After that blissful Saturday – I had to encounter the most difficult time of year. Christmas. It was harder than ever. Although it was relief to have a break from school, seeing more of my mom made me tense, and it seemed to make her tense too. I understood that she had a lot to do. She was hosting my older siblings and my nephews. My Grandpa was coming too, which always seemed to stress Mom out. Grandpa had a habit of pointing out anything and everything that did not look quite right to him, which flustered my mother even more. Now that his hearing was so poor, the remarks which my Grandfather made (thinking he was being helpful) were delivered in a loud volume that could be heard in every room. My Mom had a lifelong chip on her shoulder about what she interpreted as Grandad being critical and belittling. I think my grandfather was oblivious to the image Mom painted him as.
It is probably not fair for me to judge the complex nature of their relationship. They had suffered each other for over fifty years. Perhaps the accumulation of habitual negative comments and the extreme overreaction that we would witness. My dad unwittingly added to Mom’s anxious state of mind resulting from insecure perfectionism by being faddish and particular about mundane things such as how he liked his tea and the depth of a layer of butter on his sandwiches. Often Dad would pour away a mug of tea Mom had made because she had not got it quite right.
When tension built up and my mom exploded – there was a rupture in the peace of everybody in the house, and often in the peace of the neighbours as well. Mom always sought to blame someone else for anything that been pointed out as wrong or broken or skewwhiff. I had learnt that it was extremely risky to even breathe in a room that Mom had already tidied up ready to welcome family members. So I kept to my own bedroom, listening to music that Dean had enable me to discover and imagining how he would be spending Christmas. I didn’t know it at the time but my fanciful ideas of him enjoying a perfect festive scene were wildly contrasting to the reality.
The most stressful day of the holiday season was always Christmas Day. As soon as Grandad entered the house, his booming voice was to be heard that the front door did not close properly. It had never closed properly unless you slammed it shut. Up in my room, I heard my older sister Alicia and her sons arrive. Not long afterwards my brother Andrew arrived with his girlfriend. Then I heard my Dad’s sister Val and her husband Norman. Lastly my brother Adam arrived. Once I knew everyone was here, I slinked downstairs and found a space on the other side of the sofa where I could sit on the floor, mostly out of view.
I had been too scared to go into the kitchen all day as Mom had started cooking early. My nephews were sitting on the floor on the other side of my dad’s armchair playing with new toys. I had missed the presenting of gifts. I already had an idea that the package under the tree with my name on would contain something I could use for school. There were some seasoned nuts on the coffee table and to quell the groanings in my tummy, I tried to discreetly grab a handful of them. With the lighting reactions of a ninja, Mom leapt over my brother’s long legs and slapped my hand away from the serving bowl. “They’re for your Grandad.”
Dinner seemed very late. Grandad had already began grumbling about the time, and I could hear Mom in the kitchen lamenting that she had been working since dawn with no offer of help. Alicia stood up and glared at me, “I’ll help you Mom.” I wish my hearing was as poor as my Grandfather’s. Alicia feigned whispering, and made sure I heard her disapproval. “But she’s nearly fifteen, of course she’s capable, she’s just plain lazy.”
Mom had decided where everyone would sit. Dad at one end of the extended dining table and Mom at the other so she could easily jump up and return to the kitchen. Alicia and her husband either side of Mom and their sons beside them. Either side of my Dad were Val and my Grandad. I had been placed beside my Grandad and my brother Andrew. Andrew did say a word to me. His posture was turned towards his girlfriend and my mom and Alicia. Aunt Val and Uncle Norman directed a couple of questions to me about my schoolwork, which Dad answered. He told them my exam results had been disappointing, so this year I was under a no TV rule until I had finished my homework. Thanks Dad!
Grandad voiced whatever he noticed was awry. His hearing was failing but he had an eagle’s eyesight. As soon as he sat down he spotted a cobweb around the lightshade. The roast potatoes were no where near as good as Grandma’s. He began to give advice on how to achieve perfectly crispy roast potatoes. Grandad probably could not hear Alicia telling Mom just to ignore him and claiming that everything was perfect. I noticed that my grandad seemed to be struggling to keep his peas on his fork and most of them ended up in my lap. I was not sure what to do with them. Rather than brushing them off my clothes and on to the carpet, I decided it would be a better idea to collect them and discreetly pile them underneath the rim of my dinnerplate.
Unexpectedly, he turned towards me and at full volume awarded a compliment to me, “Annabelle, you’re looking very pretty. You are really blossoming into a lovely young lady. You have your grandmother’s bewitching eyes, you know.” Of course everyone had heard Grandad. Alicia let out a gasp of laughter and shook her head. I wish I had not looked in her direction, I saw a fleeting flash of resentment in my mom’s eyes. I could have sympathised with her. She had been working all morning to prepare dinner and my Grandfather had not thought to compliment anything she had done. I understood how she may be feeling. It was very unfortunate for me that I had been the recipient of some kind praise from Mom’s father, the man she felt was impossible to please.
However, the way Mom expressed her frustration about the apparent injustice made my empathy towards her disintegrate. It was those goddamn peas that tipped her over the edge. As she collected the dinner plates clearly in a state of angst, she spotted the pile of Grandad’s peas I had collected. She was furious with me. The berating scolding that followed, shaming me for behaving like a toddler, asserting that I had disgraced myself and had no gratitude for all that was done for me, concluding with the challenge, “What do you have to say for yourself you selfish girl?”
I could not find any words. In an effort to suppress my tears I almost choked. There was no point in attempting to defend myself, it would have been interpreted as disrespectful. My only option was to flee. I heard Alicia’s laughter as I ran up the stairs. Being secluded up in my room was a mix of relief like an oasis in the desert and a sense of confinement in the notorious Cell Block H. What frustrated me was that this not the first time something like this had happened, and not the first Christmas Day I had ended up alone in my room while Mom’s showpiece Christmas Pudding was served. Perhaps roast potatoes were not my mom’s forte, but the cakes and puddings she made were divine. I was missing dessert again – all because I tried to protect the carpet from Grandad’s fallen peas. The sense of indignation over this injustice was profound.
I had already sent a text message to Dean that morning wishing him a Merry Christmas. I checked my phone for the hundredth time since I sent that text. Nothing. No reply. Dean never replied to my texts. He would send me just one text message each Friday to confirm he would meet me the following day before he went to Liam’s. It’s easy to see now that he was making sure he did not encourage my infatuation with him, if he had any inkling over how I felt. But I needed him. He did not comprehend how much I needed him.
In the end my longing got the better of me. I dialled his number. I listened to the ringing tone until the dialing was abruptly halted. I could only assume that he had rejected me call. I was simply devastated. Hot tears poured from my eyelids until I fell asleep. I slept soundly that night, not waking even when family members exited the house and the front door had to be slammed shut each time.
I am glad I did not know how Dean and his cousin and uncle spent the holidays. Of course, someone who has been drinking beer and smoking marijuana all day does not welcome a phone call from a fourteen year old kid.
I just didn’t understand much about Dean at all back then. I did not know quite how much he hated his routine of stacking shelves until one o’clock in the morning, and then eating a meal to sustain him until he went to start delivering pastries to branches of a coffee house in a famous coffee house chain all over Manhattan. I didn’t realize that most of the text messages I sent to him were purely annoying as they disturbed his sleep. Neither was I aware of how he felt at Christmas time since his mother’s death. I could not possibly have comprehended back then how much weighed on Dean’s heart and how generous he was in making any time for me at all. I had just sulked because it was Christmas Day and I felt so lonely and the solution I yearned for was him.