December, 1981

Ohhhhh!  Honey Belden rubbed her eyes as she sat up in bed.  It felt like she’d just dropped off to sleep.  The room was still dark, but her six-month-old son’s vigorous wail rose over the sounds running water as her husband showered in the adjoining bathroom. 

Before her son was born, Honey had never worn her watch to bed, but since Matthew’s birth she had found herself curious to know how long he slept between feedings.  She checked it now, in the glow of the nightlight.  5:08 a.m.   She sighed.  Only three hours since the last feeding!  It was no problem to get up with the baby at midnight, two a.m., even four a.m.  But five o’clock was too close to the time she would be getting up anyway.  By the time she fed him and settled him back down, it would be time to get up for the day.

Not that she would change a single thing about her precious, much-wanted child!  But it was so important to her to start forming special family traditions right away.  She didn’t want to follow her mother’s example of a purely store-bought, catered Christmas.

Reaching for her fleecy green robe hanging from the bedpost, she shrugged into it before shoving her feet out into the chilly air and from there into warm, fuzzy slippers.  Tugging the edges of her robe together, she padded out of her room and down the hall to the nursery, where six-month-old Matthew cried and struggled to sit up in his crib, pulling himself up on the crib’s rails. 

“How’s my sweet boy?” she cooed at him, love flooding through her in spite of her feelings of frustration.  Each time she looked at her beautiful baby, wanted for so long, her heart leaped with joy.  He was perfect, and a miniature replica of his father, with great dark eyes and dark curls.  She leaned over the crib and picked him up.

“Do you need a change?” she asked, kissing the top of his head.

Matthew stopped crying at the sound of her voice, and stared at her with wide, unblinking eyes.  A thin trail of clear mucus ran from his nose to his lips, and another trail ran down his chin.

“And you need a nose wipe, too,” she crooned.  Matthew hated to have his nose cleaned out.  She sighed and dabbed at it with a tissue before lying him down on the changing table.  Sure enough, he definitely needed a clean diaper.

“Phew!”  She made a face.  “Phew!”  She wiped Matthew’s bottom with a couple of wipes before deciding it was clean.  After pinning on the fresh, clean cloth diaper, she picked him up again and carried the dirty diaper into the bathroom to rinse it out in the toilet before dropping it into the diaper pail.  It was tricky to wash her hands while holding a six-month-old, but by now, she’d had enough practice it wasn’t as hard as it used to be.

The job of changing Matthew’s diaper completed, she settled into the comfortable rocker in the nursery and started to feed him.  As she and the baby relaxed into the feeding and she felt her milk let down, she began running through her mental list of things to do in preparation for their first Christmas as a family in their first home.   When Matthew indicated he was finished, she decided not to try to get him back to sleep.  If he stayed up for awhile longer now, he might take a longer nap and give her more time to work on the list later.

“Let’s go see what Daddy’s doing,” she suggested to him.   Her husband, Brian, should be in the kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee and preparing to head for the hospital, where he had admitted three patients the day before.  Matthew stared at her and grabbed her finger.  “Gah!” he said with a toothless grin.

Sure enough, Brian sat at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper.

“That Paul Trent!  He’s a pot-stirrer,” Brian said with a grimace.  “Either the city should raise taxes in order to pay for better services, or they’ve raised taxes too much in the past five years.  One week it’s one, the next week it’s the other.”

“Yes, why can’t he find one position and stick to it?  He’s going to ruin the Sun if he stays on long as editor.”  Honey sat down and bounced Matthew on her knee.  Brian drained his coffee cup and put it into the sink, then reached for his son.

Matthew kicked and reached for his dad’s face, kicking and vocalizing all kinds of sounds in his excitement.  Honey poured herself a cup of coffee while Matthew was thus preoccupied, adding milk and artificial sweetener.  The coffee should help her wake up and get ready for the challenges of another day of preparing for Christmas with an infant on board.

Brian looked up at the clock over the sink.  “Oops, Honey, I have to go!”  He handed the baby back to her, brushed a kiss across her lips, and grabbed his coat and gloves.   Honey shrank back from the gust of frigid air that entered the kitchen as he stepped into the garage, and pulled the edge of her robe around Matthew to keep him from taking a chill.  She heard the car start up and leave the garage, and a second later, the garage door began its descent.

“Well, here we are, sweetheart!”  She smiled again at her baby, but sighed as she thought about getting her own breakfast, feeding him some baby rice cereal, and starting a load of laundry.  After that, according to her list of items to accomplish before Christmas, she was to start her decorating.  Matthew was struggling to escape the confines of her robe, and she cast a skeptical eye on him.  He wasn’t crawling yet, but he was certainly capable of disrupting any activity she started.

She’d had so many plans for this Christmas!  She and Brian were in their first real home, with their first child, and he had started his dream job just five months earlier, after finishing his residency program.  Determined to create special family memories, she had been thwarted at every turn by the demands of an infant. 

Two hours later, she had fed and bathed her son.   One load of laundry was washed and ready for the dryer.   Although she still hadn’t taken her own shower or gotten dressed, she put the baby into the playpen with the rattles and soft toys he could grab and shake.  Matthew was a placid baby who would entertain himself for a short time with his toys, and she could start decorating.  After hurrying to the utility room to move the clean laundry into the dryer, it was easy enough to place a decorated wreath on the front door, and electric candles in the windowsills of all the windows on the front of the house.

“Music!  I’ve got to play some Christmas carols,” she exclaimed to the baby.  Matthew stared at her with wide unblinking eyes, sucking on his ring of plastic keys.  She swooped down to the bin of cassette tapes under the end table, and plucked out her brand-new Johnny Mathis Merry Christmas tape.   Carefully, she slid it into the tape deck and pressed the “play” button.  The first tinkling notes of “Sleigh Ride” sent her dancing across the room as Matthew followed her open-mouthed.

