Ethan loved his family; he said that he valued them above all else in the world. His wife, Martha, made sure that he lived most of his life demonstrating the veracity of this statement. At Christmas, upon her urging, he abandoned his normal introverted pursuits and engaged in family interaction. He assisted in decorating the house, and when family came to visit he joined in their joint activities.
Part of the family tradition was to get out, and use, their heirloom Christmas plates. The plate rims were decorated with green leaves and red berries. They weren’t seasonal plates in the traditional sense with images of reindeer, or quotes from the twelve days of Christmas, instead cursive gold letters around the rim gave each a poignant Scottish proverb. The messages ranged from such conversation stimuli as; ‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant,’ to ‘Learn young, learn fair; learn old, learn more.’
Martha told her family that, as she was growing up, she and her brother, always made sure that their crotchety, miserable, maiden-aunt always got the one which read ‘Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.’ She wryly observed that the maiden aunt never commented on her plate and that their family knew that the message was lost on her. Martha speculated that the old lady must have been too self-absorbed, too miserable and too far gone to be able to recognize the message. Now, decades later, Martha’s family shunned ‘Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.’ They kept it at the bottom of the stack so that it was seldom used.
The family’s Christmas began with stuffed Christmas stockings, for the children. After they had all located their tangerines in the toes of their stockings they ate a light breakfast, followed by a gift exchange around a regal Christmas tree. Then there was a trip to the local old people’s home to visit those without visitors or too sick to go home for the holiday, followed by a Christmas feast. Martha was a great hostess and her Christmas dinners were mythically large and joyful. She hosted as many of their relatives as could come and any friends who did not have Christmas family commitments. Ethan contributed to the festivities with gifts of crystallized fruit, chocolates and vintage wines. After the meal the family would play games and spend time together until late into the evening. At the end of the day they would slip off to their various rests, feeling replete and satiated.
One New Year’s Eve, after one such celebration, when the Christmas pudding and goose leftovers still haunted the refrigerator, Martha failed to check oncoming traffic and was killed on the intersection at the end of their street. The family was devastated, although life went on and each managed to return to their daily routines. But, a year later, when Christmas rolled around, Ethan had no heart for a seasonal celebration and told his adult children to make alternate plans as he intended to go on a Mediterranean cruise.
The Mediterranean cruise, replete with blue skies, misty islands and new faces gave distraction, but its novelty did nothing to solve Ethan’s problem with Christmas. The following year he conceded that he must celebrate at home. His children invited themselves to be with him. When they arrived he handed over management of the festivities to them. This meant that he could opt out and retire into his lonely world of unhappiness. He did so, sitting before a raging wood fire, while his daughters and grandchildren organized the house into a semblance of Christmas spirit. He dozed off to dream, as he often dreamt, of Martha. This time she took his hand and he experienced the joy of Christmas Past as it surged up to greet him. His stomach rumbled as he smelt the cooking smells of her kitchen, and saw twinkling candles over a table laden with food and festive decorations. He reached out to the table and took a Christmas cracker in his hand. It was red, decorated with gold images. He held it up, grasping one end firmly. Martha laughed and took the other end. They pulled. There was a loud crack. A paper hat, charms, and a small piece of paper bearing a proverb fell onto the table. Ethan picked up the proverb and unfolded it. He gave a start, it read, ‘Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.’ He started to protest just as he awoke and drifted back into his present.
Ethan looked around the room and saw his Christmas Present. The table looked the same as Martha’s had in the past, for his daughters had done a good job. As they gathered at the table he realized that Martha was still at his side. She whispered in his ear, “Don’t be a grouch or I’ll have to give you ‘Be happy while you’re living’. Now you don’t want that do you?”
He gently shook his head and turned to talk to her but she was gone. He sighed, and, feeling more miserable than ever, thinking only of his own sadness, he looked down at his place and there it was, the plate that no one used. The words blurred together before his eyes ‘Be happy, you’re a long time dead.’
“Surely,” he thought, “only Martha could have done this.” He trembled, unsure of himself, for he didn’t need reminding that she was dead. He stammered, “I need a different plate!” The assembled family understood, for they had heard Martha’s story about her crotchety maiden aunt. They all spoke at once.
“I don’t understand, I know that that plate was on the bottom of the pile.”
“How could it have got there?”
