Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Present

Tom and Jerry (Max's choice of names for the boys it was his favorite drink) were without a father, his love, plus any contribution to their welfare in the way of child support ordered by the Court. Once gone, Max never once returned to see his boys.

As if all this weren't enough, Martha lost her job – ten years of seniority, benefits and insurance, all of which had biased the Judge in making Max's support payments miniscular all down the drain with the company's collapse.

Still staring at the empty refrigerator, Martha was so lost in her situation she didn't hear the knock on the front door until it was no longer just a knock, but a pounding.

"Okay, okay!" She was still in her robe and slippers having no energy and no reason to dress after getting the boys off to school. So what could this be, more bad news?

Imagine her surprise to see Max's snooty sister on her deck, the very sister who looked down her nose at her brother's wife when introduced at the reception line. During the eight years of her marriage to Max, Martha never saw this sister again. Her name escaped Martha Max never mentioned her. Everyone in Max's family were complete strangers to Martha, their names lost in the excitement of her marriage.

Martha resisted the temptation to just ignore her knock and go back to bed, instead, she opened the inner door, asking in a disinterested voice "Do you have the right trailer house?"

"Come on, Martha, let me in. It's cold out here."

"You will find it cold in here, too. In fact, it's frigid." Martha told her, as she pushed open the storm door.

"I don't remember your name, but I remember you as being HIS sister and that is no recommendation in this house."

"I came only to deliver a message " her visitor began.

"If it's from Max, forget it!" Martha turned her back and seated herself in Max's favorite chair.

"No, it's not from Max, it's from our mother."

"Ooh, the lady who looked me over carefully, snorted with disdain and remarked, "Why did Max marry you, you obviously aren't pregnant?"

At the time, Martha, a happy bride, ignored the question to say sweetly, "Oh, don't worry, I'll be happy to give you grandchildren."

Well, she'd foolishly done just that! What could Mrs. Ridley, her mother in law, possibly want.

The entire Ridley family ignored Martha and her sons as if they did not exist, never calling, sending gifts, or in other ways acknowledging them. It hurt, and when she mentioned it to Max once, he remarked they had surprised him by even coming to the wedding.

"My name is Helen, Helen Dexter, Martha. I am sorry for the shameful way Max has treated you." Helen broke into Martha's journey back in time.

"Then be kind enough to ask him to pay, at least once, the child support the Court ordered." Martha shot back.

"If I knew where he was, I would be glad to, for you and the boys. But we haven't the faintest idea of where Max might be."

"I don't know, either. If I did, he would be in jail. We would all know where to find him." If she hoped I could lead her to her precious brother, she was mistaken.

"The reason for my visit, Martha, is our Mother has asked you to tea this afternoon at four."

"I don't have a car." Martha said proudly, "And the proper clothes to attend a tea at the Ridley's aren't in my closet."

"I'd say, 'Come as you are', but your slippers might get lost in the snow." Helen smiled warmly at Martha, and Martha just couldn't stand the kindness in that smile, and quickly wiped away a tear.

"Wear what you do around the house or wear to work "

"Make it wore to work, Helen. I've been laid off."

"I could check your closet ..."

"Don't, please. Would a pants suit do?"

"Of course. I will be back to give you a ride "

"The boys will be home from school early today, it's the last school day before Christmas, and I have no sitter."

"We'll take them along." Her tone was final.

"Helen! Tom and Jerry are not two mild mannered boys, they are six year old hellions!"

"Serve Mother right for not getting acquainted with them years ago. The boys will come along. I'll be here at three thirty."

After she left, Martha sat for a while thinking about what Max's mother might want. Then smiled at the thought of that grim faced lady coming face to face with Tom and Jerry. Let's hope she didn't have heart problems.

The boys were impressed with Helen, Helen's luxurious car, that she greeted their introduction to her as one would an adult with a handshake, and no admonition about treating her Lincoln with respect. Just the smell of the leather impressed the boys to be on their best behavior.

Martha and Helen spoke about Christmas plans while they rode Martha answering Helen's inquiry as to whether she was going to decorate by putting up a tree, did the boys hang stockings, did she plan a turkey for Christmas dinner, quite honestly.

