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The Cheesecake of Christmas Present

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There's a marble chip cheesecake with raspberries on top waiting in the kitchen. Three days to Christmas, and the house is quiet. With the holidays coming up, it's time to watch your intake, to save yourself for the family gathering.

***

Rose, awake at two-thirty in the morning, is trying not to think about the cheesecake.

Soon she will be back in St. Olaf with the children. She is flying back to Minnesota. Today she pulled her coat out of storage and gave it a good brushing. Today she found her gloves, her scarf, her hat, and laid them over the chair in her room. Tomorrow she will go to work, come home, pull her suitcase out of her closet, and pack. She shipped wrapped gifts for the children to Adam last week; Adam called to tell her they arrived. She knows the next few days will be a flurry of travel, baking, letters to Santa, trimming the tree, helping Kiersten, Adam, Gunilla, Bridget, and Charlie Jr. put together toys late Christmas Eve for the grandchildren to discover Christmas morning. She knows Minnesota will be cold enough to freeze the breath in her chest, making it hard to move. She is tired just thinking about it.

In the darkness of her room she can see the outline of her winter coat, of her scarf, gloves, and hat arranged along the hypotenuse the coat makes against the chair's right angle. This positioning is the habit of a lifetime, instilled in her at the St. Olaf Children's Home for winter after winter.

Rose is trying not to think about the cheesecake. It is a better option than thinking about the orphanage.

It isn't that the orphanage was a house of horrors -- though Rose supposes that few orphanages in the Depression were fun places to be, or easy places to be a child. She's never liked Annie, was grateful that her children were just a little too old to want to have the recording in the house. The Lindstroms weren't Daddy Warbucks, but she was so grateful to have them. If it hadn't been for the Lindstroms she would never have met Charlie Nylund. If it hadn't been for the Lindstroms wanting to adopt her -- her! -- she wouldn't be in Miami with the girls, sleepless, not thinking about cheesecake.

Her life has been so wonderful -- but no, the Lindstroms weren't Daddy Warbucks, and they only showed up when she turned six. Before that, it was the St. Olaf Children's Home. The orphanage wasn't a house of horrors, but that didn't make it a fun place to be. Oh, she was fed, and clothed, and she had a threadbare little coat that went toward keeping out the worst of the prairie winter, but there was so little of everything to go around that she remembers very well what it was like to go to bed hungry. The sisters couldn't afford a new boiler and the old one wasn't up to the task of heating the dormitory, and they couldn't very well climb into bed with each other -- the sisters said that would lead to sin. The orphanage in December was a place to be hungry and cold, and if it hadn't been for the older girl who told her that only the smiling, happy little girls got picked for a family, so she should stop crying and practice smiling --

Minnesota only works if there's someone with you to help keep you warm. The girls laugh at St. Olaf's cow-in-the-hotel-room ordinance, but it's there for a reason.

The house was too big to keep up after Charlie died. Too big, and too cold. Nobody lived there but her. The weight of winter was too much for her, and the warmest place she could think of was Miami.

Rose looks at the brushed coat, the hat, scarf, and gloves, and burrows deeper under the covers. She didn't eat much dinner. She could have a piece of cheesecake. She could. Or maybe some warm milk, if she can't get to sleep. That was something she couldn't do at the orphanage; things to keep her warm and safe might help.

***

Blanche, awake at two-thirty in the morning, is trying not to think about the cheesecake.

It is three days before Christmas. Soon she will be in Atlanta, staying with her uncle Lucas, helping to mastermind a real Atlanta Christmas for Janet's children. They will have lunch at Mary Mac's and scurry across Ponce de Leon to the Krispy Kreme afterward. They will go see the Nutcracker at the Fox Theatre. They will ride the Pink Pig at Rich's (Lucas has already said he is bringing the flask for the coffee while they wait in line to see Santa with the other hundred screaming children). And Blanche will pray she doesn't run into anyone she knows.

It's not that she's ashamed of Janet and the children. It's that she doesn't want to talk about George. She'd rather talk about Big Daddy than about George. She knows that Janet's feelings are hurt by her insistence that she's staying with Lucas; she knows that Rebecca feels the same. Worse than their hurt feelings at her choice of lodging would be their anger about her refusal to talk about George.

