The little blue Honda sputtered and whined reminding Melissa of a long ago wind-up car she had played with as a child beneath a Christmas tree at some vague relative's home.
As Josh guided the small auto onto the exit ramp, Melissa observed the low hanging pewter clouds and asked, "Will it snow for Christmas?"
Josh chuckled. "Mostly it's just gray."
"It always snows back home in Iowa at Christmas," she said, the words catching in her throat.
"Your first Christmas away," Josh said, reaching across to squeeze her shoulder. "I know how you feel. The first year I was in Chicago and couldn't get home for Christmas, I thought it was the end of the world. I promised myself I'd never be away at Christmas again if I had to crawl home to Ohio."
"I do miss Aunt Meg and Uncle Seth," she said, sniffling. "And her pumpkin pie and turkey and ..." She swallowed back her tears.
"We'll have all that." He swallowed hard, then exhaled a long sigh. "I think this is the year for turkey."
"You mean you don't always have turkey?" Melissa asked in a surprised tone.
He was silent for a few long thoughtful seconds. "Aunt Bertha is in charge, so it'll be turkey." He cleared his throat. "They can't wait to meet you." He quickly changed the subject. "You know how disappointed they were because they couldn't make it to the wedding."
"It was a lovely wedding," she said dreamily. "Even though it was small."
"I know Mother and Dad filled everyone in on all the details."
Melissa sat quietly remembering the small ceremony. She had always imagined a big wedding with a beautiful white gown and veil. She dreamed of truckloads of flowers and beautifully dressed bridesmaids and handsome groomsmen, but it had been impossible. When Josh found the apartment at a price they could afford, he said very practically, "Let's get married now or we'll lose the apartment." She knew it wasn't that he was unromantic, but finding an affordable apartment, she convinced herself, was more important than an elaborate wedding.
The guests at the wedding had been Josh's parents and her dear Aunt Meg and Uncle Seth. The best man was a good friend Josh worked with and her maid of honor was Anna, her only close friend in Chicago.
"I've never been to Ohio before," she said, running her fingertips up and down his arm. "And you're the only Ohioan I've ever known." She paused. "Intimately." She blushed.
"Buckeyes, honey, we're buckeyes."
"What is a buckeye?"
Josh laughed. "A worthless nut.
"The story is a long time ago an Indian boy was hunting in the woods and found these nuts. They looked like the eye of a buck deer, hence the name buckeye."
"What are they good for?"
"Hon, I told you, nothing. The Indians, excuse me, Native Americans, use to make necklaces and such and today people make crafty stuff, but really they are kind of useless."
"I don't think you're useless," she said softly, then looking to the sky asked, "Why is it so gray?"
"It's always gray here in winter," he said. "And sometimes in the fall and spring and," he paused. "Summer." He laughed. "Hon, I know this is hard for you, but believe me once you meet everybody..." He cleared his throat. "It's behind those trees." He nodded to a group of tall naked trees huddled together as though they were trying to hide the neglected structure behind them.
"Do I look OK?" She asked.
"Honey, you're beautiful." He stopped the car and kissed her softly.
She unfastened her seatbelt and scooted closer to him. Kissing his cheek, she whispered, "I'll be fine."
He unhooked his seatbelt and took her in his arms. "This will be our first Christmas together as husband and wife. You sure you're OK? I don't want you getting one of those sick headaches you get when you're overly tired and anxious." He kissed her. "Remember, Aunt Bertha is a just a bit eccentric," he said, opening the car door.
Reaching his long legs to the pavement, he said, "It sure feels good to stretch." He stood and arched his back, then ran around the car to open the door for his wife. She slid out gracefully.
Huddled together against the chill, they walked up the crumbling old brick walk.
"It's big," she said, looking up to the dull white frame house.
"It still needs painting," Josh said. "Has for years," he said beneath his breath.
Before he rang the doorbell, Josh straightened his lapels and gave Melissa a gentle hug. She smoothed out her coat in an effort to remove rumples created on the long ride from Chicago
"Now, Hon, I know you're a bit shy, one of the reasons I love you so, but don't let them overwhelm you. They're no different than anyone else." He rolled his eyes and swallowed hard. "Well, maybe a little.
"They have to be wonderful people, they're your family." She stepped closer to him.
He winked at her, rang the doorbell, opened the door and stepped inside, his arm holding Melissa close to his side.
The foyer was small and dim. A tall plant stand displaying a dead fern was the first object Melissa saw, then the floor mat with the letters, "WE CO E."
"We're home!" Josh shouted.
