Merry always found it odd that she had a name so associated with Christmas. Her parents were pagans, or Wiccans, maybe, depended on the day you asked them. Yet, when she was born, they had chosen the name Merry for their only daughter. She ran a finger through the dust on the coffee table in her mother’s living room. Now that they were over fifty, Bob and Cynthia didn’t even attempt to keep up the funky hippy traditions that had been a part of Merry’s youth. The utter lack of any kind of spirit was depressing.
The windows were frosty around their edges, but inside it was warm enough. Not cozy though. There was nothing cozy about this house. December 23rd and nothing to mark the season as special. Merry hadn’t jumped over to the religious side of Christmas, but she always enjoyed the celebrations that marked the season. She had even gone to a Chanukah celebration at a coworker’s home. Midwinter’s day needed to be celebrated somehow. It was a sign of hope for the coming year, she thought, sinking into a worn chair in the corner of her parent’s cluttered living room.
It was the same apartment she’d grown up in, filled with people working for the latest cause, saving whales or fighting apartheid, walking every 5k or 10k they could find. There wasn’t a person in need who couldn’t find a safe haven in their spare room, and there were usually at least one or two orphaned baby squirrels or kittens in a box near the radiator. Bob and Cynthia Merriweather were the kind of activists who gave activism a good name. They were genuinely kind and gave until they had nothing left for themselves.
And they loved each other. Merry’s parents were the most in-love parents a child could want. They held hands in every one of those walks to save something, sometimes swinging their little girl between them while she giggled and danced on tiptoe. Bob was always coming up behind Cynthia to kiss her cheek, and Cynthia never forgot that Bob liked his lentils with sage and not thyme for seasoning. Merry learned very young not to go into their bedroom without knocking, after one frightening incident that gave her nightmares for quite some time. Her parents had thought it best to explain what she’d seen, and their openness had not been appreciated by their daughter. Memory after memory ran through Merry’s mind. Her friends wondered why she went home to a house without Christmas. They had no idea.
The little house was so dim, Merry thought,. reaching over to click on the lamp next to her. It didn’t help much. The real light in this house had been her parents’ love, and it was flickering, and almost completely gone. Sitting deep in that broken-springed chair, Merry wiped a tear from her cheek. The sounds from the bedroom were more frightening than her childhood experience. She could hear drawers opening and closing, and the click of a suitcase.
“I’m leaving now, Merry,” her father said, coming into the living room. “I’ll call you from the motel.”
When Merry didn’t answer, Bob leaned over to look at her face. “Are you crying? Why are you crying? Cynthia, Merry is crying her eyes out in here.”
Cynthia Merriweather rushed into the room, her arms full of towels. “What is it, Bob? I wanted to tell you to take these towels, motels always have rough ones that give you that rash. Why, Merry, what is going on? Did you hurt yourself?”
Merry looked up at her parents. By now, the tears were streaming so heavily, she could barely see. “You’re asking me what’s wrong? How can you even ask?”
“Well, Merry,” her mother responded, “Because you haven’t told us what is wrong. We’d be happy to help if we only knew what was wrong.”
“Merry, cupcake, tell your dad what he can do to help.”
Merry peered at them through dark lashes matted with tears. They really had no idea what might be wrong with her. They didn’t know. A germ of an idea began to form in Merry’s mind. These people would do anything to help someone in need. She pushed her auburn bangs out of her eyes with one shaking hand. Maybe, if she could just delay her father’s departure, they would remember how much they loved each other. It was worth a shot, even if it was a little sneaky. Well, a lot sneaky, but who cared?
“Don’t leave, Dad. I need you both so much right now.”
“Merry, I’m just going to the motel across town. You can see me there anytime you like. Your mother and I need our space right now. We need to get our acts together and see if we’re karmically intended to stay together.”
Need their space my ass, thought Merry. But what she said was, “Please! Please stay just until the New Year. I’ll be okay by then, I’m sure.”
“Merry, what on earth are you talking about? Why shouldn’t your father go and have his space? We’re both here for you.”
“No, if Dad leaves, you won’t both be here. You’ll be somewhere else and I need this group together if I’m going to get over...over my broken heart!”
“Broken heart?” her mother asked suspiciously. “Have you been seeing someone?”
