As her family comes together for Christmas dinner, Noreen finds herself in the eye of a storm of old hurts and rivalries, until a nearly forgotten tune reminds her of when heaven and earth shall sing.
T he silence of the house was so thick it almost had a sound, like velvet brushing against itself. Noreen stood in the cross section—the family room behind, the kitchen ahead, and the stairs just off to the left—and took in the quiet. Aware of her own breath, she held it, and shut her eyes. The void opened for an instant, like giant palms spreading wide to receive and accept. Noreen smiled. It was Christmas, and despite all the flurry and worry, she couldn’t help but be happy.
Then the furnace kicked on, the blower whooshed, and the ductwork started its rhythmic pinging. Outside the house, a dog barked, and a car rumbled down the street. Ordinary life trundled on, oblivious to the magic of silence.
Noreen mentally calculated the progress of her to-do list. Frank should be home soon from the market with the turkey and the ham she’d ordered—too much, but Frank loved a full table and plenty of leftovers. In the dining room, Noreen was confronted by the still-blank expanse of the table elongated by the two extra leaves and covered with the longest cloth she owned. Pickles, the old Calico, slept on a chair in the corner. Noreen stroked the cat’s fur, feeling the vibration of a contented purr. “Just stay off the table,” she chuckled.
The china cabinet stood on four sturdy legs—like a bow-legged barrister, as Frank, who had been born and raised in northern England, liked to say. Keeping with that image, the dark wood was courtroom somber. Inside, it held two sets of china; the Haviland with its fussy pink roses, not exactly Noreen’s taste, had belonged to Frank’s mother.
Noreen picked up a plate, ran her palm over the cool surface, and smiled at the memory of Estelle Weatherby. A tiny lady with soft curls framing her round face, Estelle had been almost childlike, except for the wrinkles that crosshatched her cheeks and forehead. When Estelle passed away nearly two years ago, the china had gone to her and Frank. Packing up the entire set and bringing it back on an international flight after Estelle’s funeral had been expensive and perilous; yet not a cup had cracked.
The holiday china Noreen collected, piece by piece, over the past ten years could be used for Christmas Day brunch, she decided. For her formal Christmas Eve dinner, she would set the table with Estelle’s china—that would make Frank happy.
There would be seven of them around the table, although Noreen held a shred of hope for eight, if Jack showed up—though not likely. The biggest group was Colin, her oldest at thirty-three; his wife, Jessica; and their two children. Renee, who was twenty-nine, was coming alone, having called it off with her fiancé, Max, three months ago—a breakup she still refused to discuss. Jack, the youngest at twenty-seven, had sent a text message two days ago, saying he was in London. “Last year, Jack hadn’t showed and called on the twenty-seventh with explanations about a yearend deal and round-the-clock negotiations. An investment banker, Jack lived in New York, but never seemed to be anywhere for long.
Even though it was only the morning of the twenty-third, Noreen decided to set the table, knowing very well it was just a distraction to keep from brooding about Jack. She took out dinner plates, salad plates, and serving dishes. The silverware, bought at an estate sale, bore someone else’s monogram—an elaborate W that they jokingly claimed stood for “Whoever.” She lined up forks, both salad and dinner; knives with heavy handles and serrated edges; and delicate spoons.
Searching the top shelf of the cabinet for the crystal salt-and-pepper shakers, Noreen found a china egg topped with a bright yellow Easter chick—she’d forgotten all about it—and an amethyst-colored bud vase given to her by a niece, years ago. Rising up on her toes and arcing her arm over her head, Noreen poked the spaces with her fingers. She lit on something round and cool as a beach stone. When her index finger touched a tiny figure and the rough edges of outstretched wings, Noreen extracted her hand and ran for the kitchen stool.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen it, which said a lot about how infrequently she dusted the china cabinet. Now she cradled the little treasure in her hand: a china music box of gleaming white porcelain and a dark blue border. Atop the lid stood a tiny, dark-eyed angel, features blunted by time and curious fingertips, with a miniscule violin tucked under her cherubic cheek. Noreen raised the lid, revealing the drums with their pinprick spindles that long ago had plucked a simple tune.
The angel box. When she was a child, she had loved to sit on the carpet in her grandmother’s parlor, carefully turning the key, never over-winding so as not to ruin the mechanism. When her grandmother died, the music box had been given to her as a memento. By that time, it was silent; some part had worn out or snapped off.
Just then, Frank called from the back door, his accent as thick as a brogue. “I don’t suppose I could get a hand here?”
Noreen set the music box on the sideboard—between a reindeer-shaped candlestick holder and an arrangement of fresh pine and roses sent by her sister in Washington State—and ran to the kitchen to help.
By mid-day on the twenty-fourth, Colin, Jessica, and the children arrived at the house. Frank, dressed in the horrid red and green plaid slacks he wore every Christmas, opened the door. Noreen stepped around him to hug the grandchildren: Billy, six, and Sharice, four. Jessica looked behind them through the open front door. “I’d love a quick run before dinner.”
