© by Laura Slattery
“Allergic? Michael’s allergic to trees? You mean all trees, or just Christmas trees?” I was trying hard to keep the tone from my voice. No wait, let me amend that, it should be that I was trying to keep the “tone” from my voice. A subtle difference perhaps, but every time Jeremy referred to my “tone” I could see the little invisible quotation marks hanging in the air.
This was our first Christmas together. This was our first Christmas with Jeremy’s son, Michael. I was scared it was going to be our last.
Ours had been a whirlwind romance. Love at first sight. But I was like that. Some might say free spirit or even crazy. I preferred adventurous. Jeremy was more solid and down-to-earth. I was his biggest adventure ever, the biggest risk he had ever taken.
I met Michael for the first time the day of the wedding. His mother had allowed the eleven-year-old to fly out for the weekend. It was not Jeremy’s allotted four weeks in the summer or two weeks at Christmas, but she had allowed it. I didn’t realize at the time what a tremendous thing this was, this allowing a parent to spend time with his child, but I was learning quickly.
After the divorce Jeremy and Michael’s mother had shared custody. Then she got a promotion and moved, taking Michael with her. Now Jeremy only saw his son on the allotted weeks and when he could fly out to the East Coast and spend occasional weekends with Michael.
Michael was a quiet, reserved boy. He had pulled back from any of my attempts at hugs or kisses. Things that, in my family, were always lavished on children. During the rehearsal Michael sat quietly in the corner working on endless word searches. Each word he discovered he outlined perfectly in blue ink. Trying to draw him out, I sat next to him pointing out a word on the page. He simply looked at me, then blinking slowly said, “I prefer to find them myself.” Then he resumed the precise circling, ignoring the word I had offered.
When we had taken him to the airport I knew better than to offer another hug. I stood-by quietly while Jeremy shared good-byes with his son. Then, unable to keep still any longer, I offered that I was really looking forward to the Christmas holiday just two months away. I told them both it was my favorite holiday, the food, decorations, gifts and love and I couldn’t wait to share it with my new family, my new husband and son. Michael only blinked at me, then walked next to the stewardess down the tunnel to his plane.
Now Christmas was just around the corner and I was truly beginning to dread it. The tree was the first casualty. I had never known anyone to be allergic to Christmas trees but the letter from Michael’s mother had been very specific: no trees, no animals, no dust. Michael had allergies. Michael had asthma. Michael, I was sure would be dead before our two weeks were up. (Oh, sorry, there is that “tone” again.) So the house was spotless, our tree was fake and the deposit forfeited on the chocolate brown lab puppy that was to be my wow-him present to Michael. We picked Michael up at five o’clock. The ride home from the airport was near silent. I was scared I had made a huge mistake. I loved Jeremy with all my heart, but I didn’t know how to be a stepmother to this quiet, serious boy who obviously didn’t like me. When we got home I pleaded a headache and escaped to bed, trying to ignore the plastic tree mocking me from the living room. When Jeremy came to bed later I feigned sleep, not wanting to talk and scared of the possibility of saying something horrible about his son. A son he loved very much. A son who would never love me.
~ ~ ~
“What are you doing?” These were the first words Michael had directed to me in the three days since he had arrived.
Startled, I answered, “Making Christmas cookies for Santa tomorrow night.”
“You kind of made a mess,” he stated, looking at the globs of colored frosting I had dropped on the table while creating my traditional masterpieces.
“Yep, but it is an easy mess to clean up after I finish.” Then hoping for a miracle I offered, “Do you want to help?”
Michael bit his lip, a flicker of unidentifiable emotion crossing his face, but the allure of cookies appeared too strong. Michael sat down and picked up a bare cookie, a Christmas tree. He stared at it a while, then asked, “How should I do it?”
“Any way you want.”
“No, I mean, what is the right way?”
“Michael, there is no right way. You can make it look any way you want.” I was at a loss. No one had ever had to tell me how to do something like decorate a Christmas cookie.
He sat a stared a little while longer then picked up a knife with a dollop of green frosting. He spread it precisely then put a little yellow candy star on the top. I handed him another plain cookie and he began again, the same green, the same star. This went on for five cookies. Each of his simple and perfect. Each of mine wild and colorful.
Suddenly Michael spoke to me, “Dad won’t love me anymore now that he married you.”
I didn’t know what to say. It had never occurred to me that a child would doubt a parent’s love. After a little thought I said, “How many people do you think you can love, Michael? Is there a limit, a number? If you love your Mom, do you still love your Dad?”
“No, I don’t think there is a limit. I love them both.” He was a smart boy; of this I had little doubt.
“Michael, I am scared your father won’t love me anymore if I can’t be a good stepmother to you.”
This seemed to surprise him. After a couple minutes of silence he said, “Dad thinks you’re great. He says you’re not scared of anything. He says you would try anything. I know he thinks I am too scared of everything. But I just want everything to be perfect then nobody gets mad. Sometimes I wish I could be more like you. Do you think then Dad would not stop loving me, I mean, if I was more like you?”
“Your dad is never going to stop loving you. Just how you are right now, but I promise he will still love you even if you’re not perfect.”
Slowly Michael picked up another blank tree then and scooped out a dollop of purple frosting. Offering me the smallest smile, the first he had given, he spread the frosting on the cookie.
Our family would never be Norman Rockwell perfect, but sitting at the table that day with a plastic tree in the living room, no puppy at my feet, and a quiet timid boy beside me I felt hope and love and the spirit of Christmas. Everything was going to be just fine.