My Muscatine writing group, Writers on the Avenue, has a writing exercise they’ve been doing for quite some time. (Years. Perhaps decades.) Members at a meeting generate a list of words–without looking at what others have suggested–and then, for the next meeting, our challenge is to write a piece incorporating all the words. The results are varied, often hilarious, and whether written with care or the hour before the meeting, they always give insight into the author. One past December, I used the word list angelic, majestic, archangels, relatives, memories, festive, nostalgic, Tannenbaum, humbug, and Scrooge to write this story, and thought I’d share it this season as a reminder that, just as with exercising the body, exercising the writing muscles should be a regular practice–and you might be surprised at the results.
“O, Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,” he sings, dragging our trussed tree behind him, “how heavy are thy branches . . .”
I can’t help but grin. “I offered to help.”
“And ruin my chance to show off? I want to demonstrate how manly I am. How adept at wrangling Christmas trees, and other manly endeavors.”
The grin won’t leave my face. It might be frozen there, not because of the nipping cold, but because of how adorable he is in the awful stocking cap that his grandma knit for him and that he wears because he loves her. Just another reason I’m going to say yes. A man devoted to his grandma is a man who will cherish his wife. Something I never thought I’d be—never wanted to be, really—until I met him.
“I suppose that leaves me to trim the tree. And bake the cookies. And wrap all the gifts, and prepare the holiday meals for the relatives, and everything else. Humbug,” I say once we’re warm in the car and on the highway home. Home to my apartment, where he’s practically moved in. But not yet, not until there’s a ring and a discussion. I’m liberated in some ways and old-fashioned in others. So’s he, which is another reason I’m going to say yes.
“If you want to,” he says, hands at two and ten o-clock, eyes glued to the snowy road. “My idea of festive is rum cider and a can of nuts.”
The radio plays jazzy Christmas carols and he turned the seat warmer on for me. Even for the tiny things, he’s paying attention. It’s like I can hear the archangels singing. I have an entire week off from my job to relax, sit on my couch with a fuzzy blanket, and eat anything I want to. I will make it through this.
At home, I pour rum in our cider and turn on the fireplace. We climb on my new couch and nestle under the blanket, watching our tree soften and warm, the branches loosening, the pine scent filling the air. I strung the LEDs the day after Thanksgiving and the light is angelic. The quiet feels deep and majestic, almost holy. We breathe together and sip our mugs at the same time.
“Did you have a tree like this when you were kids? Is that why you wanted one? Nostalgia?” he asks.
My fingers sting with the heat of the mug. “We couldn’t have a real tree because Amber was allergic.” She was allergic to everything.
He reaches over and squeezes my knee. “At least you can have this,” he says, and it’s the perfect thing to say. I haven’t cried in front of him yet, haven’t tried to explain the shadow that follows me into this first Christmas without her. He doesn’t ask questions I don’t want to answer. I love that about him, too.
“Look, I was thinking . . .” He slides out from under the blanket, going to one knee in front of the couch, and I panic, clutching the hot mug to my chest.
“No,” I say. “Not now. Not at Christmas!”
“Not what?” He looks puzzled, and then his sweet brown eyes fold into that soft, merry crinkle that I love almost as much as I love his soft stubble, and the way he whistles when he steps out of the shower, and the way his skin smells like Irish Spring.
“You don’t want a Christmas proposal? I thought that was peak time.”
“Then we have to celebrate our proposal anniversary at Christmas, instead of getting to do it at its own special time.” My mug burns my fingers.
“You are totally unsentimental,” he says. His hand squeezes my knee.
I’m not. I am too sentimental. That’s why it matters that the memories I build with him I build carefully, around the edges of the other monuments in my life, the gaps and the holes and the dark anniversaries. I want some light to balance out the rest, that’s all.
“So. Not New Year’s?”
“And not Valentine’s Day either, please and thank you. Way too overdone.”
He twists his mouth. “But I don’t want to wait that long.”
My heart beats faster. He wants to marry me. We’ve talked about being together, knew we’d want to go the traditional route and marry and blend checking accounts and buy a house and file joint tax returns, all those bourgeois benefits. But we haven’t talked about it in specifics, in real time, as in dates.
“Not Epiphany. And not Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Maybe somewhere in between. Like the eleventh. Then our proposal anniversary will be one-one-one.”
His worried look eases. “You’re such an event planner nerd. I love you.”
I want to say it back, but I’m shy about it. I know that’s weird. But I’m careful about who I love, who I say it to. People can leave you so easily, wrench your heart right out of your body, even when they don’t mean to do it.
“My ring is under the couch?” I tease as he peeks beneath the blanket.
“The remote. It’s movie time. Wait for it–” He clicks through the screens until he finds an image of Bill Murray, mouth wide, while a skeletal hand lights his cigar. We both howl at the same time: “Scrooged!”
It’s my favorite Christmas movie, the one Amber and I watched over and over every year, eating caramel corn and Red-Hots till our stomachs hurt from laughing and too much sugar. It’s perfect that he picked this—something of hers I can share with him, too. “Please marry me,” I blurt.
His eyes widen, then glow with delight. He points and laughs. “You lose! You broke first! You said it!”
I feel as red as a Santa hat up to my ears, but I can’t stop that huge, delighted grin. “I broke,” I admit. “But you still have to ask me. It has to go both ways.”
He puts his arm around me. “Now you’ll be waiting for it. I’ll have to do this huge planned proposal thing, and hire a videographer, and all that—”
“Humbug,” I say again, and giggle. I’m so lucky. I snuggle next to him, knowing how fragile all this is. “Just keep it simple,” I tell him, and take his hand. “We’ve got the important things covered, right?”
“Right,” he says, and starts the movie. In a minute he gets up to make us popcorn, and when he passes, one of the LED lights twinkles. It’s draped over the picture of Amber and I at my college graduation. I swear she’s winking at me, showing her approval of my future husband. This will be my life now, split in two: the life behind me, the half with her, and the future that lies ahead with him.
I raise my cider mug to her in a silent toast. At least she’s still with me, between the shadows, in the gaps of this heart split wide open. My guardian angel, now and always.
“Merry first Christmas as an angel,” I tell her, feeling foolish, but the words relieve some of the weight in my chest. “Thanks for picking me out a good one. He’s perfect.”
And the light winks back.