Noreen thought that was strange but kept it to herself. “Whatever you like, dear. Plenty of time.”
Jessica slipped off her coat, pulled a sweatshirt on over the running clothes she already wore, and headed back out the door.
Frank took the grandkids by the hand and led them into the living room. Colin followed Noreen into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, scanning the interior. “Jack call?”
Noreen peered at the turkey through the oven door window. “He’s in London. Sends his best to everyone.”
“So what’s it been—three years since he’s been here for Christmas? Two years since he’s come to visit?”
“Please don’t.” Noreen pressed her fingertips to the corners of her eyes. “I can’t take that today, Colin.”
“Sorry, Ma.” Colin looked contrite. “Is Renee here?”
“No, but I’m sure she’s on her way.” Noreen glanced at the clock.
“You ever find out what happened with Max? It just seemed awfully sudden—” Colin stopped mid-sentence.
Noreen followed his gaze to the window on the back door, which now framed Renee’s face. She bustled in with shopping bags of wrapped gifts, her cheeks cold but her eyes bright. “Traffic was awful! Took three hours to get here.”
Noreen caught her in a hug. “Come in, take off your coat.”
“Not yet.” Renee’s eyes darted from Colin to Noreen. “I have a surprise.”
“Jeez, don’t say a dog.” Colin shook his head. “My kids see a dog, and I’m done for—that’s all they’ve been asking for.”
A sandy-haired man appeared in the doorway. Not Max, the ex-fiancé, who had been dark-haired and ruddy. A friend, perhaps? Noreen saw the broadening of her daughter’s smile. Oh my, no, she added to herself; this man was far more than that.
“I’d like you to meet Henrik.” Renee pronounced his name with a slight accent.
Colin glowered, but Noreen stepped forward to welcome him. “So glad you could join us for Christmas.” She twice called for Frank, who kept yelling back, “In a second, we’re getting the train set up”—meaning he and the grandchildren.
Two reddened blotches burned on Henrik’s pale neck and cheeks, but Renee only beamed.
“What’s all this?” Frank entered the kitchen, his eyes on Renee.
“Daddy, I want you to meet Henrik.” Renee put her arm around her father’s waist. “We’re engaged.”
Colin swore, and Frank pulled back from Renee as if the shock he’d received carried voltage. “Bloody hell! Another fiancé?”
Just then, Jessica came in the door from her run, her phone pressed to her ear. She passed through the kitchen, then shot a glance back at the unfamiliar man in their midst.
“So you gonna tell us all about this?” Colin asked his sister, stirring the air with his finger.
“Not now.” Noreen grabbed her son by the arm and pointed him toward the living room. “How about opening the wine?”
When Renee and Henrik went back to the car for the rest of their things, Frank leaned closer. “What the hell? She dumps one fiancé and gets another in 90 days—it’s like that crazy TV show.”
Noreen put up her hands in surrender. “Not now—not on Christmas Eve. She’ll tell us when she’s ready.”
“Oh, I’m ready to hear.” Frank rolled his r’s as if he were a boy back in Liverpool, and not a chemist who had spent the past thirty-five years in the States.
Noreen fussed in the kitchen, shooing everyone off to the living room with a platter of hors d’oeuvres. She needed time to think—to process the last twenty minutes in her own home. Her daughter broken up with Max after five years together and then suddenly engaged to a complete stranger?
Her thoughts continued to spin. When did Colin get to be so smug? Then Jessica deciding to go for a run just as they arrived, as if she couldn’t wait to be out of there. And Jack. Why couldn’t he come to see them? Did he resent them? Had she been a bad mother?
Her ruminating stopped when Jessica slid into the kitchen. “So do we assume Henrik is the reason for the break-up?”
Noreen eyed her daughter-in-law, now in a black knit dress as slim and sleek as her hair and her runner’s body. “Maybe. But if so, isn’t it better for Renee that she didn’t go through with something that wasn’t right?”
Jessica’s heavily lashed eyes widened. “Surprised to hear you say that, Noreen. I thought you were more of a traditionalist.”
Noreen wiped her hands on the apron tied over her black pleated skirt and white lace-trimmed blouse. She retreated to the dining room, not even bothering to make an excuse, and surveyed her perfectly set table: everything arranged, tidy and assigned its place. She stepped to the window and looked outside at the hard, bare earth: cold, but no snow.
A sound in the corner—a cross between a cough and a throat-clearing—turned Noreen away from the window. Henrik’s face still burned red, but his voice came out calmly. “I am sorry that I have spoiled your Christmas. Renee insisted I come. She didn’t want to spend the holiday pretending I didn’t exist.” He dropped his head. “Maybe she should have.”