"The boys may use what decorations we have if they want to decorate, we have a small artificial tree in the closet. Without a mantle piece, we don't hang stockings. I doubt if we can afford a fancy Christmas dinner, I lost my job along with everyone else at Spirit Industries." Her voice was unemotional, and Helen didn't think the boys were listening.

They were. Tom and Jerry exchanged knowing glances. Without a father around, they didn't expect much of a Christmas. Mother's unhappiness was in her voice, and they caught her last sentence.

It had a very sobering effect, and a surprised Martha found both her hands held protectively by her sons as they walked from the car to the door of the Ridley's imposing residence.

Chairs were added at the tea table for the boys, and their Grandmother never stopped looking at her identical grandsons. Her scrutiny was returned in kind. When she asked one a ques
tion, the other answered. And they asked questions of their own.

To her "How old are you boys now?" Tom answered, "Six," and Jerry asked "How old are you?" (Their mother said it was an impolite question.) When she asked if they would like to call her "Grandmother", they answered together "We already have a Grandmother."

"But all children have two Grandmothers and two Grandfathers."

"Where is this Grandfather?" they asked in unison.

She answered "He died many years ago." After a pause, she asked, "Do you miss your father?"
Jerry answered "No more than he misses us."

There was another long pause. When Martha saw the boys were getting restless, and not wanting them to say anything they would be sorry for, she asked outright, "Mrs. Ridley, I was told you asked me here for a reason, may I ask what it is?"

"My mother, the boys' Great Grandmother, lives alone in a house not far from here. It's a big house. She has no wish to leave her house to a Grandson who never brought his wife and children boys, who will carry on the Ridley name, to see her.

"My mother in law does not leave the house, she is in her late seventies. As you have no telephone to allow her to call to ask personally, she is inviting you and the boys to Christmas dinner. She did not invite my daughter and myself. She has a full staff of servants, so will need no help. My son was not on her favorite person list, we do not blame you for the break up of your marriage, so have no hesitancy in accepting. May I please tell her you will be glad to visit her?

She is a lonely and very stubborn lady."

"Mrs. Ridley, do you have a phone in a quiet place where I may call your Mother?" Martha asked.

"Yes, please use my study, and thank you for asking."

"I'll need her number."

The study door closed, with Martha and the two boys standing just inside it.

"Tom, Jerry, I am going to call your Great Grandmother. She is an elderly lady who lives alone with just her servants. She wants us to have Christmas dinner with her. If we go, we must be on our best behavior. What should we do?"

Tom spoke first, "We heard what you said in the car, about not having money for a regular Christmas dinner. If you don't want to go..

Jerry broke in "we wouldn't mind peanut butter and jelly, as long as we have it together but I like old ladies.."

Tom added, "so do I. No one should be lonely at Christmas."

"Thank you, boys. I'll call her and say we would be happy to have Christmas dinner with her."

The elder Mrs. Ridley was overjoyed at their call. "Why not let me have all Christmas Day with you don't bother decorating at home, we'll have a big tree, presents under it how old are you're boys? Ah, six is a wonderful age. I hope they are noisy, have big appetites and can sing Christmas carols? Would they be up by seven? Breakfast at eight, Christmas morning then. I'll send the car. Thank you, Martha, you have made me very happy oh, and their names? Tom and Jerry? Were they named after members of your family? You let that rascal Max name Ridley heirs after his favorite drink? How preposterous! If they would like, we can change those names with no trouble at all oh, you think they are Tom and Jerry, well, I can see why you might think that. Martha, I look forward to a wonderful Christmas day, thank you!"

"Oh, boy," Martha put the phone back in its cradle, "I hope she still thanks me later, and not just because I am taking you two home afterward. Let's go watch our favorite TV program, boys, after we bid your Grandmother and Aunt goodbye."

In the spirit of the season, Tom and Jerry both kissed their Grandmother's cheek, which flustered her no end, took their mother's hand and followed their Aunt Helen to the car. All plans for Christmas Day made for them, Martha turned her thoughts to what she and the boys might wear. Their school had a dress code, white shirts and black pants, which should do nicely. Their shoes would need shining. Hadn't her mother given them bright ties for their birthday, still in the boxes? Time to tie them around their six year old necks if they misbehaved, she could always grab them by the ties and crack their heads together! Martha laughed at the idea.

