During COVID and isolation, I have been quite lonely, with no real-life people to spend time with. I realized that there are probably a lot of people who feel lonely like I do, so I thought, why not write a scene about the time I feel the least lonely, a family gathering. Children running around, aunts and uncles chattering, cooking, and playing games, and grandma and grandpa full of joy and thankfulness. So I hope that, whether you feel lonely or you simply stumbled upon this, that you can find in it the spark of family happiness. Enjoy!
Christmas at the Robinettes'
By Chris Horst
Snow blows around Grandma and Grandpa Robinette’s house, banking and swirling in thick wet clumps until it reaches the end of its journey and feeds the piles building up around the walls and window frames. Warm yellow light glows behind the curtains, contrasting with the darkness of the December evening and hinting at the liveliness within.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandchildren bustle about the rooms like bees in a hive, their chattering, singing, and cries of excitement drowning out a trio chanting “We Three Kings” on the Oldies station. Aunts Mary, Sarah, and Jen chatter on the long couch, while, despite the ruckus, college-age Ariel naps on the short couch, scrunched up by its small size. Several of the family members sit around a card table, humming tunes as they fit pieces into a half-constructed jigsaw puzzle. Little Sammy scurries around the room driving a yellow model Ferrari along any surface he can find, be it right-side-up, sideways, or upside-down, screeching, “Batmobile! Batmobile!”
Beside the CRT that soundlessly plays a football game that might have been recorded, Uncle Luke chatters and gestures with Uncle John in his raspy rural accent. “That whole area under there had rotted, so I ended up replacin’ those two’b’fours . . .”
On the floor, a gaggle of teens and tweens sit or lie on their stomachs in a circle playing a game they call Egyptian War when they know they are being observed, and something less scrupulous when they think the grown-ups aren’t listening. The players take turns placing the top card of their decks on a central pile until two of the same card appear in a row or with one card sandwiched between them, and then the first person who slaps the pile gets to add it to their deck. More than one card bears a red stain from fingernails meeting flesh at high velocity.
“Batmobile!” Sammy cries, holding his yellow car in the air as if it’s a toy plane. “Batmobile!” He lands the car on the side of his two-year-old sister Hannah’s head.
“No no no!” adult voices cry from all around. Mary, Sammy’s mom, reaches the children in two quick strides and kneels beside them, putting her hand on the car as Sammy pulls it away from Hannah. “Not on your sister, okay?”
Hannah begins to cry, and Sammy, realizing he’s done something bad, joins in. Mary makes soothing shushing sounds as she checks Hannah’s head. Finding no marks, she kisses it, then gently wipes the tears off Hanna’s cheeks. “It’s okay.” Hannah stops crying, and Mary turns and says, “Sammy, what do you say?”
Sammy looks away and shuffles his feet. “I’m sorry.”
“Good.” Mary smiles lovingly. “You can drive your batmobile on the floor and on the chairs and couches, but not on people. Okay?”
“Okay.” Sammy rushes off, stooping to roll his yellow batmobile across the room.
Mary returns to her seat. Gradually, the hubbub returns to its previous level, the incident forgotten.
“I’m making coffee,” Grandpa calls from the kitchen. “Anybody want some?”
“Coffee?” Aunt Georgie says in her strong alto voice practiced from decades of theater performance as she navigates the busy living room, making eye contact, noting the yeses, nos, bobbing of heads, and waving of hands.
Ariel raises a sleepy hand without opening her eyes. “I’ave coffee.”
“Luke, John, coffee?”
“Yeah, I’ll take some,” Luke says. John smiles and waves the offer away.
“No, it’s evening,” nineteen-year-old Lexa replies, not looking up from her laptop nor slowing the clicking of her fingers on its keyboard.
Georgie returns to the kitchen. “We’ve got six orders for coffee, Grandpa. Six cups plus you makes seven. Seven cups.”
“Seven cups, coming up,” Grandpa says. The coffee maker heats up, and the gurgling of the machine mixes with the scent of home-ground coffee beans and brings sweet memories of many years to Grandpa’s mind. The times he would take little Luke, Mary, and John to the train tracks to find the flattened, featureless remains of the pennies they had left on the rails the day before. The first time he had seen baby Ariel, so small in Georgie’s arms, and had felt like a new father all over again. And when he and Grandma had gone to Armenia as Red Cross volunteers after the Soviet Union had dissolved and had stayed in the home of Gevorg and Margarit, who had come to the States and celebrated Christmas with the family that year.
Grandpa walks through the kitchen doorway and watches his sons and daughters, their husbands and wives, and his grandchildren, all enjoying themselves and each other in their own ways. A yellow warmth shines in his old bones.
Grandma appears beside him. She hasn’t entered his field of view, but after the many wonderful and adventurous years they’ve had together, he knows when she is near. “God has truly blessed us with such a large, happy family,” she says.
“Yes, he has,” Grandpa replies.
Eight-year-old Ben dashes from the bathroom and approaches Sarah. With an ear-to-ear grin, he says, “Hi Fake Mom!”
“Fake?” Sarah asks with a curious smile.
Finding himself the center of attention, Ben’s eyes dart, and his smile turns bashful.
“Fake Mom?” Uncle Luke prompts. “What’s up with that?”
Ben turns around and darts back into the bathroom. The other family members chuckle and roll their eyes. Ben runs out of the bedroom. “Hi Real Mom!” he shouts.
“Oh, so she’s real now?” Luke says.
“Yeah.” Ben looks around, as if expecting everyone to get it.
The clock strikes eight, and Grandma announces that she would like everyone to gather for a song. Heads are counted. “Anyone know where Kristina and Judah are?” Mary asks.
“They’re in the Wardrobe,” Ben says.
“You want to go get them?” Sarah asks.
Ben passes through the bedroom to the walk-in closet, which has a back exit to the bathroom. The kids have named this closet the Wardrobe because, like Narnia, if you go in one side and come out the other, you end up in another world. Except unlike Narnia, this new world looks exactly the same as the real world, and has copies of all the people. It is very important to keep track of how many times you go through the Wardrobe each way so that you end up going home with the right mom and dad.
11-year-old Kristina and Judah are sitting on the floor behind a forest of Grandma’s clothes. It’s snug and cozy back here, like a pillow fort. This is where they tell each other secrets and share feelings that only 11-year-olds can understand.
The clothes rustle and Ben’s face pokes through. “Hi!”
“Ben,” Judah says, “what are you doing?”
“My mom said to go get you.”
“Mm, okay.” Judah and Kristina crawl out from behind the clothes. After all, if a grown-up says to come out, they have to come out.
The rest of the family is standing in a circle, and they make room for the three kids. With everyone present, Grandpa says a few words about the meaning of Christmas, and how thankful he and Grandma are that the whole family could be here to celebrate it with them.
When he is finished, Georgie asks the group, “Shall we sing Silent Night?” She sweeps the room with her gaze, more to check if everyone is ready than if anyone disagrees. It is a yearly tradition, after all.
She begins the first line. By the time she gets to “Holy night,” the rest of the family have joined their voices with hers in four-part harmony. The melody resonates through the house and connects everyone’s hearts in celebration, and the dark and bitter cold finds no purchase here on this joyous Christmas night.