Mary pulled up next to the barn at Nick's Christmas Tree Farm, the first Saturday of November. The farm opened for business the weekend before Thanksgiving. Mary had worked each season for the past seven years, and always came out a week early to walk through the fields of evergreens. It was the slowest time of year for her design business and this seasonal job allowed her to utilize her creativity.
The sun felt warm on her shoulders, while the air was cool against her face. The dried autumn leaves crackled under her feet as she walked. The fragrance of the dead leaves mixed with the scent of the balsam firs reminded her that the holiday season was fast approaching, and this would be the last quiet time on the farm until Christmas day. As she wandered, she picked up fallen pinecones that could be used in the centerpieces and door arrangements they created on the farm.
Mary walked the better part of an hour before turning to head back. The sun was starting to get low in the sky when she caught sight of the big red barn. It glowed in the setting sun, standing out against the gray-blue sky. Within two weeks, the corral fence would be draped with fresh evergreen garland and festive red bows. There would be colorful wreaths and evergreen sprays displayed on the sides of the large attached shed. The inside of the shed would be transformed into Santa's house, filled with the aroma of cinnamon and where over two hundred different Santa figurines would be displayed. Mary's mood turned somber as she remembered last year.
Nick and Emily had taken over the family business twelve years ago. It was Emily who had envisioned a place where families could come and cut their own trees, or pick out a fresh pre-cut tree, look at holiday displays, enjoy warm cider, hot chocolate, and cookies right out of the oven. A portion of the barn was refurbished and heated to be able to accommodate holiday parties, with Nick serving as the on-sight Santa.
They were raising their daughter to believe in Christmas magic, and to give back as much as they could. Last year, ten-year old Emma came up with the idea to become the drop-off for new toys for the needy, as well as a place where people could donate food for the local food shelf. Nick and Emily also hosted a free "Breakfast with Santa" for the residents of the town's homeless shelter.
That would change this year. Emily left Nick and Emma, after having an affair with a younger man. In retrospect, her actions of last year now made sense. She had taken all the returning women aside and gave them instructions for the next season. No one ever suspected she was preparing them for after she was gone.
It was particularly hard for Mary. She and Emily were the same age, and had become fast friends. Emma helped Mary at a very difficult time in her life. Mary became Emily's go-to person and she learned the business from Emily's point of view. Emma even called her Aunt Mary and ran to her as easily as she did her own mother. Mary was more like Emily's sister than her friend, and when Emily left in February, Mary came out to the farm, walked in the snow-filled fields, and cried.
Nick had turned his back on everyone. He became quiet and stayed at home most of the time. When he was seen in town, he appeared to be a shell of his former self -- as if he died when Emily left him. Mary tried reaching out to him, but he wanted nothing to do with her. She was able to see Emma when she was at her grandparent's house, which was most weekends. Emma was worried that the farm wouldn't be ready this year, and Mary assured her everyone would pull together and make it happen.
Mary slid open one of the barn doors and moved into the darkness. She was surprised to see the remnants of the last Christmas party held there. Without thinking, she began gathering the tablecloths so they could be washed, and started filling a barrel with dried out evergreen decorations. She turned around and literally ran into a very angry Nick.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
"Oh Nick," Mary said, not thinking and hugging his stiffening body. "I always come out early, you know that. I saw this hadn't been cleaned up so I thought I'd get a jump on next weekend. As long as you're here, maybe we can set up the tables for wreath making."
Mary took a good look at the man who had been her friend, and almost didn't recognize him. He was unkempt, his clothing, his black hair, everything. His eyes were dark with anger and his fists were clenched at his side. She watched as his nostrils flared, and she listened as his words seemed to cut through her.
"Get out -- get out now. I won't need any help this year. This is a strictly a "you cut, cash and carry" operation."
"What?" Mary asked, astonished. "You can't be serious! You can't change the tradition of the farm! What about all the families who've only known how to celebrate with you and your family? What about the kids who rely on this job every year? What about your own daughter, Nick? You can't take this away from her -- it's her legacy!"
