Monday 4 March 2024

Reminiscences An old man’s Christmas Eve recollections by Olof Laamanen, mulled wine

It’s Christmas Eve, 2022.

The whole family is gathered in our house just outside Helsinki. Outside, it’s bitterly cold, pitch black and a howling snowstorm rattles the windows. Inside, it’s calm, warm from the logs crackling in the open fireplace, and the flickering home-cast candles on the Christmas tree’s branches have turned the room into an enchanted realm.

The air is filled with the fragrance of the freshly cut fir’s resin mixed with the softer scent of sugar melted over burning brandy—my father’s teachings of how to make the perfect glögg put into practice a while ago.

Stephanie relaxes in her easy chair, sending me glances of love; our daughters and their spouses are seated around the sofa table, steaming cups of freshly brewed glögg in their hands.

The grandchildren, busy unpacking their presents, sprawl on the floor, sweets within easy reach, and each surrounded by a heap of torn Christmas paper and empty cartons.

Magic no other evening can come even close to.

Luxuriating in the cozy family scene, my heart fills with that warm feeling of satisfaction associated with plans fulfilled and the knowledge I had made other people happy.

My old man’s eyes mist over, but within the haze, a long-forgotten image from my youth appears for a fleeting moment; the present dissolves, and I’m transported to another room and another era.

It’s 1962; I’m seventeen, and it’s my first Christmas Eve with Anne at my side. It is also the last one. That, however, is still hidden in the swirling mists of the future.

She’s my first teenage love. We met at a party the previous spring, and instant attraction blossomed. Our relationship grew in strength over the summer, and during the autumn, it became all-consuming. I could think of nothing but her. My grades slipped, and my parents, who hadn’t yet met her, became worried and wanted me to see a doctor.

Had they never experienced love as teenagers?

Anne’s Christmas visit to my home was her coming out; I hoped she’d be accepted as a future family member.

She was marvelous. Sitting sedately still, clothed in a blue silken dress, with a modishly short bob haircut and cheeks displaying the unique luster of a teenage girl in love. With wings and a halo, she would have been indistinguishable from an angel in a Raphael painting. My love was limitless, and that picture of her became forever imprinted on my heart.

All my hopes for the evening were fulfilled. My parents were enchanted by her and expressed gratitude for gaining such a delightful new acquaintance. I saw an engagement the coming midsummer as a distinct possibility.

Throughout the following winter and spring, Anne and I were busy wrapping up our twelve school years. Passing the matriculation exams with good marks was all-important; those marks were our keys to the future. She wanted to become a nurse, while I aimed to be an engineer.

We could spare little time and energy for our relationship, but our love thrived. During our sparse hours together, we spun grand plans for the future, building all those castles among the clouds inherent to teenagers. Villas, summer cottages, cars, and voyages dominated, but all the children we would have was a recurring subject. I told Anne I wanted three, and she countered with a teasing, ‘Why not half a dozen?’

How we should finance our dreams didn’t worry us. Such earthly problems we would solve when we faced them.

The future was ours, and life was great.

Time passed quickly, and with the exams behind us and school soon ending, we were getting ready for a summer with a particular shimmer, the last one with childhood freedom. In September, the Nurse Institute awaited Anne; a month later, I’d join the army for my eleven-month stint. In the autumn of next year, we’d be grown-ups. Free to take control of our lives, but without ever again having the luxury of three months of freely disposable time.

Determined to make the most of this unique summer, we busily jotted lists of everything we would do. First on my list was a midsummer engagement.

The day after school ended, I knocked on Anne’s door. Our magic summer was about to begin.

Her mother opened. ‘You’re too late; Anne left for the airport two hours ago.’ Looking ill at ease, she quickly added, ‘Let’s hope three weeks of Spanish sun will do her some good. She, for sure, needs to regain her strength after all the exams.’

Three weeks abroad?

 Without giving me a single word of warning.

And in Spain!

 Where girls bathe topless and consort freely with eager local men, capable of seducing any Nordic girl within an hour, if you can rely on the papers.

