Claire vowed this was going to be a perfect Christmas. She wouldn’t have the Charlie Brown Christmas tree with the one light that refused to shine nor the house with its anemic decorations, a sad comparison to the neighbors. Her Christmas dinner wouldn’t have burnt rolls, lumpy mashed potatoes or overcooked beef. And just once, for the love of God, she wanted to have a Christmas where she didn’t have to hear about Gracie Picklers’ perfectly wonderful holiday!
Claire could just imagine the Pickler’s Christmas. The family would be dressed in their most expensive clothing, they’d receive the most expensive gifts and then they’d sit around the table and have the most wonderful dinner.
Why, it was enough to make Claire want to puke.
She had enough of Gracie’s perfect holiday. It was high time Claire had one too! She spent a whole week planning. When she was done planning she set about making her perfect holiday happen. The first thing she would need was a Christmas tree. She knew just the place to get one too, Sam’s Lot of Pines.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to get a Christmas tree.” The words were out of Claire’s mouth before she could stop them.
Kitty’s eyes lit up. “Woo wee! I love Christmas tree shopping.” She slipped her feet into a pair of Burt’s rubber galoshes and snatched her coat off the rack.
Claire didn’t see how she could out of taking her elderly aunt without hurting her feelings. With a sigh, Claire said, “Come on. Let’s go.”
Picking out a tree should have been simple. It probably would have been too if Kitty hadn’t been there. No matter what tree Claire picked out, Kitty had an opinion about it. The tree was either too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny.
“Kitty, it’s a Christmas tree, for God’s sake! I’m not picking a husband to spend the rest of my life with. I need the tree for one week,” Claire said in exasperation.
“It’s a good thing you’re not picking a husband, because you have terrible taste in men,” Kitty retorted
“What was wrong with Robert?” Claire demanded.
“He died at fifty, that’s what. You need someone like my Burt,” Kitty told her. “You watch, Burt’s gonna last another twenty years.”
“Burt’s ninety!” Claire exclaimed.
“That’s right. His right in the prime of his life,” Kitty said.
Claire rolled her eyes. “Does this mean you two will live with me for another twenty years?”
Kitty nodded her head happily. “Yeah. You’re a lucky gal.”
Claire kept her opinion to herself. They finally settled on a tree. As soon as they got it home, Claire called Ben to set it up for her. It took him a good ten minutes to place the tree in the stand then another ten to straighten it. Claire stood back and looked at it. The living room looked like it was on a slant.
“Is it me or is my living room slanted?” Claire asked Ben.
“It’s the tree,” Ben replied dryly. “It’s crooked.”
The muscle flexed in Claire’s cheek. “You see? This is what happens when you let Kitty pick out a tree!” Claire sighed. “And here I wanted a perfect Christmas. You can’t have a perfect Christmas with a crooked tree.”
“Since when has any of our Christmas’ been perfect?” Ben drawled out.
Exactly never, Claire thought, but she wasn’t about to admit that. After decorating the tree, Claire decorated her house. She had just finished putting up her Victorian Christmas village when Kitty arrived. She stood next to Claire and studied the village.
“Hey, where’s the casino I bought you?” Kitty finally asked.
The casino . . . the bane of Claire’s Christmas Village. It was an ugly thing with flashing lights and a showgirl with plenty of feathers in her hair and little else on her body. It certainly didn’t belong in a Victorian Christmas village.
“Oh, that one . . .” Claire said as she quickly popped the plastic lid back on the container before pushing it under the table. “Why, I don’t know what happened to it,” Claire lied.
A frown crossed Kitty’s face. “Well now that’s just too bad. You know that was miniature version of the casino where I had my affair with Frank Sinatra when I was a showgirl.”
Claire rolled her eyes. She’d heard Kitty’s story about her supposed affair with Frank Sinatra so often she almost believed it herself.
“Yes. Yes. I remember,” Claire replied as she hurried into the kitchen to get away from the whole conversation.
After church on Sunday, Claire sat down at her kitchen table and began to prepare her grocery list for the dinner. She had just started when Kitty dropped a fouling smelling plastic bag on the table.
“What the hell is that?” Claire asked.
“Lutefisk. It’s my gift to the family for our Christmas dinner,” Kitty replied as she opened the bag.
Claire started to gag. It certainly didn’t smell like any gift she wanted. Claire pushed the bag away. “I think we’ll just stick with the Crown Rib Roast.”
“Now why would you want to do that? Everyone does a rib roast. There’s nothing special about that,” Kitty pointed out. “Now lutefisk, that will make your dinner special.”
Claire didn’t think she wanted her dinner to be that special. But there was a look of determination in Kitty’s eyes that Claire knew only too well. It was the same look Claire’s mother once had.
“Fine. I’ll make it,” Claire said, snatching the bag off the table and stuffing it in the fridge.
Claire intended to do her grocery shopping alone. Kitty had other ideas. As soon as Claire grabbed her coat, Kitty was up and out of her chair.
“I’ll come with you,” Kitty said.
“You don’t need too,” Claire told her.
