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THE PICAYUNE CHRISTMAS STORY: Over the mountain

Editor’s note: In keeping with The Picayune tradition, we offer a Christmas fictional short story by editor Daniel Clifton. We hope you and your family enjoy this tale.

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

“I don’t know why you’re grumpy,” Brad’s mom said from the front seat of the car. “Mammy loves these visits. She looks forward to them every year.”

Brad sighed and sank down lower in his seat. He stared out the window as cars heading in the other direction raced by, a blur of colors all running together as the sun bounced off their metallic bodies. This wasn’t how he wanted to spend Christmas Day. Especially with a new skateboard to try out and new snowboarding gear waiting for the upcoming trip to Colorado. All he had to show for his gifts right now was the dark blue sweater he was wearing that bore “Aspen” across it. That’s where he and his family were off to in a few days to do some skiing and snowboarding.

It’s only for a few hours, Brad chanted over and over in his head. His mom wouldn’t even let him bring his iPad to play games on while she and his dad talked with Mammy.

Mammy. How old was she now?

Old. She had always been old, he guessed, though Brad couldn’t recall thinking of her that way until the past year or two. But at 11, anyone over 40 seemed old to him. And Mammy — that’s what he called his great-grandmother — she was on the other side of 90.

“Yeah, just hang in there,” his dad said as he navigated the Jeep Cherokee through town to Mammy’s home. “You’ll have fun, wait and see. You used to love coming here, eating dinner and singing Christmas carols with the residents.”

“When?” Brad shot back. “When I was, like, 4 or 5? C’mon, Dad! It’s so boring. Kind of creepy, too.”

“Creepy? What do you mean?” his mom asked. “They’re just older than you. There’s nothing creepy about them.”

Brad shook his head. He remembered the last time they visited a couple months ago. Several of the residents sat in their wheelchairs just inside the entrance, their heads hanging down as if they were unable to lift them. The thought of it made him shiver.

He sighed again and tried to push himself even lower in the seat.

As Brad walked into the home, he found a nine-foot Christmas tree decorated in gold and red ornaments with a ribbon interwoven with gold and red snaking its way down. Red and white poinsettias encircled the base of the tree, giving the impression of a giant Christmas hug. A fire popped in the fireplace. Brad had to admit to himself that the entire scene looked like one of those fancy Christmas cards.

Several residents gathered around a table playing cards. One older man sat in a plush, red chair off to the side of the fireplace. A cane rested against his right leg. The man looked up at Brad and nodded to him. Brad nodded back.

Inside Mammy’s room, the scene wasn’t as festive but also not the dreary atmosphere Brad was anticipating. Somebody had collected all the Christmas cards sent to Mammy, strung them together and hung them across the ceiling. There had to be 50, no, maybe 100 cards up there.

“Mammy, you look good,” Brad’s mom said as they entered the room. Mammy sat in an off-white chair next to a window overlooking the garden. She looked over at her guests and smiled.

“Oh, I’m just getting older,” she said, her voice strong but with a bit of a crackle. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you,” Brad’s dad replied. “It’s good to see you.”

Brad hung back a bit. Mammy motioned him over. He hesitated but shuffled over to her. Mammy took his hand in hers.

“Oh, it’s so good to see you Brad,” she said. “Thank you ever so much for coming to see me this Christmas Day. I know there’s probably a hundred other places you’d rather be, but thank you.”

Brad blushed a bit. He remembered that, even years ago, she seemed to be able to read people right away.

As his parents and Mammy sat and talked, Brad slipped out. Despite making him come here, his parents never really expected him to stick around to visit. He figured it was more for appearances. But since he was here, maybe he could check out that Christmas tree again. Plus, he’d noticed some hot chocolate and cookies on a table next to the old man with the cane. He hoped it wasn’t a pot of that hot cocoa made out of water, but a chocolate cookie would make it all worthwhile.

The man was still sitting there, thumbing through a magazine. Brad slipped up beside the table, hoping to go unnoticed, and poured a cup of hot cocoa.

“I wouldn’t get too excited about drinking that stuff,” the man said. “They set the crap out here for the guests or people who don’t know better. The good stuff, the stuff made from milk, we keep it in the dining hall.”

Brad froze. “Oh, OK. I just thought, well, I just want …”

“It’s all right, drink some. That’s what it’s there for,” the man said. He turned to Brad. “My name’s Edward.”

The man stuck out his hand. Brad looked at the wrinkled hand and fingers. He set down his cup, reached over and shook it. The man’s grip surprised Brad. He was expecting a feeble handshake, but it was firm, almost to the point of hurting.

“Brad,” he replied. “My name’s Brad.”

