The Man of the House
©2012 Darlene Olivo
“What happens on Christmas Eve, Grandfather?” the little pup asks, her eyes shining, ears alert, tail wagging like all get-out. I’m not really her grandfather—it’s just a title of respect, given that I’m pretty grizzled. “I tried to ask the angels, but they’re busy practicing.” Indeed, the Heavenly choir is filling the ether with “Silent Night” in dulcet tones. “I died before I had a chance to know,” she continues.
How does one explain the complexity of Christmas Eve to a young soul who’s had only one incarnation and didn’t live long enough to accumulate references based on experience? If I get all existential and tell her that the night before Christmas stands outside of time, anticipatory and joyful (or the complete opposite), simultaneously fraught with nostalgia and bitter-sweetness, expectations and inevitable disappointments, she will soon tire of abstractions. I could paint a picture of sweet-faced, bright-eyed human children fidgeting around a fir tree bedecked with treasures, begging, “Can we open presents now?” But you know as well as I that such idealized scenes are not universal. And what would she know of midnight church services with carols and sacred songs, since most churches do not allow pets to enter? Or traditional favorite foods (how do I explain fruitcake—so often the butt of derogatory jokes—and egg nog?).
“Hmmmm. What happens on Christmas Eve? That’s a good question, little Buttercup. Each one is alike in some ways, and different in others. I had fourteen, myself.”
“Fourteen? Wow, you were lucky. Did you have a favorite? Oh, tell me, tell me. Please?”
When one is honored with a request for a personal story, it’s important to set the right tone and provide enough details to hold the listener’s attention. Storytelling is a mutual gift for the receiver and teller alike.
“Let’s see . . . out of all the Christmas Eves I experienced, one stands out because there was both magic and a miracle involved.”
“Really?” she says, her face filled with awe.
“Yes. And that was the year I got to be the man of the house.”
“You mean you were a human then?”
“No, sweetheart. It’s a figure of speech. I was a dog in that incarnation just like I am now.”
“Okay, then what does it mean, ‘man of the house’?”
“It means several things, but mainly it involves protecting my family and being a provider. I was good at protecting—I was pretty big. But mostly Sarah did the providing. She was my human companion. Now, why don’t you cozy right up and I’ll tell you about Christmas Eve, 1982.” Hardly more than a ball of reddish fur, she scoots close and puts her front paws over one of mine.
Now, reader, before I get into the heart of the story, I have provide some context, let you know things that are germane but not appropriate for Buttercup. Sarah was a private duty nurse, and work had been scarce, so she suffered the shame of not being able to keep up with her bills. She didn’t have many presents for her daughters, who were twelve and fifteen, and had nothing special to cook for Christmas dinner.
So, when she got home, she faced only sadness and loneliness borne of coming into a cold, empty house, since, in splitting the holiday with her ex-husband, her daughters wouldn’t arrive until ten or so the next morning. And in her family of origin, Christmas Eve had always been the night of celebration, even more than Christmas Day, because that was when presents were opened.
I decide to begin with “Once upon a time,” since that takes things to the realm of wonder. Buttercup looks at me, eager to ingest my every word.
“Once upon a time on Christmas Eve, something very special happened. There were six of us: Sarah; her two daughters, Betsy and Janet; and two cats, Gentilly and Gretna—Gretna had kittens in her tummy—and myself. We lived in the upper story of an old house in a neighborhood in New Orleans that wasn’t very safe.”
“What does that mean—‘not safe’?”
Ah, here is where I must address only you, reader. The murder rate was escalating rapidly because crack cocaine had turned things very ugly for addicts and those who happened to be in their paths. Our hearts were always in our throats as we ran from the car to the front door. Even if I employed my fiercest growl and the strongest of barks, these were no match for bullets. Sarah always prayed she could bolt the lock before someone jumped out from behind the ligustrum bushes, intent on malice and mayhem. I mention these things because the details are important to the events that were to unfold.