“Nonsense,” Kitty replied. “You can’t possibly do grocery shopping on your own. There’s no telling what you’ll get. You saw the tree you got, right?”
Claire started to reply then gave up. There was no sense pointing out the obvious to Kitty. Stop ‘n Shop was packed with last minute shoppers. It took them forever to get the items on the list what with all the people in the store. They were almost done and heading for the meat department when they spotted Gracie Pickler. She was dressed in a deep purple wool coat that matched her bruised eye.
“Now don’t you cause any problems like the last time we went shopping!” Claire hissed, giving Kitty a look of warning.
“Just for the record, I wasn’t the one to cause problems. That was all Gracie Pickler,” Kitty retorted in a tart voice.
“Why, Claire, isn’t this a happy coincidence,” Gracie said with a smug smile.
“I see you still have a black eye,” Claire couldn’t help saying.
Gracie fixed a furious gaze on Kitty. “Oh this . . . why it’s almost gone,” Gracie said, dismissing Claire’s comment.
“I certainly hope so. I wouldn’t want your Christmas pictures to be ruined,” Claire retorted.
“Oh don’t worry it will be gone. I wouldn’t let something like this ruin my Christmas,” Gracie replied. “I hope you have a wonderful Christmas . . .”
Both Claire and Kitty watched her walk away, her tinkling laughter mixing with the clicking of her Armani heels.
“I don’t believe her,” Claire hissed as they continued towards the meat counter.
“Yeah, I know. I think that purple eye looks great,” Kitty said. “It would really jazz up those Christmas pictures.”
Things took a decided turn for the worse when they reached the meat counter. Roger, the butcher, shook his head, frowning. “Sorry, Claire but Gracie Pickler got the last rib roast,” he told her. “Maybe you’d like to have a ham instead?”
A Ham? Claire didn’t want ham for her Christmas dinner. She wanted an elegant dinner with fine linen tablecloth, china plates, polished silverware, and cut crystal wine glasses holding deep red Merlot. There would be a beautiful floral arrangement in the center of the table and sitting proudly on the fine china platter Robert had bought would be the Crown Rib Roast! Not some ugly old ham.
“Woo wee! Looks like it’s lutefisk for everyone!” Kitty cried out with her fist raised upward.
Lutefisk for everyone? Claire didn’t think so. She turned back to Roger. “We’ll take a ham.”
She spent the rest of the week baking. She made cookies, her famous triple chocolate truffle cake and three different pies. Burt came into the kitchen just as she was finishing icing the last batch of sugar cookies she’d made. She sprinkled some green sugar on the cookie, keeping an eye on Burt as he opened one kitchen cupboard after another.
Finally, she asked, “What are you looking for, Burt?”
“The gingerbread cookies,” he said.
“Gingerbread cookies? I didn’t make gingerbread cookies.”
“What? You can’t have Christmas without gingerbread cookies!” Burt snapped. “Everyone knows that!”
“Burt, I’m certain Christmas is going to come whether I make gingerbread cookies or not,” Claire told him. “Besides, I made sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms and Italian anise cookies.”
“Anise cookies? No one eats them!” Burt complained.
“As a matter of fact, Kitty does,” Claire pointed out.
“Oh sure, you make Kitty’s favorite cookie but not mine?”
Claire sighed. There was no way she was going to get out of it and she knew it. “Fine. I’ll make some gingerbread cookies.”
Christmas Day arrived bright and sunny. Claire woke up exhausted. She wanted to stay in bed and sleep. She couldn’t though. She had too much to do before her guests arrived.
“Woo wee, this is going to be fun!” Kitty exclaimed with her fist in the air as Claire stepped into the kitchen. “Now tell me, do we have any good-looking men coming to dinner?”
Claire frowned as she looked at her aunt. Kitty was eighty-eight years old. Should she be even looking at men?
“Burt, Sam and Ben will be here,” Claire replied. “Father Frank will be here, too,” Claire added.
“Frank . . .? Why would you invite him?”
“Because it’s Christmas and he’s our priest. You can’t leave him out.”
“I could,” Burt interjected. “The man has an inordinate fondness for gossip. He’s always listening to people’s conversations.”
“He does?” Claire asked in surprise. She couldn’t imagine Father Frank listening to gossip. Then again, if he did hear something, she couldn’t really fault him. This town thrived on gossip.
“Sure,” Burt returned. “He’s got that little room he sits in. People go in and out all day telling him all sorts of who knows what!”
Claire rolled her eyes. “That’s not gossip. That’s confessional.”
Burt frowned. “That doesn’t make it right . . .”
“Anyway . . .” Claire ground out with a frown in Burt’s direction. “Dax will be here.”
“Now we’re talking,” Kitty said, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.
“Whoa . . . whoa . . .whoa . . .” Burt said waving his hands in the air. “What do you mean Dax will be here. He’s not family and he’s not a priest.”
“He’s coming because he’s alone for the holiday and he’s Ben’s best friend,” Claire explained. “Why, he’s almost like family.”