“Baby, someone broke your heart? Who is he? I’m sure if we just talk to him, we can make it all better. How could anyone not love you?” her father said.
“I can’t tell you any more,” she said, sobbing for real now. This was the biggest lie she’d ever told, and she was panicked that they would see through it. Hippie parents were big on honesty, and she had told very few lies over the years, so she wasn’t too good at it. Merry had to be back at work the Monday after New Years Day. She had just over ten days to fix her parents’ marriage, and that wasn’t very long at all.
The biggest lie was that someone had broken her heart. Merry hadn’t been seeing anyone for quite some time. She hadn’t even had a date in over six months. If she couldn’t have a relationship like her parents’, she didn’t want one at all. Like her parents had been, rather. And could be again! she told herself. Nobody could be as in-love as her parents and have it end like this.
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt to wait until Merry goes home,” her mother said. “I suppose.”
“As long as you think we can help, we’re here for you baby,” said her dad, looking happier than he had since she’d gotten home. “Let me put my things away, then maybe we’ll make some nice soup. Would that make you feel better?”
Merry scrubbed at her cheeks. “I really think it would help. I am a little hungry.”
“Good idea,” said Cynthia. “And while we make the soup - bean I think – we can talk about having your ex over here to achieve closure.”
“C-closure?” Merry was shocked. This was not how it was supposed to go!
“Of course, dear,” her mother patted her shoulder kindly. “I’ve never seen you this upset. We have to have him come over here so we can all sit down together and get our heads together on this.”
“You know our motto, Merry, it never pays to stuff our feelings. You need to tell him, what’s his name anyway? how you truly feel so you can let go.” Her father was starting to look positively cheerful now.
“I – ummm – I don’t think he, I mean Sam, can make it.”
“Well that’s no problem at all, Merry.” Cynthia nodded in satisfaction.
Merry drew in a breath of short-lived relief.
“That’s right, we’ll just climb in the V.W. bus and head on down to San Diego.” Merry’s father beamed at her We can be there in just four or five hours. Call Sam and see if he’d like to meet us for dinner.”
Merry’s heart raced, and she jumped up from her chair. Her mouth dried out and her tongue stuck to the top of her mouth. She pulled it free with a sucking sound and said, “Oh, that won’t be necessary. I’ll call him after dinner and see what he’s going to be up to this week. Maybe he can stop by or something.”
“Winter Solstice is this Monday. We’ll have a feast!” Cynthia was cheering up too. “ All the foods that have significance to the season. We will celebrate just as we used to! Let’s put out the word.”
“I’ll tell everyone down at the co-op this afternoon,” her dad had never looked happier than he did now. Maybe he wasn’t in such a hurry to leave her mother after all.
With both her parents now in the kitchen, banging cupboards and making a shopping list, Merry sank back into the broken down chair. She rested her hands in her lap and tried to breathe slowly and deeply and fight back the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. She only had this one chance to help save her parents’ marriage, and if she didn’t produce an ex-boyfriend, it wasn’t going to work. The last serious boyfriend she’d had was at least three years ago, and it had ended badly.
Badly enough that she didn’t want to call on Evan to come over even for one day. It would be absolutely impossible to face him after what had happened. No, Evan was not a possibility. But if not Evan, who? She didn’t have any single male friends who could get away from work this week to pose, as her ex. Evan was a professor; he was off work this week. And Gwen, her best friend, and wife of Evan’s best friend Clyde, had made a point of telling her just recently, about how Evan had shown up at her Christmas party stag, yet again. He was off work, and he was single. It was Evan or nothing.
Only for her parents would Merry do something as unbelievably difficult as this. But she had to come up with an ex, or the proverbial jig was up. Merry’s parents were staying together through the holiday season to help her get over her devastating break-up and Merry had to produce her boyfriend and have closure. What would Evan say when she called?
Merry reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. It wasn’t the same phone she’d had three years ago, but she realized, to her dismay, that she still remembered Evan’s phone number. Ugh. As she punched in the numbers, she thought to herself that Evan probably wouldn’t come anyway. He was ninety miles away and that was very far to drive as a favor to someone who had dumped you by voice mail, with no explanation, three years ago.
The phone rang, once, twice, three times. She waited for his voice mail to kick on. Then he answered. “Hello, just a second, and Merry heard fumbling as though he’d dropped the phone.
