CHRISTMAS AT AUNT BETTY'S
"I think he does it on purpose just to annoy me. Then it gets Mother all confused and she starts calling me 'Betty' too."
Elizabeth sat at her dressing table late on Christmas Eve cleansing her face with creams from square white jars labeled in silver script. Darryl, her husband, had rarely seen her without makeup. At night she would slip into bed in darkness, after scrubbing her face, and arise early in the morning to construct her visage for another day. Not that she had bad skin or excessive wrinkles, not compared to other women of her age and station in life. It was just how she faced the world. Elizabeth's peers once had declared themselves liberated from these restrictions - make-up and brassieres and such - but she had not joined the revolution. Her biggest revolt had been her name. Called 'Betty' throughout childhood, she declared in high school that she was to be known as 'Liza' - which she signed in big loops, dotting the 'i' with a fat circle or sometimes a smiley face or heart in notes to her friends.
That morning she had been in the kitchen preparing coffee when Mark, her brother, came in, flushed from his run, his sweaty odor clashing with the aroma of fresh-ground Kona coffee beans. He'd asked why she was up so early and she replied that she always got up early to do her makeup and hair. He was astonished: it was 7 a.m.; it was Christmas vacation; it was only family - nobody cared how she looked. He couldn't understand and she couldn't explain. She shouldn't have to explain. It was her house and her life. Perhaps that was why she was allowing her husband the unusual intimacy of seeing her without makeup. It was all too complicated to put into words. Instead, she complained about her brother calling her 'Betty.'
Darryl tried the rational approach. "Well, it was your name when you were kids. He probably still thinks of you as his little sister. You hardly ever see each other, you know, just when they come to visit Mother. Why not just remind him?"
"I did, the last time they were here, and you know what he said? 'A rose by any other name.' What is that? Always some quotation so show he's so educated. Dr. English Professor."
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. It's Shakespeare," Darryl explained.
"Don't you start." The pale face in the mirror glowered at him.
Darryl sat back in the billowy chair, upholstered in creamy brocade like marshmallow fluff. Elizabeth had dropped out her first year of college to get married. The brief union had ended badly and she was left with a son, Peter, to raise. That was almost thirty years ago, but her brother's visits seemed to stir up phantoms. Mark, though older, had married late in life to a much younger woman, a graduate student. Elizabeth had done very well without college, progressing from secretary to executive assistant, earning a salary far above that of any English professor. Still, she bristled at any hint of her educational shortcomings.
Darryl said nothing. He removed his socks and wiggled his toes in the thick white wool carpet, watching her reflection as she continued her recitation of grievances.
"And you know what he said when I showed him the mural?"
Elizabeth had engaged an artist to paint the wall of the staircase leading up from the entranceway, a grand scene of grapevines and stone-framed windows looking out on a Romanesque countryside. It had taken a year to complete and she was as proud as any Renaissance patron.
"He was acting like he was so impressed, all complimentary and everything. And then he says, 'it probably looks more realistic in the morning when the sun is coming through the windows from the other direction. See how the shadows are on the wrong side in this light.' Suddenly I could see what he was talking about and the whole thing shifted for me, just looked wrong. Rinaldo painted in the mornings, you remember, with the light coming through the windows on the left, and it was so perfect. And now, since Mark said that, it's just ruined. And there's no way to fix it, really; you can't stop the sun. Five thousand dollars and I just want to paint over the whole damn thing!" She never said 'damn.' She was almost crying.
Darryl heaved himself up from the chair and stood behind her, gently massaging her shoulders. The face in the mirror was monochromatic, strangely two-dimensional, contorted by persecution. He looked away. "Honey, Honey, it's okay," he said. "That's the way it is with all murals. Even the Sistine Chapel. There's nothing wrong with your mural. . . our mural. It's just as beautiful as it ever was. Mark's probably jealous. You know what kind of place they have."
Mark lived in an old farmhouse that was balanced on a knife-edge between renovation and collapse. He and his wife, Connie, were doing most of the fixing up themselves - probably couldn't afford to hire proper professionals. Mark had all the carpentry skills one would expect of an English professor, and Connie all the decorating taste of a lab technician. They seemed blithely unaware of the hodge-podge they lived in: garishly colored walls, cheap rugs, mismatched furniture, a clutter of magazines and books, knick-knacks and toys strewn about.