But her son’s fascination with her movement didn’t last.  No sooner did she remove the top to the storage bin that held her hand-embroidered Christmas stockings than he started to fuss. 

“Are you wet, buddy?” she crooned, lifting him from the playpen.  “Let’s go check your diaper.”  Leaving the tub of Christmas decorations in the middle of the living room, she carried Matthew back to the nursery and changed him again.  Back in the living room, she tried to hang the stockings from the fireplace mantel while holding him, but the baby kept grabbing the stockings and trying to put them in his mouth.  Honey wasn’t at all sure the stockings were clean enough to chew on.  She managed to distract him long enough to hang all three stockings from the shiny silver-colored reindeer-shaped metal holders, but before she could congratulate herself, Matthew made a grab for the center stocking.

Crash!  Down came the weighted metal reindeer sculpture onto the brick hearth—but not before landing on Honey’s slipper-clad toes. 

“Wah!” 

Startled, Matthew cried at the bang, as well as at Honey’s sudden jerk as the heavy piece struck her toes.  She bit back a cry of pain but couldn’t stop herself from jerking her foot away, which threw her off-balance.  With Matthew in her arms, she was unable to keep from falling, but she managed to hold her baby up.  Although she landed partially on the reindeer (which hurt like the dickens), at least he was safe.

Matthew didn’t appreciate his narrow escape, and set up a wail of surprise and fear at his sudden change in position.  Honey was fighting to stay calm and to figure out if she could get up from the floor while holding him and dealing with the pain in her toes and her bottom.

After only a couple of failed starts, she was able to get to her feet.  Matthew continued crying lustily, and she cuddled him and crooned in what she hoped was a reassuring manner.  “It’s okay, everything’s all right,” she murmured as she hobbled to the kitchen.  Her toes throbbed and she sank gratefully onto a chair.  “Are you hungry, buddy?  Ready for a snack?” 

Matthew’s cries stopped abruptly, and he stared intently at her, solemnly at first.  As she started to adjust her gown in order to feed him, he started to bounce and vocalize again.

“Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma!” He made a dive for her breast and in seconds, his gulps and swallows were audible.  As Matthew settled down to the serious business of eating, she started to drink from the large glass of water she kept on the table for each nursing session.  As he released the first side, Matthew let out a loud burp.

She placed him in an upright position on her lap and patted his back to see if he needed to burp again, but the baby fussed impatiently until she offered him her other breast.  As he relaxed into the rhythm of his feeding, his eyes closed and his breathing became rhythmic.  In a short time she could tell he was finished and he intermittently released his suckling.  Finally, he seemed to be sleeping soundly and she carried him back to his crib, placing him gently onto his tummy to sleep.  

Matthew usually slept for about an hour at this time of day.  Now was the time to shower and dress!  Honey backed out of the room, pulling the door shut except for a crack.  After taking a quick shower and making her bed, she tip-toed back to the utility room.  Her first load of laundry was dry and she carried it to the sofa to fold.  But before she could sit down, she realized she was hungry.  Back to the kitchen to slap together a sandwich and slice up an apple.  While she ate, she checked her Christmas list again.  Only one item—the wreath—was checked off.  The electric candles and stockings were small extras she hadn’t thought about when creating her list.  Well, at least those few small items were done, even though she’d have to find another stocking-hanger—or maybe come up with a different plan for the stockings.  She rubbed her hip and flexed her toes, grimacing.  Maybe after the laundry was folded she could finish addressing her cards.

The phone rang and she jumped up to answer before the ringing could wake Matthew.

“Hello?”

“Honey, it’s Diana.  Are we still on for taking the kids to get pictures with Santa tomorrow?”

“Oh my gosh!”  I almost forgot!”  Honey’s hand went to her mouth.  “Yes, I’m still on.  What time was the appointment again?  And is Trixie coming?”

“Oh, yes!  She’s taking the morning off.  I hope you both can come to my house for lunch before she heads back to work.  I’m watching Jamie tomorrow afternoon.”  Diana sounded happy about the prospect of having four children under three years old at her house for an afternoon.  Honey knew she herself would have been apprehensive.  But Diana came from a large family, and as the eldest she had done a lot of babysitting for her four younger siblings.  So she took children in stride.  Besides, Mart was home early enough that he could really help her in the evenings.  Brian was rarely home before six-thirty, and he needed a little time to unwind before he was ready for any childcare chores.  She supposed that was normal; he dealt with children all day, and when he was home he needed a break.

All three of the Bob-White girls had children.  Diana and Mart Belden had a daughter, Ellen Margaret, who was just over two years old, and twins, Danny and Eddie, eleven months.  Trixie and Jim Frayne had Jamie, fifteen months.  Diana had made the appointment with a photography studio to have a photo session with Santa.  The pictures would make great gifts for the grandparents, she pointed out.   Honey had been excited when plans were first made, but now she wondered how difficult it might be to get five very young children together and cooperative enough with the photographer to end up with some good pictures.  Maybe I should have arranged a private session for Matthew, she fretted.

Besides that problem, Trixie had arranged to take the morning off work.  But Honey knew she’d be chomping at the bit to get back to her job.  Trixie loved Jamie, but she also felt stir-crazy after spending six months at home with her son.  “I need to spend part of my time around adults,” she had told Honey.  “Moms always had her Garden Club and when we were little she also had a weekly cleaning lady and a babysitter once a week so she could run errands without three little kids to keep up with.  Work is my Garden Club and weekly errand-running.  It’s a mental health thing.”

Honey shook her head as she remembered the conversation.  Her own dream had always been to stay home with her children.  She was determined to be the mother she never had—one whose children were her first priority, and who put her own personal touch on everything in her home.  Not that Mother didn’t put her own touch on our home, she admitted to herself.  But she was the idea person, she didn’t do the decorating or cooking or bathing her child herself.  I needed her, and she wasn’t there most of the time.  Or else I wasn’t there; I was at school or camp nearly all the time until we moved to Sleepyside.

