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Authors: Sheila O'Flanagan

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BOOK: From The Heart
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So even though balancing the desires of the grandmothers could occasionally be traumatic, and even though it sometimes caused Laura and Jim to flare up with each other (which always reduced Laura to tears – she wished she didn’t cry so much, but ever since Kirstie’s birth she couldn’t help herself), both of them were very grateful to their mothers for being so helpful and supportive.
At least, that was how it was until they started talking about Christmas.
It was Angela who brought the subject up first. Angela had always been very organised about Christmas, buying the children’s presents every October and hiding them in the attic so they couldn’t be accidentally discovered. She used her Credit Union account to save for the festive season every year, starting each January and putting aside a fixed amount, so that they always had enough money to buy what each child wanted. (And if any of them asked for an outrageous present, Angela somehow managed to persuade them that they didn’t want it after all.) No matter what, every Christmas was magical and exciting in the McIntyre household, and Angela’s careful budgeting meant that there was always plenty to go round.
She first spoke to Laura about it at the end of September.
‘Oh for God’s sake, Mam,’ Laura said impatiently. ‘It’s months away.’
‘Good to be organised, though,’ said Angela. ‘You and Jim will be having dinner with us as usual, I’m sure.’
‘I haven’t talked to him yet,’ Laura said. ‘On account of the fact that summer is only just over.’
‘It’ll be great,’ said Angela. ‘The girls will just love having Kirstie here.’
All three of Laura’s sisters still lived at home. She supposed it would be a novelty for them to have a baby in the house. She didn’t say anything to Jim. He would have freaked if she’d mentioned Christmas to him even before the clocks had gone back. He was already shouting at the TV over the Hallowe’en ads.
It was at the start of November when he told her that Caroline had asked them to Christmas dinner. Laura looked at him in dismay.
‘But we never go to your mum’s,’ she said.
‘We haven’t until now,’ he agreed. ‘But she so wants to be part of Kirstie’s first Christmas.’ He smiled. ‘She says she feels more like a second mother than a grandmother to her.’
Laura looked horrified.

I’m
Kirstie’s mother,’ she said firmly.
‘I know. I know.’ Jim hugged her. ‘I was touched by what Mum said, that’s all.’
‘My mother assumed we were coming to her,’ said Laura, deciding that she’d better come straight out with it. ‘I didn’t say no because I . . . well, I assumed so too.’
‘Oh.’ He frowned. ‘But your mum won’t mind, surely? After all, she has three other girls. My mother only has me and David.’
David was Jim’s younger brother.
‘And,’ continued Jim, ‘you’ve always said we should change it round a bit, go to my folks for Christmas day for a change.’
‘I know, I know,’ wailed Laura. ‘It’s just . . .’
‘What?’
‘My mum will be upset, that’s all.’
‘So will mine if I say no.’
‘She’ll get over it.’
‘What makes you think that?’ demanded Jim. ‘Why should my mother get over it more quickly than yours? She has feelings too, you know.’
‘I’m sorry!’ cried Laura. ‘I didn’t mean . . .’ She broke off as Kirstie began to whimper. ‘We’ll talk about this later.’
It was Caroline’s turn to look after Kirstie the following day, and she arrived just after Jim had left for work. Laura was loading the dishwasher with dishes from dinner the night before; she’d fallen asleep in front of the TV after they’d eaten and couldn’t be bothered to stack them when she’d woken up. She didn’t tell Caroline this. Caroline thought that she and Jim had a proper breakfast every morning. She wouldn’t have approved of the fact that Jim bought a takeaway coffee and muffin on his way into the office and that Laura bought Pop-Tarts to have with her cup of coffee when she arrived at the Revenue Commissioners. Caroline believed in healthy eating and insisted that a good breakfast was part of it. Laura agreed with her on a theoretical level. It was simply that, practically, it was never possible.
‘What’s this I hear about you not wanting to come to dinner with us on Christmas Day?’ Caroline asked as she walked into the kitchen and draped her scarf over the back of a chair. ‘You know you promised.’
‘I did?’ Laura was looking for her purse, which seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
‘Last year,’ said Caroline firmly. ‘You said you’d definitely come to us.’
‘I don’t remember.’ Laura finally found the purse on top of the chrome pedal bin. How on earth had it got there?