There was the sound of voices from various areas of the house, followed by nearby footsteps. A plump elderly man with a shaggy white beard entered the hall. The waist of his chartreuse polyester knit trousers was pulled up just below his armpits and held in place with red suspenders.
Josh extended his arm to shake hands. "Still the fashion plate of the family," he said reaching out to snap the old man's waistband
"He looks like Santa," Melissa said behind her fingertips.
"You must be the bride," the man said, holding out his arms, then planting a bourbon-smelling kiss very near her mouth. "I'm Grandpap," he said, standing back and eyeing her up and down. "You did OK for yourself, Josh," he said, hooking his thumbs inside his red suspenders. "Come sit with me, I want to tell you about the great flood of 1913." He motioned her into the hallway. "I was there."
"Grandpap, not now," Josh said, helping Melissa remove her coat.
Grandpap grunted, then went to the window and looked out to the street. "Is that your foreign car? Why ain't you drivin' American?"
"Grandpap." Josh held out the coats to him.
Grandpap stretched out his arms and Josh put the wraps across them. Stumbling to the nearby closet, Grandap opened the door, dropped the coats inside, then used his hip to close the door. "It's kind'a full in there." He sniffled.
Josh took Melissa's hand in his and led her into the hall. "Mother!" He shouted into the sitting room.
An attractive white-haired lady in a red velvet gown was eyeing the Christmas tree. She looked up. "Oh, Joshy, dear, you're home!" She shouted walking toward him, her arms outstretched. "And your bride." She kissed his cheek, then gave Melissa a motherly hug.
"Is everything all right, Mother? You look sad," Josh said.
"Everything is fine," she said, her voice cracking.
Melissa looked at the bedraggled artificial tree. Ornaments had fallen to the floor and a string with round brown nut-like objects sagged carelessly about the drooping tree.
"Where's Aunt Bertha?" Josh asked.
"In the kitchen," she answered, nodding to the back of the house.
"With coffee, I hope," Josh answered. He turned to Melissa. "You haven't had coffee until you've had Aunt Bertha's."
"That tree?" Melissa asked softly as he led her down the hall.
"Oh, don't worry about it. It's been there for years. Mother is just trying to repair it."
"When Uncle Lester died it was Christmas time and he loved Christmas, so Aunt Bertha refused to take down the tree."
"How long has that been?" She asked, sympathetically.
"Oh, I must have been around ten or so. Twenty years?"
"Twenty years? That tree has been there for twenty years?"
"The original tree shed its needles after a bit, so the family got her an artificial one. It works better."
"It's up all the time?" Melissa asked, widening her eyes.
"All year 'round, but don't worry about it."
"Oh, Uncle Josh! You're home!" A little blond girl jumped up and threw her arms around his neck, kissing his cheek. Hanging on his neck like a sheet in the wind, she looked at Melissa. "I'm Bunny. I was going to marry him. Now, I have to wait until you die." She frowned, wrinkled up her nose, dropped from Josh's neck and disappeared into another room.
Josh sighed. "See what a prize you got in me?" He grinned, then led her into a high-ceilinged kitchen. He went directly to the coffee urn on the counter and drew two mugs of coffee, handing one to Melissa. "This coffee is so strong it could walk." He took a sip. "I'm home!" He shouted happily.
Melissa sipped the coffee, then coughed. "It's very bitter," she said softly.
She turned and looked at the paint blistering on the walls, the faded sagging curtains and the dirty dishes littering the counter tops, range and table.
"Aunt Bertha," Josh said softly to a short round lady bent over looking into the refrigerator.
She turned around, pushed a flowered dust cap away from her forehead and held out her arms. "Joshy," she said
Josh went to her and gave her a hug.
"I knew you'd come home," she said. "And this must be your bride." She smiled. Lifting a Jell-O mold from the shelf, she closed the door with her hip. "Your mother needs you." She cleared a spot on the table with her chubby elbow and put down the mold. "Jell-O?"
"What's wrong with mother? Is she ill?" Josh asked, concerned.
"No, no, no. It's your father." There was a distant glow in her eyes.
"No. Why do you always assume someone is ill?" She turned to Melissa. "When he was a boy he wanted to be a doctor. When we told him he had to have perfect grades, he decided to be a journalist. You are still with the newspaper, dear?" She turned to Josh.
"No. I'm with an ad agency."
"But I thought you wanted to write," she said sadly.
"I write for the ad agency. Aunt Bertha, what is wrong with Dad?"
Melissa went to Josh's side
"Your father found someone else," Aunt Bertha said.