She sighed, and felt guilty for the critical feelings she still had for her mother.  Madeleine Wheeler had nearly died when Honey was born; she spent three weeks in the hospital and lacked confidence in her abilities when she finally regained enough strength to perform care for her new daughter.  As a result, she’d virtually abdicated in favor of the very competent baby nurse Honey’s father had hired.  She’d confessed as much to Honey years before.  It was true that they’d both made every effort to become closer through shared activities, but Honey wondered if they’d ever be as close as Trixie and Diana were to their mothers. That was what she wanted with her children.  She wanted to be a real, hands-on mother—more than Madeleine had been. 

Honey was even proud of doing all of her own housework and laundering her own cloth diapers, although Brian had suggested she have a cleaning lady.   Diana’s cleaning lady came twice a week, so even though she had all those children, she had less stress from housekeeping chores.  Mart’s salary as a teacher never paid for the housekeeper!  But Mrs. Lynch had had trouble with postpartum depression after her second set of twins was born, and Mart gladly accepted his in-laws’ financial assistance to reduce Diana’s chances of becoming overwhelmed by her responsibilities.  Sometimes Honey wondered if her stubborn determination was really the smartest move, but so far she felt she had managed well without help. 

When Brian arrived home after work, she rushed to meet him at the door, Matthew in her arms.

“Hello, darling!”  She kissed him and took his coat while he took the baby from her.  “I wanted to get so much done today, but it didn’t happen.”  Suddenly, tears trembled on her eyelids.  She had wanted so much to establish the wonderful traditions her mother-in-law seemed to have woven so seamlessly through the years.  Instead, her house was undecorated, she had sent only half the cards she’d intended, and no gifts were wrapped yet.  Brian’s favorite cookies would never be baked at her current rate.

“What’s wrong?”  He sometimes surprised her by noticing when her emotions were getting out of control.

“Oh, I’m just being silly!” she demurred.  “I had big plans and the only things that worked out were the wreath and candles.”  She opened the closet door and hung up his overcoat.

“I can smell a good dinner, and Matthew looks happy,” her husband commented with a smile.  “Is there anything else that’s really important?”

“Of course not, but it’s the holidays!  I was determined to create some Christmas traditions for our family—not like my mother.”  She dropped her eyes and bit her lip.

“We’ve got the rest of our lives.  Don’t get yourself into a knot over Christmas traditions this year,” Brian advised.

She nodded unwillingly at his logic, but it was annoying.  It meant something to her to have special traditions, whether it meant anything to him or not.

“Well, supper’s ready, so let’s sit down.  I just fed Matthew, so he should be fine.”  Honey led the way into the kitchen, where she had quickly dished up the food when she heard Brian’s car in the driveway.  Chicken and dumplings, flavorful with homemade stock and packed with nutrients in the form of carrots, celery, and diced potatoes. 

“This is delicious, Honey!  Much better than spending hours writing Christmas cards,” Brian said after two mouthfuls.

“It turned out well,” she admitted.  “And we can have leftovers another day.”  She nodded toward their son.  Matthew watched from his infant seat on the floor, eyes following each forkful his parents ate. 

“You can just tell he wants something,” Honey remarked.  “I wonder what he’ll actually do once he can eat table food.”  Brian was strict on allowing no solid food until age six months.  Matthew had just started rice cereal the week before.

“Life will be a lot messier, I imagine,” Brian said with a laugh.  “How’s he doing on the rice cereal?”

“He’s getting used to it.  At first he pushed as much out of his mouth as he swallowed, but he likes it now.  In fact I thought I’d start feeding him cereal at suppertime since he’s been on it for a week now.  Trixie says Jamie slept a lot better at night once he was eating cereal for supper.”

“Babies will sleep better at night if they’re getting their caloric need filled during the day, regardless of whether they’re on solid food or not,” Brian advised in his authoritative doctor’s tone of voice.   

Whatever you say, doctor, Honey thought to herself.  But it was no use arguing, and no doubt he was actually right.

“You can have some rice cereal as soon as I finish eating,” she told her son.  Matthew continued to stare from her to Brian, a trickle of drool escaping from the corner of his mouth as he smacked his lips at the sight of his parents eating.

“Oh!  I almost forgot to tell you!”  She put down her spoon and leaned forward.  “Trixie, Diana and I are taking all the kids for a photo with Santa tomorrow.”

“Whoa!  You girls are taking all five kids to see Santa?”  Brian’s eyebrows rose.  “Have you lost your minds?”

“It’ll be sweet!  And a wonderful gift for the grandparents.”  In spite of the fact that she’d had the same misgivings earlier, she didn’t want to believe the plan would fail.

“Whatever you want to do, I guess.”  Brian shrugged.  “But I’m betting you’ll regret it.  You’ll be around a lot of kids with runny noses, coughing, who knows what.  Next thing you know, Matthew will have croup.”

“Nothing will happen!  I won’t let him get close to any sick, coughing kids,” Honey retorted.  “It was Diana’s idea.  If anyone would be leery of being around a crowd of kids it would be her, so I’m not worried.”  However, she couldn’t help casting a worried eye on her own baby.

At this point Matthew, realizing he was the topic of discussion, started wriggling in his infant seat to such a degree that she was afraid he was going to tip it over.  “Ah—ah—ah—ah!” he crowed.

“Come here, little man,” she cooed, bending over to lift him from the seat.  She inhaled deeply of the sweet baby-lotion fragrance of his skin and dropped kisses on the top of his head.  “Let’s fix your cereal.”  Cradling him on her hip, she walked over to the pantry and started preparing the baby cereal as Brian continued eating.

When she removed the small bowl of hot cereal from the microwave oven, she stirred it carefully and tasted it before letting Matthew’s reaching fingers get anywhere close.  Then she fastened a bib around his neck and carried him and the cereal back to the table.