‘You must remember,’ said Caroline. ‘It was when you called around on December the twenty-eighth. The first we’d seen of you.’
Laura put the purse safely in her bag. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I honestly don’t remember. But if you say so . . .’
‘Yes,’ said Caroline. ‘And I’ve got in loads of stuff.’
‘You have?’
‘Absolutely. So you have to come.’
‘Um. Right.’ To be fair, thought Laura, Caroline was entitled to think that her son and daughter-in-law would spend one Christmas with them. She’d just have to explain that to her own mother.
‘But not Kirstie’s first Christmas!’ wailed Angela. ‘I’ve so much planned already.’
‘Mum, she’s not even one yet. She won’t notice.’

I
will,’ said Angela. ‘I wanted to do the same stuff with her as I did for you all on your first Christmases. The picture under the tree. The stocking on the fireplace. Unwrapping presents. You can’t not come.’
Laura couldn’t handle the guilt. ‘I’ll talk to Jim,’ she promised.
‘My mother has a whole schedule planned,’ said Jim when Laura asked if it would be possible to compromise. ‘She says it’s dependent on us being there by lunchtime.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake! It’s not a military operation!’ cried Laura.
‘You think my mother’s being military? What about yours? Frau General Obersturmführer of Organisation?’
Laura looked angrily at her husband.
‘You’re being hateful,’ she said.
‘You’re being unreasonable. And so’s your mother.’
‘And so is yours,’ cried Laura before she burst into tears.
After two days of tension, Jim broke the ice. He suggested that they stay at home for Christmas. They wouldn’t visit either set of parents. They would set up their own traditions for Kirstie, which wouldn’t include anyone else.
‘I understand how you feel,’ said Caroline, when Jim called round to break the news. ‘It can be a stressful time, especially for a new mum who isn’t coping. So I have a great suggestion. Me, your father and David will come to dinner with you. But you don’t have to worry. We’ll bring everything prepared. The turkey, the ham, the stuffing – everything. I’ll have potatoes and vegetables ready to be cooked so Laura won’t have to lift a finger. I know her oven and her microwave now anyway. I’ll do everything to perfection.’
‘That’s very thoughtful.’ But Jim wasn’t entirely sure Laura would think that way. And he wouldn’t tell her that Caroline thought she wasn’t coping.
Laura looked at him blankly. ‘I don’t believe it.’
‘It’s a compromise,’ said Jim. ‘I know it’s not us on our own, but at least we’re not setting up a tradition of going to Mum’s for Christmas, which is what bothered you.’
‘That’s not what I mean.’ Laura sounded glum.
‘What then?’
‘While you were out, my mother rang and offered to do the exact same thing.’
‘You’re joking.’
‘No,’ said Laura. ‘I’m not. Though obviously in our case it’s Celine, Deirdre and Janice too.’
‘Oh, for crying out loud!’ Jim was exasperated. ‘What is it about mothers that makes them so impossible?’
‘I’m a mother too,’ said Laura.
Jim said nothing.
‘You think I’m impossible?’
He hesitated.
‘You do.’ Her lower lip trembled. ‘I bet you’re sorry you ever married me.’ She walked out of the room and slammed the door behind her. Even though she told herself she might have just proved his point.
They were walking on eggshells around each other. Jim didn’t want to provoke another eruption of tears. Laura didn’t want to annoy him any further. But the issue of Christmas Day continued to fester between them, and between their respective parents, and it was the only thing that anyone thought about.
Laura couldn’t understand how it had got so out of control. When she told Angela that it was only one day and that she saw her half the week anyway, Angela burst into tears (obviously a family failing, Laura thought) and said that it was the most important day of the year. And that she’d always wanted to be there for her first grandchild’s first Christmas.
Caroline said almost exactly the same thing to Jim.
At the beginning of December, he sat down in front of Laura and told her that the situation was ridiculous. And that he didn’t want it to come between them. That he’d married her, not her mother. And that she hadn’t married his mother either.
His words made Laura smile.
‘Why don’t we have both sets of parents for dinner this weekend,’ he suggested. ‘We can talk it through like adults. I’m sure your dad and mine will be sensible about it, even if our mothers aren’t.’
