by Jim Bates
I hurry to the back door, put on my gloves, boots and jacket and rush outside, just as the Prius is sliding to a complete stop three feet in front of the garage door. I see Lea in the driver’s seat and she smiles and waves a greeting. She's looking a little haggard, which I attribute to the journey from Minneapolis. (It's a known fact that she doesn't like driving in inclement weather.) Other than that, though, she looks happy. She'd must have had a wonderful time at her son Nate's, just like I knew she would.
I help her out of the car and give her a hug, "Have fun?" I ask, even though I know what her answer will be.
"I did. It was the best," she says, hugging me back. "Let's help Mom and Dad out and get them inside by the fire." She looks at me with a sly smile, "You do have one going, right?"
"Of course," I say magnanimously, spreading my arms wide and joking with her, "It wouldn't be Christmas Eve without one."
"That's for sure. Mom and Dad will love it." She squeezes my arm, an intimate gesture that feels really nice.
I'm stepping over to help Ed get out of the passenger seat when Lea stops me. "Wait a minute. How about you? Are you doing okay?"
I know what she's getting at, especially with me mooning over those albums of mine like I've been doing lately, reminiscing and, frankly, feeling more than a little sorry for myself. Well, after tonight, all of that is past. My fireside talk with Dad (whether I imagined it or not) showed me that I've got a lot to live for. It's up to me to put the past aside and make the most of what I have right here and now. I hug Lea again. "I'm doing great," I say, squeezing her tight, thanking my lucky stars that we'd found each other fifteen years ago. "I've never been happier."
We get Ed and Barb inside and situated on the couch in the living room. Lea makes tea for everyone and I stoke up the fire. We stay up for a while, talking, relaxing and enjoying each other's company. Lea and her parents all have fun looking through the photo albums I 'd left on the coffee table. Both Ed and Barb comment on how much they enjoy catching a glimpse into my past, saying the photos bring them closer to me. Lea, god love her, only jokes about all the cookies that had been consumed while she was gone. Me? I tell her that they were so good, I just couldn't stop eating them.
At one point, Lea goes to the freezer and takes out four more cookie containers to thaw. I've followed her into the kitchen. "Good thing I planned ahead," she laughs and adds, turning to me, "You know everyone's coming over tomorrow, right?"
I nod my head as I munch on one of her sugar cutouts. "Yeah, I do remember." Then I mention what I've been thinking about off and on throughout the evening, "Say, about everyone coming tomorrow...I wanted to talk to you about that." I point back toward the living room, "Maybe later after your folks go to bed. Is that Ok?"
"Absolutely," she says, giving me a quizzical look.
I wave off any concern she might have, saying, "It's no big deal, just something I've been thinking about tonight."
"Ok," she says, "Sounds good."
She takes a list off the refrigerator and starts to review what she's going to be working on in the kitchen tomorrow morning, getting ready for when Nate and Emily and their families come over. One thing I appreciate is that she doesn't say anything about the two empty tea mugs, even though she does give them a funny look as I take them to the sink and quickly wash them out. Then we both go back to the living room and join Barb and Ed.
Upstairs there are three small bedrooms and a bathroom. Whenever Ed and Barb stay with us, they prefer the one on the north side of the house. It's a cozy little space that once was Lea’s brother’s bedroom and they don't seem to mind sharing the small, full sized bed. Around eleven or so Ed starts yawning. Then Barb.
"Well, time to hit the hay," Barb says, "Tomorrow's a big day."
Lea and I help her folks upstairs and get them settled. Then we go back downstairs. I go into the kitchen to make us some chamomile tea while Lea makes herself comfortable in her chair. I bring the tea out and we sip it companionably while we watch the final coals of the fire, now glowing red hot and throwing off tons of heat. Then I look at Lea and she looks at me. We both smile, happy to be together.
I'm wondering if now is a good time to tell her about how I spent my evening and the things I thought about and the conclusions I came to concerning my father when Lea says, "What was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
Oh, yeah, there's that. I shift mental gears and say, "You know, you've got your family coming over tomorrow."
Lea has turned toward the fireplace, watching the coals and enjoying the warmth they are giving off. I can see her visibly relaxing as she sips her tea, but she's still a little revved up from the evening spent seeing her kids and grandchildren and her mom and dad. In other words, she's in a super good mood. "Yeah, I'm going to be busy in the kitchen in the morning. Mom's going to help. Why?"
