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May Your Days Be Merry and Bright

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When Sally and Gillian were girls, the aunts never made a big fuss over Christmas, at least not that Sally could recall. Certainly, they'd brought greenery into the house by the armload, and scattered it along the mantles and the windowsills in early December when the nights seemed to feel longer than ever. They'd wound garland round all the banisters up and down every endless flight of stairs and even put twinkly lights in all the windows, and somehow their haphazard decorating always looked perfectly arranged when they were done. And every year, Gillian had hung mistletoe in every doorway, until they'd all got tired of kissing each other (there wasn't anyone else to kiss, in those days), but the aunts wouldn't take it down, despite Sally's pleas. Mistletoe is a cautionary tale, Aunt Frances said, but she explained no further.

They didn't fuss, but Mr. Janikowski always arrived about a week before Christmas with a tree, and the aunts would invite him in for a cup of mulled wine or hot cider while Sally and Gillian threaded popcorn and cranberries into garland to decorate the branches, and tied red velvet ribbons and silver bells to as many as they could reach. Those trees were never too large--it always seemed like they would get lost and fade into insignificance under the unknowable immensity of the parlor ceiling, but after Sally strung the lights and Gillian hung the bells, the trees always shone brightly and jingled merrily when the cats attacked the popcorn.

Later, Sally would realize most of the fuss had been made earlier, in September, during Fruitcake Time (the aunts would always laugh when they said it, and again, it wasn't until later that Sally realized why). To the best of Sally's knowledge, the aunts made the only edible fruitcake on the eastern seaboard, and possibly in the world. They would buy currants and raisins, and bring out last year's dried blueberries and cherries from the freezer in the basement, and the house would smell of rum and ginger and cloves and oranges for weeks while the fruit macerated. They toasted almonds and pecans and put away that year's selection of preserves and dried fruit. Then cake-making day would come, and the aunts would roll up their sleeves and tie on their aprons and get to work.

Sally loved helping them, and even Gillian pitched in, though she had never been one for cooking. But even when they were little, the aunts let them sift the flour and stir in the nuts, and as they got older, they were allowed nips of brandy or rum, to ward off the cold, Aunt Jet always said, and she and Aunt Frances would glance at each other and laugh. Aunt Frances usually preferred making savory dishes, while Aunt Jet concentrated on the sweets, but they collaborated equally during Fruitcake Time, and Sally and Gillian did, too. Cooking was its own sort of magic, Aunt Jet always said, with its own dangers and rewards, and Sally believed it whenever she took a bite of the aunts' fruitcake on Christmas day.

This year, Kylie and Antonia participated; it was their turn to sift the flour and stir in the nuts, and though Sally insisted they were still too young for nips of rum, she didn't fuss when Gillian let the girls each have one sip from her glass while Sally's back was turned.

Mr. Janikowski (and, twenty years later, his sons) was always sent home with a fruitcake (which were also delivered around town to various handymen and shop-owners who prized the aunts' patronage even before the curse was broken, the ones who kept them in lye and wax and more esoteric ingredients without ever asking any questions), and some Christmas candles, also homemade by the aunts with the girls' help. It had been from them that Sally had learned soap- and lotion-making, perched on a stool in the greenhouse or the stillroom, turning the fragile, yellowing pages of one of the many herbals in the aunts' collection, the faded scent of mint and basil still rising from them to soothe whatever aches she held in her heart.

Gillian didn't care much for the black soap the aunts produced with such regularity, but she loved making candles, because she'd always liked making things burn.

The Christmas candles were different from the ones they made for every day (or the ones they made for special occasions that were less commonly celebrated). The red and white striped ones really smelled like peppermint, strong enough to make your eyes water and your tongue tingle, and the green ones smelled like fresh pine under a golden hunter's moon. Sally loved the silver ones that smelled like snow on Christmas Eve and the gold ones that smelled like sunshine after a long darkness, but it was a long time before she figured out how to reproduce those scents.

