Everyone leaves around one in the morning on Christmas day, and my mother, Terry, Caroline, Derek, and I all barely make it up the stairs before we collapse into our respective beds and pass out. The Christmas Eve festivities may be over, but we have to do it all again on Christmas day. Except this time around, everyone is invited over. My grandparents, Uncle Tim, Aunt Georgia, and our cousins Brooklyn and Helena are coming back, but Terry's family is coming over, too. Derek's parents show up just for dinner but won't stay afterward.
The four of us in my immediately family exchange presents in the morning, and then we get started on the preparation for today's gathering. Caroline and I are in charge of washing all the dishes dirtied yesterday and then arranging the twenty place settings for dinner.
"Remind me again why we do this two nights in a row?" my sister asks with an attitude as she washes yet another plate.
"Because Mommie Dearest doesn't think that we get to spend enough time with her family on Christmas day when everyone's here. So they come over on Christmas Eve and then the day of."
"But why does she have to host it both days? Let someone else do the work and have the party at their place," she grunts. "Because we're the ones stuck with the clean up."
I shrug and sigh. "You're the one who said yesterday that we just have to put up with it on major holidays. You can't pick your family. You don't have a choice."
"Are you kidding? Of course you have a choice. You can not show up!"
For some reason, that never occurred to me before. "Well, if you hate it so much, why did you show up?"
"I dunno. It's tradition, I guess. Either that, or I'm worried more about what she'll do if I don't visit for the holidays."
I nod and pretend like I understand, but I don't. Not really. I'm more resigned in my distaste for my family, but Caroline is always vocal about how she hates these stupid family functions. If either one of us were to skip out on one, I'd firstly assume it would be her. After all, we all feel like our mother blames becoming pregnant with Caroline for why she never realized her own dreams. And Caroline feels resented for it. If I think I have it bad, well, my sister's got it worse.
So, no, you can't pick your families. But does that mean you have to subject yourself to them? I never really put much thought into it because I thought it didn't matter; however, now I feel like I have an alternative. Something better. A family to love me unconditionally, just like I always wanted. Just like I hoped to be able to provide for my kids someday, but I wasn't exactly sure if I could be able to.
Caroline and I finish our duties, shower, and change for the night's events before everyone starts to show up. While we wait, I slip away and make a quick phone call. He answers on the first ring, but I can barely hear him over the din in his background. Sounds like the holiday is being celebrated in full force up in Montréal.
"Hey, baby. Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas, Max." Before I can even get all the words out, I hear a scuffle on the other end of the line and a chaotic, muffled exchange in French before another voice takes over.
"Joyeux Noël, Charlotte. Uh, merry Christmas." I instantly recognize the voice as Francis's.
"Frankie," I laugh. "Merry Christmas."
"Why aren't you here in Montréal? Max misses you. He's like a woman. But we all miss you. And everyone else in the family wants to meet you, too."
I hear Max say, "Donne-moi mon téléphone!" Frank doesn't give it up, though. I can hear Frank fight off his little brother and maintain control of the situation, and I can just picture it in my head how red-faced Max is as his brother slightly tortures him.
"I miss you guys, too," I sigh, thinking about how different my Christmas would be if I were up there instead. It would be loud and confusing and hectic, but it would also be fun and probably less nerve-wracking despite the language barrier and attempts to make a good first impression on the rest of his family.
"Your boyfriend is a pain," he says as the battle continues. "I'll let you talk to him now."
That makes me laugh. As if I called Max to talk to Frank anyway. "Thanks. Tell everyone I said Merry Christmas. But, you know, in French."
"Sure thing. Take care, Charlotte."
"You too, Frank." I continue to laugh; these two are hilarious together. It may irritate Max, but it amuses me.
"Va achaler quelqu'un d'autre." His voice becomes louder and clearer as he takes his phone back and presses it back against his face. "Je suis désolé. He just doesn't know when to stop."
"It's fine, Max-A-Million. I actually like knowing there's something that gets under your skin. It makes you normal. Human, just like the rest of us."
"Are you okay? Is there something bothering you?"
Letting out a breath, I internally debate a moment on whether I should say what's really on my mind. I do. "I know you want a family, Max. But I'm scared. What if, because I didn't have a good mother, I'll be a horrible mother?"
