Thayer / AN ISLAND CHRISTMAS
The Friday of Thanksgiving weekend was unusually cold, with a strong salty breeze blowing off Nantucket Sound, but the hundreds of islanders clustered on the corner of Main Street and Orange didn’t mind the weather. As twilight fell at four o’clock, friends, neighbors, and visiting relatives chatted together, rubbing their hands for warmth and discussing Christmas plans. Children jumped up and down, all antsy with anticipation. Dogs strained at their leashes, trying to sniff other dogs.
On the top step of the Pacific National Bank, a man dressed like an old-time town crier stood in his black cape, red muffler, and glossy top hat, like a conjurer about to perform magic. And wasn’t electricity a kind of magic, especially when carried in a cable along the watery floor of Nantucket Sound, thirty miles from the mainland to the island? The town crier offered a hearty greeting, flicked a switch, and suddenly all the way to the harbor, on both sides of the long cobblestone street, short plump festive evergreens burst into twinkling radiance like a chorus line of flamboyant elves. In front of the bank, a thirty-foot-tall fat Norwegian spruce suddenly blazed with white lights and crimson bows. The holidays had officially arrived, the shops were adorned, and the boisterous crowd, led by the town’s beloved music teacher, sang the season’s first carols.
The exuberant voices of the singers carried a few blocks down to a charming, painstakingly restored 1840s Greek Revival house on Chestnut Street. Jilly Gordon, who in past years had always attended the festivities, now sat in her peach cashmere sweater set, curled up on a down-filled sofa in front of a crackling fire. She was sobbing.
Jilly was on the phone with her best friend, Nicole Somerset. “Oh, Nicole, I really don’t know if my heart can take this. I don’t understand why Felicia wants to live so far away.”
“Of course you know exactly why, Jilly. Felicia wants to live with the man she’s going to marry and the man she’s going to marry lives in Utah.”
“Utah . . .” Jilly moaned. “Why doesn’t she just move to the moon?”
“Jilly, you’re taking this too personally. Felicia is not trying to get away from you. Not everyone appreciates this funny isolated island the way we do. She’ll be happier in Utah, where she can do all that hiking, skiing, and rafting she’s always enjoyed.”
“It’s all so dangerous! Why can’t she be more like Lauren? More sensible, more prudent? Plus, if she has to climb mountains, why can’t she climb them in New Hampshire or Massachusetts? We have perfectly fine mountains in the east!”
“Felicia prefers the desert. You know that. She enjoys the hot sun on her skin. But more than that, and most important, Felicia loves Archie. She sounds very happy with him. He seems to be the perfect guy for her. You can’t change that, Jilly, and you can’t change your daughter. She’s twenty-nine years old.”
Jilly frowned. “I will never understand why these girls are so different. Lauren was always such a girly girl while Felicia even thinks her name is too prim! It was my grandmother’s name! But I thought she treasured Nantucket. When she’s here, she’s always swimming or walking on the moors or out in the harbor sailing or in her kayak or on that—that, that new way to drown yourself, what do you call it?”
“Paddleboard. It’s fun, Jilly.”
“Fine,” Jilly sniffed. “Paddleboard. For the elegant woman.”
Nicole laughed. “You’re just all wound up because she’s getting married. Come on, Jilly, give the girl some credit for trying to make you happy. She’s agreed—no, she suggested holding her wedding on Nantucket on Christmas Day. Isn’t that proof enough she wants to please you?”
Jilly blew her nose on a tissue. She could do this on the telephone with Nicole because they were best friends. “I know you’re right, Nicole. The irony is, I don’t want her to get married here this Christmas. Steven Hardy has just bought the house next door to us right here on Chestnut Street.”
“Wait. Whiplash. What?”
“Miles and Elaine Hardy were our first close friends when we moved here to Nantucket. Their son Steven is just Felicia’s age, and they were best friends and maybe more than that. He’s knockout handsome and really sweet.”
“You’ve told me about him. Wasn’t he Felicia’s prom date in high school?”
