On one of their walks that first winter Franny lived on Pine Street, Marilyn had shared this story of Christmas from her childhood.
“Our tradition was to drive out into the woods, about an hour from our house, to cut down a tree for Christmas. My mother would drive our Packard, even then looking like something from a previous generation, as my father would likely have been sipping from his flask since early in the morning. My little brother and I would bundle into the large backseat, oblivious to the smell of alcohol and anger coming from the front seat. Our father would turn on the radio, and we’d sing Christmas songs at the top of our lungs the whole way out. I’m sure my mother would have a raging headache by the time we arrived, but it was the one day a year when she was determined to be cheerful.
“One year, I think I was about eleven and my brother nine, we piled in the Packard as usual, heading out into a light snowfall. It felt magical, dear Franny, absolutely magical. Snowflakes gently cascading down, turning the landscape white, creating the sensation of driving through a feather pillow. I believe my father was more sober than usual, and my brother and I sang more tunefully than was our previous standard. In my memory, we arrived at the forest service parking lot after what felt like a lifetime of joyful travel through the landscape, watching town disappear, melt into hills covered in glorious pines and firs.
“The magic lasted as we left the car, ready to find the most perfect Christmas tree of all. We were a merry lot, and a lovely tree, just the right size, full and green and easy to chop down, presented itself to us. It was as if the tree itself said merry Christmas, have a holly jolly holiday, take me home.
“My father took one end of the two-handled saw, and I went to take the other, my usual role. ‘No, Marilyn,’ he said. ‘Your brother’s big enough this year. What about it, Max? Want to help your dad cut down the tree?’ Well, you can imagine, my brother was in heaven. I set aside the pang of envy I felt, in the spirit of the day.
“To this day, I can’t picture what happened next. I only recall being shoved back in the Packard, my dad’s leg placed on my lap, my mother instructing me to hold her scarf on the gash across his shin, and racing back to the nearest emergency room. My father, much drunker than he seemed, had somehow walked into the saw’s blade. He recovered, just needed a few stitches, and the alcohol had made him so numb the doctor did it without additional anesthetic. My mother, though, she never really recovered her love of the hunt for the perfect tree.”
Marilyn paused. “I know that might seem a dark sort of Christmas story, Franny dear. I cherish it, though, because it reminds me that every form of magic has a touch of darkness in it. My father loved to show off that scar, and I fully recovered my love for the holiday. In fact, please come have Christmas breakfast with Precious and me, if you would.”
Franny did, of course, and she wished she’d been able to spend a hundred more Christmases with Marilyn.