"Shut up!" he screamed at her. "It's my farm and I'll do things the way I want! What the hell would you know anyway? You don't know the first thing about this place -- and why would you? This is my business, not yours, and I'll do things the way I want!"
"Nick, you and Emily created such a magical place here. Emma loves this farm. You know how hard she works. Hell, everyone who works here loves this place."
Nick turned his back and started to walk down to the other end of the barn, trying to escape Mary's words.
"I know this is hard for you -- I know how raw this must be, but for Emma's sake...."
Nick turned and marched back to her almost yelling, "You don't know anything! How can you? Do you have any idea how it feels to have your heart ripped out? Do you have any idea what it's like to look into the face of your kid and see hers? Do you know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night to reach for your wife and only feel a cold sheet?"
He stopped, realizing that one she did know about. When Mary's husband had died four years ago, Nick and Emily were right there to help her.
She could see the struggle he was having. In her heart she knew he needed this as much as Emma, but Mary had no idea how to make him see it. She didn't have the words he needed to hear, but someone did.
"Aunt Mary!" screeched Emma, as she tore through the barn doors and barreled into her. Emma was talking a mile a minute, while clinging to Mary's waist.
"You're here, you're here! Aunt Mary, I've been so afraid there wouldn't be a Christmas without Mommy, but you promised, and now you're here! See, Daddy, it'll be just like always, like when Mommy was here. See?" Emma rambled.
Nick glared at Mary. In his eyes, this was all her fault, but he couldn't talk about it now.
"We'll discuss it later, Emma," he said sharply.
"But dad....," Emma began to plead.
"Emma! I said not now!"
Emma looked shocked as her father raised his voice. Without a word, she ran from the barn and back towards the house. Nick lowered his head, clearly ashamed of how he had just behaved, but Emma was his daughter. There is no way she could understand the torment this season would bring to him.
Mary kept her voice calm and quiet as she spoke to him, "I think you know how much Emma needs this to happen. Her mother ran away from her, too. This farm was such a huge part of who she was. If you take this away too, Christmas will never be the same."
Mary paused to watch for Nick's reaction, but he kept his head down and remained silent.
"You were right when you said I don't know what you're going through. I hope to hell I never have to watch the person I love walk out the door. So let me help you with this, for this year only. I'll get together a business plan, call a meeting of everyone who normally works here, and assign others to your tasks. You won't have to lift a finger, or come anywhere near the barn. But, please let Emma come and help if she wants. I'll take full responsibility. Nick, I want this to be as painless as possible for you."
Nick showed no emotion as he said, "You have until Wednesday to show me the plan. If it doesn't gel, it's a cash and carry operation only."
"Deal," Mary said as she held out her hand to shake in agreement, but he turned and walked away.
She'd show him; only three full days to pull things together on paper, but it was going to happen. She stopped in the old tack room that Emily used as her office, sorted through papers and ledgers, and gathered anything she could think would be useful. When she got home she would start telephoning the staff to see who was available to meet before Wednesday. She may not be able to pull this off alone, but with everyone's support, the original dream would still be a reality.
The staff was in total agreement about keeping the farm open one more year. Between all of them, they came up with schedules for set-up, fresh-cut holiday decor, baking, tree cutting, and Santa breakfasts. Two of the women volunteered their husbands to fill-in as Santa, one of the retired gentlemen was a former accountant, and said he would take over the bookkeeping. What one person didn't think of, another one did. It may not have Emily's finishing touches, but it would still come off without a hitch.
Nick looked surprised to see Mary at his back door Wednesday afternoon, but led her through the kitchen and into the dining room. The house was neat and clean, but definitely missing the warmth that had come from Emily. Nick was cordial and scrutinized the written plan and spreadsheets Mary had created. When he was done, he laid them down in front of him and leaned back in his chair. His voice was barely audible.
"Okay," was all he said.
Mary knew better than to push and kept her excitement in check. The last thing she wanted to do was scare him off. She thanked him, gathered her work, and stood to leave, promising a weekly accounting of the operation. She left him still sitting at the table, staring out the window. Her heart ached for him, and the grief he was feeling.
