I flipped over the wreath in my hands to make sure the wire loop was secure. On the back was the small tag my wife put on all our keepsakes, so she’ll know when we got them. I smoothed the curled corner of the label; its blue ink had faded. That was a good year. My job had been going well, and with cash from exercising stock options and selling the shares for the down payment, we’d bought the house.
It seemed an eternity since.
Instead of hanging the wreath, I thought about our home back then. Plenty of room to raise a family, a fireplace, a beautiful yard, and an office for me. We had looked forward to it for so long, dreaming of the day when we wouldn’t be jammed in a small apartment like the one we’d lived in since our marriage six years before. It had grown tinier with Anna’s birth just after our third anniversary.
We’d pushed hard to get everything done that year so we could move in before Thanksgiving and celebrate in the first real home of our own. Diane insisted we stop after the closing to buy the perfect wreath she’d found at Costco to go over the fireplace mantle for the holidays. It was the first thing she had brought in and put up. Seeing her so happy and excited had made me smile for days.
During the winters in our home, on cold nights, we always made a fire. I insisted on real wood, not those fake logs, and bought a cord at a time. Sometimes getting bigger pieces to split in the backyard and bring in to stock the wood box next to the hearth. I can still feel the heft of the ax and the blade’s bite into the wood. A solid sensation from hands to wrist and up through my arms ending in a sharp, crisp sound in the frigid air. In some primal way, it meant something… that tactile sense anchored the setting—and me—at that moment: a man cutting firewood to keep his family warm at night. The making of the fire: kindling, and some wadded newspaper to get the smaller pieces going. The first smell of wood smoke as it caught… the crackling and snapping sound as the flames ate into the wood. The moment of holding my hands to the fire to warm them as I watched it dance. It felt good.
On Thanksgiving Eve, we’d begin our decorating, and the next day we’d play the first holiday music of the season. I remembered one song that touched me profoundly and whisper-sang a line from it: ”The fire held the room in its warm embrace.” ‘Music Box Blues’ from Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s ‘Ghosts of Christmas Eve.’ Yeah. It was just like that. We would sit drinking hot cocoa on those chilly evenings. Just us three: Anna in her Batgirl pajamas, in front of the fire cupping a mug in her hands. Diane and me on the couch, my arm around her. We’d watch as a handful of flames palmed the wood. The flickering orange fingers, curled and extended, tickled and teased beneath the three stockings hanging from the mantle. The wreath, Norman Rockwell picture-perfect just as Diane knew it would be. It was like us; a closed-loop, whole and absolute in its continuity, purpose, and meaning. Good times. Warm times. Until we lost our home and what our life had been.
I shook off the thoughts and memories. It was hard. My mind poked and prodded them as if that would change things. It—today, Thanksgiving Eve—was the beginning of our first holiday season in this apartment. We’d gone backward. I shook my head. Diane wanted to put the wreath on the wall over the TV. It was the only spot for it, but I didn’t want it there glaring at me. I think it missed its place over the mantle and blamed me. Join the club.
I set the wreath on the table next to the couch and looked through the window at daylight’s end and the night’s beginning. An early winter storm had set in. The snow and sleet slapped the windows of the building as if to wake the people inside. It was blowing from all directions, like the stinging, agitating thoughts that swirled in my head. I leaned into it, pressed my forehead against the cold glass, and thought of what went wrong and what I… what we… had lost.
The neighborhood had put up Christmas decorations and lights earlier in the day. The streetlamps outside wrapped in silver, blue, and gold shimmered just beyond the rattling, frosted pane. Inside on the windowsill, reflected on the glass, sat a set of three plastic candles with flickering red, flame-shaped bulbs on a molded holly berry base whose green had rubbed mostly away leaving yellowing-plastic leaves. A cherished decoration from Diane’s childhood. Outside or in, the colors pale shades of holidays past. I shook my head, but that didn’t help me see them more clearly.
I heard laughter, pure… the ring of the sweetest of bells, and turned. Anna sat at the table in the tiny combination kitchen and eating area. Smiling and laughing, she was making gingerbread houses with Diane, whose apron stretched tight over the unplanned for child that would come with the New Year. Anna looked at me with the gap-toothed Cheshire cat grin she had since losing two top front teeth. She was beautiful like her mom, who saw me watching and beckoned.
When I didn’t move, she came over to where I stared, not seeing, out the window.
I turned toward her—thoughts still lost in the deepening dusk—but couldn’t meet her gaze.
“Close your eyes.”
I did and soft, warm lips touched mine, then Diane’s growing belly pressed against me, and a one-armed hug pulled me close. I opened my eyes. She held a sprig of mistletoe over my head then lowered it to put both arms around me. I squeezed her tight, feeling the fullness of stomach and breasts, of motherhood and strength. Then another hug from two smaller arms this time that wrapped around my waist. Looking down I saw Anna, face tilted up, her grin dialed to 10x power as she hugged us both.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, sweetie.”
I whispered in Diane’s ear, “And I love you more than I can ever show you.”
Her lips were on mine again, and then she rested her head on my chest. With their arms around me, time stood still while four heartbeats synchronized. Somewhere between them, a bone-deep certainty stirred to life what I thought was dead, long gone… lost with all those things an eternity ago. Its warmth backed off the chill, and I knew what’s important in life was my family. They’re with me and still love me. What we lost were possessions. If we want, we’ll get them back one day. I thought of how much influence the past had on me… the weight of mistakes made, the bad things that resulted. And I realized they only had power over me if I gave it to them. It was time to stop.
