The Unforgettable Christmas 

Carol Rotta

© Copyright 2017 by Carol Rotta


Photo of smoke inside the house from a smoking fireplace.

Don and I were married in March 1966 and this would be our first Christmas together. I counted the days with the eagerness of a child awaiting Santa Claus. The kids in our blended family, Hal 16, Vicki 13, Donette 10 and Deanne 7 would be spending the holiday with their other parent, but Don’s dad and mom had accepted our invitation to celebrate the holiday with us. I looked forward to becoming better acquainted with them—and frankly, I hoped to impress them. I wanted them to see that Don had chosen a praiseworthy wife.

I had met them prior to our engagement, and when Don told them we were getting married they voiced some misgivings. They expressed concern that I was four years older and thought I looked it, with so much white hair. When he shared this with me I resolved, I can’t do anything about the age difference, but I can do something about my white hair. I became a blonde and started using more makeup than a dash of lipstick and a touch of mascara.

After the wedding, we moved to the small mile-high community of Forest Falls, in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California. Set among tall Ponderosa pines and incense cedars, our small rental house had three stories with a bedroom on each level. The kitchen, and a comfortable living-dining room occupied the middle story with the focal point a large, wood-burning heat-a-lator fireplace faced with river rock. Instead of using the propane furnace, the fireplace was the most economical means of heating the house, and I loved its cozy ambiance.

Preparing for our holiday guests I cleaned, dusted, scrubbed, laundered, polished, shined and decorated—and shopped, cooked and baked. I wanted everything to be perfect. I was determined to impress my new in-laws.

Christmas Eve arrived. The big test—would I pass? I left work early and rushed home to prepare for the event. I lit the already laid fire so the house would be cozy and welcoming. Then I set the table with a white linen cloth, my best dishes, glassware, and sterling silver; seasoned and placed the roast in the oven, and prepared the vegetables and a salad. As I finished I sighed with pleasure, thinking, I’m ready and everything is going just as planned.

At that moment Don walked in the door, his nose in the air sniffing appreciatively the aroma of roasting meat.

Hi, Honey,” he said as he took me in his arms for hearty hug and a quick kiss. “It sure smells good in here. When are we going to eat? I’m hungry!”

Before I could reply we heard knocking on the door and his parents entered and called out, “Merry Christmas—here we are.” Their arms were laden with brightly wrapped gifts, and a box of fruit and avocados from their yard. Yum!

Don hurried to greet them with a hug, relieved them of their packages, and took their coats. I followed with my own hellos and murmurs of, “Merry Christmas. How was the drive? Was the traffic bad?” We exchanged hugs.

We were soon seated around the table. Don asked the blessing, then began to carve the roast. Everything was perfect: the roast tender and juicy, and the gravy creamy and seasoned just right; the stuffed baked potatoes topped with sharp cheddar cheese and green onions appealing and tasty; and the green salad cold, crisp and colorful. I relaxed, and reasoned, I’m sure they were impressed that I’m a good cook and Don won’t starve.

I listened to the conversation, mostly concerning family members or friends, while Don thoughtfully explained their varied relationships so I wouldn’t feel left out.

After dinner we agreed to have dessert later. Don checked the fire and made sure the screen around it was secure. We shrugged into our winter coats and left to attend the Christmas Eve candlelight service at our small church up the canyon.

As we settled into our seats, Don smiled and winked at me as he reached for my hand giving it a comforting squeeze. I squeezed back, a feeling of peace and contentment wrapping around me like a warm blanket, accompanied by a surge of gratitude that this wonderfully kind and loving man had wanted me to share his life. Focusing on the comforting familiarity of the Christmas story and music, I realized, this is precisely what I needed—the peace of Christmas.

