Mrs. Emory’s Christmas lights drive me nuts. Ever since Tim and I moved next door to her three years ago, her twinkling red and green bulbs have blinked all night long. Who knew the little old lady next door would be, shall we say, eccentric? If I’d wanted to watch freakin’ lights flash, we could have stayed in the city. God may have created light, but He sure didn’t have twenty-four hours a day in mind, at least in suburbia.
As the lights burst into life at dusk one hot July night, sending Christmas-colored sparkles into our living room, I slammed shut the book I was reading. “I’m going over and tell her to turn the damned things off.”
Tim, my husband, looked at me over the tops of his glasses. “She’s a little old lady. Let her enjoy what few pleasures she has left.” He’s a real live-and-let-live kind of guy. I could see I’d get no help from him. So I muttered as I closed the drapes and grumbled my way back to my book.
Fortunately our bedroom’s on the opposite side of the house from Mrs. Emory’s lights. At least I can sleep without dreaming of elves and reindeer. Occasionally, when we have friends over for barbecue on the patio, her Christmas lights blend with our Japanese lanterns and tiki torches, creating a certain ambience. Sometimes I see her curtains twitch when we’re partying, and I wonder if we should have invited her over, but I don’t think she’d fit in with soccer moms and stockbroker dads.
Mrs. Emory is older than God, or at least it seems like it. She tends her tiny garden in the summer, her wrinkled face hidden by an enormous straw hat, the kind my grandmother used to call a picture hat. It takes her forever to get from the back porch to the tiny plot where she grows tomatoes, bell peppers, and pole beans, with some marigolds and cosmos thrown in for fun. We nod and smile over the fence, if I happen to be mowing the lawn or playing with the kids (when they manage to pry themselves away from their video games) but we’ve never really spoken. I’ve also never seen Mr. Emory.
Emma and Sean, my little ones, like Mrs. Emory’s lights. “Look, Mom. It’s Christmas at her house all the time. How come it can’t be Christmas here?” they whine. At the tender ages of four and seven, their “presents” sense is fully developed. Another thing to thank Mrs. Emory for: a reminder of the eternal search for stuff and more stuff.
On my more charitable days, I think that she’s just trying to keep the Christmas spirit alive throughout the year, but those moments are few and far between. Call me Scrooge, but I believe in The Byrds or Ecclesiastes, whichever. “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” And April and September aren’t the seasons for Christmas lights.
Ours is a neighborhood of young people, wanting to raise their children in houses built in the era that spawned June Cleaver and Donna Reed. We want siding, not stucco; full-grown shade trees, not saplings; front porches, not arched entryways.
The average age is about forty, if you don’t factor in Mrs. Emory. She’s the only retired person within eight blocks in any direction. Most of the older folks moved out when Californians, Texans, and other transplants began to move in, but Mrs. Emory hung on to the family home.
Since we moved from Iowa to western Colorado, I can’t really complain about the other “foreigners.” Besides, the ones I know are good people. We all buy organic (whenever we can and if it’s not too expensive), we trade play dates and recipes, and we live between the best elementary and the best middle school in the state, if standardized test results can be believed.
Suzanne Taylor and I were having lunch at Il Bistro the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. Suzanne’s been in the neighborhood longer than anyone except Mrs. Emory. She’s actually a Colorado native, but she’s traveled. Her passport’s filled with visa stamps from Europe, Asia, Canada, and South America. Suzanne expands my horizons. That’s why I like to hang out with her. Of course, after a leisurely lunch, I usually go home depressed, wishing I’d been able to go and do and see the things she has. But really, I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. Except the Christmas lights!
I vented to Suzanne over tiramisu and cappuccino. “I wish Tim and I had known about Mrs. Emory’s holiday spirit before we bought our house. We would have looked for something a little farther away from Santa’s Workshop South.”
Suzanne took another bite of dessert. She never gains an ounce. Ticks me off. She finished chewing and said, “You don’t know, then.”
I hate it when she pulls that native stuff on me. My smile was as sweet as the dessert. “No, we’ve only been here three years, not forty-some.”
She’s only thirty-eight, but I had to take revenge for the calories that she doesn’t absorb. Her frown told me she’s ready for another Botox treatment.
She put down her spoon and looked at me in a way that made me suddenly feel small and petty.
“What’s to know?” I said, aiming for bravado but managing only to sound petulant.
Suzanne gazed out the window at the gray sky that threatened snow. Somehow she didn’t seem to need that injection anymore.
“My mom went to school with Peter Emory, her son,” she said. “People had barely heard of Viet Nam when he enlisted. We certainly learned about it when the local paper printed stories of his bravery. He seemed to have a sixth sense about danger that kept his squad from being decimated. We all thought his life was charmed.” She looked at me, her eyes bright with emotion. “Then one day, his squad came back but he didn’t. No one knew what happened to him. Officially he was listed as MIA.
“That was two days before Christmas, nineteen sixty-six. Mr. and Mrs. Emory swore that Peter would come home to Christmas, no matter when he came.”
She sipped her cappuccino.
“And?” I prodded.
“The Christmas tree went out to the trash in May,” she said. “Mr. Emory passed away without ever knowing what happened to his only child.” The mist in her eyes trickled down one cheek.