The jasmine fragrance of Diane’s hair soothed me. We’d gone through tough times and were still together, still loved each other. That’s what mattered… what counted. One day we’ll have a new house and a fireplace and mantle for the wreath to smile down at us from and a kitchen big enough to fit all of us. It’ll have a great yard, enough to run and play in for Anna and the puppy I had promised her… and for my son.
A timer went off in the kitchen. The buzz called for Diane and Anna’s attention. With a squeeze, they let go, but they still held me though now a dozen feet away. The clatter of metal sheets coming out of the oven came with the fragrance of fresh-baked cookies. I took a deep breath and sighed at the scent.
The silence outside drew me back to the window. The wind had fallen, and snow now drifted, each fleck a small shaving from winter’s beard, a slow pirouette in the night sky. The flakes flickered in and out of sight as bands of illumination from car headlights painted them against a dark backdrop. I felt I had been out there for so long. Where the lights didn’t show you the way, and no coat or layer of clothing could keep you warm. Where you’d walk for what seemed forever, head down into a bitter wind, but get nowhere. Alone and lost inside your head.
That, too, had to end. There was no absolution found in wandering. I turned from the dark and cold and picked up the wreath I’d set aside. I hung it on the wall over the TV and stepped back to see how it looked. What I had grasped, a few minutes ago, was what it stood for all along. A symbol of family and of love. How could I have lost sight of that? It was always there. Home is with my wife and children. Not some fixed location or piece of real estate. It’s being together and loving each other, no matter the circumstances. That’s what makes wherever you are home. How selfish I’d been to hold my anger inside and let it chip away at all the things I should be so very thankful for, all the reasons to be happy. I breathed deep from my core like I hadn’t in two years. It was time to give thanks, to live in the present, and appreciate all the good things I had that others might not have.
Gratitude washed over me, and I felt the past lose its choke-hold. We didn’t need to wait for things we could have now if we chose to. We could find another place that would allow pets… maybe with a park nearby. A puppy would be perfect. I smiled, thinking of the upcoming holidays and the New Year as I turned to my family. “Can I squeeze in and help?” Diane looked up from icing a gingerbread roof and beamed at me. Anna slid her chair over with a scraping sound and shined that grin. There was space. I sat between them, not wanting to waste another moment of my life in the past. I had too much to be grateful for, right here, right now.
Note From Dennis
I know good people who don’t have what Daniel has in the story. Maybe as they read it or afterward, they thought: “Nice story, but I’m alone. I have no one to be with or family to count on.” That is a reality for some, and what I’ve written, instead of bringing a measure of joy or warmth, might make them sad. And knowing that dismays me. I don’t want what I write (have written) to leave them feeling that way. I wish all good people to have what Daniel has… that foundation of love. And if there is anything in their life that is lacking, I hope they’re applying what I wrote in Daniel’s realization: You can’t change the past—learn from it—don’t let it control you. Deal with the present, decide, and act to shape your future. Life’s all about what you do now. Easier said than done, I know. But if you’re one of the good people, you owe yourself the effort. I hope you can be thankful for the good things in your life and that you create the reality of a positive tomorrow by what you do each day.
What some readers told me about this story:
“Thank you for this beautiful story gift” -Galit Breman
“I loved this story, thank you for sharing.” -Tamara Copeland
“Perfect little reminder of what to be grateful for. Thank you for this. Love it.” -Dawn Jackson
“You were born to write, Dennis Lowery and that shows in every word. What a beautiful celebration of family. Lovely. Truly lovely writing.” –Sean Cowen
“Wonderful, as always.” –Sherry Thompson
“A Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.” –Bernice Joe
“Loved it… it’s beautiful! Me encantó! La traducción era soportable. Felicidades, es precioso…” –Elsa Bornay Delgado
“A story from Dennis Lowery, do take a couple of minutes to read his wonderful words. For me they always conjure perfect images of the story as if I were running a movie clip in my head. I highly recommend checking out more of his excellent work.” –Fay Handstock
“Beautiful.” –Deanna Elliott
“This touched my heart in many ways for I can relate in many many ways. I cried when I was reading this. For I feel the exact same way. And reading this with my three yr. old laying in my lap falling asleep… I look at her and am truly blessed in every way. Thank you for helping me see that again” –Brandie Chavez
“Dennis, this is a beautiful piece of writing. I love it. And it made me think of my own memories that HAD power over me that I did not realize until reading this. Thank you.” –Vera Athans
“Heartwarming and cozy, like a hug by the fire on the hearth. We need to be constantly reminded of what’s worthwhile.” –Liz
“I so enjoyed this!” –Lena Kindo-Kamara
“Hermosa. Lagrimas en mis ojos. Beautiful. I’ve tears in my eyes.” –Merchi Sananes
“Dennis, that is beautiful! I love it.” –Joyce Swindall Jacobs
“I’ve seen this story play out in real life. It’s wonderful that you can put it on paper, the way you do. I loved it.” –Karen Gross
“A great and heartwarming story.” –Annemieke Reffeltrath
“This is lovely. I love how you describe the sounds and smells and sights. Great!” –Nina Anthonijsz
“Love it, Dennis! Your writing is awesome!” –Sylvia Sotuyo
“Perfect!” –Cilla Cantrell
“Beautiful, thank you.” –Tracie Parker
“Great and worthwhile read Dennis, and I especially liked how your story and postscript worked together to create a message that is both as beautiful as it is true and meaningful. Hopefully, the core of it sinks into every and anyone reading it.” –Michael Koontz