Diana Belden smiled, a sigh of contentment escaping her lips as she peeked over the bars of the crib. In general, there was nothing so peaceful as a sleeping baby. In particular, there was nothing so beautiful as HER sleeping baby.
The young mother dawdled, reviewing mental checklists for anything else she could possibly do before disturbing the blissful slumber of the child before her. Diana hated waking Mariah up from her naps. It seemed to her there was nothing so cruel as to ruin the most heavenly expression God ever created. She was also practical, however, and had quickly learned the price she would pay if she let her daughter sleep too long. Once or twice she’d refused to wake the baby, who had proceeded to take a six-hour nap, woken up screaming in hunger, and then been wide-eyed most of the night. Diana had suffered miserably from her own exhaustion, making her cranky with her darling child and innocent-in-the-matter husband. No, it was better to balance naps and wake times, than to suffer the consequences from extremes of either. It was better to disturb a sleeping angel than to create a devil.
Still, she delayed the inevitable when possible. Who really needed an excuse to enjoy the picture of a sleeping beauty? If she had a task to complete that would be easier without a babe in arms, and the nap had not yet gone on too long, she would always choose to let her angel rest a minute longer.
At the moment, there was no other reason to dawdle. Mental checklists complete, Diana was assured that she had nothing left to do to get ready for her afternoon at her mother’s, except to get Mariah ready. She just had to bite the bullet and rouse the child.
And yet, she stared a minute longer, marveling at the beauty before her. Then Mariah opened her big blue eyes, blinked once, and focused on her mother. Their gazes held, and then they both smiled. Love surged through Diana and nearly overwhelmed her. She scooped Mariah up and held her close, laughing when the baby gurgled happily and pulled her hair.
As Diana set about changing Mariah’s diaper and getting her dressed, she reflected on her own happiness. She had been comfortable and content with her life, and she had thought that to be happiness… until her child was born. Even the love she felt for her husband, Mart, had not prepared her for the pure joy she felt every time she held, or even looked at, her adorable little girl.
Diana wasn’t naïve. She didn’t expect this interlude of pure and perfect joy to last forever. Troubles would come, as they did to all people. As long as she and Mart stuck together, they could weather any storm, she was sure. That didn’t mean they would be happy days. But those days weren’t today, and she wasn’t going to rush them along. For now, she was going to cherish her joy, and her daughter’s first Christmas.
“Oh, what a pretty girl you are,” Di exclaimed to Mariah, snapping the long-sleeved green onesie over the white tights with a candy cane print. The design on the tights matched the embroidery on the chest of the shirt, and Diana accented them both with a simple red corduroy skirt. At seven months, Mariah had just enough hair to hold the tiny candy cane barrettes that had come with the tights. Slipping on the shiny little Mary Jane’s, Diana grinned, delighted with the festive appearance of her little angel.
Mariah laughed at her mother. Her eyes seemed to say, So much fuss for an outfit that was going to get ruined within five minutes of entering Grandma Lynch’s house.
Diana narrowed her eyes suspiciously. She could have sworn she’d seen a very devious glint to Mariah’s eyes. Lifting her daughter and heading for the living room, she gently scolded, “You have too much of your Aunt Trixie in you.”
She instantly regretted speaking. She had promised herself she wasn’t going to think about her absent sister-in-law today. They hadn’t heard anything from her in three weeks, and they were all starting to get worried. Trixie’s post on a naval ship stationed off the coast of North Korea made the entire family nervous; for some reason, it felt more dangerous than her war-zone stint near Iraq. And while they had accepted that they wouldn’t get to see her two Christmases in a row until she got out of the Navy, everyone was missing her terribly right now.
Setting Mariah down on the couch to begin the battle of the snowsuit, Diana thought about the afternoon ahead. The Lynch girls had made a tradition of getting together a week or so before Christmas to bake cookies. When her twin sisters had been small, Di and her mother had enjoyed teaching them how to bake. Now they were in high school, and old hands at the baking part. Over the years, Diana had included Trixie and Honey in their tradition. When she and Mart were engaged, it had seemed wrong not to invite her future mother-in-law, and Helen Belden had joined the crowd. Eventually, Mrs. Wheeler had been included. This year, after much cajoling and insistence that she was now part of the family, even Dan’s new wife Denise would be there.
