Caroline Giammanco: A Merry Christmas

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A Merry Christmas

By Caroline Giammanco

This was Merry Smedley’s favorite time of year. Vintage Bing Crosby crooned in the background as she hummed along while putting the finishing touches on gifts for her husband, Hank. Spread across the king-size bed were wrapping papers of various colors and the treasure trove of gifts she had picked up all year long to make Hank happy. Merry stopped for a moment to look at the light flurries coming down outside her bedroom window.

I think they said the heavy stuff will hit tonight, and we’ll have a white Christmas—just like you’re singing about, Bing.

Glancing at the family photos displayed around the room, Merry’s eye released a tear as she admired the photograph of her father. In the photo, he smiled brightly as he had his arms around his wife and daughter in front of a large, glittering Christmas tree. He’d always told Merry that Christmas was his favorite holiday, and while he was alive he made it a huge event. It accounted for her name, even though she’d been born in the heat of summer.

“My sweet little Merry, you’re the best present Daddy could ever have.” She could hear the soothing baritone voice of her father.

She had always been close to him. That is, until he died suddenly a few weeks before Christmas the year she turned eight. He’d been her knight in shining armor, and she believed in fairy tales and happy endings because of him. Her mother never remarried because, as they all knew in their hearts, there was no replacing Howard Stark. He’d been a loving husband, father, and successful engineer who was missed by everyone who knew him.

The first thing that attracted Merry to Hank Smedley their freshman year in college was that he was an engineering student. He had the same shade of light brown hair as her father had, too, and she was certain she had found her own Prince Charming. Her friends hadn’t been so certain, and her best friend Patty would say, “No, Merry. What you’ve found is the frog. Toss him back.”

Merry wasn’t deterred, however. Even though Hank had a few rough social edges, and maybe he did say some things that came across as rude, she stuck by her prince. They married at the end of their sophomore year at the University of Illinois. The next year, Merry dropped out of her microbiology program to work full time as a secretary. Engineering school was too important for Hank to work a part-time job, and the stress caused him to drink. Merry didn’t mind taking a break from her studies. After all, her prince needed her support. She could pick up a career later. 

Things looked up when Hank was hired by NASA shortly after graduation. His bachelor’s degree earned him a spot as a junior technician at the esteemed organization. Merry and Hank loaded up their car and moved to Huntsville, Alabama for his new career. Merry had visions of a happy life filled with love, vacations, and stability.

When they arrived in Huntsville, Merry continued working as a secretary because Hank said he needed to know dinner would be ready for him after he came home from a long day at work. “If you’re in college, all you’ll want to do is study and the house will go to hell.”

While Merry didn’t agree with his appraisal, she swallowed her hopes and dreams and continued to work as a secretary at the local insurance agency. After all, now that Hank had his career started at NASA, the nice house and the children would be soon to follow anyway.

Then, one day, after Hank had worked at NASA for a year and a half, Merry came home to find him sitting on the couch, drinking heavily. A twelve-pack of “dead soldiers” (the term Merry used for his empty beer cans) sat next to his feet. His drinking had never tapered off after college, and there were mornings he’d still smelled of alcohol when he left for work. Merry could feel the tension the moment she walked through the door.

“Those damn cheats!”

“What do you mean, Hank? What’s happened?”

“The sons-of-bitches can keep their job. They stole my idea, Merry. Just because they have ‘Ph.D.’ after their names, those bastards thought they could walk all over me.”

“Were you fired?”

“They claimed I had poor evaluations and were letting me go. Really they used it as an excuse to take my idea and get famous with it themselves. The dirty bastards.”

Merry’s heart sank. She’d suspected Hank hadn’t been upfront with her when she’d made the “mistake” of asking him if his drinking impacted his work.

She swallowed her pride, however, and relied on the goodwill of her family to get them back to Illinois. That’s where they had lived ever since. Hank went without working for nearly a year, claiming he was “done” with engineering. Finally, her uncle got him a job at the local factory, and that’s where he’d worked for the past fifteen years.

During that time, Libby and Joey came along, and Merry did her best to keep up a good front for them. Her children weren’t ever to know of any strife. She also didn’t utter one word of complaint to her family, although she knew that they believed Hank was deadwood in the family tree. 

“Really, Mom, Hank didn’t mean for that to come out the way it sounded. He has a good heart. You just can’t see it,” she’d said on more than one occasion.

The support of her family was what got them by, especially during the holidays. Hank’s pride kept her from telling him that her Christmas savings fund wasn’t what bought the children their toys from Santa. It was best that he didn’t know that the gifts came from her mother. 

Assembling the toys was Hank’s one contribution to Christmas. Her mother didn’t mince words while unloading the boxes of toys to be put together by her son-in-law. “If there’s one thing Hank is good at, it’s using a screwdriver.” 

Merry’s thoughts were brought back to the present. Hank would shine tonight as her handyman prince and would put together the toys once again.

Let’s hope we don’t have a repeat of the year he drank too much and didn’t tighten Libby’s training wheels.

Immediately, Merry chided herself for thinking such a negative thought. It was the holidays, after all. Her favorite time of year. She busied herself with wrapping gifts. She wanted Hank to be surprised. She’d gotten him a brand new tackle box filled with expensive lures and fishing gear. He so loved his weekend outings to his getaway spot. Merry had never seen Hank happier than when he was heading there.

As she placed the last tag on the last gift, her phone rang. The number was a familiar one. Her mother was calling from Wheaton, Merry’s childhood home near Chicago. They chatted and laughed for a good half hour before Merry heard Hank calling from downstairs.

“Mom, I really need to go. Hank says he needs my help with something in the garage. Love and kisses to you.”

In the darkness of a snowy Christmas Eve, Hank slowly drove his truck with the lights off through the subdivision. Merry had begged many times for him to take her to his special getaway place. He’d never shared that—or many other parts of himself—with her before tonight. Well, Merry was finally going to be at his secret spot.

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