A searing feeling of betrayal devoured my heart. The mother’s shamefaced mien had revealed the truth; she knew I had been left in the dark.

But why?

 Devils of jealousy attacked me. Did Anne want to end our relationship but didn’t dare to say so?

Is this how girls behave when they no longer love you?

All the outrageous theories a hurt and jealous young man could dream up whirled through my brain. Wild speculations of her escaping to join a secret lover alternated with more plausible ones.

Maybe it was a surprise end-of-school gift by her parents, giving her no time to warn me? ‘Here are your tickets. The plane leaves in three hours; start packing.’

Did they fear I would make their precious daughter pregnant and thought it best to separate us?

Would serve them right if she came home from Spain knocked up by some dago!

My summer was thoroughly spoiled. Anne and her betrayal tormented my mind continuously. Images of her kept popping up in the middle of my studies, sometimes in her angel-like Christmas outfit, but more often, in only the bottom half of a bikini. I had never seen her that lightly clothed, but my imagination knew no limits.

The entry exams to the Technical University proved to be a push-over, but I felt only satisfaction, no joy. It was a milestone I had planned to celebrate with Anne.

The midsummer festivities loomed only a week later. All spring, I had looked forward to that as the right time for Anne and me to announce our engagement. Now, the event threatened to become utterly dismal. Having to watch all the happy couples dancing in the midnight half-dusk would only worsen the pain of Anne’s treachery. In desperation, I accepted a friend’s invitation to join his ‘Solstice Party’. There, I at least wouldn’t be alone.

However, when the magic midnight of the year’s shortest night approached, I was lonelier than ever, sitting alone in the empty dining hall. Everyone else danced on the terrace outside.

Suddenly, the door flew open, and two people entered. My host all smiles. ‘Cheer up! Your great love is back from Spain! Just in time for a midnight kiss.’

Behind him, Anne smiled shyly.

She was as angel-like as before but now also deliciously tanned and more alluring than ever.

The sight of her tore open all my wounds.

Angel-like had overtones of betrayal, and her enticing color made me think of wanton exposure of breasts to ogling latinos.

Weeks of suppressed bitterness burst forth, ‘She’s not my great love. No great love disappears to Spain without telling me first.’

Anne looked like I had slapped her, spun around, and ran from the room.

We never met again. Too hurt and too proud to admit I had been overly hasty, I avoided her during the summer, and while I was in the army, she and her parents emigrated to America.

 Still, I couldn’t forget her; she remained an open wound in my soul and a constant ache in my conscience.

Why had she disappeared without warning me?

What if I had given her a chance to explain herself?

Had I hurt an innocent person by letting my wounded ego have the best of me that midsummer night?

Questions begging for answers I’d never get.

Two years passed. My studies proceeded well, but not my personal life. I met fascinating and attractive girls and even dated some of them. But none measured up to the idealized Anne in my mind.

Then I met Steph. A young woman who shared my interests in literature and long walks. After a year of shared outdoor days, discussion evenings, or moments of togetherness over a coffee,  she became a permanent part of my life.

Done with our studies, we married. During the busy years when we built our life together and raised our kids, Anne finally faded from my memory.

But tonight, six decennials after that one and only Christmas Eve, she once again sat before me in the candles’s flickering light for a fleeting second. Eternally innocent, dressed in silky blue, eyes sparkling, and a halo stylishly askew over her head.

Was she thinking of me at that moment?

Nostalgia overwhelms me. What if I hadn’t rejected her? Would I now be a contented grandfather with her at my side and our children and grandchildren around us?—Children never born.

Dear Anne, do you, wherever you might be, ever think of me? Do you reflect on what could have been hadn’t I given in to my anger that night more than half a century ago?

I turn my eyes back to my family. Life had become great even without Anne.


About the author 

Olof Laamanen is a retired computer engineer. He’s a newcomer to fiction writing and specializes in romance novellas. None of them have so far been published. ’Reminiscences’ is his first short story. Swedish is his native language, and English is his third.

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