Her sons were sensitive to her moods since early childhood, and the last six months, even more so. A frown had them running to her side to ask "What?" in unison.

When Martha asked what Santa could bring them to make them happy, she expected them to say their father's return. She was very surprised when they asked for a puppy. They knew where there was a whole litter of cute little ones, but they had to stay with their mother until New Year's at least. They were willing to wait.

"I don't know if we can afford to feed a puppy it will need shots, collar, leash, lead line if we put it out by itself when it gets a little older, a bed, flea powder..

The boys spoke together, "Gosh, we didn't know.."

"Puppies also eat shoes, gnaw furniture, wet the carpet, and they aren't allowed in the park! I'm sorry, sons, really sorry."

Tom punched Jerry on the arm. "You can be my puppy, Jere, if Mom will let me put you out on a lead line!"

"And you can be mine. I'll feed you kitchen scraps and make you pee outside!" Jerry retorted with a big grin.

"Okay, that will do. While you think of something you want and can have, I'm going to the beauty shop."

"What for?" they asked, in disbelief. And turned on the TV to watch Scrooge.

Martha couldn't believe how excited they were to be going to their great grandmother's to spend Christmas day. They woke at five, made their beds, showered, dressed in the clothes Martha laid out for them Christmas Eve and woke her at six, ready to go!

A chauffeured limousine called for them shortly after seven, and the chauffeur was pleased they were ready to go and seemed rather nervous driving out of the park.

While Martha sat quietly in her seat, the boys asked enough questions of the driver about the knobs on the dashboard to make the trip seem just around the corner.

The house was much more imposing than was Grandmother Ridley's, and the boys nudged one another when a butler came to open the door before they even knocked.

Martha caught the gleam of mischief in their eyes as they mimicked a TV movie, "Good morning is it Jeeves?" Tom asked.

"No, it's Walter."

"Good morning, Walter, and a very Merry Christmas to you." Jerry took over. "We trust your family is well. We're sorry to see you working on this Holiday." and Martha could have used the tie trick if she hadn't been behind them. "We hope your Christmas Bonus was sufficient to cover the occasion."

"Boys! You stop this nonsense immediately! I am embarrassed to have to apologize for your conduct this early in the morning."

Much to Martha's surprise, Walter turned to her with a wide smile on his face. "Madam, I look forward to a very interesting day a relief to the boredom of many days past."

When he opened the door at the end of a long corridor, the boys gasped in amazement. "Wow!"
Martha thought their Great Grandmother had outdone herself the tree was ceiling high in a very tall room, and there were three stacks of presents under the tree. As the lights twinkled, the boys pointed out to each other various ornaments on the branches. Their voices rang through the room, and Martha leaned against a chair, watching them in their excitement.

She didn't hear the approach of a small figure until she felt a hand on her arm.

"Merry Christmas, Martha. Aren't children wonderful? I have missed so many Holidays without them. Just look at their faces! They're identical twins! Oh, you are so fortunate, my dear. Do you think we should ignore breakfast for a while?"

"No, they won't know what they're eating but I find them much easier to handle when their stomachs are full. Boys! We go in for breakfast NOW." Martha ordered.

They backed away from the tree, each to a side of Martha, took her hand, and chorused "Have you ever seen anything like it, Mother?"

Martha had never met this elderly woman with the sweet smile, and now introduced herself as Martha Ridley, mother of Tom and Jerry Ridley.

"How do you wish the boys to address you, Ma'am?

"Well, Great Grandmother is a trifle stuffy. Mother Ruth would be just fine with me."

"How do you do, Mother Ruth." Tom and Jerry chorused.

"How do you do, Tom and Jerry." she answered. "Martha, would you call me Ruth, please."

"If you wish it." Martha answered, but thought there should be some title before it, like Dame. This was a very imposing woman, small, but she carried herself erect, and wore her hair piled on her head to give her height. Even then, Martha was almost two feet taller. On impulse, she bent and gave Ruth a hug.

"Thank you, Ruth, for making my boys happy this Christmas morning."