"Remember the wallpaper in the dining room," Darryl reminded her. "How can he say anything about our mural?"
"And the slipcovers in the living room." The face in the mirror smiled and Darryl could feel her shoulders relax. She reached up and patted his hand. "You're right, Honey. He's just being petty. He might know Shakespeare but they're just one step out of a trailer park."
"It's Christmas morning!" Samantha bounced excitedly on her parents' bed in the guest room. "Let's open presents!"
Connie groaned and turned her back, pulling the covers over her head. "What time is it?" she asked in a muffled voice.
"Let's open presents!" Samantha bounced on the bed again.
"Stop it!" Connie said.
Mark emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, having showered after his morning run. His long salt-and-pepper hair, usually pulled back in a ponytail, stuck out from rough toweling like a cartoon picture of electrostatic shock.
"Sammy, remember what we told you. We do things differently at Aunt Betty's house."
Elizabeth had explained the schedule when they'd arrived. Her church was 'putting Christ back into Christmas' with a special service Christmas morning. Pete, her son, and Terri, Darryl's daughter from his previous marriage, would be joining them. "It would make Mother so happy if the whole family could be together at church on Christmas morning," she'd said.
Connie had rolled her eyes and made the tiniest shake of her head. Later, Mark took Elizabeth aside and explained that Connie would not get out of bed before ten, even for the Second Coming, but he'd see that the kids would go. And you, she'd asked. It would be against his religion to go to church, he joked, but he'd see.
Mark sat down on the bed beside Samantha and put an arm around her. "Remember what Aunt Betty said? You and Kevin are going to church first, with Grandma and everybody, remember? It'll be nice, lots of Christmas songs - you like to sing. Then we'll have a nice dinner, and you can have all afternoon and evening with your presents and not be interrupted."
"Are you going?" Samantha asked.
"Haven't decided." He slid his hand surreptitiously under the covers and gently squeezed Connie's leg. She kicked it away. "Probably," he said.
"It's not fair!" Samantha frowned. "Why do we have to do what Aunt Betty says?"
"It's her house, her rules," Mark replied.
"Why doesn't she come to our house and follow our rules?"
"I think you answered your own question." He laughed and hugged his daughter. "You're a smart kid."
Samantha would not be mollified so easily. "I don't want to go. I'm going to stay here and sleep, like Mom." She crossed her arms and scowled, flouncing on the bed to emphasize her resolve.
"Stop bouncing," Connie growled from under the covers.
Her father said, "Look, Sammy. How about if you open one present before church? You and Kevin. Any one you want."
Samantha's shoulders rose and fell under the weight of the decision. "Two?" she countered. She had the instincts of a Turkish rug merchant.
"One," he said firmly. "You can pick."
"Okay." She scampered out of the room to tell her brother.
Mark stretched out on the bed and peeled the covers from Connie's head. He nuzzled her ear and whispered, "You sure you don't want me to stay and keep you company?"
"No," she said from deep within the pillow. "A couple hours peace and quiet is all I want for Christmas." Mark sighed and sat up. She reached out to touch his back. "Maybe later," she said. "After all the hullabaloo is over."
Mark had just finished dressing when Samantha burst through the bedroom door, followed by Kevin. She carried a large package, ornately wrapped in glossy paper with red velvet bows and frosted holly leaves; it looked like the gold-medal winner from the gift-wrap Olympics. Kevin hung back; his lanky twelve-year-old wrists and ankles protruding from outgrown robe and pajamas. He clutched a small package wrapped in blue Santa Claus paper with a red stick-on bow.
"This one's the prettiest; I want to open it first," Samantha announced.
Connie sat up in bed and pulled the covers around her shoulders. "It's cold," she said to Samantha. "You should have your robe and slippers on."
"I'm not cold." Samantha held up the package. "Isn't it gorgeous!"
Without looking at the tag, Mark said, "That's from Aunt Betty. I'm sure she'd like to see you open it. Why don't you pick another one instead and save that 'til later?"
"I'll go get her and she can watch me."
Connie said, "No, what Daddy means is, if you open that one now she'll know we broke her rule about waiting to open presents. Can't you pick another one?"