She was tempted to drop the phone herself and pretend it had never happened. Unfortunately, her number would now be in his phone, and he would probably do what most people do and call back to see whom it was. “Hi, Evan.”
“Who’s calling?” He still had the sexiest voice she’d ever heard. After such a long time, it still gave her little chills.
“It’s Merry, Evan. How are you?”
“Yes, it’s Merry. I’ve called to ask a favor. You don’t have to do it,” she said in a rush. “But I’m desperate, or I’d never ask. You’re probably still mad at me and I can’t blame you.”
The silence that followed her words was so long, Merry was afraid she’d lost the connection. Finally, just as she was about to hang up, Merry heard laughter. Laughter!
“Hi Merry! How’s tricks? Me? Oh, I’m fine, nothing new.”
Merry held the phone a little away from her ear, not sure what to do. “I’m glad you’re fine, Evan, I’ve wondered how you were.”
The laughter cut off abruptly. “You should have called, then, Merry.” His voice was soft, and a little strained. “I never knew why you dumped me. All you said was that it was over, and not to call. What did I do?”
“I can’t really explain it now, on the phone. But I know I owe you an explanation. If you’ll do me this favor, I will try to explain in person.”
“Merry, I don’t know what to say. You call me after three years, and want a favor? Okay, I’ll bite. What did you want me to do?” His voice was a little less soft, but if anything more strained.
“Would you come down here to my parent’s home and help me keep them from getting a divorce?”
“I have no idea how I can help you keep your parents together, but I was planning to go skiing up at Krall Summit for Christmas Break. I can stop by on the way. I want that explanation. Your parents still in the same house?”
Merry couldn’t believe he was being so nice after the way she’d treated him. “Why don’t I meet you at the diner before you come to the house and tell you what’s going on here.”
“I will leave first thing in the morning, so I should be down there by around ten.”
“See you then, Evan, and thank you. You are a far better friend than I deserve.”
“Good-bye Merry.” And he was gone.
Merry sat in that old chair, holding her cell phone in her lap. Evan was coming tomorrow. She hadn’t seen him in three years, yet he was coming just because she asked. What did that mean?
Merry came down for breakfast the next morning expecting to see her parents sitting with their granola and herbal tea. Instead, she found a note on the refrigerator telling her they were out buying more supplies for their Yule party that night. Merry shook her head and poured herself a glass of orange juice. It was nine-thirty and Merry had slept late after tossing and turning most of the night. She was wearing her favorite blue cashmere sweater and jeans, and had actually put on a little mascara and lip-gloss. She only hoped Evan would actually show, since he had every reason not to. Sighing, Merry grabbed her car keys off the counter, grabbed her purse, and went out to get in her car and face the music. Only to go back in for her parka. Take two.
Evan drove up to the diner and parked right in front. He didn’t see Merry’s little sedan, but she might have changed vehicles by now. Three years was a long time. He was stunned when he heard her voice the day before, but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to see her one more time. To see if he still wanted her as much as he had when they were dating. Evan had thought that Merry was the One, and had thought they’d be married in a year or so. He had even bought a ring. Then, bam, she left that message on his voice mail, and it was over. And even though he’d respected her request to stay away, and had never even called, he had always wondered why she had ended their relationship. This was his one chance to find out why. Then he could go on with his life and stop waiting for her. And that’s what he had been doing, he could admit that to himself now. Waiting for Merry to come back. Evan smiled ruefully as he headed into the diner and took a seat at a table by the window.
When Merry arrived, she recognized Evan’s car. He still had that old MG convertible. As impractical as it was to drive in the winter, he would drive nothing else. Loyal as an old dog, she thought. Her vision felt blurry as she caught sight of his profile in the diner window. His blonde hair was a little shaggy around the edges, he had always needed to be reminded to have it cut. With a deep breath, she pushed open the door to the diner, pasted a cheerful smile on her lips, and approached her past.
“Hello, Evan.” She noticed that his deep blue eyes looked a little tired, the laugh lines by his mouth a bit deeper than when she’d last seen him. “It’s good to see you. Thank you so much for coming.”
“Merry.” Evan stood and leaned over the table to kiss her cheek. “I could never say no to you.” He looked directly into Merry’s eyes, holding eye contact as he resumed his seat.
