First, let me say I’m not a Grinch. I have done Christmas above and beyond for nearly a quarter of a century for my children. I have hosted Christmas cookie exchanges, decorated trees fit for a Fifth Avenue shop window, dressed the dog in holiday attire, baked cookies for Santa, and wrestled holiday lights into the bushes. There’s not much Christmas I haven’t done.
Just not this year.
My children are older now and celebrate the holidays in their own homes (in other states.) Yes, it was magical when my kids would stumble down the stairs on Christmas morning and I’d watch their amazed little faces glow as they discovered the gifts under the lit tree. I have beautiful memories of those moments and I will cherish them forever.
However, this year I hung brand new stockings on the mantel – without embroidered names – and erected a 4-foot tree instead of a towering one. I’ll spend Christmas in my sister’s home as a guest rather than a host. I feel a different kind of anticipation: Spending Christmas with the person I shared a room with when we were small, the sibling who raised her family in another part of the country (and abroad) while I was busy raising mine. That’s the calmer, peaceful holiday that I’m cherishing this year.
Suzette’s early Christmas rituals occurred in a snowy New England city, with aunts and uncles, neighbors, and friends gathered at her grandparents’ dining table. The scene was pure Norman Rockwell.
Norman Rockwell never painted this one.
Though she never had a brother – at least not a biological one – 14-year-old Suzette LeBlanc acquired 150 of them when her father became Commandant of the Sanford Naval Academy, a boy’s boarding school on the shores of Lake Monroe in Florida. The family moved into a small apartment on the school grounds, where Suzette began to feel like something on a specimen slide in biology class.
For a time, parents sent their sons to military school to learn structure and discipline. They wanted a strong male influence. They did not, however, want girls. So, Suzette’s high school education occurred elsewhere, at a parochial school thirty minutes away.
When the Sanford Naval Academy emptied of students during Christmas break, the Commandant’s nightly ritual of Cutty Sark—consumed in his reclining chair facing the television—drove his wife and daughter out of their small apartment to search for something festive.
They found it in the lights on the twenty-foot tree which glowed brightly in the middle of a deserted Quarterdeck. The space had once been the lobby of a luxury resort hotel that was converted to the military boarding school. Suzette liked to think the original hotel probably had a similar Christmas tree, but then, they probably also had more guests to enjoy it.
Chairs in the far corners of the room disappeared in the dark, along with offices, classroom doors, and the stairway leading to the upper floors. Surprisingly, the illuminated area surrounding the tree seemed kind of cozy as her mother settled on one couch and Suzette on another, basking in the Christmas lights.
When it came to enjoying holiday decorations at the academy, it was either a feast or famine: the small tree in their claustrophobic apartment or the enormous version in the deserted school lobby. Odd that both spaces felt equally empty to Suzette, lacking in the warmth that gives holidays their special meaning.
She knew that a Christmas tree alone does not constitute a holiday. That came in the form of the midshipmen, those young gentlemen-in-training, who arrived at her door in the evenings under the pretext of questions for her father. In truth, she figured they needed her mother’s attention more, along with some semblance of family life.
Suzette never considered herself to be an only child, yet the seven-year age gap between her and her sister made it seem so. Magically, their apartment had filled with new siblings. A handful became regular guests at the dinner table since an invitation from her family provided a chance to escape the crowds and sameness that was served in the Mess Hall.
She guessed that midshipmen joined the family based on some combination of her father’s opinion of them, her mother’s intuition, and her own tolerance of their friendly overtures. They filled a void she scarcely knew existed, and suddenly, they were gone.
The Christmas tree was the last remnant of weeks filled with cookies, gift exchanges, and a senior midshipman known as “Big Mac’s” arrival as Santa at an ice-cream-and-cake party hosted by the academy for sixty children from the Methodist Children’s Home. It provided a backdrop for photos during the Christmas Formal Dance where Suzette was escorted by a quiet, young man from Panama with soulful brown eyes.
Those activities had lessened Suzette’s “transplanted Yankee” loneliness and filled her with a sense of family far greater than the one she had been born into. The midshipmen needed the LeBlancs as much as the family needed them.
New rituals replaced her Norman Rockwell Christmas, yet tonight, Suzette couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that she’d been jettisoned in favor of the boys’ real holiday, the one spent with family members who shared their name.
Sitting in the empty Quarterdeck, mother and daughter wondered aloud about the midshipmen’s homes, their parents and if the boys might miss them, too, when they returned to their native habitats.
“I bet Big Mac and his brother are cold in Connecticut.”
“Yeah, the kids from New Jersey probably are freezing, too. The boy from Panama isn’t too happy either, since it’s the rainy season there.”
Suzette stared at the colored lights. She didn’t want to go back to their apartment just yet.
“This tree is huge. I wonder where the school bought it.”
“I don’t know. We can ask your father. It really smells terrific though, doesn’t it?”
They sat in silence for a while. Suzette wondered how her mother could live with a man who drank himself to sleep each night in front of the television. Both women missed the young men who had become such a part of their family until the boys joyfully abandoned them to return to their biological ones.
The temporary nature of those bonds became clear that night as the Christmas tree shimmered with blue and gold ornaments above “gifts” wrapped in shiny metallic paper.
Suzette knew the boxes beneath it were as empty as her heart.
Excerpted from The Anchor Clankers. Renee Garrison is an award-winning author and past president of the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.