Samantha's eyes flashed lightening and thunderclouds formed on her brow. "You said any one I wanted."
"That's what I said," Mark agreed. "If that's the one you want, then you can open it." With a grunt of delight, she set upon the package like a lioness on a zebra.
Connie muttered, "It's just as well Aunt Betty doesn't see this." To Kevin, she said, "Come here, Sweetheart. What did you pick?"
He held up the small box. "I know what it is," he said. "It's from you guys."
Samantha squealed as she pulled a knit garment out of a hole she'd managed to tear in one corner of the box.
"Ooh, kitties!" She held up a white sweater with kittens and yarn balls appliqued on the front. "It's gorgeous!"
"Bring it here; let me see." Connie rubbed the material between thumb and forefinger and looked at the label. "Cashmere," she said to her husband. "For an eight-year-old. You know how much this cost?"
Mark said, "Conspicuous consumption. Enjoy it while you can."
"I'm going to wear it to church." Samantha's face glowed like an angel at the Nativity.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," said Connie.
Mark smirked. "Why not? In for a penny, in for a pound. What'd you get, Son?"
Kevin stepped forward, his decorum contrasting with his sister's drama. He had unwrapped his package while they were examining her sweater. "This. A new game for my Game-Boy." He held up a small plastic rectangle. "It's just what I wanted. Can I take it to church?"
His father gave him a mock frown. "No Game-Boys in church. You know better than that."
Kevin grinned. "Can I play it before church?"
"Get dressed first, and eat some breakfast, then if there's time." When the children had left the room, he said to Connie, "You're awake now, whyn't you come with us?"
"I've no problem going back to sleep." She snuggled beneath the covers. "Pull the curtains tight, would you, and make sure the lights are off."
The family assembled in the foyer. The mural shone brightly in morning light streaming through clerestory windows. Samantha was full of giggles over the figure of a statue of a nude water-jar bearer in a niche halfway up the staircase. She tried to get Kevin to come look but he sat hunkered on the bottom step, thumbs flailing on the keys of his Game-Boy, his torso twisting in synchrony with action on the tiny screen.
When Elizabeth appeared, Samantha ran to her and pirouetted. "Look, Aunt Betty! Look at my sweater! Isn't it gorgeous?"
Elizabeth bent close, her makeup crinkling in an unctuous smile. "Call me Aunt Liza, Honey, my name is Liza."
"It's my name. People like to be called by their right name. You like to be called Samantha, don't you?"
"Everybody calls me Sammy. Isn't my sweater beautiful? It was the beautifulest package, so I opened it first."
"I'm glad you like it." She straightened and gave Mark a hard look as he walked toward them.
Samantha ran off to show her sweater to her grandmother who had just arrived, with Darryl and Terri, from the nearby elder-care center where she lived.
"Merry Christmas," Mark said to his sister. "She loves the sweater. It's the 'beautifulest.' Thanks so much."
Elizabeth pursed her lips and shook her head. "Couldn't wait."
Mark smiled and shrugged. "Hey, 'tis the season to be jolly. What can I say?"
"And you couldn't wear a tie?"
"I don't own a tie."
"You could've borrowed one from Darryl."
A tall young man joined them. His reddish-blond hair was cut short and spiky on top and hung almost shoulder length in the back. "It's okay, Uncle Mark. I'm not wearing a tie either."
"Peter," said his mother. "You are not wearing that motorcycle jacket to church."
"It's not a motorcycle jacket," he protested. "It's a leather sport coat."
"And what's that?" Elizabeth tapped a winged logo on his breast pocket with her perfectly manicured fingernail.
Peter shrugged. "It's just a little Harley label. It's not like a Hell's Angel's skull or anything. Geez, Mom, chill."
"The only two men in church on Christmas morning with hippy hair and no ties and they're my brother and my son."
"Mom, if you don't . . ." Peter started to retort but Mark interrupted him, turning slightly so that they no longer faced his sister.
"You have a new bike, Pete? Or the same one as last time?"
"I've got the twelve-hundred soft-tail. I think that's the one I had last time I saw you. But I got a new custom saddle and straight pipes."
