Here I tell the story of three long-lost friends who re-unite for Christmas, and their journey toward closure, regarding the ones who will never reunite with them again. Thanks for coming by to read.
Mama Jean didn’t know what to make of it. Driving a thousand miles Down South, watching the grit and crystalline ice-sand of the road give way to clear tar and concrete. It was a miracle, after the winter they had had Up North.
“Global Warming, my foot,” she muttered. The cold was piercing her bones more and more each winter, leaving her arthritic and immobile. Almost down for the count. But then, Spring would come along, with its tulips and daffodils, and she’d don her gardening hat (to preserve her complexion) and scramble around in the dirt a bit, and engage in mortal combat with the bramble bushes, and suddenly, all would be well in the world. Her knees didn’t complain one bit.
That was how she felt now. Driving over the border into Florida, looking forward to her imminent holiday with her friend Toony. She and Toony (christened Petunia) had grown up together in the woods of Minnesota, chasing each other through the dappled shadows of summer, and the crunchy sunlit dazzle of winter. Toony had moved South years ago, when they were both still children. And that was when Mama Jean had had her first encounter with loss.
Her second encounter was much, much worse. It was not a loss that could be remedied by a planned reunion.
Mama Jean had lost her only daughter, fifteen-year-old Imogene, in a random hit and run. Presumably, a drunk driver had been too cowardly to stand up and take his punishment.
They were never the same again, she and Rodney. A void that had been filled with joy for fifteen blissful years suddenly gaped, an ever-widening chasm. Each of them camped on opposing cliffs, nursing their wounds. The divorce was quiet and amicable.
When people asked Mama Jean if she had any children, she always answered, “Yes, a daughter. But she went South.” People seemed to accept separation as a normal consequence of parenthood. Much easier to believe and react to, than someone saying, that a child that was, is no more.
At last, she too was going South. She had told the lie so often, that at every gas station, every grocery store past the Mason-Dixon line, she was sure she caught a glimpse of Imogene. Just turning a corner, or closing the car door behind her, before slipping back, out of sight.
Now it was time to pay attention to the road. It was Toony’s town ahead, the exit ramp being announced belatedly, but with Southern formality, by her over-intrusive GPS. Her one and only companion in the car.
Mama Jean swerved into the right lane just in time, and rumbled off the highway into Sycamore Chapel, Florida.
Evocative place names have always been the hallmark of the development industry. Mama Jean drove past newish clusters of homes, each development promising what the South’s Northern lifeline craved: Nature, Warmth and Peace. Names like Winter Haven, Pembroke Pines, Plantation, and Frostproof dotted the map. Every possible combination describing Oaks and Palms had already been used. Palmettos and Citrus lent their monikers to gated communities of cul-de-sac mansions, owned by the newly arrived nouveau riche. And who could blame the rich for leaving the chill of the tax-sucking Northeast and Midwest, to dive into Florida headfirst, briefly treading water in in South Florida’s neon deep end, and only then, after further consideration, bobbing back up, to float in the still shallows of Northeast Florida?
“Jean! Jeanie, is that you?”
Toony ran down the drive, absolutely ecstatic. Mama Jean tried to take no notice of her impractical dress—fluffy slippers and a mumu—hardly dinnerware. But who ate dinner anywhere other than at the TV or a computer these days? Especially old women like she and Toony, who were glad to no longer be burdened, with the endless job of pleasing a man.
Mama Jean got out and stretched. The luggage could wait. “Come here, you!” she laughed heartily.
Toony ran into her arms, all tiny and bird-boned, collapsing a bit under the weight of Mama Jean’s jiggly arms.
“It has been too long!” Toony chirped. She hadn’t lost her accent, still the slightest Midwestern nasal wheeze, the energy-conserving tendency to move ones jaw as little as possible, when one spoke. Calories needed to be conserved, in a Northern climate. “C’mon inside. It’s not much, but I like it!”
