The most patient of people usually, the incessant whining from her two daughters was getting on Claire Morton’s nerves and her lips tightened uncharacteristically as she clenched her hands on the steering wheel of her Plymouth town car, fighting to hold on to her temper. Her head was splitting from eighteen miles of carping and squabbling by the thirteen and fifteen year old girls in the back seat. God, when had they stopped being sweet loveable girly little dolls and turned into these almost unrecognisable shrewish, hormonal … teenagers?
She signalled and took the exit for O’Hare hoping, more in desperation than belief, that her bark would curtail them long enough for her to find the correct terminal and locate a parking spot. The weather wasn’t co-operating either and she cursed under her breath as she swiped again with her sleeve at the mist on the inside of the windscreen. Not alone was it drifting snow outside but the car’s heating system had picked today, of all days, to go on the fritz and she’d been manually cleaning off the build up obstructing her view for the past five miles. Not to mention that it being the Saturday before Christmas meant it would be several days before she could get the car into the shop for repairs. She should have heeded Bill’s advice and taken his new SUV but she was nervous driving that monster of a thing and preferred her familiar, comfortable workhorse that had seen all three of her kids through childhood and puberty.
Maybe Bill was right and she should trade it for a newer model but there had been enough changes in her life recently and she was bound and determined to cling to the memory of the good old days when she’d carted the kids and their friends around to football and track meets, ballet and piano lessons in this older much-abused bus that was more friend than employee. It would be like tearing out a part of herself and her family’s history to part with it. But she would give anything for a heating system that didn’t pack up at the first sign of winter!
Tuning out the catfight in the rear, she concentrated on finding the off-ramp for the airline. There! Satisfaction had her relaxing her death grip on the wheel as she spotted the exit she needed to take and moved smoothly into the right hand lane. Now all she required was to find parking within a mile of the terminal building. Any other option would give the two in the back just one more reason to whinge! Entering the parking area, she espied a car reversing out of a parking bay in the very front row. Maybe something was going her way today, after all! Zipping into the vacated spot, she killed the engine and took a deep breath before turning to face the two mutinous witches that were her beloved daughters.
“OK, we’ve been through this already and I will NOT stand for any hint of rudeness or bad behaviour from either of you. Do I make myself clear, ladies?”
Claire knew her kids viewed her as a soft touch – most of the time. But they also recognised THAT tone! It was her ‘teacher’ voice – the one that said repercussions would abound if she was not instantly obeyed. Didn’t mean they had to like it though.
Didn’t stop them from voicing their dislike either.
“But it’s Christmas, Mom!” Wailed Sari, the youngest.
“And he didn’t get home for Thanksgiving.” Claire’s heart melted as Katy’s voice wavered. Her eldest daughter had a really strong bond with her older brother; which manifested itself more often than not in arguments and knock-down-drag-out fights - verbal for the most part now they were older.
“And you’re – we’re – going to have to get used to that!” She steeled her voice even as her heart quaked at the verbalisation of her worst nightmare. “Your brother’s in the Navy now. Learning the skills and expertise it takes to defend our country, to keep the U.S. safe for all of us to live our daily lives in peace and harmony, to give us the choices that sometimes our men in the military don’t have. Chip didn’t choose not to be here for Thanksgiving, the US Navy chose for him! And we have to respect his and their decision. Do you understand that?”
Their “Yes, Ma’am” was subdued and her heart
bled for them. She had a hard time
understanding it too! For the first time
on the last Thursday in November her entire family hadn’t been together and
she’d cried bitter tears in the quiet of her bedroom once the rest of their
extended family had left and the girls had gone to bed. Bill’s comforting embrace hadn’t quite healed
her sore heart but the thought of Christmas together as a family had gone a
long way to help her through the rough spots since her eldest had left for
The girls had been so excited at the thought of
seeing their brother again that his request to bring home a friend whose family
were out of the country had sparked the moodiness that had been escalating over
the past several days, culminating in the latest dire threats to the health of
this ‘usurper’ of their brother’s affections.
Far from seeing him as an intruder into their cosy little enclave,
Claire had taken pity on the boy who must be feeling pretty lonely at the
thought of his family being out of the picture for his first holiday after
entering the Academy and she had encouraged Chip to invite him to
“This boy, Lee, is your brother’s roommate and you will accord him the respect he deserves as a member of the US Naval Academy alongside your brother. Do you girls understand me?” Her schoolmarm’s voice in evidence, she knew they would automatically react.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Meek responses but she could sense the reluctance even before she caught the exchange of glances between them. “I mean it, girls! Chip has asked us to extend our hospitality to his friend and we will do no less than honour his request.”
The uncompromising authority had both girls blinking – they’d never heard quite that tone from their mother before. Sensing that it would be unwise to soften her approach, Claire continued, “I know you’re excited to see Chip again. So am I. But he’s asked us to accord the same degree of welcome to his friend. It’s Christmas and I want you to show the same Christmas spirit to Lee as you do to Chip. I promise you, if he’s anything like Chip has described in his letters, it won’t be hard. He may be a little shy at first; he’s an only child and his father died when he was five years old, so he might not be ready for a boisterous family such as ours. I’m counting on you two to look after him on Christmas Eve when the rest of the family come over for supper and again on Christmas Day at dinner and present giving. You know that all the family are going to want a piece of Chip so he’s going to have to divide his time between all of them and may not have much time for Lee. I’m counting on you girls to pick up the slack. Done deal?”
Twin blue lasers almost pierced them; such was the intensity of her feeling. It had the desired effect, both girls nodding dutifully. Satisfied, she slid out of the driver’s seat and held the rear door for the reluctantly departing passengers.
But hey! Did they think she was deaf? Or couldn’t lip-read? (A mom trait!)