“Let’s put it back at the bottom of the pile where it belongs!”
A new plate was found; it read, ‘It’s an ill wind that blaws naebody any gude.’ Ethan didn’t like this message any better than the last one for, he asked himself, “That wind, which took away my Martha, defied the Scots and their proverbs for it brought no good.”
The following day Ethan took up his spot before the fire. There he sat, remote from the family’s Christmas exchanges, lost in his self-pity and daydreams of the past. His grandchildren had begged him to go outside with them but he had felt too sad to do so. He could hear their happy shouts as they played a game of Ultimate Frisbee, a game which he once enjoyed. Now he was alone in the house, but not quite, for when he looked up Martha came to him and took him by the hand. Her skin was cold and her voice coaxingly melodious: it mingled imperceptibly with the high-pitched voices of the playing children outside.
“Come,” she said, “Let us see where ‘unhappy while you’re living’ takes you.” The room grew colder, the walls darkened, the drapes over the window sagged, and the giant oak outside the window grew larger and larger. Ethan gasped as he saw himself in a darkened mirror; a wizened old man with sad eyes. The telephone rang and he saw the old man pick it up. “Hi, Dad, Merry Christmas,” came a distant voice. The old man breathed heavily. Ethan couldn’t hear the rest of the family’s distant greetings but he knew them to be terse as he watched the old man swaying with the telephone held close to his ear. Then he saw the old man put the telephone down. Martha led him, as they followed the old man into the kitchen where they watched him take out a frozen turkey dinner-for-one and place it in the microwave. The old man took out a plate and placed his food upon it. Ethan started with horror as he noticed that the plate he was using was the plate. He turned to his guide, “Why?”
“You know why, it is my last plea to you to be happy and to enjoy your family for you will be a long time dead,” came Martha’s gentle reply. Ethan wanted to scream; instead he awoke with a start and found himself still seated before the dying embers of a fire. He stoked the fire, smelling the sweet smell of burning wood, which he once enjoyed but now found annoying. He coughed and began to walk dream-like towards the kitchen. He knew what he had to do. He found the stack of plates neatly piled on the kitchen counter. They were already washed and dried set out in readiness for the next meal. He lifted them up to reveal the bottom plate. It was the plate just as he suspected.
He knew that what he intended was sacrilege but he had to do it and he had to hide his actions. The broken pieces had to be concealed. He rummaged around to locate an old newspaper and opened it to the Christmas advertisements; they glared at him in reds and greens. He placed the plate on the newspaper and wrapped it up. He opened a kitchen drawer and took out a wooden rolling pin and gave the package several sharp slaps. It was harder than he had expected but after the third thump he felt the plate shatter. When he was certain that it was broken he whispered an apology to Martha, “I’m sorry, my dear, but it had to be done!” He gently placed the package in the outside garbage so that his action would not be discovered and went back inside to his seat of misery before the fire.
That evening his family served leftovers buffet-style with everything laid out on the kitchen island. Ethan barely looked at his plate before he began to place food upon it. But when he looked down his horror was supreme, for, in his hands he held an unblemished ‘Be happy’ plate. He was beginning to doubt reality and wondered how soon he could go to check the trash to verify his own sanity. He asked himself if, perhaps, there were twin ‘Be happy’ plates.
The following morning Ethan made sure that he was up before everyone else. He went out to the garbage and retrieved his package. He opened it and stared at the broken pieces which he instantly knew to be the shards from ‘Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.” Somehow the words were arranged to give a message in combination with the newspaper type.
‘Be happy, not dead, give time while you’re living.’ Then he understood; the plate’s proverb was about living not about death! And, Martha, hadn’t she been giving him the same message, to live his remaining days, not mope them? He hastily rewrapped the broken pieces and stealthily hid them back in the garbage. He stood in the dawning sunshine and breathed in deeply as he savored the sun’s rays. He looked up to the blue and pink sky and saw its beauty.
He went inside and opened his downstairs catchall closet to draw out three kites. When the children emerged half an hour later, he rustled up pancakes for their breakfast. He served his on the plate, for now he wanted this special plate. His adult children each paused outside the kitchen to listen to the happy chatter inside. They marveled to harken to the discourse as he and the grandchildren discussed their planned morning activity of kite-flying.
© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, December 2013.