Sunday, December 4, 2011


It's a cool winter late afternoon; a lazy holiday flavor hangs heavily in the air. My husband, Steve, half-dozes before a TV bowl game; our son, Teddy, beside him in the den, carefully constructs a miniature Superdome with his Christmas erector set. The girls play noiselessly in their room upstairs.

The sky dims in shades of orange and rose through the kitchen window steamed by supper's boiling pots and sputtering skillet. I step to the window and run my hand across it; the mist runs like tears down the clouded pane. Interlacing branches of bare-limbed trees show, blurred and distorted, through the cleared swath, creating an angular mosaic against the fading, pastel sky. The image is shockingly exquisite, as if the gentle tones of Odilon Redon had been emboldened by Rouault's stark strokes. I try to capture it with my eyes, to memorize each line and shade of light, realizing that, if I ever find time to transpose the scene to canvas, its memory will have faded nearly as much as the image itself.

This afternoon, a long-distance telephone call broke in on the waning holidays. Sandy Martin, a long-time friend and modestly successful artist living in New York City, called to wish me a Happy New Year.

"Say, Cora," she asked, "when are you going to move to New York? This long­distance friendship is for the birds! I never see you anymore. Calling long-distance is expensive for a struggling young artist." She laughed.

"I don't know," I answered. "I can hardly keep up with small-town life. Can't imagine how I'd handle living in New York."

Sandy changed the subject. "How's your holiday been?"

"Just great. Busy, but everyone's been in the holiday spirit most of the time."

"Are you doing any painting while you’re on vacation?"

"No. Haven't had the chance. My in-laws came for a few days around Christmas, and I did a lot of cleaning and cooking for that. Then we had a party last night. There was more cooking and cleaning ahead of time and cleaning up afterwards. In fact, I just put away the last load of party dishes and I'm getting ready to cook supper for the family. More dishes!"

We chatted for nearly half an hour. After we hung up, I put a tape in the stereo and went into the kitchen to begin dinner, musing with the music, listening to the rhythms and moods of the piano etched, in some mysterious way, into that plastic.

And I wonder: What has happened to the ten-day holiday? I realize that, in one more day, I'll have to go back to work. The two canvases I planned to paint are still not begun and an unread book lies on the stand beside our bed. 

I turn from the window to the stove, set the sizzling pork chops on simmer, pour rice into boiling water and put the vegetables on medium heat. It should all be ready to eat in ten or fifteen minutes. I call my six-year old daughter to come downstairs and set the table for dinner. She neither comes nor answers. Before I call a second time, the music stops and I know she can hear me.

"Debra!" I call out for the third time, raising my voice. "Come down here and set the table for dinner!"

She stomps down the stairs into the dining area adjacent to the kitchen.

"I don't want to set the table," she says sullenly.

"Well, you're going to do it anyway," I respond.

"I was playing. You interrupted me."

"That's too bad."
"Why do I always have to set the table?"

"Because it's your job."
"Why doesn't Tammy ever set the table? She never does anything."

"She's only three years old. When she's your age, she'll set the table and you'll have other jobs to do. But for now, you're the one who sets the table."

“What about Teddy?  He never does anything, either.”

“He’s busy with his father,” I reply, knowing it's an evasion.

"Well, I'm not going to," she says with a determined tone.

"You are going to do it whether you want to or not," I reply, my voice rising and eyes narrowing. She turns her face away.

I place the plates on the counter. She picks them up, struts over to the table and slams them down at each place with such force that less sturdy plastic might have cracked. Her lithe body flings this way and that; her blond curls toss about with each jerk of the head. Her small hands and slender arms seem too delicate for such emphatic boldness.

"I hate this!" she says, her voice catching.

"You'll do it and you'll do it gladly," I say, articulating each word slowly and deliberately.

She begins to sob softly, putting the rest of the dishes slowly on the table. I put glasses on the counter and she sets them gently above each plate. She gets silverware from the drawer and puts each piece in its proper place. As she sets forks on carefully folded napkins, I hear a thinly voiced refrain.

"Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la..."

I smile and join in. "...'Tis the season to be jolly. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la."

She smiles back at me and I turn to the stove to dish up the food as she finishes setting the table.

[This was published in the College of Charleston Miscellany in 1981]