The Christmas Phone Call
By JOHN SHEA
This story is taken from The Legend of the Bells and Other Tales: Stories of the Human Spirit, by Fr. John Shea. It first appeared in Shea's The Spirit Master (1987). It is reprinted by permission of ACTA Publications, 4848 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640-4711. Shea, theologian and storyteller, is a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago.
"Ma, come to the table," Ellen said in a voice that betrayed nothing. It was Christmas afternoon. The five Dolans -- Tom and Ellen, their children Marge, Patrick and Catlin -- and Ellen's mother, Marie McKenzie, had gone to church, opened presents, and lingered forever over a Christmas drink. Dinner was now on the table.
Marie said she was not hungry. She rocked back and forth in her favorite chair. On the table next to her was the phone.
"Ma, if she is going to call, she will call. Come to the table."
Marie just rocked.
Ellen gestured her husband, Tom, into the kitchen. "I spend all day on this meal and she is letting it get cold. This is the thanks I get. All year I take care of her. Take her to bingo, the hair dresser's, church. And every holiday she sulks there waiting for that daughter of hers to call." Tom had heard all this before. "I don't think she's sulking," said Tom. "I'll take care of it." Tom went back into the living room, right past Marie at her telephone post and up the stairs to their bedroom. Marie pretended she didn't see him. Tom took their phone listings out of the dresser drawer and dialed the California number. "Yeah!" said a groggy man's voice.
Oh no, thought Tom, not another one. "Is Ann there?"
"Ann, this is Tom. Merry Christmas. Call your mother."
"Tom, for Christ's sake, it's only noon out here, I'll call her later."
"Now, Ann. We can't get her to come to the table and eat. Ellen is doing a slow burn."
"So what's new?" She waited, but Tom said nothing.
"OK, I'll call."
Tom was halfway down the stairs when the phone rang. Marie answered it on the second ring.
"Hi ya, Mom. Ellen feeding you enough?"
"Oh Annie, it's so good to hear your voice."
"Good to hear yours too, Mom. I went to midnight Mass and was sleeping late." She reached under the covers and gave Hank a squeeze. He didn't move. He had fallen back to sleep.
"By the way, Mom, I got your check. Thanks. I needed it."
"You're welcome. When will you be in Chicago?"
"Spring sometime. I'll let you know."
"I miss you."
"You've got Ellen right there, Mom." Her voice got louder as if her mother were hard of hearing.
"Would you like to talk to her?"
There was a moment of silence. "Why not?"
"Here she is."
Ellen had been listening to each word from the kitchen doorway. She walked toward her mother, wiping her hands on her apron. Marie held out the phone. The cord was stretched to the full.
Ellen took the phone. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," returned Ann.
Ellen gave the phone back to her mother.
"There," Marie said to anyone who was listening. Her voice had a sense of accomplishment as if she had just carried a great weight up a forbidding hill and set it down right where it should be. "Merry Christmas," she said out loud to herself.
Then Marie puckered a kiss into the phone's receiver and said, "Bye, Annie, don't let the bedbugs bite.
"Oh, Mom," Ann managed before her mother hung up.
Marie came immediately to the table. The children were stifling laughs; Tom was smiling; Ellen was staring at the plate.
They recited grace together. The food was passed and piled high on each plate. Marie poured the tea into her cup, poured it from the cup onto her saucer, then blew on it to cool it off. A forkful of dressing went into her mouth "Delicious," she said with her mouth full.
"Oh, Mom," sighed Ellen.
I wrote this story because of the not-too-subtle suggestion of an irritated woman: "I always hear about the prodigal son but not the prodigal daughter."
I answered, "Well, the story is really more about the father than the younger son. It is a tale about the father's response to both sons in their different estrangements and how he is trying to bring them back into relationship with one another."
"Same difference, don't you think?" And she walked away.
Her problem with the story was the lack of female presence.
At a party between Christmas and New Year's, I innocently asked a woman, "How was your Christmas?"
"Terrible. My mother wouldn't come to the table before my nitwit sister called from California. Finally, I got my husband to call California and tell her to call Mom."
"Thank you," I said. "You've given me the idea I need."
"What do you mean?"
If there is any line at all between single-mindedness and outright stubbornness, it is a thin one. Marie will not come to the feast until her daughters have talked to each other. Christmas without at least a gesture of reconciliation is foreign to her. No matter what else is happening, the one thing the mother has to have is renewed dialogue between her daughters. Until that happens, the outpost by the phone will be womanned.
Just as in the gospel story, there is a tremendous resistance on the part of both daughters, and the resistance is by no means broken down. However, in this story a momentary and involuntary truce happens. The two sisters exchange the greetings of the season, "Merry Christmas." We do not know if a second baby step down the road of reconciliation will ever be taken. Of course, in the Lukan original we do not know if the older son ever goes in to the feast. Both stories focus first on the passion of the reconcilers and then on the movement or lack of movement in the resistant parties. The mother (as presumably the Prodigal Father did) is eating with gusto. Her older daughter is left with the option of joining her or nurturing a resentment that does not aid digestion. Her response to this hang-tough mama of togetherness is a frustrated recognition of her true nature, "Oh, Mom." Mother is the one who gives life even when it is not requested or even (sometimes) accepted.
Over the years I have gotten goofy on the subject of reconciliation. I know less and less about how it happens. I have no confidence in trying to map it out step-by-step. All I am sure of is that when it does happen, it is usually serendipitous, unexpected and a surprise to all.
However, as I have become less certain about how it happens, I have become more convinced that it will happen. I have been there when people say, "Never!" I have said, "Never!" But in the back of my mind there is an uninvited voice that is always saying, "Someday." Maybe it is our Divinely Prodigal Mother/Father speaking.
Someone once described love as the power that drives everything there is toward everything else that is. This love permeates the universe, holding it together. Divine glue. In order to stay apart we actually have to resist this pull toward communion. This resistance takes considerable energy and inventiveness. Of course, we are always up to the task. Never underestimate human persistence in estrangement! We can and do refuse the everlasting offer to come together. However, I am betting that we will eventually weaken. The rumor on the streets is that the Holy Spirit melts hearts. Global warming may or may not be an atmospheric fact, but in the world of spirit it is an ever-present possibility. Thawing the frozen is what the Holy Spirit does for a living.
People say this confidence in eventual reconciliation is the product of a well-developed sense of fantasy. They point out all the cases where it doesn't happen. They ask, "What about death? How can reconciliation occur when one person has died?"
I throw a hand in the air. "Since when is death a barrier?"
As I said, I've gotten a little goofy on reconciliation.
National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 1996