Christmas at the Coffee Shop
It was a week before Christmas, and the six friends – Eve, Rebekah, Leah, Hannah, Abigail, and Gomer -- met at their local Fourbucks coffee shop for a much-needed break in the middle of Christmas shopping. The cafe was crowded, but they managed to find a table and plopped down exhaustedly, their shopping bags, purses, and coats forming a huge pile on the floor beside them.
They had barely had a chance to catch their breath when a friendly young server with a perky smile came over, carrying a tray. “Would you like to try a sample of our triple mega ultimate decadent amazing white chocolate peppermint squares and our super festive holiday apple-cider eggnog latte?”
“Yes,” Eve said. “Yes, I would.” The other women all raised their eyebrows; after all, Eve had already ordered a grande cappuccino and a cranberry scone. “I know, I know,” Eve said with a sigh. “I really shouldn’t -- but I can’t resist the temptation! It’s like there’s a little voice in my ear saying ‘But it’s so delicious – what harm can it do?’ so I give in. I have eight pounds and two ounces to lose before Adam’s company New Year’s Eve party, but with all these festive goodies I’m not sure I’ll be able to fit into my little black dress in time. And don’t get me started on money! When I’m out shopping and I see something adorable for little Cain or Abel, I just have to buy it even if it’s not in my budget -- and I already have ten gifts for each boy. I have no will power whatsoever. My credit cards are almost maxed out, and I only have half my shopping done. I want to lose weight and save money, but it seems impossible. Christmas is nothing but one big temptation.”
“For me Christmas is nothing but work,” said Rebekah. “It’s exhausting. Yesterday I asked my elderly neighbour if he could use any help. I thought he’d just ask me to lick stamps or something – but he asked me to help him put up his tree and decorate it. Phew! I made fifteen trips up and down his basement stairs carrying boxes of decorations. I know I’m in good shape from all the Pilates and kickboxing classes I go to, but my muscles are really feeling it today. And then I have to do all my own decorating too. Isaac is so busy at work, he can’t help me; and the twins are so sweet – especially little Jake – but they’re too little to help. I wish my mom was here to do the baking and cooking with me. When we moved here I left my whole family behind, and I miss them. We used to do everything together. Now it’s just me: helping everybody else and being Mrs. Competent Superwoman. Sometimes I get so tired of doing it all on my own.”
“I wish I had your problem,” Leah said. “My family’s too close to me. I wish they lived twenty hours away instead of twenty minutes. My younger sister especially: she just drives me around the bend. I decided to do a blue Christmas theme this year – blue lights, blue dishes, blue ornaments – well, lo and behold, my sister decides she’s going to do blue too! I went to Wal-Mart and bought my little Reuben the Spiderman backpack he’s been asking for; my sister goes right out and gets her little Joey the very same one! It’s always been like this ever since we were young: whatever I got, she wanted. To be honest, I think she even wishes she had my husband! And if she gets something, she flaunts it in my face. She always says she’s the pretty one. Well, I might not look like a fashion model, but I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology, which is a lot more than she can say. She is so competitive and immature. So for me, Christmas is just a time to tolerate my huge, loud, bickering family. I grit my teeth till it’s over and everybody – especially my sister – goes back home.”
“For me, it’s not any one thing that bugs me about Christmas,” said Hannah. “It’s just the overall disappointment. I spend all my time getting my hopes up, waiting for the perfect Christmas … waiting for the perfect present that’s just what I always wanted … waiting for the perfect new year that will be better than the year before. Every day I open the little tab on the Advent calendar (and of course I eat the chocolate inside – though it’s really not high-quality chocolate; what should I expect when I bought it at Dollarama?) … and I get more and more excited because I know this is the Christmas everything is going to change … and then when it finally comes, it’s such a letdown because it hasn’t been the BEST CHRISTMAS EVER. The same thing happens every year – it’s depressing. And my husband just says, ‘Well, sweetie, at least you have me.’ Like that helps. Men just don’t understand.”
“Speaking of men,” said Abigail, “I have this annoying issue to deal with this Christmas and it’s driving me crazy. My husband – foolish man that he is – got into a big competition with our next-door neighbour, Dave, trying to see whose house is decorated the best. So far he claims he has 33,917 lights, and our neighbour claims he has 34,268. But my husband goes out in the middle of the night and unscrews bulbs from the neighbour’s strings of lights or flicks the power switch on and off until a fuse blows. He’s completely out of control. And we really need to stay on our neighbour’s good side because he just happens to be our city councillor. So I have to play mediator. Mind you, I’m good at it, seeing as how I have a Master’s in Industrial Relations. So I go over to the neighbour’s house and smile sweetly and say, ‘Now, Dave, my husband’s not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, metaphorically speaking…’ It’s so demeaning. I just want to sit back and enjoy hot cider and watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and listen to carols – but instead Christmas has turned into a diplomatic mission. Plus it is really hard to sleep at night with a total of 68,185 Christmas lights shining in your bedroom windows.”
“I’m sure it is,” Gomer said. “But it’s better than receiving 68,185 Christmas presents. Okay, I’m exaggerating – but Jose absolutely showers me with gifts every Christmas. I know: you’d all love to trade places with me! I know I should be able to enjoy it, but instead it makes me feel so inadequate because I’m – well, I’m just not worthy of all this love and affection. I try to tell Jose that I don’t deserve so many presents, but he doesn’t listen; he just keeps doing it because he says he loves me. Let me tell you, it’s very unnerving. For me Christmas ends up being just a guilt trip.”
Gomer’s friends looked at her in sympathy – not just because of her unfortunate name, which had been given to her by her father who was a huge fan of "The Andy Griffith Show" – but because she had always been chronically plagued by low self-esteem. Fortunately a new book by Sarah Tun had just come out in the bookstores entitled Free to Be: Defeating Insecurity, Transforming Relationships, Building Character -- and all five of Gomer’s friends were planning to give her a copy for Christmas.
