Jenny usually dreaded Christmas. She smiled wanly as everyone else excitedly prepared for the festive season such as trimming the tree and hanging holly and of course the wreath on the door. She felt anything but goodwill toward her fellow man because as far as she was concerned it just created enormous fuss and bother, not to mention the unhappiness that went hand in hand with her husband Will’s heavy drinking binges.
As a child Jenny had loved Christmas, especially the tree. The baubles and lights held promises of magical powers that would bring comfort and cuddles while her mother read her stories about the baby Jesus sleeping safely surrounded by love in the manger.
The heart warming aromas from the huge bowl in which her mother mixed the fruits, eggs and flour for the Christmas cake filled the house, spreading its love while baking in the big cream enamelled oven in their cosy kitchen. A slice of the freshly baked and iced cake was traditionally their first Christmas treat on returning from midnight mass where the uplifting hymns and good wishes from friends and neighbours added to Jenny’s happy feelings of being safe and surrounded by love, just like the baby Jesus.
Now Jenny sat at her kitchen table eyeing the shop bought cake sadly. She didn’t know why she had bothered to buy it in the first place, because Will didn’t like fruit cake of any kind, and certainly detested Christmas cake. In fact he detested everything to do with Christmas and determinedly drowned his dislike in alcohol each festive season until almost New Year. He would complain again tonight when he got home from work about the fuss and nonsense his work colleagues had gone to with giving gifts and wishing each other a Merry Christmas. They wore silly hats and the women wore earrings that lit up or were little bells that jingled as they walked.
Today Jenny had pulled the Christmas tree down from the attic, along with the decorations and lights. That was as far as she had got though, and the lights lay in a tangled mess at her feet where she had attempted to straighten them out to put on the tree. A prettily decorated tree reminded her of past Christmases with her parents and the happiness and safe feelings which she needed to draw upon now in her adult years in order to get through all the sadness and uneasiness that dogged her in married life.
Slowly she uncoiled the strings of lights, checked the bulbs, and plugged the sets in to test before arranging them over the tree. Satisfied with the result, she then reached into the large box she had lugged down from the attic and pulled out some sparkly red balls, then the green balls, and lastly the gold balls. Concentrating on the decorations, Jenny soon became engrossed in the task and even felt a flutter of excitement as she looked at the tree. It needed the other decorations stored in the box to make it complete and so she set about pulling them out of their individual boxes and padding.
Standing back she looked appraisingly at the tree and smiled slightly. Yes, it was very similar to the trees of her childhood. If only she could snap her fingers and have her mother and father suddenly appear in the room. Her parents lived on the other side of the country and over the past six years they had spent their Christmases on the islands in the luxury of beautiful resorts. Deep down Jenny knew they had chosen to go to the islands rather than fly across the country to spend Christmas with her and Will because of Will’s drinking bouts and bad behaviour. She sighed as she recalled their last Christmas together. Will had been especially vile that year and had shouted abuse at her parents for no reason, and then turned on her before storming out of the house. All three of them worried about his safety over the twelve hours he was missing, but then he returned contrite and ashamed, apologising for being such an idiot. Jenny knew though, that it had been too much for her parents to forgive and forget and the following year her mother wrote to say they would not be coming again. They had decided it was a good time for them to give Jenny and Will their own space, and were going to the islands with a group of friends their own ages who had been asking them along for quite a few years now.
Having their own space didn’t change things for Jenny and Will the following Christmas though. It was just as bad as the previous year, and seemed to extend to over the New Year as well. No sooner had Will dried out back to normal, Easter was upon them sending him off on another bender.
The last two years were horrendous and Jenny was almost at the end of her tether with his drinking bouts. The verbal abuse was getting worse and she was a little afraid that it would turn violent in the not too distant future if something wasn’t done.
Jenny asked their local priest for help. Father Seamus happily agreed to have a chat with Will, but it did no good and in a way Jenny thought it had actually made the next drinking bout worse, although the abuse was a tad tamer. Her friends advised her to threaten him with leaving, but she loved him too much to consider that option yet.