“Well, what are you in here for?” the man asked, giving Brad a wink. “I don’t see many kids here on Christmas. Figure you must have landed on the naughty list pretty hard to get stuck coming here.”

“Aw, no,” Brad stammered. “Mammy, I mean, my great-grandma lives here. We just came to visit her.”

Edward nodded and leaned back in his chair. “Ah, the obligatory Christmas visit. We see that a lot. Come in, see your old relative and then get out as fast as you can.”

Brad rocked back and forth on his feet. How could this man, just like Mammy, see right through him?

“It’s not that bad,” he said, but, at the same moment, he was determining the best way to escape. “I’ve come here before. A lot.”

Edward looked at him and smiled. It was a kind grin.

“You ever been to Aspen?” the man asked. He pointed at Brad’s sweater. “You know anything about that place?”

“We go skiing there. Well, my parents go skiing. I go snowboarding.”

“That’s good. It’s a great place,” Edward said. “Spent many a summer and winter there myself. I helped build that place, you know. Laid out some of the original trails.”

Brad looked at the man. He had to be more than 80. How could he know anything about Aspen? He probably spent most of his life in this old folks home.

Brad wolfed down the rest of his cookie and sat down the empty cup.

“Well, I got to be going,” he told Edward. “It was nice meeting you.”

He turned and hustled off. The man watched as Brad retreated. Back in the room, his mom, dad and Mammy still were talking. Brad couldn’t believe his parents could find so much to talk about with Mammy. After all, she was, what, 50 years or more older than either of them? But there the three were, talking away.

Brad shrugged and slunk down in a chair near the door.

“Oh, there you are,” his mom said. “We were just getting ready to eat. Are you ready?”

Brad sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”

Brad figured the sooner they ate, the sooner they could get out of here. He had a new skateboard he needed to try out.

The four entered the dining hall. Mammy led the way. Though she leaned on her walker, she moved with purpose. Brad watched as other people smiled at Mammy, touched her hand, hugged her and just treated her specially. But as he looked around the room, he saw the same thing happening everywhere. One woman sitting in her wheelchair sang “Jingle Bells” with a pretty nice voice as a man dressed in a gaudy Christmas shirt pushed her along.

Brad snickered a bit.

As the foursome made their way through the dining hall, Brad noticed Edward sitting at a table by himself. Brad nodded at him. The man nodded back.

Mammy found a table toward the back of the room next to the plate-glass window. The four sat down. Then, once Mammy was settled, the other three made their way through the buffet. Brad inhaled the smells of turkey, gravy, cornbread stuffing and other food. It wasn’t what he was expecting. No, this was far better.

Brad’s dad took a tray to Mammy before returning to the line for his own. His mom went over to get some drinks. People — residents and their family members — began filling up the dining hall. Brad looked over at Edward, who still sat by himself. The man acknowledged others as they moved around the tables.

“Why is he by himself?” Brad asked out loud but not to anyone in particular.

“Oh, Edward,” Mammy said. “Somebody will sit with him. I don’t think he has any family around here. Since his wife died a few years ago, he’s pretty much been on his own, as far as family goes. I don’t know him that well.”

“Oh,” Brad said. “Is he lonely? I mean …”

“We all feel alone at some points, I suppose,” Mammy said. “He’s a nice enough fellow. World War II vet. Fought in Italy, in the mountains, I hear.”

Brad nodded.

Brad’s parents returned. Soon, his parents and Mammy were talking away about people, places and things about which Brad didn’t know anything.

“I’m going to get some more tea,” Brad said and got up. He cut across the room to the drinks. On his way back, a family gathered around another table, forcing Brad to find a different route back. It led him right to Edward’s table. The man smiled at Brad.

Brad offered a half-smile but averted his eyes. He took a few more steps but stopped and turned back to Edward.

“Do you need anything?” Brad asked.

Edward looked up. “No, I’m fine.”

“OK. I should get back,” Brad said. He looked at his parents and Mammy. They still were talking away. Another resident, an older woman, had taken over Brad’s chair. He sighed.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” Brad asked Edward. “If that’s OK. I don’t want to bother you.”

“No, grab a chair,” Edward replied. “I’d enjoy the company. My kids and grandkids, they live in Boston now. They don’t make it here much, and I don’t much like traveling. Have a seat. So, you never really answered my question.”

“What question?” Brad asked.

“Do you know much about Aspen?”

“Well, a little,” Brad said. “We go skiing there. Well, my parents ski. I snowboard. But we go every other year, I guess. We went last year. Sometimes, we go to Angel Fire in New Mexico. But I like Aspen and Colorado better.”

“I don’t blame you,” Edward said. “I lived there for several years. Helped build a bunch of ski runs.”