“He’s going to be a nerd.” Katy.
Defiant. “”Well, he is! He’ll probably have acne and … warts!”
“Yeah! Why else wouldn’t his family want to have him around for Christmas?” Her blue eyes, so like her older brother’s, grew round. “Maybe he’s….”
“What?” A whisper.
“You know…” Uncomfortable.
“Gay!” Hissed under Katy’s breath.
“UUH! Do you think….?” Horror invaded the younger girl’s voice.
“Chip? No, you dork! Not Chip. But who knows about his ‘friend’!”
As she slid from the car, Katy realised that her mother had been privy to most of her side of the sisters’ exchange and flushed.
“Katherine Anne Morton, I’m ashamed of you – and more disappointed than I have ever been in my entire life.” The elder of the two girls hung her head and blushed – the bane of having fair skin to go with her long blonde hair. She’d never heard her mother use quite that tone – a mixture of disbelief and disenchantment.
“Now, hear me and hear me good. Both of you! I’m counting on you to welcome Lee Crane into our home and our lives for three short days. You may never have to see him again but for these three days you will accord him the courtesy and friendship that I expect of you. I will not have it any other way. Do you understand me?” At the sight of their down bent heads and dutiful if reluctant nods, she let out an exasperated breath. “Girls, it’s Christmas – season of goodwill and we are opening our home and our family to Chip’s friend at his request.”
Catching the swift exchange of glances between them as they paid lip service to her tirade Claire sharpened her tone. “Now that sentiment may make you want to puke! I don’t really care. It’s how it’s going to be, whether you like it or not! Chip’s roommate is coming to stay and nothing you can say or do will change that fact. Now don’t disappoint me any more than you already have done today and let’s go pick up Chip and Lee.” The snowflakes swirled faster as she zapped the remote locking device and she drew the hood of her parka up over her own blonde curls, shivering as the icy air permeated her warm clothing.
“But why, Mom?”
Katy’s quiet words stopped her and she turned back to face them, neither girl having taken a step in her wake.
“Why what, Katy?”
“Why did Chip have to invite him?” She rushed on, trying desperately to bank down the tears that threatened – both at her own and her mother’s disappointment. “I mean, we haven’t seen him for months. He missed Thanksgiving. You’d think he’d want it to be just us – just family – for Christmas. Now he’s going to be all caught up with his friend and he won’t have any time for us. I wanted to tell him about the Halloween dance and the Christmas Play and….”
“And I wanted to tell him about cutting out his picture and sticking it into all the photos we took at Thanksgiving when he wasn’t here.”
Claire’s heart broke as tears streamed down her youngest daughter’s face, glinting like crystals on the porcelain cheeks, agitated puffs of breath creating small clouds in the frosty air.
“Oh, Sweetheart, both of you! You’re worrying for nothing. Do you honestly think your brother has changed that much in four short months? I’m sure he’s dying to see you both and tell you about what he’s been doing and hear all the stuff that you guys have been doing too.” She was stunned that she hadn’t picked up on their insecurities about seeing their beloved older brother again. Her irritation at them for their attitude towards Chip’s request to bring a friend home for the holiday had obviously prevented her from looking for a deeper cause for their recent unhappiness.
So she stood in the increasingly freezing car park and tried to make up for her apparent lack of parenting skills. A deep breath only succeeded in drawing the icy air into her suddenly deficient lungs.
“Listen to me. Chip invited Lee home because his mother had to go away on assignment for her company and he would otherwise have had to spend the holiday in his dorm at the Academy. His mom is a single parent and he doesn’t have an extended family like we do. I think it’s a credit to your brother that he did invite Lee.” She didn’t tell the girls that Chip’s letters had revealed that it had taken some persuasion for Lee to accept the invitation – for that she’d read major badgering on her son’s part. What he’d told her about his roomie had made her want him as a part of their Christmas celebrations. So she’d written Lee her own invitation. She liked to believe that had swung it but she couldn’t be sure that Chip hadn’t just worn him down. She knew her firstborn!!!
“And I know that he hasn’t forgotten you two – no matter how long he’s away from us or how many friends he brings home.” Her own eyes stung at the hopefulness in the girls’ blue eyes – a feminine version of their brother’s. “He just loves you too much.”
Sari’s features cleared and she beamed at her mother’s words but Katy’s still exhibited some doubt. Taking her middle child into her arms, Claire hugged her tight. “It’ll be OK, I promise. And if he’s a friend of your brother’s you can guarantee he won’t be a nerd!” Katy flushed again at the confirmation that her mom had overheard the conversation.
“An over achiever maybe, not to mention a pain in the… neck like your brother can be sometimes, but a nerd? Never!” This last with such absolute conviction that both girls burst out laughing. “What say we swap this spot for a warm terminal and a hot chocolate while we wait for their flight to land?”
Enthusiastic nods greeted her suggestion and she sighed inwardly – hot chocolate saved the day once more.
Oh my! Oh me, oh my! She could only gape in unison with her teenage daughters as the two smart, uniformed midshipmen tugged their duffels from the luggage carrousel and turned almost as one. She could swear her firstborn had grown three inches since she’d last seen him and as for the shorter, dark haired young man at his side…. She’d rarely seen prettier features, all youthful fresh-faced beauty with olive skin and snapping amber eyes that promised to mature into a sinfully handsome man. But it was the uncertainty in those golden depths that tore at her heart and had her melting on the spot.
As Chip spotted his sisters and dropped his bag to scoop them into a double hug with a whoop she caught the darker boy’s slightly uncomprehending but wistful gaze. Stepping forward she wrapped her arms around his taut shoulders, obviously taking him by surprise.
“I’m Claire, Chip’s mom. Welcome home, Lee. You can call me ‘mom’ too, honey.”