Between the bouts Will tried his best to make amends to both her and his own body. He became the ideal husband, thoughtful and caring, bringing home little gifts, serving her breakfast in bed on weekends, helping her in the house and the garden and going with her to the markets she loved to explore and which he regarded as a boring waste of time and money.
Getting fit was a priority for him during these times of rehabilitation, and he pounded the pavements each day, working his trim body into a muscle packed physique – ‘tanned, trim, taut and terrific’ as Jenny proudly said to her girlfriends.
Sadly, every six months or so, Will fell off the wagon and succumbed to another one of his benders – each latest bender was far worse than the previous – and crushed Jenny’s pride, hopes and feelings of being safe into a broken pile of rubble. He was never hurtful to her when he wasn’t drinking, but like Jekyll and Hyde, his personality became the total opposite while on a binge.
Kneeling on the floor making finishing touches to the Christmas tree, she sat back on her haunches to survey the result. It looked good. How she wished she could feel good about this Christmas but she was sure her hopes of that would be crushed again as soon as he walked in the door reeking of booze, cigarette smoke and full of nastiness.
She heard his key in the door and stiffened, her cold and trembling fingers holding tight to a piece of tinsel she was wrapping round the bottom of the tree trunk. She closed her eyes and held her breath in dreaded anticipation of his stumbling down the hallway, the subsequent string of swear words as he made his way to the kitchen.
She waited for the bang as he stumbled through the door and the loud and hateful demands to know what she had been doing all day while he had been slaving at the office. His sarcastic tones could cut her to the wick and she shivered at the thought.
So far he was walking quietly and dare she think it, normally. Realising she was sitting on the floor with her eyes clenched tightly she opened them and waited a few seconds for them to focus. He stood at the fridge door and drank thirstily from an opened carton of milk. He licked his lips and hesitating for a moment he placed the milk carton on the kitchen table and closed the fridge door.
Jenny still could not see his face from where she sat on the floor but she imagined him with the blank and glassed over look from too much alcohol drunk in too short a time and which she despised, dreaded and feared.
Any moment now, he would turn and see her staring at the back of his head. Undoubtedly he would snarl at her asking what she was looking at, taunting her to comment on his drunkenness so he would be justified in shouting abuse about his intolerant and unloving wife.
She closed her eyes again, wanting to scream. When would it end? She was tired of the disappointment, the despair, the feeling of emptiness and of being unsafe and unloved.
Just then he sensed her presence and turned around. He looked at her for what seemed a long time, and then he smiled beckoning her to come to him. Inwardly she groaned. She hated hugging him or having to pretend she was happy to see him at home under these circumstances. They were never true hugs. There were never real feelings of love in those hugs and it may as well be some stranger off the street she was hugging.
Slowly she stood up and walked over to where he was standing. He picked up the carton of milk from the table and took another long swig of it, leaving a milky white moustache on his top lip. In spite of her feelings of dread, Jenny couldn’t resist smiling at him. He seemed different somehow when she took a good look at him.
Smiling, he said ‘Open my coat pocket and look inside.’
Jenny was puzzled and curious too. Had he bought her a special gift before he had gone drinking? Usually he forgot all gifts when on his binges. He looked and sounded different tonight though. His voice was gentle and more quiet than usual.
Tentatively she reached into his coat pocket. She felt a bulge resembling a book. A book? He was not an avid reader and would be the last thing he’d think of to surprise her with even though he knew she loved to read books of all genres.
Looking him in the eye, she pulled the book out of his pocket. He smiled shyly at her. Eventually she tore her gaze away from him and looked at the book in her hand. It was tattered and torn from much use, the pages threatening to fall out from the covers if not held together. Turning the book over in her hands, a card fell out. On the card she read the Serenity Prayer.
‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
It was the answer to all her prayers. The best Christmas gift he could ever give her!
His eyes filled with tears as he looked at her with love.
‘I guess I’ve realised that serenity isn’t just for the months I am on my “health kick” between binges, and that it’s only fair to us both to apply it all year round. I’ve also come to the conclusion that if I was a wise and courageous man, I’d hang on to the one and only thing that has ever meant anything to me in my life, and that is you Jenny. Happy Christmas darling, and may there be many more of them for us together.’