“Here you go!”  Matthew’s mouth was opened like a baby bird, but he barely pushed any of the cereal out.  However, to add to the flavor of the bland dish, he then pushed most of his fist into his mouth.

Honey removed the fist and offered another bite.  The baby dipped forward and grabbed the long handle of his spoon.  “No, buddy, let mommy feed you,” she urged.  Instead Matthew managed to turn the spoon over and drop the cereal on his overalls—the part that wasn’t smeared across the palm of his hand.  As Honey tried to restrain his messy hand, he slid down on her lap.    

“Why don’t you put him back in the infant seat to feed him?” Brian asked reasonably.  “At least you wouldn’t have to wrestle him at the same time.”

She had managed to wrest the spoon away from her son, and returned him to a sitting position.  “Well, I just like to hold him,” she defended herself.  “But you’re probably right.”  As she picked up the messy spoon to resume the feeding, Matthew managed to grab the cereal bowl.

“Whoa, there!”  Brian managed to catch the bowl just as it was about to go over the edge of the table.

In spite of Brian’s discouraging words about their “Photos with Santa” plan, Honey looked forward to the expedition.  She awakened early (that is, she went ahead and got up after the five a.m. feeding), showered and dressed with care while Matthew was sleeping.  After he woke again, nursed and ate his cereal, she bathed him and dressed him in the cute Christmas outfit she’d made for his first Christmas while she was still pregnant.  It was only slightly small on him, and her forehead puckered as she wondered if it would be too tight to wear for several hours.  At the last second she remembered Diana’s advice and grabbed another outfit as a spare.  Just in case!

Their session was scheduled for ten o’clock and she was out the door and strapping Matthew into his car seat by nine-thirty-five, although she yawned with tiredness already.  During the short jaunt to Crimper’s she listened to her son babbling in the seat behind her, and smiled in anticipation of the cuteness overload she was soon to experience.

On Main Street she found a parking spot only a few shops down the street from Crimper’s store.  After several attempts at parallel parking she finally fitted the car into a spot that was neither too far from nor too close to the curb.  By the time she unfolded her stroller, retrieved Matthew from the car seat and stuffed her bulging diaper bag into the parcel basket, she was hot in her winter coat despite the freezing weather and gently falling snow.  She locked the car and headed toward Sleepyside’s best department store, feeling only slightly disheveled.

Inside the store, she discovered she was the first one to arrive.  Well, Trixie was usually rushing and Diana had three little ones to manage, so she pushed Matthew’s stroller into a quiet area near the ladies’ nightgowns, and lifted him out to remove his snowsuit.  Freed from the bulky warm garment, Matthew crowed with joy and kicked vigorously, waving his arms.  She frowned, noticing his damp hair sticking straight up on his head, and set him back in the stroller to smooth it with a comb.

Matthew did not like having his hair combed, and staged a protest.  She smoothed his hair down as best she could and pushed the stroller again to try to distract him.  The store’s photography studio was upstairs, and she didn’t want to start up until her sisters-in-law arrived.  She hoped that would be soon.   

“Mama, I saw Aunt Honey’s car outside,” a little girl’s piping voice said clearly.  Honey recognized her precocious niece Ellen’s voice.  Ellen took after her father, Mart, and although only just two years old, she spoke in complete sentences.  She turned the stroller back toward the front of the store, and raised her hand to wave to Diana.

Black-haired Diana was scanning the store but when she saw Honey wave she waved back.  She carried one twin and Ellen pushed the other one in a stroller similar to Matthew’s.

“Hi, Honey!  I hope this will be fun!”  Diana greeted her with a hug, and unfastened her coat while Honey took a twin away from her.  She studied the eleven-month-old carefully.  He was sucking his thumb and staring back at her with big blue eyes.  The boys were identical twins and today were even dressed identically, but Honey spent enough time around them that she could almost always tell them apart—after a few minutes.  This was Danny, and he sported a dime-size bruise on his forehead.

“What did you do to yourself, Danny?” she said.  “You got a boo-boo.”

“He fell on my castle and broke it,” Ellen replied.  “He bumped his head and cried so loud!  He hurted my ears!”

“Well, no wonder!”  Honey kissed her nephew’s boo-boo, but Danny struggled to get down.  She set him down next to the stroller, but he struck off boldly, toddling toward a round rack of ladies’ separates.  His brother immediately started trying to climb out of the stroller.

“No, no, Eddie!”  Ellen told him, shaking her finger at him.

“Watch them, Honey!  Danny will pull down half of the clothes if I don’t catch him.”  Diana hurried after her son while Ellen directed her attention to Matthew, hanging over the stroller until her face was inches from her cousin’s.

“Hi, baby Matthew!” she said.  Matthew’s waving hand grabbed one of Ellen’s dark curls and pulled it toward his mouth.  “Ow!  He got my hair!”  Honey quickly bent over to untangle the baby’s fingers from Ellen’s hair, messing up the carefully arranged sausage curls in the process.  Noticing the dishevelment, she started to wind the hair around her own finger to try to restore the curl, but Matthew, deprived of his plaything, started to fuss.

“Honey!  We’re here!”  She looked up, toward the front entrance of the store, and saw Trixie jogging inside, her son on her hip.  Jamie’s red hair was covered by a blue knit cap and he, like his cousins, was bundled into a snowsuit.  Trixie’s coat was unfastened and she was hatless and glove-less.

“Where’s Di?” Trixie asked as she came closer.  “Oh, there she is.  Hi, Di, have you been waiting long?”

“No, only about five minutes,” Diana replied, lifting Danny into the stroller with his brother.  Immediately both boys started hanging over the sides of the stroller seat.  “Hi, Trix.  Hi Jamie.”  She blew air kisses to both of the new arrivals and spoke firmly to her sons.  “Stay inside the stroller!  We’re going to see Santa.”  The two babies stared at her from identical blue eyes, Eddie sucking his thumb and Danny his two middle fingers.

