My legs seemed to melt beneath me as I neared the booth to serve the friendly young couple. Sudden dizziness spun through my head but faded. I’d be okay once I got even busier. The rushing would stimulate me, as it usually did. That’s what another waitress, Patti, always said, too.
I set down the warm plates heaped with the sizzling fish, salad, and a roll, then felt another surge of dizziness.
“Oh, no!” A woman screamed as I fell into a fog of blackness.
I opened my eyes and saw a crowd of onlookers with worried faces. Someone was calling 911 on a cell phone. Again, I blacked out.
I came to in a wailing ambulance as a kind, young paramedic told me not to worry. “We’re taking care of you,” he promised.
The ambulance halted. Bright lights streamed over me as I was carried on a stretcher into the emergency room. Suddenly I longed to see Ben Samson, the handsome widower who was unusually kind and obviously cared for me. Sometimes I felt he cared for me more than my family, who were so busy and involved with their own lives.
Ben had often asked me to go out for dinner and dancing. We’d danced at our mutual friends’ wedding reception a few months earlier. Maybe someday we would go out together, but now I had to work hard, earn money, and glory in my holiday shopping plans. I had ideas for each grandchild on my list. Dating would have to take a backseat for a while.
My husband, Jeff, had insisted I start dating as soon as I could to go on with my life. “You’re too young to be alone now, honey. Just know I want you to find another man.” I felt a bit guilty despite Jeff’s request. I wanted to honor the good husband he had been and not pair up with someone else too soon.
My thoughts flew back to earlier that evening, when I’d gone to work. I needed to earn as much as possible. I missed the steady paycheck Jeff used to bring home from the Iron Works, but I missed my wonderful Jeff even more. But reality said I needed to pay my bills, so I didn’t give in to my tiredness as the night wore on.
The manager, Trish, stared at me when my hands shook as I picked up two plates. “Amy, let me call Patti to come in and replace you, okay? You look worn to a frazzle!”
“I’m fine!” I fibbed, feeling more worn out than in years.
But I had bills to pay and Christmas gifts to buy. As a fifty-four-year-old mother and grandmother, I had loved ones on my list that I wanted to see smile when they opened my presents. Giving gifts was important to me, a high point in my life, something I liked doing better than making new life plans for myself. I had enjoyed life with Jeff. Now it was time to give happiness to my children and grandchildren.
As I rushed around, I thought about my son Mike and his wife, Lorna. They had two active kids—Lisa, who was five, and Joseph, six. I loved driving the ten miles to their home in Crystal City. Their happiness with what I could give them was my life goal now. Everytime I earned extra tips and had my bills paid, I bought small presents for my family to give when I visited them. Giving was such a happy feeling.
Sure, I heard from some of the women I talked with at work or at coffee gatherings that giving gifts was not always a guarantee for family happiness. “I gave my son and his wife a new coffeemaker and she got upset. It wasn’t the brand she liked and she let me know about it every time I visited,” said Elaine.
Lois, Marla, Diana, and Tina mentioned that the children in their lives were often too fussy. So they gave money in a card instead of buying gifts that would be shunned.
I didn’t let what anyone said discourage me. I felt good giving gifts and nothing would make me stop shopping for them.
The only thing that was getting me down now was that this job was my extra one. My main waitress work was at the Lakeside Resort. My boss, Mr. Lewis, would frown on my overextending myself with this evening job on my day off from the resort. He wanted his workers to be rested and fresh. But Mr. Lewis wasn’t responsible for paying my bills or buying my loved ones gifts on birthdays or for Christmas!
My thoughts scattered as another wave of dizziness spun through me and I fell asleep or passed out from exhaustion on that high hospital bed.
When I came to, I was looking at Dr. Morgan’s craggy, sixty-plus-year-old face. He had been our family physician and was on-call that evening.
“Amy, I told you at your last checkup that you were overdoing it. You need more sleep and more time for fun—not just work. Remember the old saying that ‘all work and no play makes Jill a dull girl?’ Well, Jill is you, Amy. I want to know why you can’t make ends meet with one job. You no longer have Mike at home to support. Why do you need a second job when you’re at a stage in life when you need to relax and have some leisure time?”