Everyone but Trixie.
Di shrugged off her melancholy. After all, though Trixie had been home for Christmas last year, she hadn’t arrived early enough for the cookie bake. In fact, this was the fourth straight year she was missing the cookie bake, so Di should be used to Trixie’s absence by now.
And this was a special year! This was the year Diana got to introduce Mariah to all of the Christmas traditions of her large, extended family. She and Mart were even taking Mariah to Arizona for a few days right after Christmas so Uncle Monty could introduce her to his western Christmas on the dude ranch.
Chuckling to herself, Di acknowledged, “Yes, Little Angel, I know you won’t remember any of it. But a few years from now, you’ll be able to say, ‘This is what I’ve always done at Christmas!’”
Smiling happily, Diana slipped on her own coat, picked up her daughter, and prepared to head out into the wintery weather.
Honey Belden raised her arms above her head and stretched her cramped muscles. She could easily have ordered pre-printed Christmas cards, similar to the ones her parents had used for years. However, she had always preferred the personal touch. Besides, she and Brian were different people than their parents. This being their first Christmas as a married couple, it was important for them to establish their own traditions. For her, one of those was to write out her own Christmas cards.
They also planned to incorporate several of the existing traditions from both their families. They especially wanted to keep the Bob-White traditions. Those had been created by the blending of their families through their extremely close friendships. Since their marriage was a further blending of their families, it made sense to maintain those traditions.
Thus it was that Honey, her mother, and her mother-in-law, would all be joining the Lynches for the annual cookie-baking day. What Honey loved about it was the way everyone blended in. Sherri Lynch’s kitchen was huge, state of the art, with the best of everything. At the same time, it was well used and had a homey feel. The Belden’s homey kitchen was too small for a production of this magnitude, and the Wheeler’s large professional-level kitchen was too formal and austere.
And there was something for everyone to do, too. The serious cooks whipped up cookie dough like crazy. But there were other jobs, too. Trays had to be shifted in and out of the oven and washed. Cookies had to be set to cool, then stored. Some required decorating. There were pretty plates to be made up, and large tins to be filled. There were lists to be kept.
While all this was going on, there was a party to be maintained. Glasses were kept filled, real food was consumed alongside the sweets, and music filled the air. That was a job in and of itself – someone had to control the stereo and keep the annual Christmas music debate from getting out of hand.
Honey remembered the way her mother had dodged the event the first couple of years Honey had been invited. Madeleine Wheeler could not bake at all, and had been reluctant to place herself in a situation where she felt she was guaranteed to feel out of place or in the way. Honey had been a little worried about that herself, but she really wanted her mom to be “part of the family”, so to speak. So she’d nagged until her mother had relented.
Maddie had fit right in. After all the fundraisers she’d run, she was an organizing whiz. The baking had been proceeding nicely, but everything else was a mess after that. Maddie had taken charge and made order out of the chaos. She was now an essential piece of the puzzle.
Looking at her watch, Honey realized she needed to get a move on. She was supposed to be picking Denise up at the train soon. Denise was reluctant to join their little crew for much the same reasons Maddie had once been. Making her fit in as well as her mother had was Honey’s pet project this year.
Wistfully, she thought how Trixie would have loved that job. Honey worried about her best friend, especially with her current station. She was worried about her brother, too. The closer it got to Christmas, the more Jim missed his fiancée, and the more melancholy he grew. Honey wanted to find some way to make sure he enjoyed Christmas. Determined to think of something, she decided to brainstorm with the others that afternoon. With that thought in mind, she set about getting to the party on time.
Sherri Lynch rolled her eyes as her younger daughters, Melli and Kelli, fought over the musical playlist for the afternoon. She didn’t care if they started with Silent Night. She didn’t even care about the ratio of secular tunes to traditional hymns. What she cared about was having her kitchen functional.
“If you two don’t move that boom box out of my kitchen, I’m going to bash it with my rolling pin!” she threatened the twins, only partially kidding.
The girls looked up and noticed the way their mother was brandishing her favorite rolling pin – the heavy, marble one – and began to pack up. Kelli couldn’t resist teasing her mother, however. “Boombox,” she snorted. “That’s so 80’s, Mummy. This is a state of the art laptop computer with the latest in digitized audio technology. We’ve already burned all but two CDs. All we need to do is compile the playlist.”
