The holidays meant chaos. But the good kind. The kind that consisted of family, too much food, too much wine and so much laughter, their stomachs would hurt. The holidays also meant warmth and love and sharing, being together, and reflecting on how far they'd come.
The house smelt delicious, courtesy of Jimmy and Frank. Frank was a chef after all and no one but his husband dared to enter his domain. The kitchen was off limits unless it involved getting drinks or, in the case of those under the age of ten, stealing snacks.
Sharon looked around the hustle and bustle of the living room. Clay sat in his arm chair with James, his two year old great-grandson, on his lap. James' mother Charlene and his father Mark looked on.
Rusty and his boyfriend Lewis sat on the couch. In between them were Nina and Leo, the eight year old twins of Clay Jr and his wife. Their parents were standing next to Charlene and Mark. Bobby and Amy, Charlene's parents, occupied the other couch. Ricky, still single, and Emily and her boyfriend Craig hovered outside the kitchen door, clearly contemplating whether it was worth risking Frank's wrath by trying to get hold of some food. Emily's baby bump, small and proud at six months gestation, looked beautiful in the black dress she was wearing.
Family was their everything and every year when everyone gathered here, in Atlanta, Sharon silently said a little prayer. Years ago she wouldn't have dared to believe that it would be like this. That the fact that she and Brenda finding each other could lead to their entire family sitting in one room, the lights from the massive Christmas tree brightening up the house.
Six years ago Brenda had turned up on Sharon's doorstep one night, two days after Fritz had announced that she'd been offered a job in Washington. Brenda had told Sharon that she and Fritz were in the middle of a divorce and that that was the reason she was moving to Washington. It had been Sharon who persuaded Brenda that she couldn't keep running from her demons and that she had to face whatever came on her path head on. Somehow it had led to them talking till the early hours of the morning and Rusty had walked into the living room to find Brenda asleep on the couch the next day. What had started off as two old friends picking up where they'd left off quickly, very quickly, changed into something else. Sharon had made the first move, kissing Brenda one night as she was about to leave. After that night, Brenda never left.
Three years later, Clay had walked Brenda down the aisle for a third time in the back garden of the home where he and Willie Rae had lived after their retirement. A single chair had been left empty in the front row, quietly marking her absence, and Brenda had cried when Sharon paid tribute to her during her speech. After that day, they were the O'Dwyer-Johnson family. Sharon, after divorcing Jack, dropped the Raydor from her name because it was his last name and she didn't want the ties to her old life anymore. For years it had suited her but now she wanted to be her own person. Going back to O'Dwyer felt good. Adding Johnson to it had felt perfect.
It was when Sharon let her gaze drift around the room for a second time that she noticed her wife's absence. It was Christmas Eve and in an hour they would all be sitting around the table, something Sharon knew Brenda wouldn't miss for the world. If it was at all possible, Brenda was even prouder of their mixed family than Sharon was.
Sharon quietly exited the living room, took her jacket from the back of the door in the hall and stepped out of the front door. She knew she didn't have to go far. Only a couple of blocks and even though she only came here once or twice a year, she knew the neighborhood like the back of her hand.
She walked down the street, past houses lit up by Christmas lights. Reindeer on front lawns, snowmen, and Santa Claus. Flashing lights in trees, wreaths on front doors, and the smell of food coming from kitchens... Christmas was Sharon's favorite time of year.
She saw the church at the end of the road and crossed the street. At the back of the church was a small cemetery and as she walked through the graves, many of the gravestones adorned with fresh flowers and wreaths, she spotted her wife's kneeling form over by the wall. Sharon stopped walking, allowing Brenda another moment of quiet contemplation, and then she said, "I thought I'd find you here."
Brenda looked up. There was sadness in her eyes but she smiled when she saw Sharon. "Just wanted to say 'Merry Christmas' to Mama, is all."
Sharon looked past Brenda at the headstone. Willie Rae Johnson's name was cut out of the white marble. The flowers were fresh and she recognised Brenda's curvy handwriting on the card. Sharon snaked her arm around her wife's waist.
"Merry Christmas, Willie Rae." Sharon's voice was soft.
When she turned to look at her wife, she saw Brenda wiping at her eyes. It had been almost ten years since Willie Rae passed away and a lot had changed but grief... Grief eased only slowly and Sharon knew that during these moments, when their family was together, Brenda missed her mother more than anything.
"Thank you, Sharon, for bein' here," Brenda whispered. Her hand slipped into Sharon's the way it had done hundreds of times before. She swallowed. The lump in her throat was thick and hard and it wouldn't shift. "I wish you'd gotten to know her better."
Sharon studied Brenda for a long moment. The lines around her eyes had become a little more obvious in recent years and Brenda had started dying her hair in her favourite shade of blonde the day she saw the first grey hair, but to Sharon she was still the same beautiful woman she had met years ago.
Softly she said, "But I do know her, Brenda. I see her every day." Brenda looked up at her with big, questioning brown eyes and Sharon smiled. "In you."
Brenda's eyes glistened with tears. "Thank you," she whispered. She laced her fingers through Sharon's.
Sharon smiled. "Dinner is almost ready," she said and squeezed Brenda's hand, then leaned in and kissed her softly. "Come on, I'll walk you home."