“Well, safe and not safe can mean many things, little pup. You’ve watched the angels play baseball, right? You know how, when a batter hits the ball and runs towards a base, someone on the other team tries to catch the ball and get it to that base before the batter does. He’s not safe if he doesn’t make it in time, and safe if he does. Or, not safe could mean running into the street without looking.” I know it was close to the bone, but rather that than about murder and inhumane meanness.
“Ohhhhh. That’s what I did, didn’t I?”
“I’m afraid so, sweetheart. You were so excited about the new ball that you ran like the wind after it. But let’s not dwell on sad things. Just think, if you hadn‘t, we wouldn’t be between lives at the same time, and you wouldn’t be listening to my Christmas story.” This seems to satisfy her for the moment.
“So, on this particular night, Sarah got home from the hospital just after eleven, and I could tell she was very sad because she gave me a unusually long hug and nuzzled my ruff with her face.
“She must have loved you very much.”
“Yes. And I was totally devoted to her, too. Anyway, the first thing she did was open the kitchen door and let the cats and me outside so we could do our business, and then she set about her nightly bedtime ritual of unwinding. She always watched a M*A*S*H rerun and scarf down salsa and tortilla chips and drink a beer, then she’d take a bath, brush her teeth, and read until she couldn’t hold her eyes open any longer.”
Buttercup stops me and asks what a mash rerun is, and I explain that it is a much loved TV series about the absurdity of war. Of course, she follows with a question about war, and I tell her that it’s a very bad business, and only happens on Earth, never in Heaven.
“So, Sarah got up several times to call us—I learned all this later when she told me her side—Gentilly came right away, but not Gretna, and I . . . well, I had opened the gate and left the yard. Which was not allowed because I didn’t have any street sense.”
Buttercup jumps up, alarmed. “Is that how you died, Grandfather, running in the street? I don’t want to hear a sad story . . .”
“No, my little love. Don’t worry—I died an old dog, many years later.” I can sense her relief when I say this. “Anyway, I know that what I did was against the rules and it would cause Sarah to worry, but she was so sad, and I wanted to see if I could find something to cheer her up. I didn’t know what that would be, of course, but, well, I believed I had that kind of magical power.”
“Oh, animals do. We absolutely do.”
“I’m glad you know that. Never stop believing it, either.”
“I won’t,” she says, shaking her head solemnly. “So, was Gretna with you?
“No. I didn’t know where Gretna was.”
“Okay, what happened then?”
“I tell you what, I’ll use Sarah’s words, because it’s just as much her story. In fact, every year at Christmas, she still tells it, even though the cats and I have been dead for decades. I guess it’s her way of keeping us in her heart.”
“Awwwww, that’s so sweet, Grandfather.”
I can feel a tear run down my snoot. I distract the pup by asking her to fetch the little bag next to my bed, the one I keep my treasures in. I pull out a piece of paper worn with age and unfold it. “This is how she tells it, Buttercup. But I have a favor to ask. If you have any questions, can you hold them until I finish reading?” Again, the solemn nod.
‘At first, I was more aggravated with Tammany and Gretna, since I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to escape into sleep. The wind was enervating and eerie, and my mood was grim, having indulged myself with more than a wee dram of self-pity, imagining my face pressed to the glass of other people’s happy lives.
‘I listened for the jingle of his dog tags from the window next to my bed, yet all I heard was the moaning of the wind and the scraping of dry sycamore leaves as they stampeded in the narrow cement alley between my house and the one next door. Every thirty minutes or so I’d get up, call from the back door and the front porch, but still there was no response. Going outside to look for them felt impossible because I was too afraid.
‘I tossed and turned, seeing every hour on the clock, and the combination of sleep-deprivation and the sensory distortion that comes with it made for a kind of hysterical panic; I was certain Tammany was dead. I didn’t think Gretna would leave the yard, but I was concerned about the cold and that she was so pregnant. Never one who was able to rein in imagined tragedies, I began to grieve the emptiness of my life without my beloved dog.
