Jazzi loves celebrating anything and everything with her family. This year for Christmas, Ansel’s excited because his brother Bain and his wife AND his sister Adda and her husband are driving from Wisconsin to celebrate with them, too. His excitement hits a hiccup when Bain calls to say that their mom and dad have decided to come, too. His dad loves to spread misery, and this year, he spreads more than usual:
A Holiday High and Low
The house was decorated. Jazzi and Ansel had bought a fat, eight-foot, pre-lit tree for their huge living room. Another tree was in a corner of the sitting area in the kitchen/dining area. A poinsettia was centered on the long, wooden table. And the refrigerator and freezers were crammed with food.
“Everyone’s going to be here this year,” Ansel said. “Even Radley and Elspeth, since we moved our celebration to the Sunday before the actual day.” That way, their friends and families could celebrate Christmas morning in their own homes or at the homes of other family members. Walker and Didi were driving to his mother’s house with their kids. Olivia and Thane were going to celebrate with his mom, since his dad had passed. Gran and Samantha were staying at the farm and inviting widowed friends in to celebrate. But Jazzi knew what was making her Viking especially happy. Bain and Greta were driving down from Wisconsin to stay with them. And even better, so was his sister Adda and her husband, Henry, even though Adda was eight months pregnant.
Jerod, her cousin and their partner in their house flipping business, had suggested they take the entire week off before Christmas to get ready for the holiday. No work at the fixer-upper. He had three kids, and his wife, Franny, was one of the worst cooks they knew. She’d invited her entire family—her parents, three sisters and their families, and a nephew and his family—to their big, old farmhouse for a potluck, so he was as busy as they were, preparing food ahead.
Jazzi always made Christmas cookies to pass out as gifts after their family meal. It had taken her and Ansel two days to bake and package them all. Then they started on the pies and cakes for dessert. There’d be twenty-five people this year, counting themselves. But they’d made two apple pies, two pecans, a yule log, and a coconut cake. Elspeth was bringing two of her famous chocolate swirl eggnog pies, and Didi was bringing a cranberry upside-down cake. Today, they were going to start on the sausage stuffed sweet potatoes, make-ahead gravy—since they needed lots of it—and the potatoes gratin. They could reheat those on Sunday morning.
They’d turned on Christmas music, and the cats were scampering underfoot while George supervised from his dog bed, when Ansel’s cellphone buzzed. He glanced at it, pressing his lips together. “Bain. I hope they can still come.”
Jazzi turned down the music while he answered the call. He listened, then glanced at her nervously when he said, “Who’s going to milk the cows?”
Uh-oh. They’d invited Ansel’s parents, but Dalmar had refused to come because someone had to milk his dairy herd, holiday or not. And as shameful as it was, Jazzi had been relieved. Ansel’s dad was a pain in the rear, more to Ansel than to her. She didn’t have to pretend to like him, but Ansel did his best to be courteous, even when his dad acted his worst. Jazzi liked his mom, Britt, but Dalmar kept her firmly under his thumb.
Ansel listened a little more before disconnecting the call. He hesitated a moment before saying, “Mom and Dad are coming for Christmas, too.”
Oh, joy! But she put on a smile. “We have plenty of room since you finished the basement. Your mom and dad can take one spare bedroom, Bain and Greta the other. Your sister and Henry can sleep in the trundle beds in the basement.”
“They’re narrow, and she’ll be huge by now,” Ansel said.
“They’re super comfortable, and they’ll have their own bathroom down there, and some privacy. When Didi was that big, she visited the bathroom a lot.”
He thought about that, then nodded. He tried to look happy about seeing his parents but didn’t quite succeed. “Dad’s going to be in a mood. He voted against coming, but Mom told him she’d ride with Bain and Greta. That aggravated him enough, he decided to come, too.”
That’s what had happened when she and Ansel got married. His dad had come in a foul mood and sniped about anything and everything. But now she knew what to expect, and he wouldn’t throw her off. Her family would take him in their stride, too. She shrugged, “At least the Grinch should have a good meal. We’ll work around him.”
Ansel’s shoulders relaxed. “We won’t let him ruin the day.”
“He’ll try, but he won’t succeed. Come on. We need to cube up a lot of bread to let it dry for dressing.” She turned up the music again, and they puttered together, getting things ready.
“Do we need to do anything with the meat?” Her husband, the carnivore, didn’t consider a meal complete without meat in it.