Melli picked up the speech, continuing her twin’s train of thought without missing a beat. “Once it’s all set up, we just hit start. If we put enough songs on the playlist, it could keep going without repeating a song until tomorrow.”
Unimpressed, Sherri stood with her arms folded across her chest. “Not on my kitchen table, it won’t.”
The twins rolled their eyes, but obediently removed themselves and their equipment to the rec room. They needed to go there, anyway, to hook the computer up to the house’s built-in surround sound.
Sherri shook her head and chuckled. She remembered the days when all her Christmas songs were on vinyl. She could only put three LPs on the spindle, and each only had about seven songs to a side. She was forever having to wash up in order to flip the albums, and praying not to scratch them because she couldn’t afford to replace them. My, how things had changed.
She might not have understood the techno speak when Diana had been excited about her father’s purchase of a CD changer that held three CDs, but she’d appreciated the hours of Christmas music without having to change the albums. So, clueless as she might be regarding the twins’ MP3s and flash drives, she was still going to appreciate the uninterrupted holiday songs. She was a sucker for Christmas music, any Christmas music, and her entire family knew it.
Turning her attention from carols to cookies, Sherri went over her mental checklist again. She had made three kinds of dough the night before so they could chill properly before being rolled. Helen Belden had done the same with three varieties of drop cookies, and would be bringing those. The drop cookies could start being popped right into the oven by the twins, while Honey and Di began rolling the dough for the various cutouts. That would keep people busy while she and Helen got to work on the more elaborate recipes.
The meringue cookies had been baked yesterday, because they took forever to cook, and there were plenty of tins and trays for Maddie to organize. Denise was welcome to jump in wherever she felt comfortable; she’d find a place to fit in, just as Maddie had years ago. Nearly satisfied that all was in readiness for the planned activities, she started setting out the first round of snack foods. The others would be arriving soon and then the fun could begin.
With elegance and panache, as she did all things, Madeleine Wheeler settled herself gracefully in the rear seat of her limousine. Her eyes twinkled with delight as she looked forward to her plans for the afternoon. How scandalized would Edith Lowery be if she knew Maddie had declined her formal holiday luncheon to bake cookies? Not that she actually baked any cookies, she admitted to herself with a chuckle. She had progressed to the point where she occasionally slid a tray into or out of the oven, but that was as close as she got to batter. There was nothing wrong with knowing your weaknesses and avoiding them.
Besides, it wasn’t as if the annual cookie bake was really about work. Once she had realized that it was an important social event in the lives of the people she cared about, Maddie had become very comfortable with making time for the day each year. And the only way a person could remain uncomfortable around Helen Belden and Sherri Lynch in a kitchen was if they were really determined to hold onto their insecurities. Instead, she pitched in, she chatted, and she enjoyed a special tradition with those she now considered family.
In fact, now that Honey and Brian were married, they really were family. The thought delighted Maddie once again as her car pulled into the driveway of Crabapple Farm. Some might find it pretentious of her to take a chauffeur-driven limousine to a neighbor’s house to bake Christmas cookies. On the other hand, a wealthy woman was traveling from one large estate to another. Truthfully, though, she did it so she and Helen wouldn’t have to worry about how much rum they put in their eggnog.
As Tom assisted her out of the car, they exchanged a covert glance. Yes, the rum in the eggnog was the excuse she gave Helen. She never mentioned that having Tom load Helen’s baking supplies in the limo made life easier. Back in the old days, the Bob-White boys would have eagerly helped. Nowadays Helen’s heart ached over how empty her house was. Mart and Brian lived nearby, but they were married and busy with their own lives. Robert was away at college; he’d be arriving the next day for the holiday, but it would be a temporary stay. And Trixie… it was best not to let Helen dwell on thoughts of Trixie today.
Entering the cozy farmhouse without knocking – goodness, her mother would be scandalized! – Maddie peeked into the kitchen and saw exactly what she was expecting. Helen was standing by the kitchen table, which was stacked with large Tupperware® bowls filled with a variety of dough mixtures and boxes filled with baking supplies. She was staring at a childish Christmas painting on the wall, one which Maddie knew had been drawn by Trixie when she was eight. It was by no means the work of a talented artist, but it depicted the entire Belden family, including an infant Bobby.