She smiled a little. He never had said no to her. “I asked you here because I need your help. My parents’ marriage is in trouble, and my dad is planning to leave my mother.”
“How can I help with that?” Evan looked as puzzled as he felt. How could his coming here save the marriage of two people he’d never met? The closest he’d come was picking Merry up at their house once, and they weren’t even home at the time.
“I told them that I needed them to help me get over a bad break-up, and you know Mom and Dad. When I said I needed their help, Dad said he’d stay in the house through the holiday season, until I went back to the city. They insisted on having a big party to help us reach closure.”
Evan’s azure gaze narrowed. “What are you leaving out here, Merry?”
“Leaving out? It’s a party, for her parents, and I implied the break-up was recent. You know my parents, they believe it’s healing to gather the community around when traumatic things happen. Once I asked for their help, I had to accept their recipe for feeling better, and it was this party. And they were worried about me and the guy who dumped me, so...” Crap! The look of mute outrage on Evan's face told her she’d said the wrong thing.
“Merry, you told them I dumped you?”
”Well, not you, not exactly. I told them a guy broke up with me.
“What guy did break up with you?
“There’s no guy, Evan. I just made up the story so they would stay together long enough to realize they need each other. They love each other, they do!” Her voice broke on a sob and her hands flew to her mouth.
“Merry, you can’t make your parents stay together. They’re grownups, they get to choose what they want to do.”
“I can help them see what they really want to do! I know I can, and with you here to help me I have no doubt we’ll succeed. My parents are the happiest couple I know, and if they can’t make it who can?”
Evan looked quietly at his former love. Things were starting to click in his mind. “Merry,” he said, his voice very carefully even. “Why did you break up with me?”
“Can’t we talk about this later, Evan? After the party, maybe?”
“No, Merry. We have to talk about this now. Why did you leave me that message? That was pretty cold, Merry. I thought we had something special together.”
Merry realized there was no way forward but right through the truth. “We did, Evan. I’ve never had anything so special with anyone else.”
“Then why? Why did you end it so abruptly. I thought you must have met someone else.”
“No, Evan, I didn’t meet anyone else. In fact,” she swallowed past a large lump that was suddenly in her throat, “I haven’t met anyone else.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either, Evan. All I know is that I had to end our relationship. I felt panicked. I didn’t know what else to do. If I couldn’t have a relationship like my parents I didn’t want one at all.”
“Merry, you wanted a relationship like your parents, so you ended ours? And now you’ve called me in to help you put theirs back together. None of this makes sense.”
Merry stared at Evan, feeling the panic rising again, just looking at him. “I know it doesn’t seem to make sense, when I say it out loud. But at the time, they looked so perfect together. They loved and hated all the same things, went everywhere together. I had the only parents I knew who hugged and kissed all the time. How could we hope to have a relationship that good?”
“Our relationship was our own, Merry. Just like their relationship is theirs. If your parents want to separate, divorce, or stay together forever, it’s up to them. You can’t manipulate them into staying married if they don’t want to.”
Merry wiped the tears that were now streaming down her face with the back of her wrist. “I can’t bear it if they break up. I can’t stand my family being torn apart.”
Evan took the hand away from her face and kissed her fingertips. “Merry, you’re a grown woman, who should be making her own family now. With someone that you choose for yourself.”
Merry was speechless. Evan was right, but she had given up on having a relationship after she’d made the fateful phone call. She hadn’t so much as gone out on a date since then. How could she possibly meet someone she cared about that much again.
As the waitress approached with menus, Evan stood and stepped away from the table. “As much as I’d love to stay and have coffee, I’d better head for the slopes. Now that we’ve resolved what was, we can both move forward toward what will be. Just make sure your mom and dad know you love them, Merry, and whatever happens will work out fine.”
“Thanks, Evan. You were the best thing that every happened to me. I’m sorry I blew it.”
Evan bent to kiss her on the forehead. “Take care, Merry.” And he walked out to his car.
Merry went home planning to explain the whole story to her parents and tell them they had her full support, whatever their plans were. But to her amazement, she walked into a hippie winter wonderland, full of giggling middle-aged people and wonderful cooking smells. Women in colorful patchwork skirts swirled through the kitchen, and there were at least six men, most of them with ponytails and beards, putting together a long table of planks and sawhorses in the living room.