She shook her head. “Christmas is easy. I put the big ham in the oven before we go to bed and let it cook on low all night. I’ve already put the rub on the turkeys to let them dry brine in the refrigerator.” She always made two smaller birds instead of one big one, since they had plenty of oven space. She’d have to get up early to put them in the oven, but she’d go back to bed. “I wish your family would have come today to spend the night.”
He snorted. “This way, they can milk tonight and tomorrow morning before leaving. Since Dad’s coming, that’s fine. I’d love more time with Bain and Greta, Adda and Henry, but not him.”
He had a point. Why push their luck?
Jazzi went back to bed after she put the turkeys in the ovens, but they still ended up starting their day earlier than usual. They had a lot to get done. She was scooping the filling into the deviled eggs when Bain’s pickup pulled into the drive with Henry’s SUV close behind it. Thankfully, everyone had agreed on no gift exchanges except for the kids, so they didn’t have to haul in presents. Ansel went to the door to greet them.
Bain, six-feet tall and stocky with dirty blond hair and pale blue eyes, slapped him on the back. “Hey, bro, thanks for inviting us.” He hadn’t gotten the “yowza” genes Ansel and Radley had, but he was still attractive. His Greta was skinny and plain but had a beautiful smile and an even more beautiful spirit.
Greta came next to hug Ansel, and then his mom, Britt. Henry waited while Adda wrapped him in her arms and gave him a messy kiss on the cheek, having to wedge sideways to embrace him, she was so pregnant, carrying the baby in front of her.
Ansel clung to her a minute. “I’m so happy for you.”
His dad, Dalmar, tried to squeeze past them and couldn’t. “Get moving already. You’re blocking my way.” When they parted, he walked past them into the kitchen, his lips turned down, “Got anything to eat? It was a long drive here.”
Jazzi followed him and motioned to the kitchen island. She knew better than to offer him anything too fancy. He’d complain. She had a veggie platter and a cheese board and crackers on the butcher block. Dalmar grabbed a stack of each before Ansel led everyone to their rooms. Then she started the coffee urn and put out more glasses near the tub filled with ice and cans of sodas. The rest of their guests would start arriving in a half hour, and she still had a few things to do.
When Adda and Henry drifted back into the kitchen, Adda’s blue eyes sparkled with excitement. “I love what you did to the basement.”
“Did you try the bed?” Ansel asked. “Is it comfortable enough?”
“It’s perfect.” She touched a hand to his cheek. “And I get to see you before my baby’s born. I love it. I might not be up to traveling this far after I have Lorelei.”
“It’s a girl?” Ansel’s whole face lit up. “And you’re going to name her Lorelei?”
Henry put an arm around his wife’s waist, beaming. “You like the name?”
“I love it. It sounds beautiful, like my sister, and like I’m sure her daughter will be.”
Bain and Greta had come to join them in time to hear the news. Greta clasped her hands, grinning. “This is wonderful news!”
“We haven’t told anyone else that I’m having a girl or the name we chose for her,” Adda said. “But we don’t see you often, and I wanted to share it with you.”
Jazzi couldn’t help but smile as Ansel glanced at her, puffed up with happiness. Then she glanced at the clock. “Sorry, but I have to start putting food on the island. People will be here soon.”
“We’ll help.” Bain went to grab hot pads, and he carried the ham over for her. Ansel got the turkeys and began carving them. Greta carried over the green beans with onions and tomatoes. And Jazzi brought the dressing, scalloped potatoes, and twice-baked sweet potatoes. The food was stacked and ready to serve before Dalmar and Britt came back down.
Dalmar shook his head. “You two sure don’t give a care about money. Your grocery bill had to be horrible.”
Jazzi motioned to a Mason jar near the coffee urn. “Everyone pitches in on the cost every Sunday. No worries.”
But he gave a disdainful snort. “I doubt they cover all of this.”
They didn’t, but Jazzi didn’t care. This was Christmas, and she wanted to splurge on extras. Luckily, before Dalmar could grump about it more, Jerod and his family gave a quick knock on the door and walked into the kitchen.
More people walked in behind them, and soon the room was overflowing with family and friends. Once Olivia and Thane arrived—the last ones, as usual—people grabbed plates and got in line to grab food, then settle down to eat. Jazzi and Ansel had set up two rows of long tables to hold everyone. Conversations flowed, and people went back for seconds before starting on desserts. Everyone lingered longer than usual, then they all moved to seats near the big tree in the living room to watch the kids open their presents. They took turns, starting with the youngest and moving to the oldest, so everyone could see what they got. Jazzi and Ansel passed out eggnog, wine, and beer, and people visited a while longer before they started to pull on coats to go home.