Toony’s house was concrete block, low slung and modest, with a curlicue carport. Solid as a rock, in a hurricane. Mama Jean shuddered, just thinking about it. At least up North they had basements to shield you from the tornadoes. Here everything seemed so out-of-doors and exposed. As if things could grow back so fast, there was no point in protecting anything or anyone from the elements.
“I see you have your lights up,” Mama Jean observed in a congratulatory tone. “I haven’t done mine in years.”
Toony stopped in her tracks and stared at Mama Jean. “But how could you not? It wouldn’t be the same! I wouldn’t know it was Christmas, if everyone didn’t put up their lights!”
Mama Jean giggled. “Well, we have this little thing called snow, that kinda gives it away…”
“Oh, you joker!’ said Toony and they whisked past the metal screen door into her kitchen.
Inside, Mama Jean was enveloped in the tell-tale scents of Christmas. A small pot of simmering red wine with cinnamon and nutmeg and allspice, sat on the corner burner, further steaming the already humid air. Cookies lay nearby, within reach—pfeffernuesse with their powdered coating that stuck to your fingertips and the end of your nose, Linzer cookies, like white wreaths, with a shiny raspberry jam center, even Lebkuchen—surely from the embossed tin, flown in from Nueremburg each Christmas to specialty stores worldwide. She sat herself down, without invitation, at the kitchen table, on a vinyl and chrome chair that looked snatched from a fifties diner.
“Do you remember the trip in tenth grade” Toony gasped, seeing the look of recognition in her old friend’s face. “I tried to recreate it, the best I could. Those nine drizzly days in Bavaria, the Christmas Market, the bells in the churches, us not knowing more than a few words of German, giggling at their funny ways while they giggled at ours—remember?”
“What were we then—fifteen?” Mama Jean shook her head, laughing with the joy of that lucky time, when all things were possible and nothing was forbidden or taboo. Fifteen had come to mean so much more to her over the years. It had become a year not of joy, but sorrow.
“Your birthday was on that trip, remember? And we snuck you into a Kneipe and got you drunk on limonade and beer, mixed, and we had to carry you back to the hotel and hide you from the chaperones!”
“Yeah, I don’t remember that part too well,” admitted Mama Jean, her fingers lingering in the air above the cookies, ready to swoop down and take one.
“Have you been back?” Toony asked, opening the oven door and removing a large roast. The aroma was intoxicating. Mama Jean couldn’t remember the last time anyone had cooked her a meal.
“Where? To Germany? No!” Mama Jean slammed her fist as if to dismiss that notion entirely. “I got married, had a kid, and then, I didn’t. So I got divorced. End of story.” She shrugged her shoulders, a little ashamed that her promising life of endless possibilities could be summed up in such a dreary way.
“Oh, hogwash,” said Toony. “Your birthday must be soon, because we’re almost at Christmas now, just like back then. We need to go out. “
“It’s tomorrow,” admitted Mama Jean sheepishly, shoving a Linzer cookie into her cheek, as an appetizer. “Sixty.”
They both paused at the gravity of that number.
“It’s not as bad as you think, Jean,” breezed Toony. “Been there, done that. It’s really no big deal. These days with all the creams and what-nots, you can look thirty, from behind.”
“Not with my behind,” winced Mama Jean.
“Just you wait,” said Toony. “With all I’ve got planned for you, you’ll feel twenty years younger.” She set a plate before Mama Jean: sauerbraten, red cabbage, mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon. “Now dig in,” she commanded. Her own plate was a fraction of the size, and she ate standing, in that tiny, cozy kitchen, smelling of heaven. And through the picture window, they saw the dark slowly settle from an orange glow, among the oak trees, outside.
Mama Jean slept pretty well on the sofa bed, considering her back, and woke up in the morning a little sweaty, with more quilts on her, than she remembered putting on herself.
Christmas Eve, she remembered. Also, My Birthday.