“Merry, dear, is that you? Hurry in here and get the sesame cookies out of the oven before they burn!” Her mother sounded so happy and excited. “Just put them on the rack in the dining room.”
Merry hurried into the kitchen to help her mother. Within moments she was so caught up in the whirlwind of preparations that she just, somehow, never got to tell either of her parents about her ruse. When Bob and Cynthia threw a party, it started as soon as the preparations did. Finally the food was ready to serve. Everyone had made their favorites and the array was astonishing. Esther had made crispy potato latkes, Saravani her spicy lamb curry. Jeanette had prepared a delicate puff pastry snowflake filled with chocolate mousse and Elaine had baked the nine-grain bread that everyone remembered from their commune days. So many delicious dishes from all the holiday celebrations of the world.
Merry gazed around at the happy faces. Most of them were heavier, and there was a lot of gray in those ponytails. But the spirit that she remembered from her childhood was there, if anything stronger. The air veritably sparkled with it. She felt as though she could stand there in the candlelight and just look at them forever, her heart swelling with love.
“Merry, we don’t want to start without your young man. When did he say he would be here? Her mother smiled at Merry from across the table, her husband’s arm across her shoulders.
“Mom, I don’t think he’s going to make it.” There was no point in going into the whole mess with Evan now. She could tell them tomorrow.
“Anyone expecting Santa Claus?” Alfonse, her father’s oldest friend, stood in the open doorway.
“Santa Claus? No, but he’s sure welcome! It’s Christmas Eve isn’t it?” Merry’s father said. “Bring him in!”
Behind Alfonse, in his old patched jeans and t-shirt, stood Santa Claus. Or, rather, Evan in a Santa suit, with a huge bag of gifts over his shoulder. “Ho ho ho! Merry....Christmas!”
Merry could only stare. “Evan, what are you doing?”
“I came to start our own tradition, Merry. I called this afternoon, and your mother told me about all their wonderful friends. So I drove my reindeer this way to bring gifts to all of the goodhearted people who give to others all year long.” And, while Merry stood open-mouthed, Evan began to hand out his gifts. To Esther, who worked three days a week in a thrift shop for abused women, a lovely silk shawl. To Alfonse, who ran a soup kitchen, a set of Wustoff knives. To each of her parents’ friends, who were the most community-minded, giving people in the world, Santa-Evan gave a perfect gift. Merry’s mother got a new pair of Nikes for her next 5k walk, and her dad a huge tin of Greek olives, which he loved but would never buy for himself.
Finally, the sack was almost empty. Only one small box remained. Merry was still standing at the side of the room, overwhelmed. She didn’t know what to do, or what to say.
“Merry, I think Santa has something for you.” Bob gave Merry a little push toward Evan. “I don’t think he’ll bite.”
Merry walked slowly over to Evan, tiny steps, her eyes never leaving his deep blue gaze. She reached for the small brightly wrapped box he held out toward her and carefully removed the beautiful bow. Carefully unwrapping the box, she found a lump of coal.
Evan looked at what was in her hand, and the shocked expression in Merry’s eyes. He began to laugh. “Oh, that was the gift you were going to get when you were on the Naughty List. I’ve been told you have moved to the Nice List.” He rummaged at the bottom of the big sack, pulled out an even smaller box, and placed it in Merry’s outstretched hand.
Merry never doubted what was in that box. A big tear rolled down her cheek. “Are you sure, Evan?”
“I was sure when I bought it, Merry. I have kept it for three years.”
It seemed as though the brightly lit room and all the people faded, leaving them alone. Merry looked up at Evan and smiled. “ Thank you for waiting for me to come to my senses.”
“I’m only glad you did.” Evan pulled the Santa beard down below his chin and bent to press his lips to hers. He pulled her close and deepened the kiss, until they both remembered how good it had been to hold each other.
When they came up for air, Merry turned in Evan’s arms and looked at her parents. They held hands like teenagers, snitching bits of delicacies from the platters and surreptitiously feeding them to each other. They would be fine.
Evan looked at her questioningly and Merry voiced what she had been thinking. “They always loved each other, but they had lost the spirit that held them together. Look at these people, all of them. The sixties were a magical time, but only because of the magical people who grew up in them. Mom and Dad didn’t need space, they needed Spirit.”