Winter’s Garden (Not your typical Christmas story)

Fair warning my friends…this is a dark and twisted little Christmas story.  The first line popped into my head back in 2007 and rattled around my brain like Marley’s ghost until I was forced to sit myself down and write it out….

The Holly Bears the Crown by Jenny Downing


My mother grieved in flowers; that’s why I loved the snow.

I was only five years old when a rainbow of violas invaded the front yard the same day we watched Granny Shirley’s casket lowered into the ground.  After that, every pansy’s gaily-colored monkey face reminded me of the graveyard stench of open earth and sorrow.  Less than a year later, billows of white spider mums were blooming in place of Grandpa Ben.  Abercrombie, my lop-eared bunny, disappeared beneath a blue cloud of catmint outside my bedroom window the week before I started third grade.

On my ninth birthday, Mother shook me awake in the pearly predawn light to help her dig two identical holes for Angel Lace hydrangeas by the back porch steps.  This is how I learned Aunt Zoë’s newborn twins were never coming home from the hospital.  Is it any wonder that the sight of a freshly plowed flowerbed burned in my stomach like acid?

Most children looked forward to summer, yearning for sun-drenched days of freedom.  Not me.  At my house, warm weather brought an endless cycle of digging, weeding, watering and pruning.  Summer was crawling around the peony hedge, the swollen blooms oozing fat black ants into my hair.  Summer was fingers and forearms shredded by the thorns of heirloom roses.  Summer was angry hornets hemorrhaging from the filthy tangle of honeysuckle vine that climbed our brick chimney.  In the spring, we tilled and hoed to prepare for the flowers.  In the autumn we raked and hauled to put the flower beds down for their winter’s nap.  How I yearned for the dark, frozen months of winter!

My letters to Santa never asked for dolls or games.  My letters begged for the chance to live among the elves and the reindeer at the North Pole.  Eventually, I realized Santa wasn’t going to be rescue me, but I still clung to the magical promise of permafrost.  Somehow winter’s wonderland got twisted around in my mind so that I believed grief was impossible in winter.  Cold equaled safety.  The frozen earth’s inability to accept new plantings somehow seemed to prevent new tragedies until spring’s thaw.

“That danged ugly garden gnome,” Daddy muttered one sweltering Saturday afternoon as we dodged bumblebees to clip back an overzealous lilac bush.  “That’s where this whole mess started.”

I shrugged and kept clipping, feigning disinterest.  Daddy wouldn’t bad mouth Mother’s garden if he thought I was taking what he said to heart.

“It was a wedding gift, but we couldn’t find the card,” Daddy said, using the story as an excuse to stop and blot his neck with a limp handkerchief.  “Never did figure out who gave it to us.  Your Momma acted like that gnome was the best gift she ever received.  So I put the devil in the backyard next to a pretty little clump of wild iris.  Your momma said it was rude not to make a true garden.  Said it looked like we didn’t appreciate the gift.  She started planting a little of this and some of that…pretty soon we were surrounded by this crazy prison of white trellis, mulch and seed catalogs you see today.”

Laughing Gnome by Gareth1953Daddy tucked away the handkerchief and brandished his pruning shears. “Wish I could figure out who gave us that cursed statue.  I’d cut off their nose.”

“But I’ve never seen a garden gnome, Daddy.”

This brought out his most wicked smile.  “Hid the darned thing under a tangle of blackberry bramble when you were still in diapers,” he confessed.  “Didn’t do any good though.”

When Daddy was replaced with Bayou Red begonias bleeding along the west fence, I went looking for that mythical garden gnome.  He was a chipped and mossy mess when I dug him out of the bramble. I pounded the thing to bits and buried the powdery pieces under those horrible begonias, but the flowers of misfortune bloomed on.

It was the study of ecology and environmental sciences that finally paved my escape from Mother’s garden.  Graduate studies up in Maine led to a doctorate thesis exploring the effects of climate change in arctic ecosystems, which opened the door to my dream job—working for the United States Arctic Research Commission.  Through it all, my illogical, thoroughly unscientific belief in the evil influence of flowers and the safety of winter’s freeze remained, uncontested by fate, all the way into my thirty-seventh year.

Last year.

I arrived home for the holidays on a frozen winter’s evening to findStriped Amaryllis by Muffet Candy Cane amaryllis forcing their unnatural blooms on every single windowsill at Mother’s house and…well, I went a little crazy.  I ran around the house at least eight times cursing the red and white flowers that bloomed with smug indifference to my hysteria.

Poor Aunt Zoë had to brave the cold without a coat to wrestle me into Mother’s kitchen.  Over steaming cups of chamomile tea, she tried very hard to tell me about the star-shaped tumor deeply rooted in Mother’s brain and the importance of keeping everything calm and quiet.  But my own brain refused to listen, refused to let me sit still until every single flowerpot in the house was hidden in the basement. Then I started collecting the seed catalogs so I could throw them all into the fire.

It was the letters to Santa that stopped my manic rampage.  My letters.  I found them tied together with a green ribbon, sitting on the hearth.  Hugging these artifacts, I stumbled upstairs and curled up like a cat at the foot of my mother’s bed.  Her eyes opened long enough to focus on me and settle her hand on my head before drifting back to sleep.

“Hollyhocks,” she whispered her pet name for me.

“Just Holly,” I whispered back, more out of habit than any real defiance.

In the morning, I hunched over the kitchen table shuffling through the letters. Not one of my letters to Santa had been opened.  Each envelope was still sealed shut, each flap carefully decorated with fading-but-intact snowflakes.  When Mother sat across from me in her old brown velvet robe, I needed to ignore how small and frail she looked so I kept my eyes glued to the envelopes.

