December – A Week before Christmas
My flight arrives at the Atlanta International Airport on a Monday and true to form, my mother makes it in time to greet me at the gate. As I approach, I can see a huge neon green sign through the partition. She always makes sure her signs have enough pizazz to stand out in a crowd.
My arrival takes me back in time, to Fort Riley and the on-post housing of my youth. Ellie would get us kids together and we’d make welcome home signs for my dad to prepare for his return from deployment. One for each of us to take with us, and a huge one to hang on the garage door. One year her sign said, Greatest Wife in the Universe Right Here Folks! Ours read, Great-ish Kid with a number in our order of birth. The sign on the house had our neighbors laughing for a month. It said, If the House is A-ROCKIN’—DON’T Come A-Knockin’! She thought it was hilarious. That sign will live forever in my memory. It stayed up for two days, while people came and took pictures. Us kids were mortified. Thankfully, housing was on our side, and they made mom and dad take it down.
Today’s gem is in true Ellie Kavanaugh style because the closer I get the larger it gets. She has gone all out. A part of me is touched. It’s my first welcome home sign, and it says, World’s Best Mom Right Here Folks! written in large glittering, golden letters. It’s embellished on the sides with the Air Force logo and fighter jets. A bit of a repeat of signs past, but still effective.
As if she needs a sign to stand out. It’s not possible for me to miss her in a crowd. Her hair is a deep dark ginger, like mine. We both share the uber fair skin too. The only difference between us is our eyes. Hers are green and mine are hazel. But her physical attributes aren’t enough of a lighthouse for my mother. Nope. Huge signs are her thing. She even hooked my little brother into helping her. There he stands on the other side of the sign with a grin on his face from ear to ear the moment he spots me. That should’ve sent alarm bells off in my head.
As if on cue, they flip the sign over and walk backwards in order to extend it to its actual length. What greets me brings back that god awful house sign of my youth once again.
~ ~ HOTTIE ALERT: Gentlemen! She’s Gorgeous AND She’s SINGLE! ~ ~
Understanding dawned. Why would Ellie Kavanaugh use old material, you ask? On purpose. That’s why. It’s intentional to throw me off her scent and lull me to come closer. She looks so proud of herself as she waves and calls out to me. The traitor I used to call my brother points me out for the crowd. He’s lived alone with our parents for way too long.
I can hear the snickers of travelers in the terminal as they pass by the sign. It isn’t too hard for them to figure out who it’s for. Mother and daughter look so much alike, but their not-so-subtle chuckling doesn’t faze me. The best trait I inherited from Ellie Kavanaugh: I don’t give a fuck what people think of me.
I must admit. It’s pretty damn good. It’s been a few years since we’ve been to a redeployment ceremony. I never saw it coming. She got me.
All I can do is shake my head and laugh.
“The momma’s got jokes.” I cock an eyebrow at her and smirk.
“Indeed, I do.” She pats herself on the back. “I’m quite proud of this one and who knows you might get some numbers.” She winks at me.
We both explode into fits of laughter at the same time. She pulls me into her arms and squeezes tight. The smell of warm vanilla and Coco Chanel wraps around me like a warm blanket. I am home.
“I missed you honeybee.”
“Missed you too, momma.”
“All right Ellie, quit hoggin’ her.” Dad says from behind me.
I turn around, give him a big smile, and walk into his arms. “Hi, dad.”
“Hello peanut.” He squeezes me a little tighter and kisses my forehead. “You’re as beautiful as always.”
“Thanks.” I pull away and give him the sternest look I can muster. “Ya let her do it.”
“There’s no stopping your mother, you know that.”
“Did you at least consider sabotage?”
“Considered yes. Decided against it.”
“Et tu papa-san?” I give him a squeeze.
He chuckles into my ear and whispers, “Be thankful, this wasn’t the worst option.”
“What about me?” A deep baritone voice interrupts us. I look over at the teenager standing next to me. My little brother isn’t so little anymore.
“Hello, traitor.” I give Connor a once over. He’s fourteen and taller than me by a good three inches. Partly, I’m annoyed that I’m the shortest of my siblings now, but I guess it’s inevitable, considering I am the only girl.
A big, proud smile erupts, lighting up his entire face as his eyes twinkle with mischievous delight. That’s the big, grinning kid I know.
“Proud of yourself, I see.”
“Yep.” You’d think his grin can’t get any bigger, but it does.
He’s a far cry from the kid brother I remember. Hell, when they came out to visit, his features were still round, his voice high-pitched and peach fuzz was all he had for facial hair. But now he’s sporting well-defined, angular features, a deep timbre, and that tale-tale dirty upper lip look. A clear sign his peach fuzz is turning into man stubble. If he wasn’t with mom and dad, I might’ve passed him by, but definitely would’ve needed to do a double take.
The price you pay for living the military life. You miss so much when you’re stationed so far away from family.