Thank God she wasn’t still on the road on her birthday. That would have been just too gloomy. She wrapped her robe around what was left of her waist and pulled out her wallet. Mama Jean always carried a man’s wallet. She had always found it more practical than carrying a purse everywhere, an extra appendage to get caught on doorknobs, and an extra thing to remember not to leave behind. She just made sure to always have a pocket, and then, she’d put the wallet in there. Simple. Men really had certain things figured out much better than women.
She didn’t tell people that she stole the wallet from Rodney, and sometimes smelled it, when she missed him. What was it about leather that reminded her of that best-forgotten man? Also, Rodney’s wallet had the best picture of Imogene, and Mama Jean could go nowhere, without her picture of Imogene.
She shuffled into the kitchen in her crew socks, to try to locate some coffee. A smell that was distinctly absent from the moist, warm air. Apparently, Toony didn’t like to run the air conditioner in mild weather. Stingy Midwestern habits die hard.
The voice was definitely not Toony’s. Much too low, foreign, almost. As Mama Jean rounded the corner she encountered a vaguely familiar face.
“Don’t worry, I brought StarBucks!” The man was close to Mama Jean’s age but slender, gracefully and abundantly gray with a great wide smile full of teeth and bright blue eyes. His consonants were much too pronounced to be Southern, or even any kind of American.
“Cheenie,” he said, shaking his head.
Mama Jean’s eyes got wide and she clutched at the counter behind her like a Southern belle. She narrowed her eyes, not wanting to be fooled into thinking the impossible.
“Ah, you’ve met again!” said Toony, banging the screen door shut behind her. “You remember Stefan?”
“Call me Steve,” the man said gallantly, getting up and offering Mama Jean his chair.
“Stefan? The waiter?” Mama Jean asked, barely believing it could be true. “From the little cafe, where we used to go for Kaffee in the afternoons?”
“And see?” said Stefan, offering the StarBucks mug. “I’m still bringing you coffee.”
“You were so crazy about him!’ giggled Toony. “You were thinking of staying behind, not getting on the tour bus when we left! What would the choir director have said then, if you’d gone missing?”
“Toony, shut up,” said Mama Jean, blushing for the first time in twenty years. Stefan’s eyes were laughing. She remembered those eyes and how she totally fell for them, and how unashamedly, at fifteen, she was ready to make a scene, and leave the tour, her friends, her education and her country behind. As if giving up all of that were a good trade, fair and square, for the privilege of looking into those eyes.
“Well, I liked her back then, too,” said Stefan, a mischievous look in his eyes. “So when Toony found me on the genealogy group online when I was planning a trip to Florida, and I heard you were coming to visit her, too…well, Cheenie, my dear, how could I resist?”
“Toony?” beckoned Mama Jean in a high voice. “Can I speak to you alone….over here?” She ushered Toony out of the room, closing the kitchen door behind her, leaving Stefan alone with his memories. “How could you do this to me, Toony? This is embarrassing! How did you find him anyway? I haven’t even thought about him in years! What right do you have to set me up…I’m not in the market anyway. I’ve squandered all my chances.”
Toony patted the fluffy sleeve of Mama Jean’s robe as she took her hand into her own. “Now, Jean. You know, a lot of time has passed. Nobody’s embarrassed about anything anymore, so why are you? People brag on YouTube about stupider things than we ever did. So what, if you fell for a foreign guy once? And what’s the harm in re-uniting? If there’s no spark, there’s no spark. Fact is, we’ve been texting back and forth a long while. You’ve been alone for too long. You’ve been sad for too long. You’ve been missing out on life, for too long.”
Mama Jean crossed her arms before her massive chest and pouted. “What about you?” she accused spitefully. “You’re sixty too. What have you done with your life?”
“You don’t know me Jean, not who I’ve become! Since Harry ran off with that whippersnapper of a girl, I haven’t looked back. I do Zumba twice a week and I took up square-dancing. I even have a blog . I’m not hiding in my house, whimpering over what could have been.”