“Do they know who Santa Claus is?” Trixie asked curiously.  She pulled off Jamie’s hat and unzipped the snowsuit, pulling it off of him without putting him down, and then stuffed it into the oversized tote she carried.  Jamie’s red hair stood out all over his head with static electricity, like an aureole.

“Oh, they know what he looks like.  We have The Night Before Christmas at home and when I read it to them we always say ‘Ho, ho, ho!’  They start saying ‘Ho-ho’ every time they see him.  I said, stay inside the stroller, boys!”

“Let’s head for the elevator, ladies,” Honey suggested.  “We don’t want to be late.”

She led the way to the ancient cage-style elevator in the rear of the store.  The two strollers would just fit into the car, and Trixie, Honey, and Diana each held onto at least one child as the mechanism wheezed and the car rose with only a small jerk. 

Honey had definitely been under the impression that their appointment was a private sitting at the studio, so she was surprised to see a long line of mothers and children as they exited the elevator.

“Di!  I thought this was to be a private appointment,” she whispered.

“Yikes!  So did I!”  Diana’s violet eyes widened.  “How many people do you think are already here?”

“Probably twenty,” Trixie muttered.  “We’re in for a fun time now.”

“Oh, well, it’ll give us time to neaten the kids up a bit,” Diana observed with a wink.  Sure enough, as Honey gazed from one child to another, none of them looked perfectly picture-ready.

Diana peeled her children’s coats and hats and stuffed them into the parcel basket under her stroller, then gave her sons a small plastic container of dry Cheerios to snack on while she brushed Ellen’s hair and re-formed her curls before tying up one curl from the top with a red bow. 

Trixie took the brush from Diana and smoothed Jamie’s static-infused hair, then ensured his white turtleneck collar was neat and smooth before letting him approach Diana’s twins.  Honey sighed and sank gratefully into one of the chairs that lined the wall outside the studio door.  Matthew was chewing on a ring of plastic keys, and she noticed a wet spot on his shirtfront where he’d drooled on it.  She dug in the diaper bag for a bib.  Maybe the spot would dry before it was their turn.  Matthew’s soft baby brush was there, too, and she used it to smooth his dark hair into a neat cap.

All the children were dressed alike, the boys in corduroy overalls and Ellen in a matching jumper, with a cute reindeer appliqué on the front bib.  Honey had made all of the outfits before Matthew was born.  A good thing; I wouldn’t have been able to get all that sewing done if I’d waited, she thought.  The twins wore blue overalls; Ellen’s jumper was red; Jamie and Matthew were in matching dark green overalls.  White knit pullover shirts completed the simple outfits.   She pictured the adorable group photo in her mind and smiled, when suddenly Matthew’s face screwed up in a grimace that she and Brian had come to recognize.

“Look, baby Matthew’s making the poop face,” Ellen pointed out in a loud, clear voice.

As Matthew’s face settled back into its usual placid expression, Honey picked him up, and tried to sniff his diaper area unobtrusively.  “Hey, I’d better take Matthew and change him,” she said.  Hopefully he had not had a full blowout…

When she came back from the bathroom, Matthew was dressed in outfit number two.  “I’m sorry!  The picture will be ruined, but he had…well, you know…almost up to his neck.  I practically had to give him a bath in the sink, and that was after I wiped him with about ten baby-wipes.  Well, I cleaned the sink afterward, I mean…” she added, noticing the looks from the other mothers waiting in line.

“If they don’t all match, it’s not the end of the world,” Trixie reassured her.

“Can you hold him for a minute?” Honey asked.  “I need to go back and wash my hands again.  That bathroom is so small, and of course I couldn’t put him down on the floor by himself.  I cleaned up the best I could with wipes, but…”  She made a face, too.

“Of course, give him to me.”  Trixie scooped her nephew into her arms.  “Did you ruin the picture, Matthew?” she asked him, making the fish-face he always tried to copy.  Honey left them giggling together.

The line moved faster than Honey would have believed possible, but another member of her group had to change to the second-choice outfit when Danny Belden, who had reflux, spit up on his overall.  Finally, the large group was ushered into the studio.

Ellen had chattered about sitting on Ho-Ho’s lap almost continuously while they waited in line, but as she stared at the large white-bearded man clad in a red suit, who greeted her with a friendly “Ho, ho, ho!  Hello, little girl!” she burst into tears and clung to Diana’s leg with a death grip. 

“Come on, kids!  Jamie, let’s sit in Santa’s lap with Matthew.”  Trixie beckoned to Honey to place Matthew into Santa’s arms, while she placed Jamie on his lap.  Seeing their cousin sitting with the stranger, Danny and Eddie set up a clamor to be released from their stroller, but Diana couldn’t move a step with Ellen clinging to her like a leech.  Honey reluctantly turned her back on her own son and lifted Eddie from the stroller, brushing Cheerios crumbs from his overall.  Trixie took Danny, and she and Honey arranged the four little boys with Santa, assisted by a couple of studio employees dressed as elves.

“Look, Ellie!”  Diana tried to coax her daughter to join her brothers.  “Danny and Eddie are sitting on Ho-ho’s lap.  Don’t you want to get up there with them?”  Ellen peered out from the safety of her mother’s leg.  Jamie and Eddie were actually sitting on two tall chairs on either side of Santa, while he held Matthew and Danny.  Danny stared solemnly at Santa’s beard, and Matthew continued sucking on his key ring.

“See if the little girl will stand up on a stepstool in front of Santa,” suggested one of the helpers, dressed as an elf.

Suddenly Ellen made up her mind to join the boys.  “Me sit with Ho-ho,” she announced.  “Aunt Honey hold Matthew.  He too little.”  She marched up to the low platform where Santa’s chair sat.