* * *
We get “home” and I’m honored with a tour of the new digs. It isn’t really home for me, though. If you want to get technical, my childhood home is Arizona with a brief stint in Kansas when dad enlisted. I’ve never lived in Alabama but the nomadic lifestyle that comes with military life, home is a person not a place. Or as Ellie Kavanaugh likes to say, home is where the momma is.
Their new place is great. It’s a red brick ranch style in a quiet neighborhood off-post. The inside is cozy the way mom likes a house. She isn’t a fan of big houses because she hates being a slave to its upkeep. It even has a gorgeously inviting, sparkling pool out back. Connor is damn lucky. I can’t help it, I’m a smidge salty. I want a pool. Hell, I wanna live in a hot climate. All those years in Kansas, now that I’m adulting on my own, they get a southern state while I’m stuck up north.
“Nice pool,” I say in a dreamy voice as I watch the sun sparkle on the water’s surface.
“Isn’t it great?” Connor says. “I can’t wait to get in it this summer.”
“Me either. I can’t believe you guys have a pool. I’m seriously jealous.”
All three of them chuckle from different spots in the house.
“The nearest beach is only a three-hour drive too.” Dad walks over and stands next to us.
“Ouch dad.” I look over at him. “Did ya have ta dig that knife in so deep?”
The weather in Roseford, Alabama is heaven. Exactly the way I like it during the Christmas season. Not cold. Did I mention I’m stationed in Illinois where cold lives? You know what winter does? Winter blows goats! I hate it. I’m a desert rat through and through. Give me the deserts of the Southwest. I was born in the fire and that’s how I like it. Screw all the other elements in large quantities, especially snow, ice, and the frigid cold.
So, getting out of Illinois and spending Christmas with the folks is a perfect reprieve I plan to use often. I’m about to become a snowbird, minus the gray hair and retirement package. Hell, with that pool in the backyard I’m completely prepared to become a summer-bird and a snowbird.
* * *
My week home goes by in a blur. Whenever we’re together, our inner foodie emerges. So we found some really fantastic places to eat. We splurged with dinners out at local restaurants and not so local ones too.
There was this little roadside country store/gas station that made the best fried chicken and fried green tomatoes we’d ever tasted. I tried collard greens for the first time. The locals behind the counter looked at me like I’d grown two heads when I let that tidbit into my lack of culinary experience slip. The verdict of the foreign food, surprisingly tasty considering dad’s reaction when I asked to sample the side dish.
On the way back we stopped off at some super eclectic place called The Hillbilly Mall. They had a giant rooster made from metal of all shapes and sizes. It’s what drew us in. There was an old Chevy truck they’d turned into a garden, with all sorts of plants and flowers sticking out of the engine. They made a smiley face on the grill out of different shaped stones. Sadly it was closed but that didn’t stop us from getting family photos with the hillbilly artwork.
Not to mention the Christmas festivities. Ellie makes a gazillion cookies every year, including two types of sugar cookies and gingerbread, and we sit and decorate every single one.
One year in Kansas she invited some friends and their kids over to make gingerbread houses. She made all the gingerbread pieces from scratch and baked them. Only, come gingerbread making time, we discovered the pieces weren’t uniform. The baking had changed their shape. So, we improvised. Daniel, one of my other brothers, had the roof of his house collapse. Instead of giving up, it was Ellie to the rescue with a glorious idea. Daniel’s masterpiece became the gingerbread crack house crime scene as seen from above, like the aerial views from a helicopter, complete with a murdered gingerbread victim and uniformed police officers. This sparked ideas all around and Anna, mom’s friend’s daughter, turned hers into the Magic Mike house replete with flashy lights, a stripper pole, and gingerbread man strippers in thongs.
This year, by lucky coincidence, Daniel and my favorite uncle, mom’s brother, arrived just in time for the cookie decorating festivities. Ellie found a new cookie cutter this year. The leg lamp. My parents love A Christmas Story, watch it every year, and the leg lamp is iconic. So of course, when Ellie discovered she could make leg lamp Christmas cookies, she jumped on it. She made three varieties of leg lamps for us to decorate. Vanilla and chocolate sugar cookies and gingerbread. Only baking morphed them from their leg lamp glory into something else, or so the Facebook populace that saw her glorious cookies said.
The comments came in rapid succession with gifs asking if the pics were legal. Laughter, hilarity for all, especially my mother. Particularly when she realized what they saw and then she couldn’t unsee it. Her fabulous cookies took on the characteristics of the male anatomy between the legs. And the more we decorated them, the worse the resemblance. It will be a Christmas we’ll remember forever. Ellie plans to keep the cookie cutter. She used it for Christmas present, and will use it again for Christmas’s future. I’m sure of it.
But all good things must end. Christmas is over and my leave’s up. I’m not sure why dad’s so worried about mom. She seems like her old self. Nothing to worry about. There was no need for concern.
Or so I thought…
This short story is also published through Coffee House Writers
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