Colorful strands of holiday lights, leading up to the front entrance of the nursing home, did little to relieve the darkness of a rainy South Carolina afternoon. A reindeer statue with a blinking red nose gazed out upon the parking lot from its place of honor in an evergreen planting bed. The statue reminded Ella Mae of the deer she had hit in the twilight several years ago, when it had bounded out into the road without her seeing it. After that she had given up driving.
She waited in the passenger seat of the Buick, listening to the rain patter on its roof, while her housekeeper Marta walked around with the umbrella and opened the door. Struggling to step down while holding the neatly wrapped box she had brought, Ella Mae placed her feet carefully on the slick asphalt. Marta put a hand on her arm to steady her.
Once inside the building’s lobby, the two women parted ways. Marta, pushing an errant strand of dark hair away from her round face, settled down in a comfortable chair with a Sudoku puzzle book. Ella Mae got a visitor’s badge from a cheerful young receptionist and went on through another door. On either side of the wide hall beyond, thick pine wreaths adorned doorways that led into small visiting areas. The heavy fragrance of the wreaths, and likely some pine air freshener too, didn’t quite cover the institutional smell of bleach and other cleaning products.
Cousin Florence came into view at the other end of the hall, wearing a blue polyester dress and pushing her walker. She had been obese most of her life, and the weight had only just come off a few years ago, now that she no longer cooked for herself. Under sparse white hair that had gotten only a desultory combing, the skin of Florence’s face and neck hung in loose folds, like rivulets of melted wax running away from a candle at the end of its wick.
The right side of Florence’s mouth always looked like it was turned up in a sneer. Ella Mae knew this was the result of a stroke and Florence couldn’t control it; but that was sometimes hard to keep in mind, given Florence’s habit of starting to complain the moment a visitor arrived. Today, just as she got within earshot, Florence launched into her favorite topic—the unpardonable neglect from her four children, all of whom had left South Carolina long ago and rarely came to see her.
“Not one of them can be bothered,” Florence declared, as she maneuvered her walker into one of the visiting rooms, “to come and see their poor lonely mother at Christmas. They’re so wicked and thoughtless. I might not last another year, Ella Mae, and then they’d be coming to my funeral instead, if they could even stir their lazy bones that far.”
This lament no longer had much emotional impact after having been repeated each year, in one form or another, over the past four decades. Cousin Florence had made up her mind that she was a neglected old lady as soon as her children left home. To nobody’s surprise, that complaint had turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ella Mae put her box on a coffee table and settled herself on an overstuffed pea-green sofa, nodding at intervals and making sympathetic noises as her cousin’s rant continued. Her weekly visits always went much this way. She didn’t begrudge Florence a little company now and again, though; it seemed only the decent thing to do, now that both women had been widowed for many years and most of their kinfolk had left town.
The ringing of her cell phone gave Ella Mae a brief reprieve from this one-sided conversation. She glanced down at the picture on the screen. It was Timmy, still staring at the world with the bright curious eyes he’d had at his birth, although by now he had deep crow’s feet around them and had lost most of his hair. Ella Mae touched the screen and gave him a cheerful “Hello.”
“I’m working overtime again tonight, Mama.”
Timmy never had been much of a talker. He could manage a sentence or two at a time, but not much beyond that. Telephone calls, when they went on for more than a minute, left him as nervous as if he’d picked up a snake. Even so, he always called without fail when he had a change of plans.
“I’ll let Marta know, dear. Bye.”
Ella Mae put her phone back in her handbag before her cousin had time to say anything about the interruption. What Florence thought of Timmy had long been a sore spot. Almost a half-century ago, Florence had said some unkind things and Ella Mae hadn’t spoken to her for months. If Ella Mae thought about it for too long, she still got upset sometimes, although she knew there wasn’t any sense in that. By now, Florence, who had been diagnosed with dementia, probably didn’t even remember what had been said. Although her cousin’s childhood memories remained clear as a bell, anything else was hit-or-miss.
All the same, Ella Mae still felt she was owed the apology she’d never gotten. Florence had been so hateful all those years ago when Timmy got his first job, telling her, “You raised that boy all wrong, Ella Mae. He can’t do for himself worth a nickel; you’re still fixing his meals and doing his laundry, and now you’re driving him to work. He never goes out on dates or does much of anything besides building those silly model trains in your basement. What’s he going to do when you can’t take care of him anymore? That boy is bound to end up in an institution, Ella Mae, mark my words.”
As it turned out, although Timmy never left home or learned how to drive, nothing dramatic came of it when Ella Mae got older. Marta took charge of both the household chores and the driving, and life went on much as usual. Timmy had a good union job in a factory, earning more than enough to pay Marta’s wages and keep up their small house.
Reminding herself once again that she ought to know better than to hold a grudge against her cousin for so many years, Ella Mae turned her attention to the gift-wrapped box. “Go ahead and open your Christmas present, Florence. It’s made special for you.”
With a sniff as though to demonstrate how little she expected, Florence picked at the ribbons and wrapping paper, complaining all the while about her selfish children who couldn’t be bothered to get any Christmas gifts for their poor old mother. Ella Mae knew they had in fact sent gifts last week, but she held her peace. Then Florence slowly lifted the lid off the box, revealing the bright Christmastime tableau inside.
The old train station had been demolished many years ago, when passenger trains stopped coming through town. Timmy had worked both from his boyhood memories and from Ella Mae’s photo albums in creating the scene. There was the little building with its holiday decorations perfectly rendered, a train just coming into the station, and a small crowd of carefully painted figurines waiting in their old-fashioned clothing. One of the figurines, a tall woman with a fancy hat and a long fur coat, had a little dog trotting beside her. The dog wore a red sweater.
As soon as Florence’s gaze fell on that particular figurine, she amazed Ella Mae by bursting out into a loud girlish giggle.
“Why, I declare—that’s Aunt Rhoda with her spoiled-rotten poodle!”
Ella Mae glanced down at the tiny painted face, which was little more than a blur without her reading glasses. When Timmy had shown her the completed scene, she hadn’t thought the characters in it were meant to be real people. But then, come to think of it, she hadn’t asked.
“And look, Ella Mae, that’s us!” Florence pointed gleefully at two girls in sweaters and skirts. “That’s when we went down to the train station to meet Uncle Frank when he came back from business in the city. He gave us candy canes and told us he’d brought presents, but we couldn’t open them till Christmas.”
“I remember. Aunt Rhoda’s poodle nipped me on the ankle. Horrid little beast. Ruined my best pair of stockings.” And then Ella Mae also found herself dissolving helplessly into giggles as her memories came back with more clarity. She finally added, “You know what, Florence, I do believe you’re right. Uncle Frank took pictures of us at the train station, and they were in one of the photo albums Timmy looked at while he was working on this.”
Cousin Florence looked up from the scene, her pale blue eyes moist. “Ella Mae, could you get copies of those photos for me?”
“I sure will. Next week when I visit, I’ll bring everything that’s in all my photo albums. Timmy has a scanner on his computer that can copy the photos, and there’s a special kind of picture frame with a screen for displaying them. He bought me one of those frames for my birthday, a few years ago, and put some digital pictures on it that he took with his camera. I don’t quite understand how it works, but Timmy does. He’ll fix you right up.”
For the first time since she’d moved into the nursing home, Florence had a peaceful look. Even the twitch at the corner of her mouth no longer seemed to have any agitation in it, and her gaze was completely lucid.
“You raised a good son, Ella Mae.”