Maddie walked up behind Helen and wrapped her arms around her. “They’re happy, healthy, and living their own lives. They’re adults – good people – because of what you see in that picture. You can see the love there.”
Helen squeezed Maddie’s arms and sighed. “I know. I’m just still trying to adjust to not having any children left.”
“From what I hear, you’ve just reached the fun part of life. It’s your first grandchild’s first Christmas! Now stop moping and let’s go see her!”
Lighting up like a Christmas tree at the thought of Mariah, Helen returned to her normal, cheerful self. She began to bustle about, directing Tom on the loading of the supplies which were going to the party. Maddie smiled, gratified to see her friend kick herself out of her funk, and picked up a box containing a very special large cookie tin and carried that out to the car herself. Once Helen was busy baking and celebrating the season she would be okay.
Helen stared down at her fingers and let the sounds of her family wash over her. The recipe she was making was one she had long since abandoned using a spoon to mix; she could only get the proper consistency if she kneaded the dough thoroughly with her hands. Pretending to concentrate on her task allowed her a moment to hide her face from her friends and loved ones. They were having a wonderful time, as they did every year, except that everyone was tiptoeing around the elephant in the room.
Being with the group, having the hustle and bustle over several people working busily in a confined space, pouring all their love into the task, had soothed her. The noise was a welcome relief from the oppressive silence of her empty home. The twins’ bickering and the various people singing along with the background music made her smile. Hearing the updates on everyone’s lives was wonderful, and her daughters-in-law happily discussed their husbands. Everyone had asked about her husband Peter, and about her son Robert’s travel plans for his first Christmas break from college. The only tension in the room was the way everyone was studiously avoiding any mention of Trixie.
It was wrong. She should be here, in spirit if not in body. She had always been a part of this gathering, and in fact had been instrumental in starting the tradition… like she was with most Bob-White activities. Helen felt like screaming, or at the very least start prattling on incessantly about her beloved daughter. She loved the way everyone was being so careful of her feelings, but it was making her crazy.
On the other hand, she was trying very hard not to dwell on the fact that she hadn’t heard from Trixie in nearly a month. She hadn’t even called on Thanksgiving, and that was unlike her. In her last email to Jim, she had mentioned that she would probably be unable to communicate with anyone for a short while, so it wasn’t completely unexpected. It just hurt. She hated that her little girl was all the way on the other side of the world, separated from her friends and family, and she couldn’t just pick up the phone and tell her she loved her.
Mariah’s cry made Helen look up sharply. Diana had swiftly grabbed her daughter from whichever twin had been holding her – Helen couldn’t see from this angle – and nestled the baby against her chest. She patted her back as she paced in the ancient stride of motherhood, and the little darling quickly let out a burp that would make her father proud. The loud noise abruptly silenced her cries and everyone laughed, even Mariah.
Before turning her gaze back to her hands buried in batter, Helen caught the intense look Maddie was giving her. She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue childishly. Maddie walked over to stand next to her.
“She’s fine, you know.”
Helen arched her brow. “I know that, and you know that. In fact, everyone in this room believes that. So why are we avoiding all mention of her like it’s some deep, dark secret or a horribly painful subject?”
Maddie narrowed her eyes thoughtfully and nodded once. “Good point.”
With that, she wandered casually toward the area where Denise was diligently packing cookies into the tins set before her. In a voice loud enough to carry through the large room, Maddie asked, “Have we started packing Trixie’s cookies yet?”
Smiling gratefully, Helen called, “You’d better make sure everything’s in there, even those ones she doesn’t like. Those are the ones she’ll share with her shipmates.”
As if a balloon had popped, there was an infinitesimal pause of breaths held, and then the tension dissipated. Soon Honey was recounting a story from one of the first Christmases she and Trixie had joined Diana’s family for the cookie tradition. Helen hummed happily along with the current stereo selection, White Christmas, as she pulled her hands from the batter and went to the sink to wash them.
Just as she grabbed the dishtowel next to the phone to dry her hands, it began to ring. Sherri looked up from her position across the room and called to her. “Helen, you’re closest. Would you answer it?”