“Now, wait. You’ve got no right…”
“It’s not about right or wrong, Jeanie. It’s about Time, and what a tiny bit of it we’ve got left! I don’t want to hurt your feelings. I know you have good reason to be sad. You lost your daughter. At fifteen, I know. Just the same age when you were traveling and cavorting with foreigners, and thinking about never coming back. You were happy then.
“Just because Imogene didn’t get the chance to do all those things doesn’t mean you should forbid yourself from doing them. No amount of penance is going to bring her or Rodney back. You can’t punish yourself back into their good graces. You’ve got to dust yourself off, and get back in the game! And a night out with Stefan is a great way to start!”
Without knowing it, Mama Jean had begun to cry. Her shoulders heaved, and great graceless sobs escaped her mouth, as Toony wrapped her up in her arms.
“Oh, sweetie,” she said. “That sounds like it’s been bottled up inside a long, long time. That’s got to feel good, getting that out.”
Stefan poked his head around the kitchen door’s edge, locking eyes with Toony, as if pleading for further instruction.
“Come back at six, Steve. She’ll be all better by then.” Mama Jean let out a fresh wail, and the screen door banged, as Stefan let himself out.
By five, Mama Jean was better. She and Toony talked the day away, remembering and catching up, baking and eating, shoving cloves into oranges like pins into the voodoo dolls of their once-beloved-husbands. Mama Jean felt more like herself, sneaking a peak at dear Imogene’s photo only once or twice that day, and forgetting completely, to breathe in her husband’s wallet’s leather scent.
It was shortly before six when Mama Jean excused herself, to walk a little way down the road to a tiny clothing and trinket shop, to see if she could find herself a new blouse and maybe even a purse. In all her preparations and packing for this enormous Florida trip, she had never seriously contemplated the possibility that she might want to dress up for anything.
The shopkeeper stood behind the counter as Mama Jean surveyed the offerings. A nice tee in a deep green spoke to her and miraculously, fit. Also a beaded purse in a nineteen twenties flapper style spoke to her.
“How much?” she inquired, not really caring.
The shop girl turned the purse over. No tag. “For you?” she said, evaluating Jean’s demeanor and worthiness with a nearsighted look, “Twenty.”
“Both?” asked Mama Jean, holding up the shirt against her chest.
“Great color on you!” said the shop girl. “Sure. Twenty together, why not. Merry Christmas!”
“Well, thank you,” said Mama Jean. She felt that little shimmer of pleasure that came, whenever she found herself in possession of a bargain. “Merry Christmas to you, too!”
The shop girl looked at Mama Jean like she had two heads. “I don’t celebrate Christmas,” she said. “Big waste of time. And money. And it’s much more interesting, anyway, to see what’s in the cards.”
“The cards?” asked Mama Jean. Rodney had been known to play a stray game of poker here and there. Money would disappear from the housekeeping fund, especially on Friday nights. Damn him.
“Tarot cards.” The young girl, Mama Jean now noticed, was wearing entirely too much mascara for her impish face. Nearly as much as Mama Jean herself once wore, during the distant new wave eighties! The shop girl slowly reached under the counter and pulled out a stack of over-sized cards.
“I could do a reading for you,” she suggested, almost whispering, while her eyes darted toward the door of the tragically empty store.
Mama Jean was quite taken by this idea. Something, about having part of her past suddenly lurch out of the distant ether, and tap her on her shoulder, made her want to know what was coming next. She looked at her watch. Ten till six.
“I’ve got to go,” she said. “Otherwise, for sure…”
“Well, I could sell you the deck,” the girl said. “The instructions are inside.”
“Oh, I don’t know…” Mama Jean stammered.
“Really. It would help me. I need Christmas money, too.” Those big, mascara-coated, much too young eyes…
“How much?” asked Mama Jean, already digging in her purse again.