The real Atlanta Christmas they're making for Blanche's grandchildren is the real Atlanta Christmas that she and George always made for their own children. One day for George is enough. Blanche may depend on the kindness of strangers -- and how she always hated that play! -- but she prefers to keep her grief private. It's just not done to show it, this long after his death. Lucas understands that. Lucas's big house on West Paces Ferry needs a woman's touch, this time of year. And it's an impressive enough place to throw a party for the children that they'll be too busy being impressed and running around and decorating gingerbread men and what have you to notice that they're not talking about George.

Lucas has already stated his intent to go to bed early on Christmas Eve so that she can stay in the living room and do what she needs to do.

It isn't right that they should do their grieving by themselves, Blanche thinks, sitting up in bed, staring out into the dark. But what else can they do besides seek distraction? She will not date in Atlanta. Especially not during the holidays. The sweetest thing George ever did for her was to put his foot down with Mother Devereaux their first Christmas and insist that he and Blanche spend Christmas Day by themselves in their tiny, terrible apartment in Ormewood Park, with their tiny, terrible tree, and their gifts for each other. Of course it resulted in memorable sex -- and that's a memory that Blanche has never shared with the girls. Not ever.

Some things are sweet enough to keep to yourself.

Instead, she will go to Atlanta and have feasts with Janet's family, with Rebecca. She will make the phone calls to her other children, dutifully. She will pretend like she doesn't feel as though she has a hole in her chest. She will look forward to the many, many tokens from many, many men that the post office will be holding for her to pick up on her return to Miami.

And none of those men will be George.

Blanche thinks that since there are so many gingerbread men and Krispy Kremes in her future, that vision of that marble chip cheesecake with raspberries in the refrigerator should not be dancing in her head.

***

Dorothy, awake at two-thirty in the morning, is trying not to think about the cheesecake.

Three days before Christmas. She sits in the armchair in the corner of her room, propping her feet on the bed, resting her chin on her hand. She is not thinking about Stan and his new wife, or Kate and her husband, or Michael and whatever he's up to, and how they will all most assuredly have happier Christmases than she is about to. She is not thinking about Gloria and her rich husband in California where they hobnob with Hollywood and do nothing for Ma. She is thinking about the inevitable meeting they will have with Phil and his wife and unruly children, where they'll have to borrow a car to get out to New Jersey and squeeze into their home. Ma's mouth will get tighter and tighter with disapproval until Ma says something terrible about Phil's habits and Phil's wife and Phil's children, and then there will be yelling, and then Dorothy will have to drive them both back to Brooklyn, to Cousin Vito's half-finished basement, where they will sleep next to his hanging salamis.

It wouldn't be so bad, Dorothy thinks, if she just had one ally. In this she can't count on Ma, who will be too busy telling stories and passing judgments to be on her side. Instead she is everyone's afterthought, the single daughter, cousin, aunt, there to take the children when convenient, keep the peace, clean the kitchen, listen to the stories no one else will listen to. It's hard, loving books and loving the classroom in a family that values other kinds of intelligence above her own. It makes her feel isolated. And she shouldn't feel isolated at Christmas.

If Dorothy is lucky, she will be able to carve time out to escape and walk Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, to buy chestnuts that always smell better than they taste, to walk around with hot cocoa and act as though she'll go ice skating. If it gets bad enough, she might.

But there is no promise that she will be able to do any of those things. Even if there was -- she sees herself doing them alone.

Just once, Dorothy thinks, she would like to have a treat that doesn't require loneliness. She would like to return to New York and not feel as though she needs to spend all her time looking after Ma. She would like to return to New York and have the city return her love. Not this year, Dorothy thinks, alone in her room. She might as well break into the cheesecake.

***

It is two-forty-five in the morning when the girls, beslippered and bathrobed, file into the kitchen, as though at some invisible signal, and discover Sophia there in the kitchen waiting for them. She is in the process of plating four slices of marble chip cheesecake with raspberries on top.

"Come," Sophia says, placing a fork alongside the fourth plate. "Sit. Eat."

"Ma -- " Dorothy says, taking a chair. "How did you -- "

"Like the three of you sitting in the living room talking about this thing -- " Sophia moves the rest of the cheesecake to the counter. " -- and complaining about how bad the airport was going to be wasn't a hint. Sit, and let's get this over with."

