©The Ribbon Tree
C. Lee McKenzie
Jason Whitaker dreaded this visit home. Sure he wanted to see his mom, but what if she wasn’t holding it together? The answer was simple. His lifestyle would go up in smoke. Goodbye, Malibu. Hello, Fish Creek.
It wouldn’t hurt his brother to step up when Mom needed help, but Stanley—the number one bleeding heart in New York City—argued that his down-and-out clients needed him at the law clinic. That excuse got good old Stanley out of helping with Dad’s funeral arrangements, dealing with the termites at the family home, and almost everything else Jason asked him to do.
Stanley was already on the front stoop when Jason stepped out of the car. Jason wondered how long his brother had stood there waiting for him, not brave enough to go inside on his own.
Well, it hadn’t been good last year, Jason had to admit, so this time Stanley had a valid reason to wait for reinforcements. The call about their dad had come the day before Christmas. They’d both caught flights home and when they’d arrived they found their mother in her chair next to the Whitaker traditional Ribbon Tree. She’d been a devastated C-curve of a woman, not the ramrod matriarch they both loved and always obeyed.
Recalling that tableau from last year, and fearing that he’d see his mother like that again, he joined Stanley on the porch.
“Been here long?” Jason asked.
“A couple of minutes.”
Jason lifted his hand that was weighed down by a thousand pounds of reluctance and rapped on the door before shoving it open. “Mom!”
Her chair was empty, but he froze in the doorway because the tree stood decorated with shimmering gold ribbons the way he remembered from all the Christmases he’d spent in this house. The Ribbon Tree had always been Dad’s project, but it seemed his mom had decided to keep the tradition alive. A dozen candles flickered on the mantel, but unlike the candles that had delighted him as a child, these cast ghostly shadows against the wall. When he peeked into the dining room, the table gleamed under more candles and Mom’s china. All of these decorations were usual, yet not. A chill corkscrewed up his spine.
He sniffed. Roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding.
Stanley shrugged when Jason looked at him with an unspoken question. Mom’s special Christmas dinner wasn’t what either of them had expected, but the cooking smells filtering through the air somewhat eased the tension between Jason’s shoulder blades. He shook off the vague uneasiness. He was just tired from the flight and worried about his mom’s mental state. Mom was okay. He was off the hook for extended Mom care. Even Stanley managed a smile that looked like relief.
“In here boys.” His mom’s voice came from the kitchen.
She stood guard at the stove, the oven door open and the steamy aroma of perfectly roasted meat and baked pudding pouring into the room. She’d tied the candy cane stripped apron at her waist and wound her salt and pepper hair at the back of her head into a tidy knot. At sixty-five, she still had a slim figure, and her keen eyes sparkled the way they always had. That vacant look of last year had disappeared.
“Your timing is perfect.” She hugged them to her, then set about directing them to uncork the wine and slice the roast while she dished up the whipped potatoes, set the puffed Yorkshire puddings on a plate, and tossed the salad. When dad was here, he’d do the carving, but now that job fell to Jason, and he tried to remember how it should be done. HIs mom was a stickler for well-presented plates, especially during the holidays.
Once at the table, Jason reached for the mashed potatoes, but his mother shook her head. “Has California made you forget to be thankful?”
“Sorry.” Jason bowed his head while his mom said a short prayer.
“Now, let’s give this a taste test,” she said, passing the meat platter.
The only thing he missed in Fish Creek was his Mom and her cooking. Stanley had to be thinking the same thing the way he inhaled the steam rising from his plate and practically purred.
Stanley should have been a woman, Jason thought, not for the first time. Always soft-footed when he entered a room, a voice so low that people had to lean in to catch what he said. The word delicate flitted across Jason’s mind. Delicate and precise. That was why Dad allowed Stanley, and only Stanley, to hand him the ribbons while he stood on the ladder to reach the top branches. Dad had a delicate touch and precision in him, too.
That had been fine with Jason. He’d rather watch football. Ribbons weren’t his thing.
He’d often wondered how two such different people could come from the same genetic material. Jason concentrated on his abs and always had three girls on the string at a time. Stanley’s abs didn’t exist unless you looked very closely. The only exercise he did was to walk up courthouse stairs. They were both about six feet, but Jason had a square jaw and short dark hair. Styled. Stanley’s jaw receded a bit, and his hair curled around his face in a brown fringe.
Yep, we’re very different, Jason thought.
His fork was half way to his mouth with a small mound of mashed potatoes when his mother said, “Your father has come home.”
Stanley, who as always, was beatle-ing his way through his food, one nibble at a time, stopped chewing.
“Say what?” Jason let his fork clatter onto his plate.
“Just what I said. He’s back and he plans to stay.”
Stanley always had a pale complexion, but his face had turned pasty. Jason thought his might have the same washed-out look.
“Surely, you don’t think I could have put up that beautiful tree,” she said. “He didn’t trust me to do it right either, so he did.” She sipped her wine as if she’d just commented on the weather. “I rather like having him back. It’s a comfort.”
Inside his head, Jason’s life exploded. His mom had lost it. He’d have to call work and beg for family leave again. Then there was Kylie and Marian and Jill. Cancel those dates.
“Where is he now?” Stanley’s soto voce question barely riffled the air.
“Upstairs. He didn’t want to shock you, so I was supposed to prepare you.” She looked first at Jason, and then at Stanley. “Are you?”
One didn’t prepare to meet a ghost, and certainly, not the ghost of your father.
“It’s a bit of an adjustment, but so worthwhile. I was terribly lonely, and I didn’t want to move in with either of you. Heaven forbid. This is the perfect solution.”
She walked to the stairs and called, “Malcom! They’re ready.” Looking back at them, she said, “I think.”
So is she an addled, lonely widow in need of her sons’ help? Or is there a ghost waiting to descend those stairs and blow reality to shreds. What’s your preference?
Is Jason terribly self-centered or is he only trying to do what’s right by his mother while making his own way in the world?
And about Stanley—the do-gooder, except for his family—is he at all like-able?
The delicacy and precision characteristics that Dad and Stanley share play into a larger piece of this pie, at least at this moment. Was it distracting or intriguing?