“Save that spot for me!” The words echoed in her memory as she stood in the kitchen, staring at the empty rocking chair next to the ornate tree. Though her heart wasn’t in it, Susan begrudgingly pulled out the bins of Christmas ornaments earlier and studiously rebuilt the tree. Her mother’s constant reminder to everyone in the family still lingered in the air, along with scents of fresh pine and the dozens of cookies Susan’s son Sam and daughter Sue baked each holiday season. Last year, they made more than sixty dozen. The pastor of the church could not have been happier. When the kids presented him with a case of cookies, he excitedly informed them he had a freezer for just such a contingency. Neither had the heart to clarify to him that the cookies were intended for the entire congregation rather than the pastor himself.
It was Susan’s first Christmas without her mom. Everyone was supposed to call her mom “Darling,” a name she picked up while singing. The term used to annoy Susan. Total strangers called her mom Darling. Anyone who used her nickname with a bit of creativity earned a famous cackle of laughter from Darling and sometimes a quick kiss on the cheek. Darling loved giving kisses. “Johnny Cash gave me that name. If it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for anyone.” Was the Johnny Cash story true? No one knew. But it might have been.
For the last several years, Darling insisted that the rocking chair be carefully aligned near the Christmas tree and that she be able to claim permanent dibs on sitting there. It was an enviable spot. Not only could the occupant of the rocking chair see outside to watch everyone drive up to the house, but the floor vent was nearby, ensuring warmth that wasn’t guaranteed around the rest of the drafty living room. Factor in the prime observation spot for both passing out and opening presents, and it was the perfect spot to observe everyone. And as everyone found out with Darling, it was also the ideal point from which to bark orders, criticisms, and sometimes, encouragement.
Everyone enjoyed pretending to be unaware of Darling’s rule regarding permanent dibs on the rocking chair. Pastor Evans, who wasn’t faking his ignorance, found himself being unceremoniously harangued in front of a houseful of guests two seasons ago. He tried making his case with her. “Now Darling, there is a wonderful glider rocker over there closer to the kitchen!” She glowered at him and said, “Well, move your keister over to it if it’s so darned comfortable!” The pastor sheepishly changed seats after picking up another cup of famously-strong eggnog. Under his breath, you might hear him tell no one in particular that one had to drink around Darling to keep one’s sanity. This was more memorable because Darling always managed to sneak in another bottle of whiskey into the eggnog. Only Susan was aware she did it. “If it doesn’t ring your gong, why are you climbing the bell tower,” Darling loved saying. More than one person undoubtedly drove home from their Christmas get-togethers with a buzz. Darling could hold her own when drinking. She toured with many rowdy country and gospel singers when she was younger. No one turned the lights off when she was still in the room.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, one of Darling’s neighbors dropped by to give her some leftover turkey. She found Darling sleeping on the porch swing. When she shook her, she realized that Darling had passed away. The coroner advised them that a massive stroke killed her. A full cup of untasted coffee sat on the antique table next to the swing.
Susan considered not having a family Christmas this year, but she knew Darling would be very unhappy to hear of it, especially from her viewpoint in the afterlife. While Susan wasn’t a superstitious person, she dared not risk finding out if Darling could reach her from the other side. Sam and Sue applauded with enthusiasm when Susan informed them that the kitchen was back open for business because Darling would want it that way. Sam chimed in, “We’re going to make a hundred dozen cookies this year, Mom!”
By two in the afternoon on Christmas day, everyone had nervously avoided sitting in the rocking chair, even as a joke. Susan attempted to encourage different people to sit in the rocker. Even her husband’s Aunt Edna refused. Darling’s presence still filled the house. It might never be the same, even though their home was always filled with overflowing conversations, laughter, and the occasional shout.
When Susan’s husband Ed stood by the tree to read 1 Corinthians 13:13, Darling’s favorite, he laughed. “This isn’t a Christmas verse, but it is the one Darling insisted on for twenty years. I see no need to break it.” He recited the passage from memory as everyone in the living room and kitchen stopped to listen. Most had their eyes turned to the empty rocking chair next to the Christmas tree. Although many had endured both rebuke and charm from Darling, most eyes were moist from remembering her.
Susan felt an unseen hand push her toward the rocking chair. Aunt Edna turned from near the coffee table and started to make her way to the chair. Without knowing she was doing so, Susan shouted, “Save that spot for me!” Aunt Edna froze as every head turned to watch Susan walk across the living room and put her hand on the back of the rocking chair. She hesitated and then sat down firmly in the rocking chair.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” She asked. “These gifts aren’t going to hand themselves out, are they?”
In unison, everyone laughed.
Darling was indeed still in the room.