The employees worked non-stop to ready the farm for the Christmas holidays. Everyone had been wonderful, taking time out of their busy lives to make wreaths, sprays, garland, and to start baking. Even Emma helped to drape the garland and tie the bows around the fence. One of the high school art students created posters to hang in town announcing the first day of business.
The Wednesday night before the seasonal opening, Mary let herself into the shed and looked at the twelve plastic covered totes stacked in the corner. There were two hundred Santa figurines that had to be unpacked, dusted off, and displayed. Mary hadn't trusted anyone else to do this job. Emily had left her collection behind, so Mary was going to see it was passed down to Emma in good condition.
It was after ten o'clock when she set the last empty box aside. Her last item was the Santa covered wreath for the door. She gasped when she opened the door and saw Nick standing there, and she stepped aside as he came in. He looked around while she hung the wreath on the outside of the door, occasionally touching a piece with his finger. She stepped back inside, but remained quiet while he finished his inspection.
"It looks good," he said in an earnest voice. "Everything looks good."
"Thanks, Nick," Mary replied quietly. "Everyone worked really hard."
Nick put his hand on Mary's arm and said, "It shows. Emily would be really proud of all this -- if she still cared."
Mary looked into his sad eyes, walking a fine line of not scaring him off, but letting him know how she felt.
"This is a good thing you're doing for Emma. Everyone needs closure, Nick. Having this one last Christmas at the farm will be a way of saying good-bye to the old, and establishing something new."
"I don't talk to many people about her, Mary," Nick explained. "If it wasn't for Emma, I honestly don't think I'd be here today. Emily was more than just my wife - she was a part of me -- the best part of me. Do you get that? When she left she took away everything I believed in about happily ever after. I know she's gone; I know she's not coming back, and I know I'll go on without her. That doesn't mean I have to celebrate it."
Nick walked to the door to leave and looked back. "Yeah Mary, this was a good thing to do for Emma. But it's the last year, do you understand? She can't even pick up a phone and check on her own daughter, or let Emma know she's okay. I won't continue the holiday lie."
Mary nodded and watched him leave. She never thought they would have a civil conversation, the way he was almost two weeks ago. Something had changed in him. He was still grieving, but this was different. His anger seemed to be melting away.
They came on Saturday -- all those who wanted their trees up before Thanksgiving. The real rush would come the following Friday and every weekend leading up until Christmas. The guys had a hard time keeping fresh cut trees on hand. The day ended at sundown and Mary was thrilled to see how much money they had taken in.
Nick stayed in the house most of the time, so Emma appointed herself the hostess. She greeted each car, gave them a run-down of what they would find, and encouraged them to come back for something warm to drink, after selecting the perfect tree. She spent a lot of time with Mary, going over the operations of the farm, and wanting to learn the business, as much as an eleven-year old can. Mary wasn't sure if she was aware of her father's decision, until a conversation a few weeks later.
"Aunt Mary, do you think if I'm good and learn all I can that Daddy will let us have Christmas here next year?" Emma asked.
"Oh honey, I don't know, that's up to him," Mary answered.
Emma walked over to her, put her arms around Mary's waist and said, "I miss Mommy. It's when I'm here that I feel closest to her, but at night in the house sometimes I just need to talk to her and that's when it hurts. I need to have her around to tell my secrets, and ask questions, and...."
Mary held Emma close while she began to cry. Neither one knew that Nick was watching.
"For as long as you need someone to talk to sweetie, you know you can always talk to me. I love you, so whenever you need me just call. I don't care what time, just pick up the phone and call me."
"Can Daddy talk to you, too?"
Mary smiled and answered, "Of course, he can."
Nick watched the tender way Mary treated Emma, and listened to her words. She was right; Emily would always be part of his soul. He smiled and turned away, letting the girls talk.
The next afternoon, Nick walked out to the barn while Mary was putting the finishing touches on some evergreen centerpieces for a party that night. She was singing to the holiday music playing on the radio and dancing between the tables. She had the same attention to detail that Emily had when she would set up. Mary jumped as Nick walked up behind her and said hello.