Picking up the receiver, Helen answered as they all did during this annual event, “Lynches’ North Pole Annex, how may I help you?”
“Moms? I never expected you to answer. I figured you’d be elbow deep in the batter by now.”
Helen laughed in delight at the sound of Trixie’s voice. “Your timing is impeccable! Sixty seconds earlier, and that’s just where I would have been.” Fighting back tears of joy, Helen then said, “Oh, sweetheart, it’s so good to hear your voice. I miss you so much!”
“I miss you too, Moms. It’s hard to be so far away sometimes, but especially this time of year. But Rob’s email said he’ll be home tomorrow, and he’s so homesick he’ll drive you crazy. And you have Mariah’s first Christmas. You’ll be so busy you’ll hardly have time to miss me, and you’ll be fine. So don’t worry. Now, did you seriously think I would miss the annual cookie bake?”
Touched by her daughter’s concern for her, Helen closed her eyes and remembered a little toddler snuggled up in her arms, before she was so eager to explore every corner of the world. Then she turned so her voice would carry across the room and laughed again. “No, Trixie. I’m not surprised that you couldn’t miss the cookie bake.”
Heads snapped to attention all around, and the room erupted in happy smiles and a loud chorus of, “Merry Christmas, Trixie!”
“Tell them Merry Christmas back.”
Diana stepped up and pointed to a button on the phone. Helen followed her finger with her eyes and grinned. “Hold on a second and you can tell them yourself.”
Helen took Mariah and let Di push the buttons and replace the receiver. In a few seconds Di said, “Hey, Trix, now you’re on speaker so you can talk to everyone.”
“Your dad put a speakerphone in the kitchen? That is so cool! Don’t forget to tell him how much I love his gadgets.”
“We won’t!” Melli called. “Trixie, we took some great pictures of the town square at the Christmas tree lighting. I swear this is the best one ever. Do you want me to email them to you?”
“That’d be great, Mel. Thanks! Did you two wow them in your elf outfits?”
Kelli answered, “Natch! We were the best looking elves ever.”
“Hey!” Di interrupted. “Except for the year Honey and I were the elves.”
Trixie’s laugh carried through the room, and conversation flowed freely. Helen cradled her granddaughter and closed her eyes, allowing herself to feel as if Trixie was there in the kitchen with them, where she belonged.
“Let me guess. You guys stuck Denise with filling all the tins.”
Denise Mangan, who’d been pretty quiet all afternoon, laughed and called back, “I figured this was newcomer’s initiation.”
“Don’t forget to save me some!”
“Not a chance, Trix,” Sherri called. “We’re going to send you all the nutty ones.”
“Ick! Thanks a lot, Mrs. Lynch. Well, at least those I can share.”
“I hate to cut this short, but tell everyone I said Merry Christmas and I love them all.”
“Trix!” Honey pouted. “Don’t you usually get fifteen minute phone calls? It’s only been ten!”
“Well, yeah, but…”
“But you have a fiancé who will kill us all if he finds out we talked to you and he didn’t,” Maddie responded. “I won’t be able to live with him. Please, for the love of God, go call Jim!”
“You don’t have to tell me twice! I love you guys! Merry Christmas!”
After the click of the disconnect, there was a pause of contented silence before the normal conversation resumed. Maddie walked over to Helen with a glass of punch for each of them. Handing one to her friend, Maddie said, “Feel better now?”
Accepting the cup with a murmur of thanks, Helen smiled contentedly. “Much. I know she’s fine, but I feel better when she tells me that herself.”
Sherri joined them with punch for herself, and the three friends leaned against the counter and watched the younger generation hard at work. A new song started, and the ladies quietly sang along.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright
Tiny tots, with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight
They know that Santa’s on his way
He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother’s child is going to spy
To see if reindeer really know how to fly
And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to You.
Maddie sighed. “Now this is Christmas.”
Sherri nodded. “You got that right.”
Helen smiled, finally in the spirit of the season. “Amen.”
Please note: this is set BEFORE Beware the Ides of
Merry Christmas, Mary! I hope you enjoy this simple little story. I took your Christmas cookie tradition, gave it to Diana, and let her run with it.