Tracings in Snow
“When Matthew was sixteen years old, he ran away from home. He did not return until Christmas Eve fourteen years later. He showed up on the lawn late at night, while the family was gathered around the tree…”
I’m sitting in my favorite tea shop in Portland, trying not to eavesdrop on a blind date that is taking place approximately two inches away from my chair. A tea shop the size of a large closet is probably not the best place to meet for a date, no matter how fragrant and delicious the tea. I can tell everyone in the room -there are five of us- is listening in, because every now and then one of us turns as if to offer the male half of the date some (in my opinion, sorely needed) advice. But then we recollect ourselves recalling that, after all, this is not our date to direct, and we slip back into mute sympathy and that make-believe world in which we pretend we cannot see, hear or feel for our fellow human beings, each of us blundering along on our separate journey.
I hope you have an equally entertaining coffee break this morning. Here’s the latest installment of Tracings in Snow to help.
◊ Installment 5 ◊
They were all gathered around the fireplace. They looked like a typical, loving family. A stranger, glancing through the window at the firelight glinting on their faces, might have assumed they had clustered together to read the Christmas story. From the way they all stared at Matthew –rapt, attentive- the stranger might have deduced that Matthew was the principle storyteller, instead of what he really was: utterly silent. His long, knobby fingers played clumsily around the rim of the teacup of eggnog his mother had handed him. But they were Matthew’s fingers: long and slim and brown, deft at untangling knots in a fishing line, or unraveling snarls in Christmas lights. How had they managed to put up the lights without him for all these years? No one could remember how they first transitioned, the year after Matthew left.
“Well, this is awkward,” said the uncle, after the silence and the staring had dragged on for several moments. Everyone had finished his eggnog except Matthew.
“I think we should start out with a few basic questions,” said the cousin. “Where have you been all these years?”
“I think we can start out with something more basic than that,” said Walter. “Where’s your driver’s license? Let’s see some proof of identity.”
“What makes you think he has a license?” said the aunt. “He doesn’t look like he can afford a car.”
They all looked critically at Matthew.
“Can you afford a car?” demanded the uncle interrogatively.
“Maybe that’s why he was gone for so long,” the cousin put in helpfully.
“Oh right, I’m sure that’s why he abandoned us for fourteen years,” snapped Walter. “He accidentally hitchhiked across the country, and had to walk back.”
“Everyone just calm down,” ordered the uncle. “Now, we’re all wondering different things here, so let’s take turns asking the questions.” He turned back to Matthew. “Are you in any way involved with drug smuggling, extortion, or an illicit prison escape?”
“If you’re really Matthew,” said Walter, narrowing his eyes. “What was your favorite baseball card as a child?”
“Are you married?” said the aunt. “Do you have any children?”
“What color was the crayon you made me drop in the washing machine when I was five, and Mom was washing the wedding sheets?”
“Why didn’t you write?” said Kalli.
“Which window did we break at Aunt Ruth’s house in 1989, when you told her we were playing catch in the back yard, but it was actually the living room?”
“Everyone just stop!” commanded the mother. “You’re overwhelming him with questions.”
There was a long pause in which they all stared at their feet and silently asked the question no one had put into words: why did you leave us?
Matthew, his hands stretched tightly around his cup of eggnog as if he could soak it in through his pores, cleared his throat, and jerked his head awkwardly in the direction of his brother.
“Babe Ruth; purple; the second one over the porch,” he said.
Walter’s jaw twitched, and he bent over the fruit plate as if he had developed a sudden, overwhelming interest in the dried figs.
“Now that’s enough,” said the mother. “If Matthew doesn’t want to tell us where he’s been, we’ll respect his wishes.”
“Respect his wishes?” said Walter. “Are you kidding me?”
“I’m not respecting anything,” affirmed the cousin.
“Did he respect our wishes when he disappeared for fourteen years?” Walter demanded. “Did he respect our wishes when he abandoned us without even saying goodbye?” He turned to Matthew. “Do you realize we thought you were dead?”
“I left a note,” said Matthew.
“In nineteen-ninety-eight,” said Walter. “A note left in 1998 doesn’t guarantee that you’re still alive in 1999, or 2000, or 2001, or-”
“Be quiet,” snapped their mother. “Tomorrow is Christmas.”
They paused. They had all forgotten. They all looked up at the Christmas tree. The angel at the top twinkled at them ironically. She had a flat, blackened nose from the time when Matthew, wobbling at the top of a stepladder at the age of twelve, had accidentally dropped her in the fireplace. They never could scrub off the mark it left. ♦
(To be continued…)