She takes a look at the desserts on the table. “Oh, Rachel, they are so gorgeous. Look at the detail on those cookies. I’m sorry to say I can’t have any. I read recently that they have done studies correlating white sugar to cancer.”
“No, Mom,” my mom says. “Rachel made it all sugar-free.” She turns to Rachel for confirmation. “Right?”
“Yep,” Rachel says, suddenly proud of herself. “Even the sugar cookies!”
“So I guess they’re just cookies, then?” my mom jokes, and she is not much of a joker, so you can see her eyes start to crinkle as she holds back a smile, waiting for other people to laugh.
“Good one, Mom!” I say, and high-five her. “I tried that one earlier today.”
Everyone starts to talk about the things you talk about at Christmas. What is cooking, when it will be done, how good everything smells. Grandma usually takes over Mom’s kitchen every Christmas, making everything from scratch, but this year, my mother lets us know, she pitched in.
“I made the sweet potatoes and the green beans,” she says proudly. Something about her childlike pride reminds me of the can of snow.
“Oh!” I say, “Look, Mom! Rachel and I brought spray snow.” I pull out the cans. “Awesome, right?”
She grabs them from my hands and shakes them immediately. “Oh, this is great! Do you guys want to spray, or should I?”
“Let them do it, Leslie,” my grandmother says to my mother. The way she says it, the way it’s a suggestion that should be heeded, the way it’s laced with love and derision, makes me realize that my grandmother is sort of a bossy mom. I always think of my grandmother as my grandmother. I never think about the fact that she is my mother’s mother. My mom isn’t at the top of the totem pole, which is what it often feels like. Rather, she’s just one piece of a long line of women. Women who first see themselves as daughters and then grow to be mothers and eventually grandmothers and one day great-grandmothers and ancestors. I’m still in phase one.
My grandmother sneaks a piece of sugar cookie and eats it, but it’s not a very stealthy move, because we all see her.
“Oh, my!” she says. “These are fantastic. You’re sure you didn’t use any sugar?”
Rachel shakes her head. “Nope, none.”
“Leslie, try this,” she says to my mother.
My mother takes a bite. “Wow, Rachel.”
“Wait, are they that good?” I say. I was with her all morning; you’d think I’d have tried one. I take a bite. “Jesus, Rachel,” I say, and my grandmother slaps the back of her hand against my arm.
“Lauren! Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain on Christmas!”
“Where is Uncle Fletcher?” Rachel asks, and my mom starts shaking her head and waving her hands behind Grandma’s back. The classic “Don’t ask” signal, signaled classically too late.
“Oh.” Grandma sighs. “He decided not to come after all. I think, maybe, you know, he needs some time to himself.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” I say, trying to ease the conversation along. This seems to have made my grandmother a little sad.
“No,” she says, nodding. “I think I’m realizing that your uncle is a little . . .” She lowers her voice to a whisper. “Weird.”
She says it as if being “weird” is a thing people don’t speak about. Uncle Fletcher has never been in a relationship. He lives at home with his mother. He makes his living selling things on eBay and taking temp jobs. I’m pretty sure that if they release a computer game good enough, he will die playing it in his underwear.
“You just figured this out now, Grandma?” Rachel asks. I’m surprised she’s feeling bold enough to say that—none of us talks about Uncle Fletcher’s eccentricities—but it seems to make my grandmother laugh.
“Sweetheart, I once believed your grandfather when he told me you don’t get pregnant the first time you do it. That’s how we got Uncle Fletcher in the first place. So I’ve never been the sharpest tool in the shed.”
If we don’t talk about Uncle Fletcher’s weirdness, we definitely don’t talk about my grandparents having sex. So after the comment sits in the air a bit, waiting for us all to realize it has actually been said, it cracks us open. My mother, Rachel, and I are laughing so hard we can’t breathe. My grandmother follows suit.
“Grandma!” I say.
Grandma shrugs. “Well, it’s true! What do you want from me?” We all catch our breath, and Grandma keeps the conversation going. “So where is Ryan today? Surely he’s not working on Christmas.”
I just assumed that my mother would have done my dirty work for me and told my grandmother about what was happening. In fact, I assumed she told her months ago. I was sort of surprised that Grandma never called me to bring it up. And when I called her on Thanksgiving, I was pleasantly surprised when she didn’t mention anything. But it’s plain to see that she has no idea. Oh, the naiveté of wishful thinking.
I look to Rachel, but she starts paying more attention to the cookies than necessary, averting everyone’s gaze, especially mine. My instinct is to make something up, to avoid this conversation and put it off for another day, but my mother is giving me a look that makes it clear she’s expecting a braver version of her oldest daughter. So I try to be that daughter.
“We . . .” I start. “We split up. Temporarily. We are separated. I guess that’s the term.”
Grandma looks at me and cocks her head slightly, as if she can’t quite believe what she’s hearing. She looks at my mother, her face saying, What do you have to say about this? And my mother gestures back to me, her arms saying, If you have a problem, you tell her yourself. My grandmother looks back to me and takes a breath. “OK, what does that mean?”
“It means that we reached a point where we were no longer happy, and we decided that we wanted more out of . . . marriage than that. So we split up. And I’m really hoping that after we spend this time apart, we will find a way to . . . make it work.”
“And you think being apart will do that?”
“Yes,” I say. “I do. I think we sort of pushed each other to the brink, and we both need some air.”
“Did he cheat on you? Is that what’s happened?”
“No,” I say. “Absolutely not. He wouldn’t do that.”
“Did he hit you?”
She throws her hands up in the air and back down on the counter. “Well, I don’t get it.”
I nod. “I thought you might not, which is why I haven’t broached it with you.” Rachel is so clearly avoiding being a part of this conversation, she might as well be whistling off to the side.
“So you just decided you weren’t ‘happy’?” She uses air quotes when she says “happy,” as if it’s mine alone, a word I made up, a word that doesn’t belong in this conversation.
“You don’t think being happy is important?”
“In a long-term marriage?”
“Not only is it not the most important thing, but I would argue that it’s not even all that possible.”
“To be happy at all?”
“To be happy the whole time.”
It’s so confusing, isn’t it? I mean, why fill our minds with everlasting love and then berate us for believing in it?
“But don’t you think that it’s something to strive for? To try to be happy the whole time? To try to not just grin and bear your marriage but to thrive in it?”
“Is that what you think you’re doing?”
“I believe this to be the best way to learn how to love my husband the way I want to. Yes.”
“And is it working?”
Is it working? Is it working? I have absolutely no idea if it’s working. That’s the whole problem. “Yes,” I tell her. I say it with purpose and with confidence. I say it as if there is no other answer. Maybe I say yes because I want her approval, because I want her to back off, because I want to put her in her place. But I think I say yes because I believe, on some level, that thoughts become words, and words become actions. Because if I start saying it’s working, maybe in a few days or a few months, I’ll look back and think, Absolutely. This is absolutely working. Maybe that conviction has to start right here, with a little white lie. “Yes, I do believe it’s working.”