"Well, I was wondering if that offer still stands. About me joining you all. You know, me being a part of it." I pause and then add, "With your family, I mean," emphasizing the obvious.
"Why, of course," Lea says, suddenly perking up. I can tell she's happy I've decided be part of her family's get together. Then she thoughtfully takes a step back and looks at me, curiously, "What's brought this on all of a sudden? Usually you just go to a movie."
"Oh, I don't know," I say, knowing I'm sounding vague. Now is the perfect time to tell her about talking to my father, whether it was real it or not. I think about it for a split second and then decide to let it go. Maybe some other time. For now, it's best to just focus on tonight with Lea and tomorrow and getting ready for Christmas Day with her family. So, I say, "I just think that maybe it's about time."
However, Lea is more than a little perceptive and wise to me to boot. She's not ready to let me off the hook. She points to dining room table where the stack of the three albums has ended up. "Does it have something to do with those photo albums of yours?"
I stand up and go to her and kneel down and hug her tight, "Yea, sweetheart, it kind of does."
Lea hugs me back. I'm sure she's wondering what is going on with his man she has chosen to live with for the rest of her life. She seems to be enjoying the moment, though, and the closeness. She does have one final question, however, and I'm not surprised when she asks, "I know I sound like a broken record, but please, tell me one more time. Are you sure you're doing all right?"
I don't have to even think about it when I tell her, "Yeah, I am, Lea. I really am."
A fleeting image of my father passes before my eyes. It's not the image of him from when I was just a kid, only nine years old and didn't know any better. Instead, it's an image of Dad as an old man. The image of the man who was here with me tonight. When he and I sat by the fire, had some tea and cookies and looked through the past, reliving both of our lives.
Right now, my evening has jelled into a sort of pact with myself. My talk with Dad has revealed that, like him, I'd made some mistakes in my life. No one is perfect, that's for sure. But, in the end, my life has been a good one. A great life really. I just need to stay vigilant and not get lazy; not forget to pay attention to the things that matter most. To that end, I'll call each of my kids tomorrow and wish them a happy holiday. I'll encourage them to make time to see me next year because I'm planning to come out and visit each of them. I'll tell them that I miss not seeing them and want to establish physical contact. Soon. I'm pretty sure they will agree. I hope so, anyway. I'm going to do all I can do to stay in close touch with each of them: Ethan, Sara and Lucy. After all they are from my blood. They are my children.
Just as importantly, there is Lea and how much she means to me. Our life together is more special than I could ever have imagined. By the end of his life, my father had failed to find someone to love and commit to. I hadn't. Call it luck or fate or what have you, but I've found Lea. We have each other and for that I will be forever grateful. I'm going to do all I can to make her happy and prove to her that she made the right choice when she decided to let me into her life.
After a minute or so, we release from our embrace. I return to the couch and Lea goes into the kitchen. As she passes through the dining room she glances at the cupboard. The door is ajar. She goes to it and before closing it looks in. "Hey, Jack, what's with the backgammon game? It's been moved. Did you have it out?" She gives me a funny look which after a few moments turns a little wistful, "Remember, we used to play, didn't we? We haven't played in years."
"Yeah, I know," I tell her, "I was just looking at it earlier." I look into the fireplace, contemplating the red-orange coals, and then back to Lea as I have a sudden thought, "Say, maybe we can start playing again. At least for old time's sake. You know, we used to play a lot."
Lea laughs, "As I recall, I beat you quite often. You sure you're up for it?"
Another fleeting glimpse of my dad passes before my eyes, "Sure thing," I say, "Absolutely. Anytime."
"You're on. It'll be fun, but after the holidays are over, okay? I've got things to do tomorrow." She pauses, thinking and then adds, "Maybe while Mom and I are busy in the kitchen, you can build a fire and you and Dad can play. He's used to be pretty good. He's the one who taught the game to me. I think he'd like it."
If Ed and I played, it would be the first time I would have ever done anything with Lea's father. Just the two of us. Ever. Amazing at it may seem, we'd never even had a one-on-one conversation together in the over thirteen years we've known each other. Well, I thought, no time like the present.
"Sure," I tell her. "It'll be fun."
The next day we set up the game board and play. I sit on the couch where I sat last night, and Ed sits in the chair where my father sat. He beats me two games to one. I was right, it was fun. Really fun.
I'm already looking forward to next year.
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