His sincerity made me tell him something I didn’t tell many people; I admitted that I wanted to give my grandchildren special Christmas gifts. I told him about the electronic gifts, a porcelain collector doll, and a baby doll I was buying for my grandchildren. “I have a list of books and video films to buy for them, too, Dr. Morgan.”
“There’s no need for a grandmother to give up her personal life, to work herself to the bone so she can dote on grandchildren to the point where she ends up in the ER!” Dr. Morgan said emphatically. “You’re still young and attractive. Start dating again, and maybe even remarry!”
“But my life is Mike and his family. I’m that kind of woman and I can’t help it. I am the kind of woman who needs to create a homey atmosphere for those I love. I’m like that and I can’t change.”
“You need to take care of yourself, Amy. This December, you need to forget about Christmas.”
I gazed at the doctor’s stern but concerned expression and shrugged. I made no promises to give up on Christmas, so I stayed silent. He ordered me to rest awhile. He brought me a phone and ordered me to call Mike to come and take me to my home.
I obeyed that part of his order and phoned Mike, who sounded frantic with worry. “What’s wrong, Mom? You’re always so healthy and peppy. What happened?”
“Just exhausted. I haven’t been sleeping well.”
I didn’t admit my sleep had been interrupted by my long work hours. I was so physically uptight when I got home that sleep often eluded me. It was a secret I kept from my family. I needed to keep working to earn money and I knew I’d stop before I got sick.
Already, I knew I’d rest more. I’d learned from my trip to the ER. I wasn’t stupid. I planned to rest more—and that meant no dancing with Ben Samson until maybe next summer when I’d be caught up on rest.
Mike said he’d come and get me right away. “I want you to come home with us tonight, Mom.”
“No, I’ll rest better in my own bed, honey. Thanks for the offer, but I do like my own bed.”
He sighed. “Then I’ll sleep on your sofa tonight so I can be there for you. Lorna will understand and agree with my idea, too. I know it.”
I said okay, but I knew deep down that Lorna would not like it. She’d let me know early on that she now belonged to Mike and he belonged to her. “Our lives are our own, said Amy. My parents taught me to be up front with my beliefs. So I want you to know that we love you, but we have our own little family now. Please don’t tell Mike that we had this little talk.”
I agreed just to keep the peace between Mike and his wife. I thought of my neighbor Susan’s words: “A mother-in-law shouldn’t lead her life to please her married children or their spouses. I don’t. And I’ve been given some unwanted advice a few times, too.”
Susan had often frowned on the way her son and his wife spent too much money on every fad advertised on television. “The kids don’t need every gimmick on the market,” she’d said.
“That might have some truth to it,” I agreed, “but to see my grandchildren smile makes me feel such inner peace. It makes me happy and that’s my goal in life now that Jeff’s gone.”
“Suit yourself, Amy.” Susan shrugged, then offered me another piece of her tasty homemade cake.
Later, her words echoed in my mind as I pondered how Lorna indulged my grandchildren in whatever they begged for. Then guilt overwhelmed me. Was I doing the same? Still, I was giving Christmas gifts to create happy Christmas memories to show my love for them. My own past memories were not delightful. I’d longed for a certain doll for two years in a row and never got the beautiful blonde doll in the pink satin dress.
I felt torn inside but kept it a secret from my friends. I always smiled and said my Christmas had been great—like theirs had been.
As I lay on the bed waiting for Mike, I thought about how my son and his family took long weekends at resorts to get away from it all. Jeff and I hadn’t done that. We’d waited for someday, and that day had never arrived. So I was feeling fresh gladness giving loving gifts to my family. Somehow, it eased my grief and fulfilled me. It helped me more than finding romance with a new man would, I was sure.
And now I lay in the ER with Dr. Morgan’s words echoing in my brain: Forget about working so hard to shop for Christmas.
Then the curtain by my bed was pulled aside and I gazed at my tall blonde son whose blue eyes were shiny with tears. “Mom, what happened to you?”
“I got too tired. And my insurance will pay for this.”
“Mom, you’ve got to stop working at two jobs. I’ll do my best to help you if you need money.” He started to say more but he stopped. I knew he had no extra funds to help me. I had to work and lead my own life to fulfill my new goals for contentment.
A friendly nurse wheeled me to Mike’s van in the lighted hospital parking lot as the December wind blew. I decided to rest so I could enjoy the holidays. I’d find out about buying gifts on credit. My credit card was limited. I didn’t want to go over the maximum.
