A PINEY WOODS CHRISTMAS
Mom and Chief were going on a honeymoon to Paris, France. Chief called it a second honeymoon, but Mom said she didn't call driving from Piney Woods, Louisiana, to Waukegan, Illinois, in an old Buick Impala a honeymoon. Mom and Chief lived in Waukegan when Chief received his first assignment at the Great Lakes Naval Station.
"Where will we stay while you're in France?" I asked.
"Piney Woods," said Chief. "You girls can have a nice visit with your grandparents."
Both sets of our grandparents lived in the country. And they both had a few animals--not enough to be a real farm, but it was the closest to a farm that we'd ever seen.
We were sitting on the back porch while Chief barbecued chicken on the grill. Bruna ran around the yard, barking. Anytime we gathered out in the backyard Bruna got excited, as if the yard belonged to her and we were her guests.
"What about Bruna?" I asked.
Chief snapped the tongs three times before using them to turn the chicken. "She can go, too," he said. "Although you'll have to keep her on a leash when she's outside. Remember what happened when we took her camping, Piper?"
I didn't need to be reminded. It had been my fault when Bruna wandered off Halloween night and caused us to form a search party.
"How about Peaches the Second?" Sam asked. "Can she go to Piney Woods?"
"Brady's family will watch your goldfish," Mom said. "Piney Woods is too far of a drive for Peaches."
"Peaches the Second," said Sam. "But who will feed her?"
"We've already asked Yolanda. She said Brady would love to take care of your fish."
Sam folded her arms in front of her chest. "Brady is too little."
"What's the big deal?" I asked. "It's just sprinkling fish flakes in the fishbowl."
Tori sighed. "I've always wanted to go to France." My big sister thought she should get to do anything she wanted since she was thirteen years old.
I told her, "Tori, you just think France has a huge all-you-can-eat buffet with french fries." She loved french fries and just about any other thing called food.
"That's not why!" Tori snapped. "I want to see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. I want to walk the streets of Montmartre where van Gogh lived."
Sam jumped to her feet. "I know who Vincent van Gogh is." My little sister was thebiggest six-year-old show-off on the planet.
"We all know van Gogh," I said. Mom was our art teacher at school, but even before that, she made sure we knew every great master. Anytime a museum had a special exhibit, Mom acted as if it was a new roller-coaster ride at Six Flags and took us. I actually liked going to the museum exhibits. But not as much as I wanted to ride a roller coaster.
"Just think of the fun you'll have with all your relatives," Mom said. "And your grandparents are looking forward to spending time with you."
"When are you leaving?" I asked.
"During the holidays," Mom said. "We'll be back in time to ring in the new year."
Sam's eyes bulged. "You won't be with us for Christmas?"
Mom looked at Chief, who cleared his throat and said, "I'm sorry, girls. There was no other way. You get out a few days before Christmas, and I couldn't get off sooner than that."
Mom held the platter for Chief while he removed the chicken from the grill. I loved Chief's barbecued chicken because of the secret ingredient (Louisiana hot sauce!).
"Tori," Chief said, "please set the picnic table."
"It's Piper's turn," Tori snapped.
"Piper?" Chief said.
I saluted him. "Aye, aye, Chief." I dashed into the house and opened the silverware drawer. I was going to miss Mom and Chief. Last year Chief was on a ship during Christmas, but we'd never spent Christmas without Mom.
When I came back out, I studied all the sadfaces around the table. The USS Reed Family ship was sinking fast. Somebody had to cheer up the crew. I decided to start with the squirt. "Don't worry, Sam. Santa can figure out where you are."
Little puddles filled Sam's eyes. "Who will read us The Night Before Christmas?"
Every Christmas Eve, Chief read Cajun Night Before Christmas, which is kind of like the regular Night Before Christmas, only it has alligators instead of reindeer and gumbo instead of sugarplums.
No one said anything. Sam stared my way. "Don't look at me!" I snapped. Except for dog books like Shiloh and Sable, I'd rather go to the mall all day with Tori than read. Even if I didn't have dyslexia, I'd find something else to do.
"I'll read it," Tori said. That figured. She would probably require a costume and make us pay admission to listen to her read.
"Chicken's ready," Chief said. We settled around the picnic table. Smoke from the grill was dying down, and the smell of our chicken mixed with other barbecue smells from our neighbors' backyards in the enlisted housing. That's what was nice about living in Florida. You could barbecue all year long.
Chief passed the bowl of potato salad. "Girls, this was a hard decision for us to make. We hate missing Christmas, but your mom and I haven't had any time by ourselves since before Tori was born. Sometimes parents need a little alone time."
"Why?" I asked. "Aren't we any fun?"
Mom looked at Chief. "Karl, this is starting to feel like a terrible idea. Maybe we could wait until another year."
"When?" Chief asked. "When all the girls are grown?"
"Hey," I said, "great idea!"
Chief frowned at me.
"Bad idea," I mumbled.
Chief shook his head. "Edie, we'll lose the deposit money."
All of a sudden, I felt torn down the middle. I wanted them to stay. I wanted them to go.
Then I heard myself say, "Mom, you and Chief go to Paris. Sometimes kids need a little alone time without parents."