This year, Kylie and Antonia set candles in the windows and lit them every evening, the way Sally and Gillian had done so many years ago, and the aunts' smiles were a silent benediction Sally hadn't even realized she'd missed. Now, she treasured every one.

There was always another flurry of activity after Thanksgiving, when the cranberries were plentiful, ripe, and lush (and so were the aunts). They made large jars of cranberry cordial, and the girls' fingers were stained berry red for days after. Sally looked at her own fingers in the shower at night and laughed, where once the sight would have reduced her to tears. She spent the next day experimenting with the right combination of cranberry and cinnamon, and by December first, she had a spicy red, limited edition holiday soap available in the shop.

Christmas dinner this year, now that Gillian was home and Sally was happy, was going to be magnificent. In addition to the fruitcakes, Aunt Jet had been baking gingerbread men and cream cheese cookies for weeks, with Kylie and Antonia as her willing kitchen minions. Aunt Frances had picked out a giant pork roast from the butcher, and already had the cider marinade simmering on the stove, while Sally and Gillian peeled apples for pie and discussed the merits of spinach versus cauliflower as a side dish, and Gary and the girls peeled potatoes at the other end of the table.

Sally felt the warmth of the kitchen suffuse her. If she could have found some way to bottle this contentedness, this perfect mellow pleasure, the shop would have made her a millionaire ten times over. But she knew that while these feelings brought their own magic to her life, she couldn't use her magic to create them. Which only made her hug them closer to her heart, knowing they were real.

The song on the radio ended and the newscaster broke in with reports of a snowstorm coming up the coast. "By the time it's all over on Christmas morning, we expect accumulations of eight to twelve inches in the city and twelve to fourteen in the northern suburbs," the weatherman said.

"See, girls, I told you we'd have a white Christmas," Aunt Frances said, smiling and tapping her wooden spoon against the rim of the pot she was stirring, as pleased as if she'd summoned up the storm herself.

The house was warm and free of drafts, but that afternoon, in between the cooking and the cleaning, they checked the windows and the doors, and Gary ran out for another sack of rock salt for the driveway.

Christmas Eve dinner wasn't quite as big a deal as Christmas day, but Gillian made lasagna and Sally and her girls baked crusty baguettes from scratch while Gary finished wrapping the gifts.

"Shall we use Great-Aunt Minerva's china this year?" Aunt Jet asked, opening the cabinet where it was neatly stored in quilted, zippered covers.

"Yes," Sally chimed in with Gillian and the girls. She'd always loved Great-Aunt Minerva's china, with its gold and green leaf pattern, and they hadn't used it very often when she and Gillian were growing up.

Dinner was delicious, full of laughter and wine, and once Kylie and Antonia were in bed, the aunts brewed up a batch of margaritas and they put all the gifts under the tree. Sally stopped under the mistletoe in the doorway and tugged Gary into her arms. She laughed into his kiss and felt her heart swell with love for him and for the whole of her family. She'd learned this year that sometimes, you had to throw caution to the wind.

Christmas morning dawned cold and gray. Snow was already coming down in big, wet, heavy flakes, and the wind made the windows rattle in their frames. Sally lifted the comforter to let Kylie and Antonia into the bed, and Gary made a low protesting noise, so they ended up snuggling for a little while before they got up. Sally's toes curled against the chilly floor before she found her slippers, and she was still shrugging into her robe as the girls tugged her downstairs to open their presents.

The aunts were already at the kitchen table, big steaming mugs of tea in their hands, and chocolate cake already in the oven. Even Gillian stumbled down the stairs before it was fully light in order to see the kids open their gifts.

Sally poured herself a cup of coffee and contemplated a slice of oven-warm cake for breakfast (it was a holiday, after all, or close enough as to make no difference), as the girls tore through the wrapping paper with high-pitched shrieks and giggles that made the walls echo with joy. Gary took pictures as Gillian handed prettily wrapped packages to the aunts who demurred perfunctorily before ripping into the paper with glee that matched their nieces' and the radio played Christmas carols that suddenly seemed fitting instead of annoying.

