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Beacon Senior News

"Mrs. Emory's Christmas" heart-warming holiday tale

Nov 22, 2021 03:11PM ● By Jan Weeks

Mrs. Emory’s Christmas lights drive me nuts. Ever since Tim and I moved next door to her three years ago, her twinkling red and green bulbs have blinked all night long. Who knew the little old lady next door would be, shall we say, eccentric? If I’d wanted to watch freakin’ lights flash, we could’ve stayed in the city. 

As the lights burst into life at dusk one hot July night, sending Christmas-colored sparkles into our living room, I slammed shut the book I was reading. “I’m going over and telling her to turn the damned things off.”

Tim, my husband, looked at me over the top of his glasses. “She’s a little old lady. Let her enjoy the pleasures she has left.” I could see I’d get no help from him. Muttering, I closed the drapes and grumbled my way back to my book.

Occasionally, when we have friends over for barbecue on the patio, her Christmas lights blend with our Japanese lanterns. Sometimes I see her curtains twitch, and I wonder if we should’ve invited her over, but I don’t think she’d fit in with soccer moms and stockbroker dads.

Mrs. Emory is ancient. She tends her tiny garden, her wrinkled face hidden by an enormous straw hat. It takes her forever to get from the back porch to the tiny plot where she grows tomatoes, bell peppers, and pole beans, with some marigolds and cosmos thrown in. We nod and smile over the fence if I happen to be mowing the lawn or playing with the kids, but we’ve never really spoken. I’ve also never seen Mr. Emory.

Emma and Sean, my little ones, like Mrs. Emory’s lights. “Look, Mom. It’s Christmas at her house all the time. How come it can’t be Christmas here?” At 4 and 7, their “presents” radar is fully developed. Another thing to thank Mrs. Emory for: a reminder of the eternal search for more stuff.

On my more charitable days, I think she’s just trying to keep the Christmas spirit alive throughout the year, but those moments are few and far between. Call me Scrooge, but I believe “To everything there’s a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” And April and September aren’t the seasons for Christmas lights.

Ours is a neighborhood of young people, wanting to raise their children in houses with siding, not stucco; full-grown shade trees, not saplings; front porches, not arched entryways.

She’s the only retired person within eight blocks. Most of the older folks moved out when other transplants began to move in, but Mrs. Emory hung on to the family home.

Suzanne Taylor’s been in the neighborhood longer than anyone except Mrs. Emory. Her passport’s filled with visa stamps from Europe, Asia, Canada and South America. Suzanne expands my horizons. But after a leisurely lunch, I usually go home depressed, wishing I’d been able to go, do and see the things she has. Really, though, I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. Except those Christmas lights!

“I wish Tim and I’d known about Mrs. Emory’s holiday spirit before we bought our house,” I vented to Suzanne over tiramisu and cappuccino. “We would’ve looked for something a little farther away from Santa’s Workshop South.”

She finished her dessert. “You don’t know, then.”

I hate it when she pulls that native stuff on me. “No, we’ve only been here three years, not 40-some.”

She put down her spoon and looked at me in a way that made me suddenly feel small and petty.

“What’s to know?” I said, aiming for bravado but managing only to sound petulant.

She gazed out the window. “My mom went to school with her son,” she said. “People had barely heard of Viet Nam when he enlisted. We certainly learned about it when the local paper printed stories of his bravery. He seemed to have a sixth sense about danger that kept his squad from being decimated. We all thought his life was charmed.” She looked at me, her eyes bright with emotion. “Then one day, his squad came back but he didn’t. No one knew what happened to him. Officially he was listed as MIA.

“That was two days before Christmas, 1966. Mr. and Mrs. Emory swore that Peter would have Christmas, no matter when he came.”

“And?” I prodded.

“The Christmas tree went out to the trash in May,” she said. “Mr. Emory passed away without ever knowing what happened to his only child.” The mist in her eyes trickled down one cheek.

By this time, I was tearing up myself. “But that’s over 40 years ago.”

Suzanne nodded. She didn’t need to tell me that some things are not measured by calendars, but by the heart.

That night I told Tim what Suzanne said. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t go over and complain?” he said. I hate it when he’s right.