“Sweetie, look!”  Diana pointed to the bright purple stepstool the elf had placed directly in front of Santa, between his feet.  “You can stand on the stepstool like a big girl.”

“Purple!  I stand on purple stool.”  Ellen conceded and climbed up onto the stepstool.  But by the time the elf convinced her to turn around and face the camera, Danny was wiggling on Santa’s lap and Matthew dropped his keys.  Eddie tried to stand on his chair and despite the number of adults within an arm’s reach, he took a header and would have ended up on the floor save for his Aunt Trixie’s quick reflexes.

“We have a loveseat that might work better for a group this size,” offered the second elf.  “Maybe Santa could take a break and we’ll regroup on the loveseat.”

Honey breathed a sigh of relief as she took her baby from Santa, noticing his forehead was beaded in sweat.  “I’m sorry!” she apologized.  

Honey said good-bye to her friends and nieces and nephews, and loaded Matthew back into his car seat before folding the stroller and hefting it into the trunk of her car.  Her head was pounding and she felt like crying.  Her plans for the perfect Christmas picture and present for Matthew’s grandparents had been foiled by the realities of dealing with five children under three years of age and a busy, crowded photo-event.  Matthew, fortunately, had fallen asleep and she drove home in silence.  She didn’t even want to listen to “Sleigh Ride” on her car’s tape player.

At home, she unfastened her son from the car seat and carried him to his crib.  Surprisingly, the motion didn’t wake him.  Yet.  He’d probably awaken soon enough, hungry and wet. 

The pictures had finally been taken, although none of them had all five children looking at the camera at the same time.  The studio had a nice set-up where each picture could be viewed on a TV screen immediately, so the final appearance of the picture could be seen.  Each family had also taken pictures, so the Belden, Wheeler, and Lynch families each had a memento of this Christmas.

One funny moment had happened when Santa asked Ellen to tell him what she wanted for Christmas, and she answered “I want a Kid Sister.”  The elves and the photographer looked questioningly at Diana, who obviously already had three children under three.  Diana merely laughed and shrugged.  “It’s a doll,” she assured Honey and Trixie.   

She hung up her coat and went back out to the garage and retrieved the diaper bag, carefully removing the plastic bag inside that held the soiled outfit.  With a sigh, she dropped the disgusting clothing into the washing machine and started a soak cycle.  The plastic bag went into a trash bag that she tied up and took outside to the trash bin.  Then she washed her hands again and collapsed onto the sofa.  What an exhausting morning!  She closed her eyes to the piles of clean, folded laundry that covered the coffee table.  I’ll deal with that later, she thought dully.  She curled up and pulled the hand-crocheted afghan Aunt Alicia had made for them last Christmas over her and in minutes was asleep. 

Brrrrriiiinnnnnngggg!  The telephone’s insistent ring awakened Honey and she started up from the sofa, confused for a moment about where she was and what time it was.  Then, remembering Matthew was sleeping, she jumped up and ran into the kitchen, grabbing the receiver from the wall phone.

“Hello?” she tried to say calmly, instead of breathlessly.

“Darling, what are you doing this afternoon?” her mother’s soft, breathy voice asked.

“Oh, probably not much,” she answered.  “I was gone most of the morning.  Trixie, Diana and I took all of the kids for pictures with Santa.”

“I bet that was a memorable experience!”  Madeleine Wheeler chuckled.

“Um, yes.  Memorable is one way to put it.”  Honey paused and then tried to respond to her mother’s original question.  “Did you want me to do something, or was there something special you called about?  Not that you need a special reason to call me.”  She tried to smile.  Her mother-in-law called her nearly every day, but her own mother was more distant.  Well, she does travel a lot with Daddy, she told herself.  She has a lot in her life besides just me.

“No, I didn’t need you to do anything, darling.  Actually I was hoping to run over for a bit and visit with you and Matthew.  Cook wanted to send over some dinner for you and Brian, too.”

“Sure, you can come over.  Any particular time?”  Honey’s eyes darted around the kitchen.  It wasn’t quite ready for company, but she could take care of the minimal tidying needed before her mother could visit.  The piles of clean clothes in the living room and her unmade bed concerned her more.  

“I’ll see you in about a half hour, if that’s all right.”

“Yes, that’ll be fine.  I’ll see you then.  Good-bye.”  Honey hung up the phone and swung into action, quickly loading the few dirty dishes into the dishwasher and straightening the decorative tea towels.  Next she scooped up the piles of her clothes and Brian’s, swiftly tossing them into their respective dresser drawers.  Just as she finished straightening her bed, Matthew’s lusty wail started up. 

When the doorbell chimed, she was in the middle of changing Matthew’s diaper—fortunately not the explosion he’d had earlier.  She hurried to finish up and carried him out to answer the door.  Of course, it was her mother, perfectly coiffed and dressed in a warm wool ensemble under a coordinating coat.  Subtle makeup was expertly applied, giving Madeleine’s face a natural-looking glow with no red nose or washed-out eyes.

The Wheelers’ long-time chauffeur, Tom Delanoy, was behind her, holding a covered casserole dish and a basket Honey decided was probably bread.

“Come on in, Mother, Tom,” she invited, holding the door open and standing back.   Mrs. Wheeler stepped inside and moved out of the foyer into the living room as Tom carried the food into Honey’s kitchen, depositing the casserole dish on the stovetop and the basket on the counter. 

“Thank you, Tom,” Mrs. Wheeler said.  “Honey, doesn’t it smell delicious?  It was so kind of Cook to offer to make dinner for you and Brian.”  She removed sleek leather gloves before divesting herself of her coat and hanging it up in the closet.  “Tom, will it be convenient for you to pick me up again in an hour?” 

“Yes, that’s about the right amount of time I’ll need to run the errands Celia gave me,” the chauffeur replied.  “I’ll see you in an hour, then.”