“If you didn’t want to read them, you could have just let the post office take them,” I said.

“I couldn’t risk it,” she answered.

“Why on Earth not?”


I stared at her, struggling not to jump up and scream.

“You see,” she continued, looking down at the brightly colored envelopes between us, “I couldn’t run the risk he would read them.”

“Who?  The mailman?” I practically growled at her.

“No, Santa,” she replied as if the answer was obvious.  “Is there any peppermint tea?”

Aunt Zoë arrived minutes later and hushed my questions with a warm bear hug.  “Tried to warn you last night,” she murmured the words in my ear. “When she talks pure nonsense, remember it’s a brain tumor, Holly.”

That evening, Mother asked, “Have you written a letter to Santa this year?”

I told myself, it’s a brain tumor.

“Holly, where is the advent calendar?  What will Santa think if there’s no advent calendar?”

Brain tumor.

“I have to be sure I’m packed and ready when Santa gets here.”

Brain tumor.

Thankfully, our jabber-talky episodes were few and far between.  Most of the time, Mother slept.  One minute she would be listing off the classification groups for dahlias, the next minute she would be deep asleep sitting straight up.  Sometimes, she would be still and silent for so long, I had to tip toe over to her and listen for the sound of her breath.  But after a few days, as the words coming out of her mouth became more and more bizarre, I learned to love the hours when she slept.  Relief would wash over me and I would allow myself to relax.  So careless!  I should have remembered…brain tumor.

When Mother fell asleep in front of the fire around noon on Christmas Eve, I let myself totally unwind into the blissful absence of her chatter.  All my tension, stress and disbelief over the discovery of Mother’s illness must have been lurking under the surface.  There was a book in my hands, but overwhelming weariness claimed me as the day turned bitter cold and faded into the heavy gray color of snow-burdened clouds.

Christmas Lights by Jenny DowningI slept through the twilight and the first drops of freezing rain, and continued to sleep as three inches of ice encased everything around my childhood home before the winter storm ended with a final flourish of snowflakes. As I enjoyed a deep dreamless sleep, our world was transformed into the sort of glittering, gorgeous winter wonderland I used to desire with such a ferocious intensity.

I finally jolted awake just before dawn.  The air in our living room was so frigid, I could see my breath.  The fire had turned to useless ash.  The TV was black, the lights were dark and greenish glow of the electric clock was missing.  The house was entirely silent.

My first coherent thought was, too cold for Mother.

Disoriented, I stood up and stared at the front door.

Open? Impossible.  Wrong.

The strange, unearthly glow of white snow and lingering moonlight turned the house into a foreign place.

Too cold for Mother.

Mother wasn’t in her chair.  Her bed was empty.  She wasn’t in the bathroom.  From the kitchen window I caught sight of an empty black rectangle where the garage door should have been.

The garden.  In times of trouble she always headed for the garden.Enrobed by Jenny Downing  An image of my sickly mother standing in the snow wearing her thin flannel nightgown and yellow rubber clogs hit me with such force; I thought that had to be the answer.  Flashlight in hand, I rushed outside wearing my slippers and found her footprints in the fresh snow.  They led toward the back gate, but abruptly stopped just outside our fence.  From there, unbroken snow stretched as far as I could see.  It didn’t make any sense.

I called for her over and over until my throat was raw with abuse.  Still I screamed for her, desperation turning my voice into a stranger’s.  A neighbor must have heard my screaming and called 911. When the snow around me started pulsing with blue and red light, something deep inside shattered and I collapsed into a heap.

I was still in a heap when the police found me.

The rest of that Christmas day is nothing but a series of nightmare flashes.  Lights.  Faces.  Endless questions.  Neighbors wearing winter coats and boots over their nightclothes; a pajama army armed only with cell phones and shovels slip-sliding through the neighborhood.  An ambulance with no patient, the back door hanging open.  A copper furred police dog with velvet ears and a desperate braying bark.  A freckled firefighter who cried while my eyes stayed dry.

We never found Mother.  No one ever found her.

Drones with social service duties came and asked questions…always the same questions.  I knew I should be insulted, even horrified by what their questions implied, but I was empty.  When they asked if anything else was missing, I never told them the truth.  I’d found mother’s clogs in the hall closet.  Her gardening gloves and hat were hanging in their place in the garage.  But my letters to Santa were gone.

I didn’t tell anyone that tidbit, not even Aunt Zoë.  Why?  Because of the footprints.  They just stopped.  Impossible as it sounds, I saw the evidence with my own eyes.

It’s been a year since Mother vanished and another Christmas Eve is here.  I’m still in Mother’s house, waiting, unable to leave.  So I baked massive amounts of cookies and placed a heaping plate next to the fire.  There’s even a mass of fresh carrots hanging from the garden gate.

Maybe I look ridiculous.  Everybody knows there’s no such thing as flying reindeer.  Everybody probably thinks I’ve lost my mind.  But then, nobody knows every secret wish I used to write to Santa…and nobody understands how it feels to be left behind.

veronica by Monarchcreative

photos by:  (1, 4 & 5) Jenny Downing, (2) gareth1953, (3) Muffet, (6) Monarchcreative


One thought on “Winter’s Garden (Not your typical Christmas story)

  1. wow! What a beautifully written story. I loved the whole idea of the woman planting flowers every time someone died. This is great. I want to steal her for a character in a book. I won’t, of course, but it’s tempting.

    Loved this line, “When Daddy was replaced with Bayou Red begonias bleeding along the west fence…”

    And the star shaped tumor deeply rooted…

    Really lovely writing.

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