By this time, I was tearing up myself. “But that’s over forty years ago.” My voice broke and I cleared my throat.
Suzanne nodded. She didn’t need to tell me that some things are not measured by calendars, but by the heart.
That night I told Tim what Suzanne said. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t go over and complain?” he said. I hate it when he’s right.
The days inched toward Christmas, according to Emma and Sean. To me, they seemed like a swipe from a Brawny paper towel across a gloomy pane. In between wrapping presents in the wee hours and shoving them in the attic to keep them out of the reach of little hands, I baked double batches of everything. Mrs. Emory was flabbergasted when I showed up with the first plate of cookies. Twice a week I brought something to her, and she always thanked me so sweetly and offered to make some coffee to go with the pastries, if I’d only join her. But I always had an excuse: The kids were home alone; I had just run over for a minute; the next batch was in the oven and I had to get them out.
Before I knew it, Christmas was only three days away. I had just dropped off another plate of cookies to Mrs. Emory and run back home. As I opened our front door, I caught a glimpse of a dark blue car pulling into Mrs. Emory’s drive. Good, I thought. A little company for the old lady.
That night, Tim and I lay in bed watching the local ten o’clock news. The plasma screen was filled with old file footage of jungles decimated by Agent Orange. Then a shot of helmeted soldiers with hard faces slogging through a river, rifles held above their heads. The commentator spoke solemnly. “The remains of a U.S. soldier were unearthed in the jungle fifty miles from Da Nang, Viet Nam, yesterday. Identification has been withheld, pending the notification of next of kin.”
I slammed out of bed and ran through the house like a madwoman. I threw open the French doors to the patio and stared into the darkness. Mrs. Emory’s Christmas lights no longer twinkled through the flakes that fell softly, gently, covering the earth like a shroud.
My bare feet tracked the snow as I ran to Mrs. Emory’s house and rang the bell. I began to notice the cold as I hopped from one foot to another, waiting for her to answer. The plug for the Christmas lights tapped against the house, spinning in the bitter wind.
At last the door opened. Mrs. Emory still wore the clothes she’d worn earlier that day, an eon ago when I’d last brought cookies. Her eyes looked at me blankly; then her mouth curved upward just a tiny bit. “Come in,” she said, stepping aside.
My wet feet tracked the carpet but we were both beyond caring. This was the first time I’d been inside her home. In a corner of the living room, a table lamp cast a dim light that died in shadows as it tried to disperse the gloom. An armchair covered in doilies and antimacassars sat next to the table. Next to the chair towered a huge stack of presents wrapped in holiday paper, some faded, some new.
Mrs. Emory shuffled to the chair and dropped into it. Her hand fell to rest on the top package in the pile. Her lips trembled, and I crossed the room to kneel in front of her. “Was it—?” I struggled to remember her son’s name.
“Peter will be coming home soon,” she whispered. “Just not the way I hoped he would.” Her tears fell like sleet, silver and cold, as I held her hand. I wanted to say something, anything, to help heal the hurt, but I felt like a child whose life experience ends at the back fence. Her empty world spread out before me, solemn and sacred, and the sight scared me. What if a half-grown Sean were called to a war half a world away? What if Emma didn’t come home from school one day? My tears rose to join hers.
We sat that way for a long time, weeping without words, locked in sorrow. At last Mrs. Emory fumbled a tissue from the box beside her chair and handed it to me, then took one for herself. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice raspy.
“I’m sorry, too, for not knowing—or not caring, at least not enough,” I said. “I wish I could have known your son. I wish he could have had just one more Christmas at home.”
“I, too, wish—but there’s no use in wishing,” Mrs. Emory said. “Please let me fix you a cup of coffee.”
“Don’t trouble—” The look in her eyes silenced me. I helped her to her feet, willing to stay all night if I had to, to help this frail lady survive the blow she’d been dealt.
We turned to go into the kitchen when suddenly a strange glow shone through the windows, soft red and green. I went to the window and looked out and up, and—I swear to God!—saw every string of lights around the eaves burning through the veil of snow.
Mrs. Emory gasped. “I put the extension cord away this afternoon!”
I ran to the door and yanked it open. The plug still dangled free, swaying in the rising wind. Mrs. Emory put a hand on my arm and stared at the lights. As we watched, the bulbs blinked once, twice, three times. I looked at my neighbor. Her eyes shone as she stared at the lights, her hands clasped in front of her heart. I closed the door against the cold, and we slipped back to the window.
The lights blinked again, three times, and then went out.
Mrs. Emory moved into an assisted living home in April, and the lights came down. As her friends helped her to pack up her life in boxes and bags for the Goodwill, I went across the greening yard, carrying a plate of brownies. Mrs. Emory called a halt to the packing and poured coffee for everyone.
“I have something for you,” she said, leading me to the garage. She handed me a bag marked “Fragile.”
I knew what was in it even before I heard the bulbs clinking. I hugged my neighbor and whisked a tear away with my pinkie so she wouldn’t see me cry.
She left that afternoon. A family with twin boys moved in less than a month later. I always planned to go visit her, but life got in the way. Then her obituary appeared in the paper, and I grieved for the time we didn’t have.
I didn’t attend her memorial service, but her red and green lights hang on the side of our house facing her old place. Every Christmas season they burn without flickering, lighting the winter nights.