He left the house and as Honey waved he pulled smoothly away from the curb.  Still holding Matthew, she turned back to join her mother in the living room, where signs of recent laundry had been cleared away.  Madeleine was rubbing her hands briskly together and touched them to her face before reaching out for her grandson.

“May I hold him?”  

Honey handed her son over to his grandmother, and the two women took seats on the comfortable easy chairs.    The baby had not yet entered his “stranger awareness” phase and grabbed at Mrs. Wheeler’s necklace of wooden beads and rings.  Honey felt a little anxious.

“Mother, he’ll probably break your necklace, and everything goes straight into his mouth,” she warned.

“The cord is very sturdy and the beads are wooden,” Mrs. Wheeler demurred.  “I don’t think he’ll be able to break it and it’s clean, so he shouldn’t get too many germs from it.”  However, Honey noticed her mother looked a bit anxious.  She knew the anxiety might stem from the thought of germs, not from any worry of her jewelry being destroyed.

“I’m not worried about germs, Mother,” she reassured her mother.

“So, how was your photo session this morning?”  Anyone could see that Madeleine doted on her grandsons, but she never seemed to have Helen Belden’s  ease in handling either Matthew or Jamie.  As usual, she sat stiffly, holding him with a rigid grip that was intentionally not too tight.

“Oh, Mother!  It was awful!” She threw her hands in the air.  “Matthew had a blow-out before we even made it through the line, and Danny spit up on his outfit.  Both of them had to be changed, and then Ellen suddenly got scared of Santa.  Jamie’s hair was wild, even though Trixie tried to smooth it down.  I had such a cute group picture in my mind, and all of the shots were just… disappointing.”  

“I’m sorry.”  Madeleine tsk-tsk-ed and took Matthew’s hands to interest him in a game of patty-cake.  “I thought it was to be a private photo session.”

“I think Diana did, too,” Honey admitted.  “But apparently all week they’re having a special fundraiser for the Kiwanis club’s Christmas toy program.  The studio was donating all of the sitting fees, but as a result they opened it up to as many people as wanted to come in during their business hours.  We thought we were being so smart getting in this early in December and on a weekday, too.”  She sighed.  “That’s about the third thing so far that’s ruined my plans for Christmas.”

“Ruined your plans?”  Her mother’s eyebrows lifted, but then she ducked her head to drop kisses on Matthew’s forehead.

“Yes.  I was all ready to start some special Christmas traditions this year, for our first Christmas as a family, in our first family home.  I wanted to start some traditions that would always be a special part of Christmas for us.  Not like when I was growing up, before we moved here.”  Tears welled in Honey’s eyes as she clapped a hand over her mouth.  “I didn’t mean to be critical, Mother.”

Matthew was starting to fuss, rearing his head back.  Madeleine lifted him awkwardly to her shoulder, patting his back.   “Critical?  You couldn’t be half as critical as I am of myself,” she said.  “There, there,” she added in a soft voice to Matthew.

“You remember I told you how ill I was when you were born.” 

Honey nodded, and her mother continued speaking as she kept patting her grandson.  “Well, I had always been confident of myself and was sure I was going to be a successful mother.  I’d studied and nearly memorized Dr. Spock’s book before you were born.  But by the time I got out of the hospital and came home, you were well-established in a routine with your nurse.  You didn’t need me; Mrs. Carter took excellent care of you and she loved you, too; anyone could see that.  She always knew just what to do, and what you needed, and I never did.  I was a failure at the one thing I wanted most in the world.”

“When you were sick with an ear infection your first Christmas, I didn’t even know how to give you the medicine the doctor prescribed.  I was so worried about you that I just gave you up to Mrs. Carter.  Even though you were so little, only a month younger than Matthew is now, I had made a lot of plans for the perfect first Christmas.  Probably not the same kind of plans you made this year, but nothing worked out the way I’d planned it.  I gave up on Christmas that year.”

“But what about all the other years?” Honey couldn’t help asking.  “The times I came home from boarding school for Christmas vacation and you and Daddy were gone, traveling for business?”

“Do you have a burp cloth?” Mrs. Wheeler asked instead of answering.  “I’m afraid Matthew spit up.”

“Oh, no!”  Honey jumped up, snatching a burp cloth from the coffee table.  She walked around to check the shoulder of her mother’s expensive cashmere sweater, blotting gently at the small puddle of spit-up.  She noticed, however, that Matthew had dropped off to sleep, and her lips curved in a smile.

Carefully, she nudged a fresh, soft burp cloth between Matthew’s mouth and her mother’s sweater before sitting back down.  “I always thought you were disappointed I wasn’t a boy,” Honey said.  “Even though you’ve told me what happened, weren’t you even a little bit disappointed?  Weren’t you and Daddy both hoping for an heir to take over Wheeler Enterprises someday?”

“Darling, we could never have been disappointed that you were a girl!”  Madeleine’s eyes widened, as if the thought had never occurred to her.  “I won’t say we never thought about it, but truly, at the time we were both so young we weren’t thinking about grooming anyone to take over the business.  That was too far in the future!”  She shook her head.  “Actually, I was excited to think of having a little girl who could go shopping with me, and the ballet, and once your dad and I started traveling for business I dreamed of taking you all around Europe and London, all of that.”

“But none of that ever happened.”  Honey frowned in puzzlement.

Her mother shrugged slim shoulders.  “No, you’re right.”  She gazed at Honey, hazel eyes filling.  “I was so weak when I came home from the hospital… I was scared to hold you, and in spite of all the reading I’d done, I didn’t know anything about taking care of a baby.  Mrs. Carter was so good, and I felt incompetent around her, so I let her care for you instead of insisting on doing it myself.  I was wrong.”  She held the sleeping baby with both arms, still a bit stiff and unnatural-looking even after six months.  As a result, she didn’t have a free hand to brush away the tears that overflowed her brimming eyes.  “When I found out I’d had to have an emergency hysterectomy, and there would never be any more children… No chance to recoup my mistakes… I withdrew into myself.  I shut out your father as well as you, Honey.  And the longer it went on, the harder it was to break out of the habits that we had formed.”  