Jazzi wasn’t in any mood to rush into the kitchen to start cleaning, so Ansel’s family gathered together and she made a second batch of coffee and tea. Radley had told a story that got everyone laughing—except Dalmar—when Adda gasped and pushed to her feet.
Jazzi stood, concerned. “Are you all right?”
She waved the question away and made it to the kitchen before her water broke.
“Oh, no! I’m so sorry.” She looked toward the roll of paper towels near the sink, but Jazzi jumped to support her arm as she doubled over.
“Don’t worry about the floor. We’ll get it later.” Jazzi wasn’t sure what to do, fighting down panic. “Do you need help?”
She grabbed Jazzi’s arm in such a tight grip, Jazzi gasped. Henry ran to support Adda’s other arm. “Should we go to the hospital?”
“No time.” Adda’s legs gave, and they lowered her to the floor. She was gasping in and out, obviously in pain.
“I’m calling an ambulance.” Ansel punched in the emergency number and explained that his sister was having her baby. When he disconnected, he said, “They’ll take about twenty minutes. Can you make it that long?”
Adda gritted her teeth and clenched her hands into fists, unable to answer.
“We took classes,” Henry said. He dropped on his knees by his wife and began saying, “Breathe.” And he counted between pains. There wasn’t much time between one and the next.
Jazzi glanced at Ansel. “What should we do?”
“Get towels,” Britt said, coming to stand behind Henry. “Lots of them. Boil water.”
Jazzi raced for the stairs, repeating the same mantra in her mind over and over again—Oh, please, not until the ambulance gets here.
She was rushing down the steps when Dalmar grabbed his chest and began to crumple to the floor, too. Ansel and Radley caught him.
“Dad?” Ansel leaned his back against the kitchen island. “How can I help?”
But Dalmar’s body went slack as he lost consciousness.
“Dad!” Radley looked to his mom. “What’s wrong?”
She wrung her hands, visibly shaking. “He stopped taking his blood pressure pills, didn’t like how he bruised so easily, so refused to bother with them.”
Oh, lord. What were you supposed to do when someone had a heart attack? Jazzi had no clue. Her whole body tensed, wanting to do something, anything, but she didn’t know how to help. It felt like an eternity before the ambulance screamed into their driveway, and she ran to open the door for the medics.
Before they stepped inside, she heard a baby cry. She whirled to see Henry holding a bloody, squirming infant. The medics saw it, too, and hurried toward Adda, but Ansel called, “My dad’s in trouble. He needs help.”
One medic rushed to Dalmar, the other to Adda. The one took the baby and cleared its windpipe, then cut the umbilical cord. The other bent over Dalmar and shook his head.
“I’m sorry. He’s gone.”
“But he was just standing next to me!” Radley was shaking his head in disbelief.
The man gave him a sympathetic look. “It happens like that sometimes. Really sudden.”
Britt started toward them, staring at her dead husband, and Jazzi rushed to them, wrapping one arm around Ansel and offering her other open arm to his mom. Radley and Elspeth linked arms, too, and they enfolded Britt into a group hug. They stood there together for a minute, taking comfort from each other.
The medic cleared his throat. “We have to take him with us back to the hospital. Do you want to follow the ambulance?”
“What about my wife?” Henry asked.
The medic working on her and baby Lorelei said, “They need to come to the hospital, too, so a doctor can check them out. I’ve called for another ambulance. It will be here in a minute.”
When it arrived, the medics carted Dalmar and Adda into them. Henry followed Adda’s, and Ansel and Radley drove the others to the hospital behind Dalmar’s. Henry went with Adda, and they stayed with Britt. It was a long, trying wait before she’d given the hospital all of the information it needed and made arrangements for his body to be moved to Wisconsin to be buried in the family plot.
On the drive back to their house, Britt sat in stony silence. Once they were home, and they’d all gathered in the kitchen, she said, “There won’t be an official funeral. We already made all of the arrangements a few years ago, and Dalmar didn’t want one.”
Typical, the man was going to be antisocial to the bitter end.
“We both asked for graveside services with no minister. We wanted to keep it private. Just a few words before they lower us in the ground.”
“If that’s what Dad wanted.” Radley placed his hand over his mom’s.
She locked gazes with Bain. “I don’t want to go home to the farmhouse. It’s too big. I don’t want to sit in it alone. You and Greta can have it now, and I’ll live in the ranch house.”