Mike settled in on my sofa bed overnight. It felt good to have him in the house again. I slept well and woke up feeling more rested. What a relief! I’d go to bed as soon as I got home from work each evening and catch up on my sleep.
Ben kept asking me to go dancing but there was no time—and I secretly knew I had no energy left for a new man, anyway.
I felt better each day and wrapped presents in my spare time. I wouldn’t be with Mike’s family when they opened their gifts. When Mike and Lorna had their first baby, she had told me birthdays and holidays would be their ‘family’ time. “I can’t help it if I seem selfish. I didn’t have family time when growing up, Amy. There was always something else going on.”
I would be invited to birthday and Christmas dinners at a separate time, though. I’d have loved to have seen their faces when they opened my gifts, but I’d heed Lorna’s wishes and do as she asked. It was their marriage and different from our family tradition. But that was what would be for now. Someday I would ask to be there on a holiday to see the grandchildren’s faces when they opened my gifts.
It was easier to work at my two jobs with ease after my rest. Ben Samson kept coming in to pay attention to me with his caring comments. “I want to take you dancing, Amy. You need to have some fun!”
“Someday, Ben, maybe,” I said. “For now, I’ve got bills to pay.”
“I understand about bills, but we all need a break for fun. You raised your son. Now it’s time for you to relax and enjoy some free time.” His dark eyes looked serious. “I worry about you wearing yourself out when you already did your child raising thing.”
Sometimes after he flirted and asked me to go dancing with him, I dreamed about him holding me close. And I’d wake up wishing it hadn’t been a dream.
Soon after that, he asked me to go to the Landing, a restaurant where there was a good dance band. “I know you were a terrific dancer in high school. No one forgets how to dance, right? So let’s go to the Landing and dance, Amy.”
I felt a twinge when he said the day he wanted me to go. I couldn’t say yes. It was the Sunday afternoon I had off from work and was invited to a pre-Christmas dinner at Mike and Lorna’s home. I couldn’t say no to my family. I’d been a mother too long for anything to interfere. Ben’s attentiveness would wait for another time, I told myself. He was a patient man.
Then I saw a new widow, Pam Taylor, flirting with Ben as he was leaving the restaurant to go dancing. What if he asks her? A jealous pang hit but melted when I knew I couldn’t give up being with my family for a Christmas gathering. Yet worry knotted in me. Pam was pretty and Ben smiled when she flirted with him.
Then Ben stopped showing up at the restaurant. I felt puzzled and worried that he was seeing Pam.
One late night after work I cried during a tearjerker romance movie on television. I longed to be held close and loved by another caring man. I even went so far as to look for Ben’s usual booth every time I was working, but he had vanished from my life. Why hadn’t I been more flirtatious in return?
I knew the answer: If I had to choose between Ben and Mike and his family, my maternal loyalty would have drawn me to my family. Was I being fair to them? Was I leaning on them too much?
Grandma had told me as a child that family closeness is a gift to be cherished.
As Christmas neared I kept busy, despite Ben’s absence. I trimmed the tree and baked Mike’s favorite fancy cut-out cookies for him and his family. I felt my pep lagging and ran out of wrapping paper while I still had gifts to wrap. So I found some leftover wall paper rolls to use for the rest of the gifts. It matched my kitchen walls, but the kids would get a smile out of it. I smiled, thinking of them clapping their hands in delight and saying, “Nana, you used wallpaper! Now our presents are like your walls!”
I ran out of ribbon, too, so just added a nametag on each. I sighed with relief when I finished the last gift. My grandchildren would have a pile of pretty packages with big ribbons to put under their big tree. They would never know how it felt to wake up on Christmas to find nothing under the tree. Buying for them was a way to fill the hole inside me from my bleak Christmases as a child and teen. And the wallpaper would be fun for them!
Three days before Christmas I wrote the last of my cards, delivered cookies to Susan and Ted next door, listened to taped carols, went to church, phoned my parents and promised to visit them in Nevada come summer. I must have sounded tired because Mom asked if I felt okay. I hadn’t told her about my ER trip and the doctor’s warning.
Mom sounded worried. “I know we didn’t have much money when you were growing up. But don’t work too hard, honey. Take a vacation and visit us before summer. I’d like to make hot soup for you and bake your favorite cinnamon rolls to go with morning coffee—the way you like breakfast.”