Elizabeth walked away, shaking her head at the renegades. She approached her mother, who was watching Samantha demonstrate how to hop backwards. Standing slightly stooped, barely taller than Samantha herself, saying how she used to jump rope as a girl. Her pink scalp showed through curling wisps of fine white hair like the planet Mars beneath a cloudy atmosphere. A faint air of lilac surrounded her. "Mother, you look wonderful. I like that pants suit; it's a great color for you."
"You should like it. You picked it out." She smiled, her face like crumpled parchment.
Elizabeth straightened the collar of her mother's blouse and brushed imaginary lint from her shoulder. "But you're not wearing three necklaces, are you?" She fingered the strands at her mother's neck.
"They wear them that way," her mother said. "They're very nice necklaces."
Samantha stopped hopping and stood quietly, watching each face in turn as it spoke, smooth-and-rouged to wrinkled, and back again.
"Yes, they're very nice. But not all three together. You look like a gypsy."
"The ladies at church wear lots of necklaces. Fine ladies. They wear them that way now. Betty said it looked fine."
"'Terri,' Mother. Terri helped you get dressed. I'm . . . never mind. Here, which one do you like best? There's the gold chain, and the one with little spangles on it, and the one with colored stones."
"The one with the colored stones is my favorite, but all of them . . ."
"Then that's the one you'll wear." She stood behind her mother and unclasped the offending strands, the old woman dutifully bowing her head. "There, that looks much better." Elizabeth dropped the necklaces into her purse.
"Listen everybody," Darryl called. "We'll take two cars. Mother and Pete and Terri can ride with us in the Escalade. And Mark, if you'll take your family in your minivan and follow us?"
"I want to ride with Grandma," Samantha said, grabbing her arm.
Darryl looked at Elizabeth, but before either could say anything, Pete spoke up. "That's cool. I'll ride with Uncle Mark and Kevin." Kevin looked up from his Game-Boy at the sound of his name, disoriented, as if waking from a dream. Pete took his elbow and helped him stand. "Us dudes got to stick together, right Kev?"
After church, Samantha was the first one through the front door. "Let's open presents!" Her shrill voice reverberated as she raced into the living room where the Christmas tree and packages were artfully arranged, as if in a department store exhibit. Mark hurried after her while the others remained in the foyer, removing their coats and hanging them in the closet under the staircase.
"All right, everybody," Elizabeth announced, "dinner will be in forty-five minutes, so just relax and get comfortable. There's nuts and cookies in the family room, but don't spoil your appetite." To Darryl she said, "Honey, would you open the wine to let it breathe, and I'll need you in about half an hour to carve the turkey."
Connie wandered into the kitchen, smiling and yawning. "Can I help? Set the table or make the gravy or something?"
Elizabeth gave her a lubricious smile. "No, Hon, Terri and I have everything under control. Why don't you get dressed for dinner and spend some time with Mother. I think everyone's in the family room."
Connie looked down at her sweatshirt with the college logo, then at Elizabeth's cream-colored knit dress protected by a designer apron with a holly and pine bough motif. "Dressed for dinner," she repeated. "Okay." She went to find Mark. He hadn't said anything about dress-up dinner clothes.
Pete and Mark were sunk in the depths of a white leather sofa in front of a TV screen the size of a theater poster, munching cashews and watching a football pre-game show. Mark never watched football. "Hey, Sugar," he called out, "sleep good?" Connie just sighed and patted the top of his head.
"Hi, Kev, Merry Christmas," she called to her son sitting on the floor next to his dad's knee, furiously thumbing his Game-Boy. He grunted an acknowledgment.
Samantha and Grandma sat on another white sofa. The room was whiter than Antarctica, varying only in textures - smooth white walls, nubby white carpet, pebbled white leather furniture. A purplish-gray stone fireplace filled one wall like a Himalayan outcropping. A gas log flickered but did little to relieve the chill. Brilliant red poinsettias in gold foil pots on the hearth seemed an intrusion.
"Hey, Mom," said Samantha, "wanna play cards with us? We're playing War."
"I'm winning," said Grandma, a pleased smile shifting the creases in her face. "I've got three aces."
Connie said, "That's okay, Sammy, I have to get dressed for dinner."