In between wrapping presents and shoving them in the attic to keep them out of the reach of little hands, I baked double batches of everything. Mrs. Emory was flabbergasted when I showed up with the first plate of cookies. Twice a week I brought something to her, and she always thanked me so sweetly and offered to make some coffee to go with the pastries, if I’d only join her. But I always had an excuse: The kids were home alone; I had just run over for a minute; the next batch was in the oven and I had to get them out.

Before I knew it, Christmas was only three days away. I’d just dropped off another plate of cookies to Mrs. Emory and run back home. As I opened our front door, I caught a glimpse of a dark blue car pulling into Mrs. Emory’s drive. Good, I thought. A little company for the old lady.

That night, Tim and I lay in bed watching the local 10 o’clock news. The screen was filled with old file footage of jungles and helmeted soldiers with hard faces slogging through a river, rifles held high. “The remains of a U.S. soldier were unearthed 50 miles from Da Nang, Viet Nam, yesterday,” the anchor announced solemnly. “Identification has been withheld, pending the notification of next of kin.”

I slammed out of bed and raced through the house. I threw open the doors to the patio and stared into the darkness. Mrs. Emory’s Christmas lights no longer twinkled.

Running over flakes that covered the earth like a shroud, I rang Mrs. Emory’s doorbell, hopping from one foot to another from the cold. The plug for the Christmas lights tapped against the house, spinning in the bitter wind.

The door opened. Mrs. Emory still wore the clothes she’d worn an eon ago when I’d last brought cookies. Her eyes stared blankly. Then she stepped aside.

My wet feet tracked the carpet but we were beyond caring. In a corner of the living room, a table lamp cast a dim light. An armchair covered in doilies and antimacassars sat next to the table. Next to it towered a huge stack of presents wrapped in holiday paper, some faded, some new.

Mrs. Emory shuffled to the chair and dropped into it. Her lips trembled, and I crossed the room to kneel in front of her. “Was it—?” I struggled to remember her son’s name.

“Peter will be coming home soon,” she whispered. “Just not the way I hoped.” Her tears fell like sleet, silver and cold, as I held her hand. I wanted to say something, anything, to help heal the hurt, but I felt like a child whose life experience ends at the back fence. Her empty world spread out before me, solemn and sacred, and the sight scared me. What if a half-grown Sean were called to a war half a world away? What if Emma didn’t come home from school one day? 

We wept without words, locked in sorrow. At last Mrs. Emory fumbled a tissue from the box beside her chair and handed it to me, then took one for herself. Her voice rasped. “I’m sorry.” 

“I’m sorry, too,” I said. “I wish I could have known your son. I wish he could have had just one more Christmas at home.”

“I, too—but there’s no use in wishing,” Mrs. Emory said. “Please let me fix you a cup of coffee.”

“Don’t trouble—” The look in her eyes silenced me. I helped her to her feet, willing to stay all night if I had to, to help this frail lady survive the blow she’d been dealt.

Suddenly a strange glow shone through the windows, soft red and green. I went to the window and looked out and up, and—I swear to God!—saw every light burning.

Mrs. Emory gasped. “I put the extension cord away this afternoon!”

I yanked the door open and stared at the lights. The bulbs blinked once, twice, three times. Mrs. Emory’s eyes shone as she stared at the lights, her hands clasped over her heart. I closed the door, and we slipped back to the window.

The lights blinked again, three times, then went out.

Mrs. Emory moved into an assisted living home in April, and the lights came down. As friends helped her pack, I crossed the yard carrying a plate of brownies. 

“I have something for you,” she said, handing me a bag marked “Fragile.”

I knew what was in it even before I heard the bulbs clinking. We hugged and I whisked a tear away.

I always planned to visit her, but life got in the way. Then her obituary appeared in the paper, and I grieved for the time we didn’t have.

I didn’t attend her memorial service, but her red and green lights hang on the side of our house facing her old place. Every Christmas season they burn without flickering, lighting the winter nights. 


Excerpted from “A Christmas Tale and Other Stories” by Jan Weeks. Copyright © 2015 by Jan Weeks.

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