Brad didn’t believe the man. After all, how could this old man know anything about skiing.

“You probably don’t know this, but I was a pretty good skier myself,” Edward said. “Learned it in the Army.”

Now, Brad knew the man was full of it. Soldiers don’t ski. They march, run and other things, but they don’t ski.

“Did you know it was World War II veterans, those from the 10th Mountain Division, who probably did more for skiing in this country than anybody else?” Edward asked. “That’s right.”

Brad sighed. What had he done by sitting down at this table? He looked at his parents’ table, hoping they would see him and motion him back. But his mom and dad, along with Mammy and this other woman, were busy talking. They didn’t even seem to miss him.

“It’s true,” Edward said, drawing back Brad’s attention. “The 10th Mountain Division, we trained up in the Colorado mountains before heading to Italy to fight the Germans. Climbed almost sheer cliffs to push those Germans off the mountain.

“I was part of the 86th regiment that scaled Riva Ridge. Germans didn’t think anybody would climb that piece of rock, but we did,” Edward said. “Nearly froze, but we did it.”

Edward stopped. He stared off across the room for a moment as if he could see the Italian mountains in the distance.

“Sorry, get a bit distracted now and then,” he said, looking at Brad. “I bet you never heard of the 10th Mountain Division. Probably never heard of Riva Ridge or Mount Belvedere. But I know them. Know them well.”

“What did you do?” Brad asked. “Why did you ski in the Army?”

“Why did we ski in the Army? Well, that’s because we had to fight in the mountains and snow,” Edward answered. “It was tough, training up in the mountains. But the war was brutal. Let me tell you about the first time I ever strapped a pair of skis on my 18-year-old feet …”

Then, Edward reveled Brad with his early attempts of skiing in the Army. He talked briefly about his time in the war but, mostly, to mention a few friends. After the war, Edward and several of his friends returned to Colorado, where they helped establish the skiing industry. He talked about building some of those first runs and trails.

Brad recognized several runs that still bore those early names. He told Edward about the first time he ever went skiing when he was 6 and slid off the run, getting tangled up in a bunch of fallen pine trees.

“Nobody saw me go off,” Brad said. “Nobody knew where I was. And they couldn’t hear me call for help. Finally, some girl slid off about the same place I did. She helped me out. I think I bawled for the rest of the day.”

Edward laughed. “But you went back out?”

“Yeah. My dad told me I shouldn’t give up just because of one bad experience,” Brad said. “I’m glad I went back.”

“I’m glad you went back, too,” Edward said.

The 11-year-old and the 89-year-old talked, laughed and even giggled a couple of times as they shared stories.

“Now, I’ve climbed a mountain in the dead of winter to fight a bunch of Germans, but I think that skateboarding stuff, well, that scares me more,” Edward said. “I don’t think I’d ever get on one of those.”

Brad laughed.

“Well, I don’t think the folks here would let you,” Brad said. “But I bet if they had skateboards when you were a kid, you’d be on ’em.”

“Hey, Brad, it’s time to go,” a voice said behind him. Brad looked up and found his mom standing over him. “Are you ready?”

“Oh,” Brad said. “Well, I guess. OK.”

He turned back to Edward. “I guess I gotta go. I guess I’ll see ya around.”

Edward grinned. “Yeah, I’ll see you around.”

Brad got up and joined his mom, dad and Mammy. The four began making their way to the dining room door, where they would say goodbye to Mammy and head home for the rest of their Christmas Day.

Just before he got to the door, Brad turned and walked back to Edward’s table. Another man was sitting in the chair occupied by Brad only moments before. Edward looked up at Brad and cocked his head to the side. He started to say something, but stopped.

“I just wanted to say, well, I guess,” Brad stammered a bit. Then, he leaned down and hugged Edward. The World War II veteran sat for a moment, unsure of what to do, then wrapped his arms around Brad and hugged him back.

After a few moments, Brad stood up, wiped a tear from his face. “I just wanted to say, Merry Christmas.”

Edward nodded. “Well, Merry Christmas to you, young man. Now, get going. And when you get back from Colorado, I expect a full report.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then, Brad turned and headed back to the door, wiping a few more tears as he went. Had he turned back, he would have seen Edward do the same thing.

“Who was that?” Brad’s mom asked as he joined them.

“Oh, that’s Edward. He fought in World War II,” Brad said. “Do you know he once skied naked through Aspen on a dare?”

“Well, I don’t want to see you or hear of you doing anything like that,” his mom said.

“Oh, I won’t,” Brad said. But a little twinkle in his eye had replaced that tear and a small smirk crept across his face.

daniel@thepicayune.com

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