"Whoa whoa whoa. Why would you even think that? You're going to be a great mother to a bunch of rambunctious Talbot boys."
I smile at Max's immediate response and certainty. It's reassuring that he's got that confidence in me, but I'm still not sure. "How do you know? Because I don't."
"You're worried because you don't want to turn into your mother. I'm telling you that you won't. You know what it's like to have a mother that isn't supportive and loving, so you're going to be the type of mother you wish you had."
"Thanks," I whisper, pulling back the curtain and watching the snow fall. "You always know the just right things to say."
"I'm not just trying to flatter you or anything. I mean it. I can't wait for you to have my babies. Maman can't wait either. She's already asking me if we've set the date yet."
"We can figure that out after Christmas, when we're back in Pittsburgh. I just miss you. I wish you were here. Better yet, I wish I were there."
"Me, too, baby. Me, too."
I see the first car pull up in front of the house. "I've got to go. But I'll see you tomorrow, right?"
"Oui, I fly in first thing in the morning. I'll wait for you at the airport until you land, and then we'll go home."
"Okay, great. I'll see you tomorrow. I love you."
"Love you, too. See ya."
Hanging up the phone, I plaster on that fake that smile and hope to get through the dinner like I did the night before—hiding in the background and hiding from sharing my good news. And it is good news; I should have been able to share it. I want to share it, but not if they aren't going to be honestly happy for me.
Too bad I don't get that option tonight. Things never go the way I plan them.
Terry's daughter, who's a few years younger than me, spots my ring before she's hardly through the door. I'm helping to gather coats, and I stretch my arm out to take hers when the diamond catches the light and she shrieks.
"Charlotte! Oh em gee!" she hollers.
At first, I think to myself, did she seriously just say "omg" out loud? Secondly, I realize what she's freaking out about. Why do women have to get so excited about stuff like this? "It's nice to see you, too, Sara," I say, trying to play it off.
"You're engaged! Congratulations! Where's John?"
Ugh. I just can't escape him. "Um, actually, John and I aren't together anymore. I'm engaged to someone else."
"Well, where is he? I want to meet him!" Sara squeals. Her reaction has attracted everyone else, and now the spotlight's on me. This is what I wanted to avoid. "Is he here?"
"No," I mumble. "He's visiting his own family for the holiday. We just got engaged three days ago, so it was too last minute to change plans." I leave out that if either of us were to be changing plans, it would have been me; I would have gone up to Montréal instead of bring him to Chicago.
The other present guests swarm around me, and all the questions come at once. "Where did you meet him?" "How long have you known him?" "Why didn't you tell us yesterday?" "How could you get engaged to someone your family hasn't met and approved of?" "Wait, I still don't understand—what happened to John?"
Oh, Jesus Christ. Why is my family so critical? "There's no more John. We aren't together anymore. I met Max in Pittsburgh, and he's an incredible guy. And he wants to share his life with me, so I consider myself very lucky."
They continue to lob questions at me. The ones from the adults are condescending, but my cousins and Terry's kids seem excited. When Brooklyn asks, "What does he do?", my mother jumps in and chirps, "He's a hockey player."
Brooklyn turns up her nose. "Like, missing teeth? Black eyes? Broken noses? Ick."
I laugh at her. "If that's your impression of hockey players, you're surely missing out. You live in Chicago—I know you've seen pictures of some of the Blackhawks."
"Oh yeah! Patrick Kane is soo hot," she giggles.
I roll my eyes at that. I find my purse and dig out the picture of Max that I brought with me for my trip home. I first show Brooklyn, and then the picture gets passed around the room. That's when I start get their approval. Max is handsome; there's no doubt about that. If he were here, he would win him over with his charm. My mother's the only one whose mouth is still drawn in a thin line.
For the next five minutes, I continuously field their questions. Then, they somehow start talking about something else. Just like that, I'm off the hook as they find something or someone to complain about. I take one more look down at the picture in my hand before I stuff it into my pocket.
Tomorrow, I'm flying home. To my real home in Pittsburgh, to the place where I'll be surrounded by the people that truly care. To my real family, even if none of us are related. I'm relieved and excited to return.