Laura thought this was a good idea. On Friday evening, after work, she nipped into Marks & Spencer and bought the food. She didn’t normally do her shopping in the M&S Food Hall, which she found too expensive; her usual haunt was the local Aldi. But since this was an important night, she wasn’t going to risk cooking something from scratch and having it all go horribly wrong. It was worth spending the extra money for M&S presentation.
The two grandmothers had dressed up for the occasion. Angela was wearing a red wool suit that Laura had last seen on her the previous year when she’d gone to the christening of a neighbour’s child. Caroline had chosen a black and white dress that Laura had seen in the window of Brown Thomas two weeks previously when she’d been in Grafton Street. Angela’s suit was warm and seasonal. Caroline’s dress was coolly elegant.
‘Thanks for having us.’ Louis Devanney planted a kiss on his daughter-in-law’s cheek. ‘It’s lovely to see you.’
‘You too,’ said Laura, who liked Louis more than his wife.
‘Hiya, honey.’ Her dad hugged her. ‘Hope you haven’t been slaving over a hot oven all day.’
Kirstie was sitting in her baby chair and gurgled at the newcomers. She was the sunniest, happiest baby in the world, Laura thought, as she watched her allow herself to be lifted up and cuddled. It was a pity that she was causing so much trouble!
The topic of Christmas wasn’t raised until after they’d finished dessert (crème caramel, which Laura knew that Caroline liked) and Jim was pouring coffee.
‘So,’ Angela said briskly. ‘Let’s sort out this Christmas thing once and for all. I have a suggestion.’
‘What?’ Everyone looked at her.
‘That Jim and Laura come to us as they always do. And that they go to you, Caroline, for New Year’s. That way I get to see my granddaughter for Christmas but you get her for the beginning of the year.’
‘They’ve always come to us for New Year’s!’ cried Caroline. ‘Your suggestion is nothing new.’
‘I didn’t know they went to you for New Year’s,’ said Angela. ‘Laura, you said you spent it at home last year.’
‘New Year’s Eve,’ she explained patiently. ‘Not New Year’s Day.’
‘Oh. Sorry. I got that wrong.’
‘Did you?’ asked Caroline. ‘Or were you just being your usual disingenuous self?’
‘What d’you mean by that?’ demanded Angela.
‘You do this kind of frazzled-mother thing,’ replied Caroline. ‘As though everything is last-minute. And unimportant. When deep down you know it’s not.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘It’s true,’ said Caroline. ‘Jim says so.’
Everyone turned to Jim, who looked hunted.
‘I just said that Angela isn’t as disorganised as she seems,’ he said feebly as Laura glared at him.
‘I seem disorganised to you?’ said Angela. ‘Really?’
‘Not exactly,’ he said. ‘Just . . . harried sometimes. But not . . . not disorganised, Angela. No. Absolutely not. After all, you start planning for Christmas months in advance.’
‘Hmm.’
‘Well, your suggestion is worthless. Louis and I have a better one,’ said Caroline.
‘Oh?’
‘That they set up a new tradition and come to us. You’ve had them as a couple. We can have them as a family.’
‘That’s unfair,’ said Angela. ‘Besides, everyone knows that girls are closer to their mothers. I need my daughter and her daughter around me at this time. It’s more natural.’
‘Are you saying there’s something wrong with my son?’ asked Caroline.
‘Oh for God’s sake!’ Laura looked at both of them. ‘You’re talking nonsense, the pair of you.’
‘I’m just saying that it’s important to have traditions,’ said Angela.
‘You’re making them up as you go along,’ retorted Caroline.
Laura looked pleadingly at her father, who shrugged helplessly. Meanwhile Louis Devanney was pouring himself another glass of wine.
‘Why don’t you stay with them on Christmas Eve?’ said Angela suddenly to Caroline.
‘That’s not the same.’
‘I’m working on Christmas Eve,’ protested Laura.
‘Yes, but Caroline could cook you a nice organic chicken or something,’ said Angela. ‘It would be a wonderful present, because it takes the pressure off you.’
‘The pressure
is
off her,’ said Caroline. ‘She doesn’t have to cook on Christmas Day. At least she won’t in my house, if we have them.’
‘She won’t in mine, either.’
‘Would you both stop it!’ cried Jim. ‘We’re not people you can “have”. We’re not being passed around like a bloody parcel.’
‘We don’t want to pass you around,’ said his mother.
BOOK: From The Heart
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