Rose looks up, triangular tip of cake on her fork. "Get what over with, Sophia?"

"The story," Sophia says -- as though it should be obvious. "What, did you think I cut four slices to eat myself? Who do you think I am, Blanche?"

"Watch it, old woman," Blanche says, mild, between bites.

"Any further interruptions?" Sophia looks around. "No? Okay. Picture it, Sicily, 1922. It's three days before Christmas, and the boat leaves for America on Christmas Eve. I've got my suitcase packed. I've picked my outfit for steerage. I'm leaving behind my family for the sake of the American Dream. Mama knows this. Mama knows that she and the family will come join me in a year or two. And Mama just won't shut up about spending Christmas alone. You'd think she was the one getting ready to spend weeks in a cramped bunk between two strange men. Of course, if you're Blanche -- "

"Watch it, old woman."

"Anyway," Sophia continues, "she cries, she carries on, I tell her it's not like anybody's really going to miss me. And she draws herself up all the way up to here -- " She holds a hand up to her neck. "And she says, we'll see about that. She sends me on a scavenger hunt all over the village. To each person, three days before Christmas, I have to tell them that I'm leaving the village forever. Each person pulls an eel out of their washtub -- "

"An eel?"

"Rose, we've been over this," Dorothy says. "They're traditional in Sicily at Christmas."

"But eels."

Blanche mutters, "Says the Herring Queen."

"I wasn't the Herring Queen, I was runner-up for Butter Queen, Herring Queen was Ingrid Nordquist, and boy, was she a -- "

"Am I telling this story or what?" Sophia demands. "So each person pulls an eel out of their washtub, and the idea is that I have to make room for them in my suitcase -- "

"Did you have to put them in costumes?"

"Costumes?"

"Well, it was Christmas," Rose says, "maybe your mother wanted an eel nativity, Sophia! We did it with herring once!"

Blanche has her head buried in her hands.

"No, the eels weren't in costumes. The eels were supposed to go in my suitcase, to come with me to the New World, to destroy everything I brought with me as a form of vengeance for leaving my family. And I spent Christmas on a bunk between two strange men smelling dead eels rotting in my suitcase."

Sophia folds her arms; apparently that's all.

Dorothy finishes off her piece of cheesecake. "Well, Ma, what's the point?"

"The point is I left anyway," Sophia says. "And the eels ruined my things. And with every eel I collected around the village, I had to tell why I was collecting them, and with every eel I had to hear a story about me or my family or the rest of the village. The smell of those eels, they stayed in that suitcase for years. And so did the stories, and my memories of the village. I couldn't get away from them if I wanted to. And you know something? I didn't want to. That was the worst Christmas I ever had."

"What kind of a point is that?"

"The kind where even memories that smell bad mean something." Sophia folds her arms. "I was important in that village. They wanted me to know it. My mother wanted me to know it. And even if I moved away, and only went back to visit years later, they made it impossible for me to forget them. The good and the bad. For every Christmas after. And December 26th always showed up, right on schedule, and I could go home and put that suitcase away for another year."

They sit in silence for a moment.

Blanche says, "You know, Sophia, that actually makes sense?"

"Of course it makes sense. Now, are the three of you going to stop sulking and go to sleep before we have to navigate the airport two days before Christmas?"

"I think we should finish the cheesecake first," says Rose. "It would go bad while we're away. And it's a shame to let it go to waste."

"We don't need it, though," Blanche objects, thinking of Krispy Kremes.

"Rose has a point," Dorothy says. "And that happens so rarely, it's worth paying attention."

Rose is already standing up. "Why don't we finish it off in the living room? That way we can watch the tree together."

"I suppose if it's going to be holiday-themed, it's only appropriate." Blanche turns around to get the cheesecake; she's a little surprised to find she's smiling. "Say, what do you girls want to do when we're all back home? There's a firefighters' convention out on Miami Beach the weekend before New Year's, we could go get a hotel room and pretend like we're a ladies' auxiliary -- "

Sophia says, "Just what you need, another eel."

The girls bicker their way into the living room, plates in hand.

***

There was a marble chip cheesecake with raspberries on top waiting for them in the kitchen. With the holidays coming up, it's time to watch your intake, to save yourself for the family gathering.

And sometimes it's a good idea to broaden the definition of family.