Ruth smiled warmly as she led them to the breakfast room, where a maid took the covers from enough food to feed an army. The boys had their plates filled several times, and Martha thought maybe she must have been starving them as she watched them eat.

Later, they confided to her they had overeaten because there were only four at the table, and all that food might go to waste. Martha explained in a big household, she doubted if anything went to waste.

When breakfast was over, Mother Ruth asked the boys if they would like to open their presents, and stood to one side as they raced back to the tree.

"The packages are clearly marked, Martha, sit for a moment with me, please, while the boys are otherwise occupied."

First, she complimented Martha on her children's table manners, their deference to her, the politeness to each other and their healthy appetites. Then she paused.

"May I be frank, my dear?" At Martha's nod, she continued, "The boys' father is a disgrace to the Ridley name no, don't try to defend him, if that was what you were going to do. His negligence in introducing you to the family was not because he thought you wouldn't be accepted but because we had long ago given up on him as a son and grandson. Max was a difficult child, and grew up to be a difficult human being. None of his interests ever lasted long. I am very surprised he remained a family man as long as he did. I, for one, watched him carefully during your first years together. He seemed to have changed, except for not letting his family mingle with his wife and children. Perhaps it was just as well, you seemed to be getting along splendidly and this family has a way of putting their noses where they don't belong. I thought Max had settled down.

"I knew you worked after the boys came, you both seemed to be handling matters just fine and then I saw the divorce notice in the papers. When I read the place where you worked was to close, I knew I must do something quickly. I did not want you moving away, either to your parents’ home or to some distant city looking for work, perhaps meeting another man who might want to adopt the boys and change their name. They're the last of the Ridley children I will see and I want the Ridley name carried on. What I really want is selfish. I want you and the boys to move here, with me. I will put my holdings in their names and make them my heirs immediately."

Martha was stunned. But not speechless. "Mother Ruth, do you know what you're getting yourself into? These two will race through your halls, jump on your lovely furniture, keep the servants busy cleaning up after them, drive you up the walls..."

"But they don't do that at home, do they?"

"No, I..."

"Of course, you don't allow it. And where do you think you will be? Certainly not working. You will be here every moment of every day, keeping me company while they're in school we can send them to private school if you wish "

"Definitely not!" Martha was vehement in her reply.

"And I have separate quarters where I can retire if it becomes too much for me. Martha, I am an old woman, and still in good health, I want you and the boys with me, now if possible." There was a pleading in her voice.

Martha was tempted to say yes. Her boys had friends at the school they now attended, friends who were allowed to visit even when it wasn't convenient. They came in the late afternoon, stayed for supper, rough housed in the boys' room but were always polite, and talked freely about Max's not being around. Those friends wouldn't feel free to enter a house where there was a butler, a maid to serve lunch....

A transition from a third hand trailer house to the Ridley Mansion seemed out of the question.
Martha talked long and seriously to Mother Ruth about what the move would mean to the boys. Ruth seemed to have an answer to them all a suite near the tennis courts with an outer door with just a knocker, a kitchen where Martha could cook if she pleased, bedrooms furnished for growing boys.

They were interrupted by Tom and Jerry after a considerable time.

"Mom, we thought you were coming with us. We haven't opened anything yet. Please?"

"Of course, children, right now." Martha could give no answer to Ruth until she discussed it with her children.

Except for some personal possessions the boys held dear, they really had no reason to even go home. But that was her opinion and this was not up to her alone.

Let the boys enjoy the day, get acquainted with their Great Grandmother, spend a few more days at home during the Christmas vacation, asking questions and discussing all the changes to be made and adjustments they would have to make.

It would be their decision. They would have to realize that, once made, it couldn't be reversed. Could her six year old twin sons handle that? Although Martha thought they adjusted well to their father's departure, less than a year had passed since he walked out without a backward glance. Had the wound even started to heal?

For the moment, Martha watched with pleasure as her boys opened their gifts. If this were any indication of Christmases to come, would Tom and Jerry remain the same unspoiled pair of rascals in the years ahead?

Ruth invited Martha to open the third pile of gifts with tags addressed in her name, and as the opened gifts surrounded her, she wondered if she, herself, could remain unspoiled.


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