
‘Mum don’t worry. We will find the star. Why don’t you lie down for a few minutes and get some rest? You’ve been on your feet since early this morning with all that baking and decorating,’ Samuel suggests.
‘No, I can’t. I need to find my star. I don’t want a star on top of the tree if we can’t find that star.’
The entire family searches high and low. They check all the cupboards in every room, under all the beds, in the trucks, in the loft, every nook and corner of the house but the star is nowhere to be found.
Shelly, feeling sorrowful, silently eats her dinner and heads to bed. ‘I’m just feeling so sad,’ she mumbles to herself. ‘Christmas is already ruined for me.’
The following morning is Christmas. Patrick and Alisha are up earlier than usual, feeling happy and excited.
‘I can’t wait to open our presents,’ Alisha says, jumping out of bed.
‘Freshen up first, and then we can open the presents.’ Gianna calls out.
‘I bet I’ll get there before you,’ Patrick says, rushing into the bathroom first.
‘Mom, Patrick will open all the presents before me,’ Alisha cries.
‘No, he won’t, dear. Come, let’s get you ready. Wear your sweater, and I’ll take you downstairs,’ Gianna replies.
Soon, everyone is sitting around the tree. Samuel passes the Christmas presents around one by one.
The kids excitedly open their own presents and impatiently watch as everyone opens theirs. Shelly sits quietly on her rocking chair, looking at the Christmas tree without its star. She sighs a heavy sigh feeling emotionally shattered. ‘Where can my star be?’ she murmurs.
‘Mum, this one's for you,’ Samuel says, walking towards her.
‘For me?’ she replies.
‘But…You already gave me a present.’
‘We found it in the loft amongst all the other Christmas decorations boxes. It had your name on it,’ Gianna says.
‘Shelly looks confused and carefully unwraps the present and finds a medium-sized white box. She eagerly opens the box and takes out a large shiny golden elaborate Christmas star. She looks at her kids, and they all stare in wonder back at her. ‘Where could this beautiful star have come from.’
‘WHO IS IT FROM?’ Her family all cry out.
Shelly shuffles through the thermocol balls and finds a plain white envelope.
‘Nani! Open it Nani Open it,’ Patrick asks eagerly.
‘I don’t know, dear, there’s nothing written on the envelope,’ Shelly says as she begins to open it.
Shelly reads the note silently. And as she reads, tears spill down her wrinkled face.
Samuel takes the note from his mother and reads it aloud,
‘My darling Shelly, I’m sorry I broke your favourite star while putting it away with the Christmas decorations this year. And I just couldn’t tell you since I know how much you love that star. Please accept this new star as a replacement. I know it will never be the same but I hope it certainly brings a smile to your face. Love Neville.’
Shelly’s tree got a star after all.
‘This is the everlasting love of our parents,’ Gianna smiles after putting the star up on the Christmas tree. ‘It looks perfect Mum.’
‘It’s like your father is still here with us on Christmas,’ Shelly says, holding the note close to her heart as she looks outside the big window, rocking back and forth on her chair. ‘I guess this isn’t the worst Christmas after all.’