“Twenty.” The girl stuffed the cards back in the same box and slid it over. Clearly, she was selling her own deck. Enterprising young thing.
“Fine, twenty. But first, tell me your age,” demanded Mama Jean, the bill tight in her hand.
Stefan was already at the house, by the time Mama Jean arrived, huffing and puffing. He and Toony were enjoying mulled wine together, their laughter trickling out of the kitchen melodically, like carols from a choir. Mama Jean got dressed, splashed her face, and applied various scents, to wash away the perpetual sweat of this confounded place. Her mood was dipping again. This was supposed to be a fun night, wasn’t it? She just wanted to curl up in one of those quilts, turn the air conditioning on full blast, and remember Imogene.
“There she is!” Stefan greeted her warmly. “My Cheenie!” He kissed her on both cheeks. He rubbed his hands together as if to fend off the cold, but the night was still and stagnant, room-temperature. “Are we ready to go?”
“Where are we going, anyway?” Mama Jean asked, turning to Toony.
“You asking me?” Toony replied. “I’m not going. Just you lovebirds. You have some catching up to do. Besides, it’s Zumba night.”
“What?” Mama Jean had barely begun to register her displeasure at the situation, when Stefan swept her out the banging kitchen door and into his car.
“I have reservations at a little fish place,” he said as he started the car. “Not so easy to get, reservations on Christmas Eve.” Stefan flashed her a smile so broad, it seemed to cleave his face in two. A bit of tension released from her shoulders, as she looked out the window at the lights streaming by. She was not going to let him ruin her Christmas.
He parked in a space under the Christmas-tree-shaped lights, lining the main street. Couples walked up and down, children gasped and ran and laughed. No one had a coat on. No one was shoveling snow. Christmas carols played through speakers, hidden somewhere discreet.
“I thought we’d go somewhere Southern, since we’re both here from far away,” said Stefan, opening the door for Mama Jean. She was beginning to feel less matronly, by the minute. Clementine’s was a modern open space, with exposed beams and pipework, and serious smells coming out of the open kitchen area.
“You can watch the cooks make your meal, if you want,” suggested the waiter, after they ordered.
“I’d much rather take a walk,” said Stefan. He began to lead Mama Jean out the door.
“But our table!” she fussed, grabbing her beaded purse, barely large enough to hold her phone and a credit card.
“Don’t worry!” Stefan said, the door slamming shut behind them. “They’ll keep our food for a few minutes!”
Outside, it had gone completely dark, and the Christmas lights were all, that lit their way. Passing a large park, they saw blown-up Santas and elves, and an entire set of reindeer, led by a glowing Rudolph. Over the speakers, they heard jingle bells and carols, and messages from the town’s leaders, and occasional acknowledgments, that there were, in fact, other religions and belief systems in the world, besides Christianity. But those messages were few and far between.
Stefan seemed to enjoy the whole tacky zoo of it. “It does not seem so serious and wracked with guilt,” he said. “It is festive. Eat drink and be merry. Why not.”
“Some people go to Christmas Eve Mass,” said Mama Jean, thinking of the one or two times that she had attempted such madness with a young child. “Imogene hated Mass, especially Christmas Mass,” Mama Jean said, not knowing why she was divulging this irrelevant but intimate fact to a near stranger. Perhaps because he was so near?
“Who is Imocheen, Cheenie?” Stefan had started to walk faster, back toward the restaurant. Mama Jean struggled to keep up. Hard to believe, that they were once both strong and fit, and ready for anything.
“Let’s sit down first,” said Mama Jean. Amazingly, their table was still free.
The waiter arrived soon afterwards. “I thought you’d skipped out on your ticket!” he chided. “Your food’s still warm. I’ll get it.”
“Skipped out? We weren’t skipping! We were walking. I don’t understand this expression…” Stefan could obviously read the waiter’s annoyed body language, but the idioms were a bit too much for him.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. He’s just being a jerk!” Mama Jean touched his hand.