I thanked Mom. I missed her and Dad with a sudden fierceness and longed to visit them sooner. But I’d charged most of the gifts and needed to pay off my credit card bill before too much interest added on. I didn’t tell Mom. Why should I worry my parents?
“I’ll try to visit soon if I can swing the expense, Mom.”
“I hope so, Amy. I’d like to somehow make up for the hard times when you were a girl at home.”
I kept busy at the restaurants and delivering the cookies to Mike and Lorna’s home. Their trimmed tree was a glorious sight, with all the new trimmings in shimmering silver.
“Mike got a raise at the accounting office, so the new decorations were one way to celebrate,” Lorna said, beaming.
She offered me coffee with cookies. “They’re not homemade, but easier!” Lorna smiled.
“I brought you homemade cookies, Lorna,” I said.
Instead of the smile I expected, her expression told me she guessed I’d made the usual cut-out cookies she’d once said she disliked. Mike and the children liked them. I hugged her and asked her to greet Mike and the children for me when they got home.
As I drove home, I felt like attending the church concert. On an impulse, I decided to call Ben to see if he wanted to join me. It would be short notice, but I hadn’t seen him lately. I wouldn’t know if he’d like to go unless I asked.
I waved to Susan when I got out of my car in the driveway. She called to ask if I would be going to Mike’s for the gift opening on Christmas morning. I told her I’d go there later for dinner in the afternoon.
“You should be there for the gift opening, Amy. You’re the mother and grandmother, so why not?”
“I’m not pushy and it’s private family time. That’s how Lorna grew up, with only their immediate family there for the gift opening time. I understand—or intend to try!” I smiled to soften the tension growing inside me.
“Why don’t you go dancing with Ben sometime? I know he’s asked you to go.”
“Maybe I will,” I said, adding cheer to my tone.
However, worry gnawed at me. What if Ben had given up on me and found Pam to be good company?
Once inside, I decided not only to date Ben when he asked, but to be bold and call! Why not? I tried several times, but got no answer or machine to leave a message.
The trimmed tree at the church, the carols, and the nativity crèche gave me a family feeling. At home later, I quickly tuned on some Christmas television programs and vicariously enjoyed others’ lives on It’s A Wonderful Life. Then I went to bed, glad I hadn’t worked that night. I’d enjoyed a family feeling, even though I was alone.
But I wondered, Where’s Ben?
On Christmas morning, I made coffee, scrambled an egg, warmed a cinnamon roll in the microwave, and poured myself orange juice. I ate while “Joy To The World” wafted from the tape player. I basked in the memory of my first married Christmas, when Jeff and I had breakfast together in the tiny kitchen of our first apartment. Then we went back to bed for a while to make passionate love.
But that was another lifetime ago, I realized. I shook away the memories and anticipated seeing Mike, Lorna, and the children that afternoon. Then a sad streak hit me. Would I ever see Ben again? Well, I’d pushed him away, and it might have been best that way.
I glanced at the clock. It was time to go to Mike and Lorna’s home. I could hardly wait to see my grandchildren’s shining faces when they would rush to greet me and tell me how much they loved the gifts I’d given them!
I rang the doorbell an hour sooner than expected, but that wouldn’t bug them, I was sure. After all, it was Christmas. Everyone would be in a carefree, holiday spirit. I know I was! My drive over had been like riding on air.
When Lorna saw me at the door her mouth opened wide. “Oh, you’re early! We’re—we’re not ready yet, Amy.”
“That’s okay, Lorna. I can . . . well, blend in. Merry Christmas! And thanks for the wonderful sausage and cheese gift. My favorite kind!”
I leaned toward her and gave her a tight hug, although she stiffened. Her tight expression and cool attitude hurt me. Suddenly, my being pushed away from my family was too much. I was a person and I deserved a happy life. Jeff had told me that on his deathbed. And I would call Ben and tell him so—if I could still have Ben in my life.
Lorna must have seen my expression as I said, “I’ll leave now. Merry Christmas!”
I turned to go, but she stopped me by saying, “Listen, you’ve driven ten miles to get here, so you might as well come in.”