Noreen saw him reach for something on the sideboard. The music box. She had forgotten it was still there. Before she could stop him, warning of how delicate it was, Henrik raised the lid and looked inside. “Does it work?” he asked.
“No, not anymore. It belonged to my grandmother.”
“What was its tune?”
Noreen had to admit she liked his accent and the slightly awkward way in which he phrased things. “I can’t even remember anymore.” She waited a beat. “Listen, as long as Renee is happy, we’re happy. It’s just that we knew Max for such a long time. They were engaged and planning to marry next fall.”
Henrik nodded. “Ja—that’s right. Then we met. Completely by chance. In a Starbucks. She backed up into me and I spilled my latte on her shoes.”
When he smiled, Noreen read the truth on his face: this man loved her daughter. “So how did you get from spilled coffee to engaged?”
“Talking, just talking, at first. Then Renee admitted she had feelings, and I did, too. But she was engaged, so we decided not to speak to each other anymore. Three weeks went by. Then Renee called me and said she has told Max. We knew that we want to be together.”
“But engaged, so soon?” Noreen had to wonder if this man had green card issues.
“I want to be with her forever, and she wants the same. So why do we wait? We don’t have to rush the marriage. But the commitment is important.”
Noreen threaded her arm through his. “Well, if you’re going to be part of this family, you might as well jump into the fray.”
Renee was talking fast and animatedly with Colin, her tone sharp and a frown creasing his face. Jessica held her ground, arms folded tightly across her body. Noreen led Henrik right up to the little cluster and broke in. “I hope you all have your appetites. Forty-five minutes to turkey!”
They dispersed: Jessica to the kitchen to help, Colin to the family room with his children and Frank, and Renee and Henrik to each other.
The turkey reached golden perfection. The side dishes—potatoes, squash, green beans, and roasted brussels sprouts—made the transfer from oven and stovetop to the table. Wine filled glasses. Noreen remembered the butter, sitting in its covered dish on the counter, and went back to the kitchen to get it.
Footsteps thudded on the back deck and the door opened. “Hey, Ma.”
Noreen stood there, not sure why she was in the middle of her own kitchen.
“I flew out yesterday—got into Dulles at some ungodly hour this morning, then flew up here. Got the last rental car in the lot, which is why it’s tiny and purple.” Jack’s smile became a laugh. “Merry Christmas.”
Noreen grabbed him into a hug and kissed his cheek, feeling the stubble. “I can’t believe you came.”
“I promised I’d try. This time I had to try harder.” Jack shrugged off his coat and laid over the back of a chair.
Colin came in the kitchen. “Who are you talking to?” He stopped. “Geez, look at what Santa dragged in.”
“Hey, Colin.” Jack nodded but didn’t take a step forward.
“Wasn’t sure we were going to see you.” Colin held the standoff.
Noreen stepped in, steering them both to the dining room. She gave Jack a little push through the doorway. “Surprise!”
Renee was out of her chair in a flash, hugging Jack, then Frank reached around and held them both. Everyone talked at once.
As she tried to set two more places at the table and rearrange chairs, Noreen heard a small chime. Someone’s cell phone must be going off, and she guessed that it had to Jessica’s, what with her big corporate job, or maybe Jack’s, and he’d have to leave the table to do some deal. No one else seemed to hear it, so Noreen wasn’t going to say a thing.
She heard the sound again and held up her hand, silencing the table.
“What is it?” Renee asked.
Henrik was beside Noreen an instant. “The box,” he said, pointing. “It plays.”
The little angel box, silent for forty years, found its voice again, then stopped.
Henrik picked up the box and turned the key on the back. Noreen took her breath in sharply, as if she’d been pinched. Surely, it wouldn’t play again.
But it did. Noreen recognized the tune, but her overwhelmed brain couldn’t name it.
“Joy to the World.” Frank raised his wineglass. “Appropriate.”
“When heaven and earth shall sing.” Henrik quoted the lyrics incorrectly, but they struck Noreen as fitting. They were all here, an imperfect and sometimes conflicted family, but together again. And the angel box, assumed broken and almost forgotten, still held its tune. It was a sign, Noreen indulged herself, that her grandmother, Frank’s mother Estelle, and all those who’d passed away were smiling down at then.
This was joy, she thought—deep and immutable and far better than any momentary happiness. That moment of recognition was when heaven and earth shall sing.
Patricia Crisafulli, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer, published author, and founder of Faith Hope & Fiction. Tricia received her Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) from Northwestern University, which honored her with the Distinguished Thesis Award in Creative Writing. Tricia is the recipient of the Grand Prize for Fiction from TallGrass Writers in its 2019 anthology and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She also received five Write Well Awards for best-of-the-web literary fiction for stories that have appeared on Faith Hope & Fiction. She is the author of several nonfiction books and a collection of short stories and essays, Inspired Every Day, published by Hallmark.