“Well now, you’ve gone and ruined my Christmas,” Kitty grumbled as she got up from the kitchen table and shuffled out of the kitchen.
Claire spent the rest of the morning preparing the food for dinner. When she was finished, she collected Kitty, then drove to Blooms Galore to pick up the floral arrangement Mayme Wolfe had made for her. Claire dug under the door mat, found the key Mayme hid and opened the door.
“Hey, do you think there’s a silent alarm that will bring the cops here?” Kitty asked hopefully. “It’s been years since I’ve been arrested.”
Claire did a double take at Kitty. “What?”
“It’s a long story. Dean Martin and I . . .” Kitty began. Claire gave Kitty an exasperated look. “What? It’s a true story!” Kitty insisted.
Claire didn’t believe that for a minute. “Yeah, well you can tell me later.”
“Why do we need a floral arrangement for Christmas anyway?” Kitty asked.
“Because it looks nice and I want everything to be perfect.”
“That’s too bad because you’re stuck with the family you got,” Kitty replied as she followed Claire out the door of the floral shop.
When they got home, Claire started to put the floral arrangement on the table when she noticed the Christmas village. There smack dab in the center, exactly where Claire had place the church, sat the casino complete with the flashing neon lights.
Claire glared at Kitty. “What happened to Vicar Peabody’s church?”
“Why, I don’t know what happened to it,” Kitty replied innocently.
Clare gave up and set the floral arrangement right in the center of the table. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“It’s blocking the casino,” Kitty said.
Claire was about to respond when Burt chimed in, “It’s too big. I can’t see the person across from me. How do you expect me to have a conversation with a bouquet like that?”
Claire sighed. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
It was only later that Claire realized she should have been more explicit with her direction. She was just getting ready to bring out the dinner when she heard Burt say, “You want a piece of me?” Claire dropped what she was doing and rushed out of the kitchen. She stood in disbelief as she watched her ninety-year old uncle wrestling with her sixty-year old bother over the seating arrangements.
“Now we’re talking!” Kitty exclaimed. “Live entertainment!”
It was a good thing Ben was there to stop the wrestling. He took control of the situation by sitting in the seat under discussion. Seeing no other choice, Sam and Burt took seats in the opposite corners of the table. Claire gave her son a look of relief as she hurried to the kitchen to bring out dinner.
“Hey, don’t forget the lutefisk,” Kitty called after her.
With more regret than Claire could imagine she carried out the gelatinous mess and was about to set it on the table when Kitty stopped her.
“Here, let me move this,” Kitty said as she grabbed the centerpiece off the table.
“What are you doing with that?” Claire asked.
“Moving it. The lutefisk should be the centerpiece.”
Claire thought it should go in the trash. She wasn’t the only one. Everyone stared at the gooey mess with looks of disgust on their faces. Everyone that is expect Burt and Kitty. They were looking at the lutefisk like it was filet mignon.
Ellen was the first to break the silence. “What is that smell?”
“Oh dear lord, I think I’m going to be sick!” Marney said as she jumped up from the table. She didn’t make it to the bathroom in time. Vomit spewed all over the presents before she reached the stairs.
“Hey! You better not have ruined the present I bought for Ellen! Expensive silk like that can’t be replaced,” Kitty announced.
Claire sucked in a breath of outrage. “You didn’t buy that present! I did.”
“No you didn’t,” Kitty said. “You were too busy driving the get-away car.”
“You what?” Ben exclaimed.
Clearly this was something the police chief did not want to hear about his mother. “It wasn’t a get-away car per se . . .” Claire began only to be interrupted by Kitty.
“I’m thinking of starting a new career,” she told the group. “I think I’d be pretty good at shoplifting.”
Claire closed her eyes and prayed for patience. The muscle in Ben’s cheeks flexed. Ellen let out a soft groan and Frank said a quick prayer. Only Dax thought Kitty’s comment was funny.
“Why, Kitty, I think you’d be an amazing shoplifter.”
“For the love of God,” Ben ground out.
“What? It’s an honest profession!” Kitty said in defense.
“It’s a crime,” Claire snapped. “Do you want to go to jail?”
“I don’t know,” Kitty mused. She turned to Ben. “Will the jail be co-ed?”
Claire looked up to the heavens and sighed. “Why, for once, can I not have a perfect Christmas?”
“Who wants perfect?” Kitty asked Claire. “One day, I won’t be here and you’ll be missing this!”
Claire realized Kitty was right. One day Kitty and Burt would be gone and all this craziness would be replaced with the quiet, perfect Christmas the Picklers’ enjoyed. Suddenly any anger and frustration Claire felt evaporated. Claire sat back in her chair and smiled. Gracie Pickler could have her perfect Christmas with her perfect family. Claire wouldn’t trade a minute with her deranged family for Gracie’s perfectly boring one.
“You’re right Kitty. I will miss this,” Claire said with a smile as picked up her wine to give a toast.
And without missing a beat, Kitty said, “Of course you’ve got a least another twenty years before that happens.”
Claire drank all the wine out of her glass at that announcement.