She pointed me to the family room, where the buzzing voices sounded. I stood in the doorway, gazed at the shimmering tree, and admired it aloud. Mike hurried over to hug me, as did my grandchildren, who then rushed right back to their new toys. I stood there, observing them as though they were on stage and I was in the audience.
“Sit down, sit down, Mom!” Mike said, pointing out a spot on the sofa he had cleared for me.
I sat down and saw the gigantic pile of presents. There were games, toy trucks, doll carriages, a miniature keyboard, a little dinette set, a small beauty shop—to name some. The room was congested with crumpled paper and gifts. The gifts I had given must have been buried in the heap, so I wouldn’t ask if they’d liked them.
Everyone was chattering and keeping busy with different toys. I thanked Mike for the cheese assortment and he got me a cup of hot coffee to sip while we visited.
Then I saw it, peeking out from behind a pile of presents: the wallpaper-wrapped presents among the others I’d delivered to them earlier. Thinking they’d overlooked them, I walked over and pointed out what I had given them.
“You still have mine to open, Joseph,” I told my grandson.
He screwed up his little face. “You wrapped them in paper like your kitchen!”
“Joseph!” Mike scolded as Lorna walked into the room.
“Well, it’s not Christmas wrap, honey,” she said. “Can you blame a child if he’s got his own opinion?”
Stunned, I knew this was the end of my longing for family closeness on holidays. My family unity hope had been suddenly, most cruelly shattered. Now I could go on in life—a life of my own, with a new romance with Ben—if he still wanted me. My heart ached with worry that Pam had him now.
I would drive home to my peace and quiet. I would go out with Ben, if he was still available. I would take Susan’s suggestion to become bolder. I would wait to tell Mike and Lorna how I felt. It was Christmas, so I would just honor the day with patience . . . until I could change my life pattern of overindulging my son and his family. It was time to move to a new life—and romance!
I got up and walked to the door. Mike rushed to ask me to stay for dinner, but I’d lost my appetite. I knew I’d finally found my new pathway in life, and it wasn’t there, in that house. I needed time before we could discuss this, and Christmas wasn’t the day to do that.
I forced a smile as reality rushed through me like a river. “Mike, please don’t be concerned. I’ve got plans of my own today. Ben and I will spend time together.”
“Well, at least stay for when the children open your gifts, Mom.”
“No, it’s okay with me if they open them today or another time. I’ve got to leave now, Mike.” I took his right hand and squeezed it. “Merry Christmas to each of you! I’ll be happy, too, with my plans today.”
As I drove I hoped that Ben would listen to me and forgive me for putting him off so often after I’d told him I’d learned to pursue my own life.
Even if he was out of my life, I planned for the following Christmas. I would be willing to date and heed Jeff’s deathbed wish for me. I would socialize at a singles’ group, where everyone went to the movies, concerts, or dances together and didn’t necessarily pair off. I was weaning myself from being obsessed with making up for my poverty-stricken childhood by giving up happiness now.
As I entered my home again, with its cozy splendor and my renewed inner peace, I became even bolder. I phoned Ben. This time his wonderful, deep voice answered.
“Hi!” I said. “This is Amy Lukas. Merry Christmas, Ben.”
“Merry Christmas to you, Amy,” he said, gladness tingling in his tone. “I’ve been busy checking out a new job lately, so I haven’t been at the restaurant. I was sitting here having a frozen dinner for my Christmas meal. Not too bad, but not great, either. The restaurants in town are closed, so I can’t be choosy.”
“If you want to come over, I’ll scramble some eggs for you, make toast, and serve you some of the pumpkin pie I made. I’ve also got salad fixings, if you like, to go with two kinds of cheese with crackers as an alternative, Ben.”
“I don’t care what you serve, Amy. I’m so glad you’re including me in your Christmas.”
We had a cozy time eating the holiday breakfast in the evening. Then we put on some tapes of romantic love songs, and Ben and I danced. We swayed to the soft melodies and I felt as though I was meant for his arms. He whispered, “I’ve never been happier, Amy. Merry Christmas, honey.”
That was last Christmas. This Christmas will be our wedding day—and I had to share the good news. I feel that Jeff will smile from heaven, knowing that I will no longer be widowed and I’ll be cherished and loved by another man.
Mike, Lorna, Lisa, and Joseph are happy that I no longer will be alone. The children made me a poster: happy marriage to nana.
Now I’ll have family love and my new romance to cherish!