Honey didn’t think she could listen to any more for a few minutes.  “Let me take Matthew,” she said.  “I’ll go put him down.”

“No, please let me hold him,” her mother said.  “I like to imagine how I might have held you as an infant.  He’s so precious, I don’t want to miss a minute.  I can never make up that time to you, but I can get to know him and be close to him.  I hope I can, at least.”

“Well, let me at least put a pillow behind your back,” Honey urged.  “You look so uncomfortable.”  She plucked a couple of decorative throw pillows from the sofa and tried to get the chair to a point where her mother could relax a bit more.

“That’s better, darling.”  Madeleine smiled.  “I felt that you didn’t need me, in fact you were better off if I wasn’t around.  So when your dad asked me to be his ‘girl Friday’ and interpreter, I did it.  And I found out I was really good at that.  I could feel good about myself when I was helping him in the business.  I was useful to someone, and away from the one who was a constant reminder of my failure.”

“I just don’t understand why you felt I was better off without you,” Honey protested stubbornly.  “I wanted you home so badly; I wanted to be just like you when I was little.  And then one time at Grandmother Hart’s, I heard her cook telling your maid it was too bad I wasn’t a boy, because you really wanted a boy.”

Madeleine’s eyes blazed.  “She did, did she?”  She was almost shaking.  “She may have gotten that idea from Mother—although I don’t believe even Mother would have confided in her cook if she did believe that.  Mother knew what had happened, and not many people did.  Most people thought I just didn’t want to ruin my figure by having more children.  I never told anyone any differently, because I didn’t want anyone’s pity.  But Mother always liked to rub it in that Matt didn’t have a proper heir to carry on the business.” 

Matthew, apparently sensing the emotional storm going on around him, stirred restlessly and balled up the burp cloth so that it completely blocked his nose and mouth.  Honey jumped up and smoothed the cloth, murmuring soothingly to her son.

“Anyway, I don’t want to make this visit about me.  I made so many mistakes as a mother.  I missed so much of your life because I felt scared and not good enough.  I tried to make up for that by buying the nicest dolls, the prettiest clothes, sending you to the best schools and camps.  The apartment had to be perfectly decorated when you came home for Christmas.  Your dad and I did everything we could to keep you safe from kidnappers.”

Honey shook her head and threw up her arms.  “None of that mattered to me,” she said.  “I just wanted to be with you and Daddy.”

“I know that now.”  Madeleine’s eyes were wet again.  “I started learning that once we moved out here.  But that’s what I’m trying to tell you.  The perfect Christmas Santa pictures, the Christmas tree, even the most carefully selected and handmade gifts, those things aren’t as important as spending time with the people you love.  Imperfection is all right.  We only get a limited amount of time with each other.  We can avoid all experiences because they might not meet our expectations…”

“Or we can give ourselves to each experience and enjoy it for a unique opportunity that might never happen again,” Honey finished the thought.

Matthew stretched suddenly and reared his head back, then sneezed.  Madeleine reacted by supporting his body and gently patting his back as she murmured softly to him, and the baby relaxed and laid his head back on her shoulder.  “It’s going to be a perfectly perfect Christmas,” she said with a radiant smile.

Honey glanced around the still rather stark living room, sans garland and with only two stockings hanging from the mantel.  The damaged reindeer stocking-holder had to be thrown away after its mishap and Honey’s stocking was lying on top of the mantel.  A small pile of Christmas cards was stacked on one end, since she hadn’t had time to artistically arrange them yet.  And Brian had insisted they would go out to the farm and cut down a tree, though not until the weekend before Christmas.  But suddenly, she agreed with her mother, and it was a warm and cozy feeling she never expected to experience.

She heard the kitchen door open as Brian came inside from the garage.

“Hello, Honey, I’m home!” he called softly.

“We’re in the living room,” she answered.  As he walked inside to join her, she smiled, first at her mother and then at her husband.  “It’s going to be a perfectly perfect Christmas!”  

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Author’s Notes

9099 words

This story was written as a giftfic for the lovely PatK, who said I just want the person who gets my name to listen to her muses and write a good story! I had most of the story actually written before receiving her answers to Mal’s SS questionnaire, but was able to get a few of Pat’s answers incorporated.  Honey shares Pat’s love of Christmas and her determination to celebrate it thoroughly!  “Sleigh Ride” is a favorite of Pat’s as well.  Ellen’s request for a Kid Sister doll also is derived from a favorite Christmas memory of Pat’s when her children were small.

Huge thanks to my fabulous editors, Ronda, Ryl, and Trish!  As always, your eagle eyes spotted errors I overlooked and your insights and suggestions helped make the story so much better!

Thank you to all my Jix friends!  Your feedback is valued and appreciated, and I love you all.

Images obtained from Google image searches and used in accordance with usage restrictions.  Title font is called Honey Script, so of course I had to use it!

I did a little bit of internet research for this story! 

Back-sleeping to prevent SIDS was first recommended in 1992.  https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/documents/sids_qa-508-rev.pdf

When the first Trixies were published, I have always assumed the Wheelers’ fear of kidnapping was based on the famous kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1934, but for my universe’s timeline, I was able to find several other high-profile kidnapping cases that occurred between 1950-1969: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Greenlease; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_kidnappings#1900.E2.80.931949.

Sadly, I didn't do the same level of rigorous research on the Kid Sister doll until after my story was complete. The My Buddy (marketed to boys) and Kid Sister dolls were not introduced until 1985: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Buddy_(doll). Oops!

Merry Christmas, PatK!

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. All other material on these pages copyright 2010 by MaryN/Dianafan. Graphics copyright by Mary N 2016.

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