Bain frowned. “Don’t you want to take a little time to decide? You might miss it after things settle down and you feel a little better.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I won’t go in it.”
For a woman who always let Dalmar make all of her decisions, she sounded adamant.
Greta reached to take her hand. “You’ll come eat supper with us every night, won’t you?”
Britt’s eyes filled with tears and she blinked them away. “I’d like that, even though I never did that for you. Dalmar wouldn’t let me. But Dalmar’s gone now. I can do what I want.”
Her words shocked Jazzi. She stared at her. So did everyone else.
Britt took a long, shaky breath. “I loved my husband, but over time, it was more out of duty than anything else. I used to fight with him when we were young, but eventually, he wore me down. I just gave up.”
Jazzi could understand that. There was no bending Dalmar’s will. And with four kids, she probably couldn’t afford to strike out on her own.
Bain scooted close to her and put an arm around her shoulders. “We love you, Mom, and we’ll be there for you.”
Radley and Ansel nodded agreement.
“I’d like to go to my room now,” she said. “I’m tired, and we’re driving back after breakfast tomorrow.”
Bain and Greta walked her upstairs, and Jazzi finally went to their farmhouse sink to begin rinsing dishes. She wanted something mundane to do to take her mind off things. Ansel came to help her load them in the dishwasher. It felt good to be working together right now. It dissipated some of her nervous energy.
Radley and Elspeth carried dirty serving platters over to them from the kitchen island, and after too much awkward conversation, they decided to head home. “Do you mind if we come back tomorrow morning to say goodbye to Bain, Greta, and Mom?” Radley asked.
“I’ll call you when we’re going to have breakfast,” Ansel promised.
By the time Bain and Greta returned downstairs, leaving Britt comfortable in bed, the kitchen was clean, and Ansel and Jazzi were relaxing in the living room.
“Is she okay?” Ansel asked, looking up at them.
Bain took an easy chair and Greta took the one across from his.
“When she went to see the doctor the last time, he gave her sleeping pills,” Greta said. “She took one of those. She’s emotionally exhausted. She’ll probably sleep through the night.”
“And you still want to leave after breakfast?” Jazzi asked.
Bain nodded. “We’ll have plenty to do now when we get home.”
They were still talking when someone gave a quick knock at the back door and Henry came to join them. His steps had a lift to them.
“Adda and the baby are doing fine. The doctor will release them tomorrow, and then we’ll start home. Thank heavens her friends already gave her a baby shower, so we have a few things, and the rocking chair is already in the nursery.”
Ansel stood and disappeared into the basement. When he returned, he was carrying a baby crib, then he went back downstairs to bring up a baby buggy. “I can help you load these before you leave.”
Henry blinked, surprised. “Those are the two Adda asked for. They’re expensive.”
“Adda’s my sister, and Lorelei’s my first niece.”
Henry pressed his lips together, looking slightly overwhelmed. “Adda’s going to love those.”
Bain laughed. “We haven’t gotten her a present yet. We should have known better. Our sister never did like to wait to get what she wanted.”
Henry grinned. “She gets too excited. That’s one of the things I love about her, how much she loves life.”
Ansel reached for Jazzi’s hand, and Bain reached for Greta’s. “We all got lucky,” Ansel said, his voice husky.
They didn’t stay up too much later so they’d all get up early the next morning. Bain always did anyway, used to dairy milking hours. Ansel called Radley and Elspeth when Jazzi started making breakfast. After they ate, Henry drove to the hospital and returned with Adda and baby Lorelei, and everyone gathered around her. When Adda saw the crib and baby buggy, tears ran down her cheeks. “What a holiday! So many blessings, and then we lost Dad.” She gave a wary glance to her mom.
Britt just held out her arms for the baby, and her expression melted with Lorelei cradled close to her.
“I wish Dad could have seen her,” Adda said.
Britt shook her head. “He had no use for babies, especially girls, but I adore them. I intend to enjoy yours more than I got to enjoy mine.”
Adda’s eyes went wide. “Dad wasn’t easy to live with, was he?”
“No, but I’ll miss him. I’m glad there’s a new baby to lift my spirits.”
Jazzi thought about that as she watched them pull away that morning. It had been one dramatic, hectic family gathering, but if Dalmar had to die, she was beginning to think it was a blessing that Adda had her baby at the same time. When next Christmas came, they’d remember that more than Dalmar’s heart attack. Losing someone over a holiday was hard, but next year, a one-year-old would come to terrorize their house, and it would be wonderful.