“A cherk! I like the sound of this word,” said Stefan, with satisfaction.
“So, Imogene…” began Mama Jean. She reached for her pocket and felt a sudden panic. She had not brought her wallet. She had not brought Imogene’s picture. The horror of this fact caused her to fall silent for a moment.
“What is wrong, Cheenie?” Stefan asked with concern.
“Everything about my life is wrong, Stefan.”
“Oh, come now, Cheenie, this can’t be true. You have had a good life, I hope?”
“Good, except the parts where my daughter died and my husband left me.” There. She had spat it out, and there it lay, on the table. She was damaged goods. Abandoned by everyone she had ever cared for. Most everyone.
“Oh, Cheenie. I am so sorry Cheenie. I would not want this for you.” Stephan held her hand, in the middle of the table between them, resting his penetrating eyes on hers. “You deserve better. Lucky for you, I am here.”
Mama Jean went from comforted to insulted, in five seconds flat. She withdrew her hand.
“Cheenie? Are you upset? Was it something I said?” Stephan did seem genuinely puzzled, for someone so obnoxious and self-centered.
“You’re right, I do deserve better.” Just then, the food arrived.
“Shrimp and Grits for the lady. Fried Green Tomatoes and Brined Fried Chicken for the gentleman.”
“Can we eat in peace, Cheenie? This is my last night here, and I had hoped we would enjoy a meal together.”
Mama Jean fiddled with her beaded purse under the table. Should she stomp out in a huff, as she had before, out of so many situations in her life? Assuming that, as time after time had taught her, there was no future worth pursuing here, no friendship worth salvaging, or romance worth coaxing to life? Should she assume, that without her one designated mate-for-life, her dear demented Rodney, and without her beloved child, her dear perfect Imogene, Life had no meaning? And not one soul on Earth could promise her anything, akin to happiness?
She remembered an old therapy phrase. For, of course, she had been to therapy. Years of therapy.
“All-or-nothing thinking,” she said aloud, not really aware of Stefan’s presence, but immersed, instead, in this revelatory self-diagnosis.
“All or nothing?” Stefan asked, confused again. “Well, you cannot have it all. I need to eat, too. I am very hungry after a long bike ride today. But you shouldn’t have nothing. This is an expensive meal, and that would be insulting. I suggest, Cheenie, that you take something, that lies between all and nothing. The middle way is best, so they say.”
“Yes, yes, of course. So sorry, Stefan. I just realized something. I’ve been looking at things all wrong. I see the end, but it’s really more like a beginning. I see loss and pain, but it’s really not so bad, if you let it go. It’s when you hang on and pick at it and pry it apart…”
“Cheenie, I’m eating here,” Stefan pleaded.
“Yes, right. Sorry. This is delicious. Spicy. I’ve never had this dish before. I’ve never been out on the town like this—not in a million years—and I’ve never left a restaurant, before the food was served like that, just to see the Christmas lights…
“Stefan, you’ve got to forgive me, for being so rude. I had no idea you were coming. And you are leaving tomorrow? Already?”
“Flights are cheapest on Christmas,” Stefan shrugged.
“Well, I told you my life story. What about you? What has happened in your life since 1976?”
“Well, believe it or not, someone married me, too. And left me.” He sighed as if speaking the words was a heavy lift. “My wife had a long illness. She died in the end. It was quite terrible. I don’t like to talk about it. No children. Never so lucky.”
Mama Jean felt a tingling in her ears. Maybe she was a little lucky.
As he delivered this very sad news, Stefan also delivered a huge smile. “You will feel better, Cheenie. You just need to keep going. You need to live for the ones who can’t be here. And despite the ones who don’t want to be. You have your friends. You have me. And Petunia. And—do you have a dog?”
“Get a dog.” Stefan laughed. “That is my professional advice.”