‘At four-thirty the sound of dragging and dropping some object in the alley below roused me from whatever contorted level of sleep I’d entered, and I struggled to make sense of what I was hearing. Then I heard the clank of dog tags. He was home! No reindeer hoof-patter could have elicited more relief and joy, and I ran to the kitchen, eager to throw my arms around him in a tearful reunion.
‘And sure enough, when I opened the door there he stood, the sixty pound canine love-of-my-life, a galoothy-looking, black and white half English Sheepdog, half birddog, his neck held erect, beaming with hunting dog pride. And holding a ham in his mouth. Someone’s Christmas ham, not to put too fine a point on it. With a goodly chunk missing.
‘I’ve never found out whose ham he stole, whose household was turned into confusion, perhaps chaos, by that loss, and I was too mortified to go door-to-door the next morning holding a somewhat gnawed-at ham, asking neighbors if they recognized it. I can tell you this: Tammany never revealed his secret, not even on his deathbed.
‘Many years later, I submitted this story to The Times-Picayune, hoping that someone would read it and remember. I added this note,
To my former neighbors, if it was your ham, I’d like to offer a long-overdue apology; if nothing else, to solve the mystery of your missing Christmas dinner. And, if twenty years have provided the distance that turns pain into humor, you can add it to your cache of Christmas stories by accepting this token as I try to make amends.
‘In reflecting on that time I allow myself the indulgence of a bit of magical thinking: Knowing how bereft I felt that long-ago Christmas Eve, maybe bringing that ham home was Tammany’s way of reminding me there was love in the world, and my life wasn’t as empty as I’d believed. Because as things turned out, we ate that ham, Tammany, my daughters and I. I cut away the area he’d chewed and put it in his bowl, and the rest I baked in the oven. It became the centerpiece of our feast, and the story—well, the story has warmed our hearts ever since.’
I refold the paper and put it back in the bag. “And that is how I got to be the man of the house, Buttercup. It’s okay for you to ask questions now.”
“Is that the end, Grandfather? What happened to Gretna?”
“It turned out that Gretna had made a nest of sycamore leaves under the ligustrum bush right next to the front steps, and had given birth to two kittens. Sarah discovered this when she went down to get the paper the next morning. One of the kittens was nursing, but the other was cold and didn’t move. She went back into the house and got the box she’d made up for the birthing, put Gretna and the two kittens in it and carried it back upstairs. She held the cold kitten in her hands to warm it, but the kitten wasn’t breathing, so she wrapped it in a cloth and set it aside.”
“Oh, no! It was really dead?”
“Not so fast, honey. Remember I said there was a miracle?”
“Well, when Betsy and Janet arrived an hour or so later, Sarah took them into see Gretna and her babies. She showed them the kitten that didn’t make it. But the girls refused to believe the kitten was dead, so Betsy got a warm washcloth and began stroking the little baby the same way a mother cat would lick it. Janet kept the warm cloths coming, and Sarah filled a hot water bottle even though she didn’t want to get the girls’ hopes up. About twenty minutes later, the kitten moved its little paws and began mewing.”
“So it lived?”
“It did indeed. The girls named the kittens Hibernia and Whitney—she was the kitten that almost didn’t make it.”
“And they all lived happily ever after, right, Grandfather?”
“Yes, indeed, Buttercup. Gentilly, Gretna and kittens lived long, the girls grew up and became mothers themselves, and Sarah eventually was able to exchange the sadness that plagued her for lots of joy.”
“I like that story, Grandfather,” she says and then sighs. “I hope the next time I go back to Earth, I’ll get to experience my own Christmas Eve and have a story to pass on.”
I lick her little face and tell her that I’m certain she will.
38A Kimball Street
Concord, NH 03301
I’m a native New Orleanian now living in New England, and I wrote this story, which, but for the magical realism and change of human names, is actually true. (You can’t make this kind of stuff up.) I’ll spare you the unending list of publications and presses that have clamored for my work. Secret fantasy: HBO follows the tremendous success of Treme with vignettes from my manuscript, Mystick Krewe of Swan Songs, after the fierce bidding war for the rights to publish it.