Not a Normal Holiday
by Millicent Eidson
Icosahedral gems float outside the window of my hundred-year old home in Burlington, Vermont. Single panes do little to keep out the below-freezing temperature. So I stand back a few inches despite a need for snowflake beauty.
Ten months of COVID-19 gloom isn’t penetrated by Catherine Street’s multi-colored lights on rooftops and skeleton trees. The neighbor with two elementary-school kids put up one of those inflatable Santas but, with the wind, it’s hunched and deflated. On any other Christmas Eve, I’d sing Infant Holy, Infant Lowly with my own teens at Christ the King-St. Anthony parish church over on Flynn Ave.
But this isn’t a normal holiday; I’m alone for the first time. When a clatter of broken glass disturbs the looming silence, I turn away from my distraction with the streetside scene.
“Pepper!” Our Russian Blue leaps down from the bookcase, a guilty slink before hiding behind the sofa. Guilty as any cat can be, which isn’t much compared to a dog.
The first picture I pick up from the linoleum floor is Mamá, ready to burst before my birth. She’d snuck across the border near Columbus, New Mexico after my father was executed by the cartel.
Usually, women smile when they pregnancy-pose in a picture. Mamá has the typical hand on her belly over the yellow-flowered skirt, but her face is lined and grim, despite her youth. A small date stamp in the white margin says 1981, the year I was born, shortly after the death of the Holy Father in Rome.
I gather up the loose photos; the broken glass can wait a few minutes. After I drop down to the lumpy couch, Pepper comes out and butts her head against my arm, trying to make amends. My fingers scratch her head and the low buzz of a purr interrupts the pervasive silence. “Gatita mala.” The tone softens harsher words.
I put the grainy black and white memorial card for Pope John Paul II in my pocket, determined to fit it back among family pictures in the large wooden frame with multiple small photo slots. As an ardent Catholic, Mamá was one of thousands crowding the streets when he visited Monterrey, Mexico in 1979 during an official visit.
As a child, I stirred gumbo on the stove of our Baton Rouge shotgun home when her voice swelled with pride for the first non-Italian pope in hundreds of years and his inspiring sermons in Spanish. She was devastated when he was assassinated just two years later.
Whistling wind yanks me back to reality in a home that’s spooky and too empty, other than me and the devilish cat. I head to the kitchen for a broom and dust pan. Glass and the broken frame are dumped in the trash.
Everyone featured in the photo montage is dead. Is it worth finding a new frame to recreate it? Along with the photo of the Holy Father, Mamá had saved one of Papá. I never met him; I have only a photo of him in a mining helmet.
She died too, after a deportation under President Clinton’s draconian rules when she was arrested for shoplifting cigarettes. Ashamed of her secret habit, she couldn’t bring herself to purchase them outright and ended up back in Monterrey. Why did she abandon me for a nicotine addiction? When I became pregnant with Virónica, who we called Ronny, Mamá tried to sneak back north across the Rio Grande and drowned.
After brushing dust from the surface, I kiss the picture of my husband, Santiago. He died from lung cancer after fifteen years working in a Cancer Alley chemical plant along the Mississippi where we started married life. At that point, I wanted to escape anything close to the border and headed north to the other border with Ronny and Javier, my son. Vermont was known to be kind to immigrants, and Burlington soon felt like home to three Mexicans born in the U.S. but speaking Spanish around the dinner table.
The hinge of the gold frame around Javier’s soccer picture was also broken, and Pepper’s cruising my calves didn’t ease my anger. As tears slipped from my eyes, I propped the photo against a book to keep it upright.
That senile fool Pope Pius XIII who replaced John Paul II — forgive me, Father, for I have sinned — says that being gay is a mortal sin. No matter how far we’ve come on civil rights, his influence has been pervasive. Declaring one’s homosexuality is a death to careers in entertainment. Even liberal leaders like President Obama opposed gay marriage. So, in June, when Javier hanged himself in the garage, perhaps in the tiniest recesses of my heart, it was not a surprise.
I pull open the end table drawer to read his final note:
Mamacita, lo siento. I can’t be what you and everyone else wants me to be. Vaya con Dios.
What I wanted him to be? He never asked me! I didn’t pick up hints when he talked with such fondness of his teammates and never showed an interest in girls. The police scoured his laptop and confirmed he had been a victim of cyberbullying, worsened with closed schools and online learning during the pandemic. If only he had talked to me. My love will never waver.
All summer, Ronny and I mourned, wishing Javier had held on for the promise of a vaccine, presidential election, and new Pope. After all, Pius XIII is ninety-five — how much longer can he hang on? Although lawsuits to legalize Catholic mortal sins like gay sex or abortion have never been successful after four years of President Trump, I was looking forward to our first liberal Catholic President since Kennedy. It was rumored that Joe Biden lobbied Obama to end Clinton’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy banning openly gay men in the military, but Obama didn’t want to rock the boat. And the vocal opposition of Pope Pius doomed Biden’s presidential campaign. His home parish in Wilmington, Delaware refused to serve him communion. So it wasn’t surprising he lost.
I don’t think I can take another four years, especially if the government continues to be inept at controlling the virus. I click onto my computer to find an online midnight mass. Ronny promised to be home by eleven. Where is she? She’s always been my cross, especially since Javier died. She breaks pandemic protocols right and left.
We’re both young enough that we think we won’t get too sick, but it’s such a desolate night. Brakes squeal and I dart to the window. Just a car swerving down our icy neighborhood road.
The cell phone chirps, and I swipe the screen to answer it.
It always makes me nervous to say yes when I don’t know who’s calling, and I didn’t spot any names before answering. My skin prickles with something in the speaker’s tone.
“Yes, who’s calling?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. This is UVM Hospital. Your daughter had your name and number as the emergency contact on her phone.”
“Oh, my God, has something happened?”
“Uh, she was found in a snowdrift, losing a lot of blood.”
A wave of black forms in front of my eyes. “Please, can I come right over? I know you’re restricting relatives because of COVID, but I need to be with her.”
“Again, I’m sorry. Apparently she had an illegal abortion. She bled out, and we couldn’t save her.”
When I drop the phone, the screen shatters and replaces the glass I had just cleaned up. Then I drop to my knees on the cold floor.
Copyright © 2021 by Millicent Eidson