“What do you do, anyway?” asked Mama Jean. The door to the outside, near them, had opened, and let in a blast of cool air. Perhaps the weather was turning, after all. At last.
“I’m a ski instructor. 15 Schneeschuhstrasse, Hochsee.”
Christmas morning felt cozy , waking alone, under all these quilts. Even the extra ones Toony had added, in her midnight wanderings.
Mama Jean and Stefan had wandered the streets after dinner for hours, as the temperatures plummeted. Neither one felt the least discomfort, while native Floridians all around them ran home, with their tails between their legs. It was nearly midnight, when Mama Jean walked in, and her insomniac hostess raised her eyebrows. Although of course, the old friends had gotten into much less mischief last night, than they had forty years ago.
“Good morning, Toony,” Mama Jean said, her first words of the day sounding almost chipper.
“Good morning, Jean.” Toony was cooking pancakes, lots of pancakes.
“Are we expecting company?” asked Mama Jean. The cheerful hopefulness in her own voice was already beginning to annoy her.
“Take one guess,” said Toony, and Stefan waltzed through the kitchen door.
“Feels like home!” he announced, blowing on his fingers. “I didn’t bring a big sweater. How was I supposed to know it would get cold?”
“You call this cold?” joked Mama Jean. “I have an idea for after pancakes,” she said with a glint in her eye.
“Presents?” asked Toony. “It is Christmas.”
“Ok, ok, after presents then. Let’s tell our fortunes.”
Toony looked askance at Mama Jean. “Is this Jean, Jean the logic queen, who swapped DNA with a human bein’?” she chanted.
“You were never supposed to say that out loud again!” whined Mama Jean. “And yes, it is me. Let’s say I’m broadening my horizons a little.”
“As far as Germany?” Toony whispered in her ear. This was followed by a swift elbow, in Toony’s fragile ribs.
Stefan sat at the table, mopping up maple syrup from his plate with his fingers. “Ah, America!” he crooned.
“Presents first. “ Everyone followed Toony to the tree, which was haphazardly hung with pink flamingos, Mickey Mice, and mandarin oranges, ritually stabbed with cloves. White lights twinkled on and off, according to a timer. Three presents lay underneath, with the initials J, P and S.
“Oh, but I didn’t get you anything!” Mama Jean protested, as Toony held out a package bearing her initial.
“Me neither,” admitted Stefan.
“Don’t worry, I got me something,” said Toony. “And it’s just what I wanted. Besides having you both visit, I mean.”
They opened their gifts and drank egg nog, lightly spiked with dark rum. Stefan’s gift was a heavy sweater. Mama Jean’s was a scarf, as light as a breeze and dappled with the colors of swiftly running water. Toony’s present for herself was a pair of leg warmers and a good set of earbuds.
Mama Jean sat down on the edge of the couch and took out her deck of Tarot Cards. “Anyone in for a reading?” she asked.
“Really?” Toony looked at her doubtfully. Toony was always the one who liked the odd, the mysterious, the superstitious side of the seventies. Jean—before she became Mama Jean, after Imogene passed away—had always been very left-brained and analytical, and was always suspicious of unprovable things. Like Tarot cards.
“There should be instructions in here, somewhere,” said Mama Jean, hopefully.
Toony shook her head. “You expect to give a reading, by reading it off a slip of paper? Let me do it. I can at least tell you what the card means. Let’s each draw just one, to keep it simple. You really need to be a pro, to do it right.”
Stefan and Mama Jean were giggling a little at the seriousness with which Toony took her Tarot. Dark forces were not something they worried about, nor did either of them seriously believe anyone could guess—let alone predict—their future fortune. It was all just for a laugh, and Toony’s dark attitude, on what could arguably be called the lightest day of the year, put a damper on their revelry.
“Stefan, you first. Pick a card. Very good. Your card means, you will go on a journey.”
Mama Jean and Stefan burst out laughing. “This game is highly intuitive,” Stefan said. “And perceptive,” said Jean.