“Yes, they made the most stunning couple. They lost touch when they went off to college, and then Miles and Elaine moved to Arizona so we lost touch with them. Now I’ve just found out that Steven is moving back here. He’s a fabulously successful stockbroker, and he’s bought the house next door because he wants to live year-round on the island! Just think, Nicole, if Felicia married him—”
“Hang on. How do you know he isn’t married?”
“The realtor told me.”
“I’m desperate! Remember when George and I flew out to see Felicia in Utah last year, we met Archie. He was muddy, bruised, unshaven, and he had blood on his T-shirt!”
“Jilly. Get a grip. You told me he’d just returned from leading a white-water rafting tour. You showed me photos of him. I think Archie’s handsome.”
“Fine, he’s handsome, but in a Gerard Butler, hairy swashbuckler way. Steven is much more elegant, all very Pierce Brosnan, suit and tie and briefcase. He’s been over for dinner since he moved back to the island. I’d like to invite him for Christmas dinner.”
“Maybe you should rethink that.”
“Well, I didn’t know Felicia was going to call me up and drop this wedding on me. I thought she’d come home for Christmas . . .”
Jilly stopped talking as her mind, leaping ahead of her mouth, exploded with such a brilliant idea she almost laughed aloud. Felicia was bringing Archie to the island two weeks before Christmas, so she’d have some time to show her fiancé all her favorite spots. Two weeks might be just enough time for Jilly to throw Felicia and Steven together . . . surely once they saw each other again, and spent time with each other, and . . .
“Jilly? Are you still there?”
“Um. Sorry. My mind wandered. I guess I’m overwhelmed with Felicia’s news, plus the responsibility of turning this house into a magic Christmas scene plus a house for a perfect wedding reception.”
“Jilly, you’ve got to slow down. You always set your standards way too high. You’ll drive yourself crazy this way. Your house doesn’t have to look perfect, although I’ve got to say you are starting with perfection. I’ve never seen a house so beautifully decorated and completely uncluttered as your house. And you know I’ll help you in any way I can.”
“That’s kind of you, Nicole. I’m sure I’ll call on you.” Jilly took a deep breath. She really wasn’t manic or an overwrought anal-compulsive. Or maybe she was, but just occasionally. “Are your stepdaughter and her family coming to your house this Christmas?” Jilly asked.
“No. They’re going to spend part of the holiday with her mother and Alonzo and the rest of it with James’s parents. I have to say I’m relieved. Sebastian and I are looking forward to having a peaceful holiday. We deserve it after last year. Plus, everyone’s here for Thanksgiving.” Nicole switched the focus back to Jilly. “What does George think about all this?” George Gordon was a retired accountant: kind, thoughtful, leisurely, and logical.
“Oh, George! He stays in his study at his computer working on his family tree.” Jilly’s laugh was tinged with hysteria. “That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? He’s so busy tracing his ancestors that he doesn’t deal with what’s going on with his real living family.”
“Well, after all, Jilly, what could George do? Do you expect him to fly out to Utah, tie your daughter up, and drive her back here in the trunk of a car?” Nicole was glad to attempt to jolly her friend along. Last Christmas, Jilly had saved Nicole from losing her mind. This was what friends did for each other.
Jilly laughed. “Now that you mention it, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I think this Archie fellow has Felicia under his spell.”
“I should certainly hope he has her under his spell if she’s going to marry him. That’s the only reason to get married, isn’t it? Being crazy in love with a man?”
“Nicole, you are such a romantic.” Jilly rose from the sofa, picked up a poker, and poked the logs.
Actually, she realized, it was rather romantic right here in her own living room. The fire filled the house with the friendly crackles and pops and the alluring aroma of apple wood. Her furniture—handsomely restored antiques or reproductions—gleamed from frequent polishings, and needlepoint pillows she’d created herself brightened the sofas and chairs. The Christmas tree, resplendent with carefully collected antique ornaments, glittered in front of the bay window. All along the fireplace mantel paraded china Christmas figurines she’d collected since she was a child: Santa, his sleigh, reindeer, angels, Frosty the Snowman, Snoopy on a plane with his muffler, swans with holly collars. Beneath the mantel hung the elaborate felt stockings she’d made for herself, George, and their two daughters, now with Porter’s, Lauren’s husband, and their two children’s stockings added.