After breakfast, after the gifts were examined and the mess of wrapping paper tidied up, Gillian shooed them out of the kitchen so she could make her contribution to dinner, and the aunts took the girls into the greenhouse to straighten up, so Sally took Gary back to bed before she took a long hot shower.

She'd just finished drying her hair and had started taking down the wine glasses for dinner when she realized the snow was already six or seven inches deep on the ground, though the pathway up to the house was only lightly dusted.

She was up before the phone rang. "I waited all night, but the ferry's cancelled," Carla said breathlessly. "But it doesn't matter because all flights out of Logan are grounded anyway. They've already got eight inches in Boston, and there's no visibility."

Sally opened her mouth and closed it again. She glanced at the aunts, who looked resigned but nodded their approval. "You can join us," she said. "We're making enough food to feed an army." She held the phone away from her ear while Carla squealed her acceptance. "You don't mind, do you?" she asked Aunt Frances after she hung up.

"Of course not, dear. What else are the holidays for, but taking in lost lambs who have nowhere else to go?"

Sally wasn't sure Aunt Frances wouldn't change her tune when, later in the morning, the lights flickered. They all paused and bent their will towards shoring up the old generators that provided the house with so much of its power, since it had never been on the grid. The lights steadied, but Kylie and Antonia lit candles in every room anyway, and Gary built up the fires.

The phone rang again. It was Linda this time. "The power's out in town," she said. "Wires are down all over. No idea when we're getting it back."

"Why don't you come here for dinner?" said Sally. "Carla's coming, too."

"Are you sure? I don't want to impose."

"It's no imposition, really. We have enough food to feed an army."

"Well, then, I think I will. Is there anything you need? Anything I can bring?"

Sally thought for a moment. "Do you have any folding chairs?"

"I have a couple in the garage," Linda replied. "I'll put them in the trunk right now."

Sally smiled, and hoped Linda could hear it in her voice. "Sounds great, Linda. We'll see you this afternoon."

She hung up the phone and called the rest of the family into the kitchen. "The power's out in town," she said when they were all gathered around the table.

"I'm going to have to make more granita if you're going to invite the whole town over for dinner," Gillian said, meeting her gaze and laughing.

"They won't all come," said Aunt Jet, "but we'll be neighborly and ask."

Kylie and Antonia spent an hour drawing invitations and around noon, when the snow had let up and the sun showed signs of breaking through the clouds, Sally bundled the girls into their coats and filled their old sled with candles. They went door to door, delivering the candles and the invitations. Some folks had generators of their own, and a few, like Miss Quincy (the old pharmacist who'd always viewed the aunts as competition), or the Wares, still turned their faces away when they saw an Owens woman coming, but many others thanked them for their kindness and offered to bring their own dishes when they could. Sally told them they didn't need to bring anything but themselves--"Any time after three is fine!"--but she knew they wouldn't be deterred.

After they arrived home with the list of attendees, everyone got to work. There were chairs to put out and fragile things to put away, and extra rolls to set to rising. Gillian was already pouring the cranberry cordial into pitchers and jars; usually, they drank it all through the twelve days of Christmas, but it would be nice to send it home with their friends, a little something bright until the power came back on.

Kylie and Antonia went back to their artwork, this time to draw up menus and place cards, though no one planned to assign any seating. They would be lucky if everyone fit at the two long tables Gary moved together to shape an L that stretched from the dining room into the parlor, and Sally set out all the chairs they had.

"And we'll have to use Great-Aunt Tallulah's china, too," Aunt Frances said with a sigh, since she thought the Royal Doulton was a little ostentatious.

They draped one table with a heavy red damask table cloth and the other with a green one, and Gillian folded snowy white napkins through napkin-holders shaped like leaves of holly, while Sally and Gary set out the plates and glasses. Kylie and Antonia followed them with the silverware, until each place was perfectly set. Then Aunt Frances placed the pillar candles in their hurricane lamps and pronounced everything good. The candles glowed warmly and the crystal goblets glittered in their flickering light, and Sally had never felt so proud of her home and her family as she did in that moment.