The dining room blazed in Midas-like splendor. Golden candlesticks held flickering white tapers, and a golden chandelier sparkled with prisms and flame-shaped bulbs. A creamy lace tablecloth lay over a shiny gold one. Crystal goblets and bone china plates were rimmed in gold, flanked by gold utensils in ascending and descending ranks. Name cards in gold script showed the proper seating arrangement.
"Shall we say grace," said Elizabeth.
"I'll do it," piped Samantha. She crossed herself and bowed her head. "Bless-us-oh-Lord-for-these-Thy-gifts-which-we-are-about-to receive-from-Thy-bounty-through-Christ-our-Lord-Amen." She crossed herself again and looked up with a smile of accomplishment.
"That's nice, Dear," said Elizabeth. "Could we have an adult say grace, too? Let's all join hands, and Darryl, would you say the blessing?"
"Why . . ." Samantha started to ask but her father shushed her with a finger to his lips and took her hand.
"Our Heavenly Father . . ." Darryl began in a sonorous tone.
Mark whispered in his daughter's ear, "You did fine, Sugar, but Aunt Betty wanted Darryl to do it." Sammy nodded in understanding.
The platters were passed and the plates heaped. The glassware chimed, the goldware clinked, and everywhere was the sound of chewing.
"You're only eating turkey?" Elizabeth gave Samantha's plate a dubious look.
"And bread," said Samantha, holding up a dinner roll.
"How about some dressing, or mashed potatoes," her aunt persisted. "Or sweet potato casserole - it's very good, sweet, like pudding almost."
"Don't like pudding," said Samantha.
"Have you ever tried sweet potatoes?"
"Nope, don't like 'em."
"Well, how do you know . . ."
Connie interrupted. "Sammy's a very picky eater. We try not to argue with her at the dinner table."
Samantha grinned and Elizabeth grimaced.
"Peter used to try that when he was little," she said. "Wouldn't eat his vegetables. I made him stay at the table until he ate one bite. Then two bites, and so on. Do you remember, Pete?"
"I remember sitting at the table in the dark for hours with a dang piece of broccoli on my plate. I'd hide it in my napkin when you weren't looking." Pete started to laugh at the recollection but his mother's sharp look stopped him. "Just kidding. I ate my vegetables - made me a better person, too," he said to Samantha.
"You don't have any broccoli now." Samantha nodded at his plate.
"Already ate it, when you weren't looking."
"Yeah, right." Samantha laughed at the joke.
"I like everything," said Kevin. "Especially mashed potatoes. Could I have some more?"
Mark laughed. "Kevin eats more than the rest of us put together. It all evens out."
To change the subject, Connie said, "Those are lovely necklaces, Mother. Did you get them for Christmas?"
"Aren't they nice?" The old woman patted the three strands. "I'm a gypsy, you know."
"Well, they're very attractive," Connie said.
"Where did you get those necklaces, Mother? They were in my purse." Elizabeth glared at her.
"They're my necklaces." She placed a defensive hand on them.
"Yes, they're your necklaces, but did you take them from my purse?"
"I got 'em," said Samantha. "Grandma said she'd like them back and I remembered where you put 'em."
"You went into my purse? In my bedroom?" Elizabeth's rising inflection suggested an invasion of Mongol proportions.
Samantha stared at her defiantly. "They're Grandma's necklaces."
Elizabeth looked from Darryl to Mark to Connie, for support. Her throat turned pink where the make-up line ended.
Mark turned to his daughter and said calmly, "Sammy, you shouldn't have gone in Aunt Betty's purse. It's her private property."
"But they're Grandma's necklaces. She took them."
"That doesn't mean you can just take them back. You need to ask permission. It's Aunt Betty's purse, Aunt Betty's room, Aunt Betty's house. Do you understand? You should have asked her. Now I want you to tell her you're sorry."
Samantha scowled and mumbled, "Sorry, Aunt Betty."
"Liza!" Elizabeth yelled. "My name is Liza! Damn you! Goddamn you all! It's Liza!" She abruptly began crying and fled the room.
Darryl excused himself and went after her.
Samantha solemnly shook her head. "She shouldn't say Goddamn. 'Specially not on Christmas."
Kevin said, "Please pass the mashed potatoes."