The six women sat in silence after pouring out their hearts to one another. It was as if a cloud hung over the coffee shop: the Christmas music sounded obnoxious, the smell of coffee was oppressive, and the decorations looked cheap and phony.
At the same moment they all caught sight of a shabby-looking teenage girl in a bulky parka, standing at the coffee counter. “There’s Mary,” whispered Leah.
The women all recognized Mary as the daughter of the woman who cleaned their houses. She and her mother lived in a trailer park on the other side of town.
“Well,” said Leah, “She’s gotten herself into quite a state. How old is she – fifteen?”
“How sad,” Gomer said, shaking her head.
“It’s not just sad,” Abigail said. “It’s an absolute tragedy. And so unnecessary! I suppose people like that just don’t have the information and resources they need to prevent this sort of thing from happening.”
“My goodness, she’s coming over,” said Eve. The women looked at each other in consternation – what on earth were they going to say to her?
Rebekah let out a sigh of annoyance and whispered, “Frankly, I have enough to deal with this Christmas without having to listen to her problems.”
The girl made her way over to their corner, gingerly carrying her hot chocolate, and slumped down in a vacant chair. Snow dusted the shoulders of her threadbare parka; she brushed it away with her worn mittens. She smiled shyly at the women. They tried to smile back, but it was hard not to stare at her huge pregnant belly.
“It’s crazy-busy in here,” the girl said. “I was lucky to find a seat. I’ve got such a long walk home – I just need to sit and relax for a minute.”
“Well, Mary,” said Eve, “you seem to be quite far along. You must be feeling pretty exhausted by now.”
“Yeah, sometimes,” Mary replied. “I’m about 39 weeks, so it could be any day.”
“It must be terribly overwhelming for you,” said Gomer.
“I do get a bit nervous,” Mary said, “mostly ‘cause I don’t know what to expect with the delivery and all.”
“Well, clearly you’ll need support,” Abigail said. “Do you have resources in place? Have you contacted Social Services?”
“Well, my mom will help out when I need her,” said Mary. “And my boyfriend Joe’s been so great. We’re actually going to his hometown for Christmas. It’s a long drive, especially so close to my due-date, but—”
“My goodness, you can’t travel at 39 weeks!” Hannah exclaimed. “What if you went into labour on the road?”
“Joey and I talked it over, and we’re pretty comfortable with it,” said Mary. “It’ll be fine.”
The women exchanged glances again; they were all troubled by the girl’s naïve cheerfulness. It’ll be fine? Didn’t she see what a disaster this was: to be pregnant at fifteen – forced to quit school, no husband or job or prospects for a better life? “It sounds like it will be a tough Christmas for you,” Leah said pityingly.
“It’ll be a challenge, for sure,” Mary said. “But I’m excited too. I can’t really explain it, but I have a feeling this will be a good Christmas.”
“In my opinion, a good Christmas is a Christmas that’s over,” said Rebekah cynically. The other women nodded in a ‘tell-me-about-it’ kind of way, but Mary’s eyes widened and she shook her head.
“I love Christmas,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it -- really. You know, I didn’t want this to happen, and I was really scared at first – but I just feel that I’m supposed to have this baby. I think whatever is meant to be will happen, and I’ll take each step as it comes.” She paused and sipped her drink, and when she looked up her eyes were shining. “I guess I just sorta believe that God will help me. Whenever I think about the baby and start to get worried, it’s almost like God is with me -- right there inside me, comforting me and telling me everything’s going to be okay. Did you ever feel like that?”
And every one of the women had the same thought: No. Not for a long time.
“I guess that does sound a little flaky,” Mary said with a shrug. Then she smiled and got to her feet. “Well, I better get going … have a nice Christmas, okay?”
When she was gone, the women sat in silence once again, but somehow the atmosphere in the coffee shop seemed different from before. The oppressiveness was lifting, and the air seemed light and fresh again. A Christmas carol was playing: it was O Little Town of Bethlehem. A particular line seemed to catch all the women’s attention: “Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.” They sat and listened until the words had ended and the final notes had died out.
Eve spoke first. “Well, this has been nice, girls, but I really must go. I think I need to do a few pre-Christmas returns. Fortunately I’m meticulous about keeping receipts!”
“Yes, I should run, too,” Rebekah said. “It occurs to me that the old gentleman next door might need a bit more help with his Christmas preparations. He’s kind of like me – he doesn’t have family around, either.”
“I think I’ll go to Winners before it closes,” said Leah. “I saw some really nice star earrings there, and my sister collects star things. Of course I started collecting them first … but I think she’d like these.”
“Sounds good,” said Hannah, “But, you know, I actually think I’ll sit a little longer and savour the moment. It’s cosy here.”
“Well, I’m going to ‘savour the moment’ at home,” said Abigail. “I’m going to put my feet up, play my Christmas CD's, and let my hubby handle his own dispute with Dave next door. And I’ll use room-darkening shades when I go to bed tonight – 68,000 bulbs won’t keep me awake again.”
Gomer looked at her watch. “And Jose’s done work soon – I’d like to be there when he gets home … just to let him know I love him and that he makes me feel so special.”
The women gathered up their coats and shopping bags and said goodbye to one another, but they were more subdued than they had been when they entered. They were all pondering Mary’s quiet, peaceful words: “God is with me -- right there inside me.”
As they went their separate ways, they looked up at the late afternoon sky; it was filled with swirling snowflakes that seemed to touch the earth with a fresh dusting of joy and hope. And more than one of the women found herself softly singing the same carol that they had heard in the café, paying special attention to its last line: “O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.”