Carla arrived early, shivering in her shearling coat and with a shopping bag full of presents. Aunt Jet poured her a glass of wine before she even had her coat off.

Linda was next, with her two folding chairs and a tray of steamed string beans with garlic and ginger. "And I have a cheesecake out in the car," she said, stomping the snow off her boots in the mudroom. "My ex-husband's family doesn't know what they're missing!"

After that, the trickle of guests became a steady flow. Many of them had brought the food they'd prepared for their own holiday dinners.

It wasn't long before the whole house smelled of delicious food and rang with delighted laughter.

After they herded everyone to the table, Linda remained standing and lifted her glass. "I'd like to thank you for taking us all in today."

"And we'd like to thank you for sharing this holiday with us," Sally answered, raising her glass, as well. She glanced at the aunts--Aunt Frances gave her a proud smile and Aunt Jet gave her a nearly imperceptible nod--and she continued, "I'm not one for making speeches or toasts, but Merry Christmas, everybody. May your days be merry and bright."

Everyone cheered and clinked glasses and drank, and then Gillian said, "Let's eat."

Sally had just sat down after bringing in the last of the side dishes when the lights flickered and went out. Night had fallen, and the cold darkness pressed in on the windows, but the candles still burned brightly around the house. Silence fell just as quickly, as everyone tried to figure out what exactly had happened. Gillian took Sally's hand and squeezed it gently; Sally gave her a small, grateful smile and swiftly began calculating how many more candles were available and whether they had extra batteries in case the flashlights didn't work.

Aunt Frances put down the carving knife, but before she could speak, Kylie and Antonia began singing, their sweet voices rising to fill the room. "O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. O come ye, o come ye, to Bethlehem." Sally glanced at Aunt Frances, who was frowning in concentration, and Aunt Jet, who shrugged, and Gillian, who joined in on the next lines. Sally, her voice a little quavery and her memory of the words unsure, began to sing. Half an octave lower, Aunt Frances and Linda joined in, in Latin instead of English, their voices supple and clear, and Aunt Jet's voice wrapped around them, high and pure.

Sally kept hold of Gillian's hand and grabbed Gary's with her other. Around the table, everyone put their cutlery down to hold hands and sing against the dark. When they'd sung all the verses they knew, the final notes seemed to linger in the air, and all the candles flared brightly for a moment.

"With joy in our voices and a song in our hearts, we'll keep the darkness at bay," Aunt Jet said. "If we all close our eyes and concentrate on the lights, who knows what amazing things could happen?"

Sally squeezed Gillian's hand again, and repeated the gesture with Gary, who flashed her a smile before she closed her eyes. Come on, she thought, reaching out with her will towards the overtaxed generator. She could feel everyone in the room do the same--the familiar surge from Gillian and the aunts, long-known but only recently loved, and the newer pulse of Kylie and Antonia's power, still growing strong, and the untried yet willing resolve of everyone else bearing them up as they worked.

There was a flash of white light behind her eyelids, and then Sally felt the hum and the pop of power as the lights blinked back on with an almost imperceptible buzz.

"Oh, well done," Aunt Frances said with a pleased grin. "You should give yourselves a hand. Now, who wants a pork chop?"

Later, Sally learned, the power in town had come back on at the same moment, the whole island lighting up like a Christmas tree. She wished she'd seen it happen. If she closed her eyes and called up the memory of everyone sitting around the table, electricity flowing through them like a circuit, she nearly could.

It was the most festive Christmas they'd ever had, and every year after that, anyone in town with nowhere else to go for the holidays ate their Christmas dinner with the Owens family, and found it to be merry, indeed.

end

~*~

Christmas with the Owens Family Menu

Holiday beverage: cranberry cordial
Salad: Sweet pear and gorgonzola salad
Appetizer: Oyster stew
Intermezzo: Lemon ginger granita
Entrée: Cider brined pork roast with apples
Sides: Creamed spinach and parsnips, Asiago scalloped potatoes
Bread: Parker House rolls
Dessert: fruitcake

~*~