“I know you’re right,” Jilly conceded. “I was certainly crazy about George when we got married. But I’m not so sure that’s the only reason or the main reason to get married. Lauren went into her marriage with a clear head and look how well it’s worked out for her. I don’t think she would have married Porter if he weren’t well-mannered, working for a bank, and living in Boston. Lauren knew she would never be far from Nantucket.”
Nicole paused thoughtfully. “I have only one stepdaughter Jilly, so maybe I shouldn’t have an opinion, and Lauren certainly seems happy enough. But it does seem to me that your daughters are very different people. I think you need to respect that. Felicia isn’t going to marry a banker and live in Boston like her older sister did.”
Jilly nodded, even though Nicole couldn’t see her. “You’re right, Nicole. I should be grateful I have one daughter who lives nearby and calls me almost every day for a chat.”
“Plus, you lucky duck, she’s given you two adorable grandchildren.”
Jilly paused. After a moment, she confessed, “You’re right again. But you know what, Nicole? Secretly, I’m the worst grandmother in the world.”
“What are you talking about?” Nicole asked, surprised.
Jilly was practically whispering, as if Lauren were standing outside the door. “I adore Lawrence and Portia. When I visit them in Boston, we have a great time. But even though they’re six and four, they’re like wild beasts.”
Nicole chuckled. “Calves in the china cupboard?”
“In this house, yes. Well, some of our furniture belonged to my grandmother. Imagine how old those pieces are! Some of the other pieces George and I paid a pretty penny for at auctions. When we were younger it was our dream to have an elegant home. George’s grandparents left him so many precious objects—porcelain bowls, Tiffany lamps, Limoges vases, figurines. We had to keep them all in storage. We couldn’t put them out when our children lived with us, and it’s been utterly rejuvenating to restore and decorate this house together. It’s made us closer than we were when we were raising the children.”
“You’re not a bad grandmother because you want to have nice things,” Nicole assured Jilly. “At our age, we deserve to have our home look the way we want it to look. You raised two children and had your house filled with everything from high chairs to hockey sticks. You have every right to make your house look as perfect as it does. It gives you great pleasure.”
“Aha!” Jilly laughed. “I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to use psychology on me. You’re trying to make me accept that I have to let Felicia live her own life the way she wants to.”
“That’s not what I said, but it’s true, don’t you think?”
“I guess you’re right,” Jilly conceded. “It’s difficult, Nicole, to feel so much closer to one daughter than the other. It makes me feel guilty. But Lauren has always been just like me. She used to follow me around everywhere, pretending to help me cook and changing her baby dolls the way she saw me change Felicia. Felicia preferred riding her bike or climbing trees. I fought more with Felicia, too, especially when she was in high school. Those ripped jeans? I had to clench my jaw to keep from screaming. I’m lucky I have any teeth left.”
“Well, you do have all your teeth, and love is wide and deep, and Felicia is not only coming for Christmas, she wants to be married on the island. I’d say you did a pretty good job with both your girls.” In the background clinking noises sounded. “I’ve got to go. Cookies to bake, packages to wrap.”
“Me, too. I think my project for today will be to go around the house and remove all the breakable objects, and even some of the more fragile antique furniture.”
“Don’t forget the bedrooms,” Nicole advised.
“As if I could!” Last Christmas, five-year-old Lawrence had somehow managed to crack the spindles on an 1850 Windsor fruitwood armchair in his bedroom. “Maybe I’ll buy some of those plastic outdoor chairs and put them around,” she suggested with a chortle. “Nicole, thanks for the talk. You’re the best.”
Jilly hung up the phone and rubbed her hands together. She had some serious plotting to do.
Copyright © 2014 by Nancy Thayer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.