“Jean, your turn. Draw a card.”
Mama Jean gasped.
“What’s wrong, Cheenie?” Stefan asked.
Mama Jean stood up, distancing herself from the cards. “I’m not sure I like this game, Toony,” she said.
“What is it?” Toony asked.
“The number. Look at the number.”
“Yes. Fifteen, again. First, when we went to Germany and I met Stefan, I was fifteen. When Imogene died, she was fifteen. When I bought the purse yesterday, the saleslady—who sold me this Tarot deck—she was fifteen. Last night, Stefan—he said his address had a fifteen in it. And now, here again, in the Tarot– this is the card I pick? Fifteen?”
“Yes,” said Toony, slowly. “But that’s not the worst part. Look. The card is The Devil.”
“All right, I’m outta here!” Mama Jean reached for her purse, and headed to her room to pack. “This is all too wacky and woo woo. I can’t deal with it. The Devil isn’t supposed to come out at Christmas! And how is it, that I, who already have the worst luck in the world, can’t even catch a break playing cards?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Toony. “The card isn’t necessarily bad luck.”
Mama Jean came back into the room. “Are you sure? I mean, it’s the Devil, right?”
“Yes, that’s the symbol on the card. But it has many meanings. You read it, or interpret it, in whatever way makes sense to you. Kind of like a horoscope.”
“Like what kinds of meanings does The Devil Card have?” Stefan was listening too.
“Well, first, it indicates a stubbornness.”
“Stubborn? I’m not stubborn!”
“As in, clinging to something. Stubbornly.”
“Oh,” said Mama Jean, quieting down. Stefan took her hand.
“Second, look on the card. There is the devil, sure, in the center. But on either side are two people. A man and a woman, in shackles.”
“Looks like chains,” said Stefan. “Around their necks, like slaves.”
“Exactly,” said Toony. “But notice, the chains are not so tight, that the slaves can’t free themselves.”
“Ah, yes. I see it,” said Stefan.
“So what does that mean?” demanded Mama Jean.
“It means, you are enslaved to something, but you could free yourself, if you wanted to.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Mama Jean asked.
“Maybe its a kind of guilt or addiction for you, that you can’t seem to kick. Your birthday was Christmas Eve, so you’re a Capricorn. That just weird. That happens to be the sign associated with that card.”
“Wow.” Said Stefan. “Double whammy.” He shrugged as the women stared at him. “I heard it on TV,” he said.
“Capricorns are known for being rigid and rule-oriented, and caring about punishment and rules. So, what are you a slave to, that you actually have complete control of?”
Mama Jean had the urge, to run to her suitcase and retrieve the wallet. To coo, over the photo of her long lost daughter. To smell the familiar scent of leather, that once meant home. And a stable marriage. And love. Things that, like her daughter, were no more.
“Well. This has been fun, in a weird, strange, eerie, unexpected sort of way,” said Stefan. “But my flight leaves in a few hours and TSA is crazy…”
“Do you really have to leave?” asked Mama Jean.
Why did she call herself Mama Jean, anyway? It made her sound like an old lady, past her prime, down for the count. Why did she have to chain herself to the past, when the future lay before her, sparkling like a sheet of crisp snow, ready for her to toboggan down?
She cleared her throat and caught Stefan’s eye.
“Why don’t you stay a little longer,” asked Jean. “For me.”
Stefan’s eyes darted back and forth between Toony and the door, avoiding eye contact with Jean, in his embarrassment.
“The thing is, I’d really like to spend more time with you,” said Jeannie. And for the first time since 1976, she looked straight into Stefan’s somewhat older, but still dreamy, unobtainable eyes, and gave him a kiss.
Stefan pulled out his cell phone.
“It is Christmas,” Jeannie coaxed, in her most persuasive voice. Toony giggled, and headed into the kitchen.
“It is Christmas,” said Stefan. “I’ll see what I can do.”