Returning home, Don and his folks settled comfortably in the living room. I threw a big yule log on the fire on my way to the kitchen, humming to myself as I prepared coffee and hot chocolate to serve with the dessert. As I bustled around, I paused and sniffed. I smell smoke. I bet the big log I threw on the fire must have rolled off the grate onto the hearth. I better go push it back before it smokes up the house any more. Hurrying into the living room I grabbed the poker preparing to shove the offending log back where it belonged. But it was already in place and burning vigorously. I poked at it anyway, and withdrew to the kitchen to finish my preparations.

Suddenly I heard Don yell, “Oh, my gosh. The house is filling with smoke.”

I tore back to the living room horrified to see a cloud of grey smoke billowing from the fireplace and the yule log burning fiercely. His dad hurried to open the front door and his mom darted to open windows. Frigid air poured in mingling with the exiting smoke. Don ran to the fireplace to make sure the damper was all the way open. It was closed—completely! A sinking feeling overwhelmed me. I must have hit it when I threw the yule log in. Another fleeting thought crossed my mind. I hope the neighbors don’t see all the smoke pouring out of the door and windows and call the fire department. Don was a volunteer fire fighter. How embarrassing THAT would be!

The fire became an inferno, the heat was so intense the metal liner glowed and the smoke so thick Don couldn’t get close enough to open the damper. His dad shouted, “Don, throw some water on it.”

He raced into the kitchen, returned with a large pan of water and threw it on the fire. It hissed and sizzled, the flames abating for a moment, than flared with a vengeance. The smoke intensified.

Coughing, his mom suggested, “Wet a sheet or blanket and hold it over the opening to smother the flames.”

I grabbed a sheet from the linen closet and held it under the kitchen faucet until it was saturated. Then Don and I each grabbed an end of the dripping fabric and held it across the opening. The heat dried it quickly. His mom soaked another sheet and brought it to us. We alternated the two sheets until finally the fire had subsided enough so Don could reach in, his hand wrapped in a wet towel, and pull the damper forward, opening the vent and allowing the smoke to escape.

Don doused the fire with another pan of water, saturating the charred logs. The water puddled around the grate and extinguished the last feeble flames and glowing embers. Wispy tendrils of smoke struggled upward.

We all stood and stared at the sodden mess and blackened front of the fireplace through a thinning veil of smoke. I watched horrified while tiny bits of ash wafted lightly through air and began to settle on every surface. The house smelled like a barbecue pit. We started to shiver as we became conscious of the icy air pouring in, and hurried to close doors and windows.

Don turned on the heater and we donned jackets and huddled around the table. I went to the kitchen and returned with a tray of steaming mugs of cocoa and coffee and the long-delayed dessert. I viewed the spectacle of the room with dismay: ashes dimmed the twinkle of lights on the Christmas tree and dulled the glint of ornaments; a layer formed on the carefully polished furniture; and soot filmed the once gleaming windows.

Conversation lagged until Don’s dad, his blue eyes twinkling behind ash-speckled glasses, remarked, “This is one Christmas I’m sure we’ll all remember.” We glanced at one another and nodded in solemn agreement—then exploded with laughter.

I reflected, this was obviously NOT the way to impress your new in-laws. I wonder what they’re thinking of me now. Did I pass the test?

I must have. Never again did I feel the need to impress my in-laws in order to be accepted. They had embraced me warmly and lovingly into their family.

My husband of 53 years and I moved to a senior retirement community in Prescott, Arizona, almost three years ago.  One of the activities offered was a memoir writing class.  I tried it out—and thoroughly enjoyed it and began writing essays for my family.  I was encouraged by the facilitator to join a more advanced workshop group whose members and leader offered a deeper learning experience.  At 88 years old (young?) I’ve found a new hobby I greatly enjoy among others who enjoy what I have written. Carol is the author of the book Where the Williwaws Blow, a memoir of her life on a homestead in Alaska, in the early 1950’s.  Several of her biographical essays are published in recent editions of Best Short Stories, A Collection by Arizona Writers. She’s a member of the Professional Writers of Prescott.

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