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
“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.
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
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.
Did they think she was deaf? Or
couldn’t lip-read? (A mom trait!)
“He’s going to be a nerd.” Katy.
“”Well, he is! He’ll probably
have acne and … warts!”
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
“What?” A whisper.
“Gay!” Hissed under Katy’s breath.
“UUH! Do you
think….?” Horror invaded the younger
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
“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
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
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 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.”