"Damn you Nick," Mary said half laughing, half embarrassed. "Could you shout out some kind of warning instead of sneaking up on a person?"
"I don't think you would have heard me over that so-called singing you were doing," he countered.
"And I suppose you could do better, Tony Bennett?" Mary came back at him.
Nick put up his hands and started to back up.
"I give; I give up," he said with a chuckle, and then caught himself.
Mary looked at the confusion on his face and walked to his side.
"It's okay you know, to laugh. It's okay to feel amused, or happy, or silly. The world is not going to come to an end, and no one is going to think any less of you just because you enjoyed yourself," she told him.
Mary got her nerve up and put her arms around him for a brief moment. He surprised her by returning the hug. When she stepped back she looked into Nick's eyes. It was almost like looking at the old Nick, the one who hadn't gone through hell the past months. He moved back and smiled.
"Well, I have to check on some things. I'll see you," he said with a wave and walked back out the door.
Mary's weekly meetings with Nick went well and he was pleased with the profit the place was showing. She could tell he was starting to take more of an interest in the farm. She would see him walking through the trees with Emma and speaking with some of the customers. What she didn't see was him watching her.
Nick had to admit he admired Mary's hard work; whether it was going over the books, helping to create some of the fresh pine decorations, checking on the baked goods, pushing a broom and making sure everything was tidy, or spending time with Emma. He could see how much Emma meant to her, and vice versa. Mary was becoming a very important fixture in their lives.
It was after nine o'clock one night and Emma was in bed, when Nick noticed a light on in the barn. Grumbling, he spouted off about the carelessness of someone for not turning off all the lights. The sound of Christmas music began to fill the air as he approached, causing him to wonder who was working so late. When he walked inside he wasn't all that surprised by what he saw.
Bent over a table, decorating a small tabletop Christmas tree was Mary. He smiled as he looked at the concentration in her face, while she attached silver ornaments to the tree that was already was decorated with fairies and angels. He laughed out loud as she stood back with her hands on her hips and said, "Ha!"
"Nick!" she exclaimed, shaken from the sound of his laugh. "When will you learn to announce yourself? You damn near gave me a heart attack! You have no business sneaking up on a person like that."
Nick continued to chuckle at her flustering. "Excuse me, missy, I believe this is my barn. I didn't know you'd be here this late and I thought someone left the lights on."
Mary's cheeks shown with the rosy glow of embarrassment and her eyes were shining brightly. Nick took a moment to really look at her. Here was a beautiful woman with soft sable-colored hair that gently lay on her shoulders. Her eyes were emerald green and her heart-shaped lips had a natural rose color. He guessed he had always thought of her as a beautiful person, because he had gotten to know the inside of her first. Now, he looked at her as a man looked at a woman.
"What's this?" he asked, walking up beside her.
"Um, look, I hope you don't mind," she stammered. "I wanted to give Emma a little tree for her bedroom. Emma said you hadn't set up a tree in the house and she was afraid that there wouldn't be one."
Now it was Nick's turn to look embarrassed as he answered, "Are you kidding me? Why didn't she talk to me? I simply forgot about putting one up. That was always Emily's thing. She never let me in the room until it was all decorated. I can't believe Emily hasn't done anything about contacting Emma."
"Please don't be angry," Mary told him.
"I'm not angry -- I'm embarrassed I didn't think of this. Mary, there are just so many things that Emily did that I don't think about. Now this; my kid must think I'm a total loser."
"If it's something you forgot about, then pick out a tree and get it inside," Mary offered a solution. "That way, Emma will see it tomorrow morning. You can spend time tomorrow night decorating it as a family. It will be the start of a new tradition."
"You're right, of course," Nick admitted. "Just the way you've been right about a lot of things. Do you want to leave that tree here tonight, or do you want to bring it into the house?"
"No, I'll surprise her tomorrow after school. Right now, it's time for me to head home," Mary said picking up the unused decorations and putting them in a box.
"Would you mind helping me pick out a tree first? The last load of cut trees was brought up around three this afternoon."