Christmas With the Smith Family
by Elizabeth Kent
Author's Notes: This started out to be an answer to Layla's question about what each team member would say was the best gift he ever received, but it kind of didn't end up being that. It's still about Christmas, though, so enjoy!
"That's looking good so far," Amy said, standing back from the Christmas creche. The elaborate village scene spread itself across several shelves of her built-in bookcase, cleared of books and other memorabilia of her travels to make room for the dozens of santons she had collected over the years. An entire village was assembled there in all its rustic splendor, everyone going about their own business as Mary and Joseph, the wise men, and a couple of shepherds congregated in the thatched-roof stable in the center. "Well..." Amy reached out and repositioned the shepherd whose outstretched hand appeared to be feeling up one of the three wise men. Murdock had arranged those figures and now gave her his best "I'm wounded" expression before he winked and turned away to pat the rump of his own personal wise man.
"Cut it out, Murdock," Face said, but not with any real conviction. He was busy placing the last of the ornaments on the seven-foot noble fir that dominated the window wall of Amy's small apartment.
"Nice balls," Murdock said, his gaze focused on the tree but his hand straying again to Face's backside.
"It was nice of you guys to drop everything to come over here and help," Amy said. "Especially on Christmas Eve." She had arrived home from a particularly grueling assignment overseas just as darkness was falling across the city. Walking into her small, dim apartment on what was usually her favorite night of the year had been profoundly depressing, and she had pretty much written off the entire holiday. She'd had time only to flip on a light, kick off her shoes, and shove two weeks' worth of mail into a desk drawer to deal with later when the doorbell rang, and in walked Hannibal and the others with a tree, several sacks of groceries, and, after several trips to the van and back, all the boxes of holiday decorations they had somehow managed to spirit out of her rented storage unit.
"Nobody should be alone during the holidays," said BA, handing her a glass of egg nog, virtuously and disappointingly alcohol-free. "Especially on Christmas Eve." He turned to the others and said, "Supper gonna be ready in fifteen minutes. You about done?"
"The tree's done," said Face, looking over his shoulder at Amy. "Is anything missing?"
Amy shook her head. "It's beautiful, Face. Thanks."
"There's one more figure here," Hannibal said from his perch on the ottoman in front of the bookshelf. He unwrapped the beautifully-carved Christ child, his swaddling clothes crafted from a scrap of yellow fabric on which Hannibal could discern a sprinkling of blue flowers.
Amy took the figure gently and smoothed her index finger across the blanket. "Setting up the creche was always such a big deal in our house," she said. "But the Christ child never was added to the scene until Christmas Eve, and I always wanted to see him sooner. When I was five my parents took me to Woolworth's and bought me my own little set to keep in my room with Mary, Joseph, an angel, and baby Jesus." She turned and placed the carved figure gently in its place of honor between his adoring parents. "I set it up in my bedroom and was so proud of it. I rearranged it every day and set up all my dolls and stuffed animals to be the rest of the villagers. On Christmas Eve I came home and the baby was gone. I searched high and low for it. Couldn't find it anywhere. I was heartbroken."
"What happened to it?" Face asked.
"I don't know," Amy said. "But I think it had something to do with my older brother. He was always telling me that putting the Christ child in the manger was what made Christmas come, and if you didn't have him there on Christmas Eve, Santa would just fly right past your house. He said Santa was going to skip me that year."
"That's cold," Face said.
"Brothers can be cruel," Hannibal said. The others shrugged. Hannibal was the only one of them who even had a brother, so he'd know.
"I was inconsolable," Amy said. "And nothing my parents said made me feel any better. They even gave me the Jesus from the family creche to put in my manger scene, but I knew it was a fraud and that Santa would know I'd lost my Jesus and never forgive me. I think I cried myself to sleep that Christmas Eve."
"I hope your parents took back all your brother's Christmas presents," Murdock said.
Amy smiled. "I can't even remember what I got that year," she said, "let alone what he got. But when I woke up in the morning, this beautiful baby Jesus was in my manger between my dime store Mary and Joseph. My father had stayed up all night carving him, and my mother had snipped up my old blanket to cover him."
"Your father was quite a craftsman," Hannibal remarked, examining the baby's tiny fingers and toes.
Amy nodded and gestured toward the village. "I didn't realize it because I was so young, but he had made a fair number of these santons himself, and his father and grandfather had made some of the others.."
"A real nice gift," BA said.
Amy nodded and picked up the figure again, cradling it in her hands. "My dad died before the next Christmas, and this little guy became even more precious to me because he'd been made with my father's own hands. It's the best Christmas present I ever got."
"That's a nice memory," Face said.
"It is nice," Amy said. "I feel closer to him every Christmas when I unwrap the baby and put him in the manger. You know what I mean? The village is like a little family history I can pull out and look at every year."
Hannibal nodded. "When I was a kid, my father gave me a book documenting the Smith family's military service dating all the way back to the American Revolution. It had dates, names, battles, medals and awards, everything you could ever want to know."
"Wow, you had a family history already published?" Amy asked, impressed.
"Well, self-published, I think," said Hannibal "Of course, we'll want to publish a new edition that covers my acting career once I decide to retire."
"Of course," said Amy with a smile.
"It got me interested in military history, and I started reading every book I could get my hands on about what my dad called `The Smith Family Wars.' He shook his head. "My father was gone a lot when I was a kid, but he and I exchanged letters about family history and military history as often as we could. I guess you could call it the gift that keeps on giving. Whenever he was home, he'd go get my copy and make notes in the margins or add a few paragraphs to the blank pages in the back with information and advice."
"Were your military ancestors all as unconventional as you are?" Amy asked.
Hannibal smiled. "It's a point of pride in the Smith family," he said. "There were more demotions than promotions sometimes, but the Smiths always get the job done."
Murdock, BA, and Face exchanged glances. All three of them owned a copy of that book and were adding their own notes and stories as time went by. Hannibal had told them they were honorary Smiths now and had by God better have something worth writing in the Smith family book by the time the next edition was ready for print. And they knew he meant it.
Face wandered off to find something with a little more kick to add to BA's virginal egg nog while Murdock put the empty ornament boxes more or less neatly back in their plastic tub and carried it to Amy's spare room. Dinner was eaten in the living room, with everyone making do with the coffee table or their laps.
"I wish I had enough space to make you guys more comfortable," Amy said as she settled next to Face on the couch.
"Believe me," Face said, "we've eaten holiday meals in worse places."
"And worse meals, too," Murdock said around a mouthful of cornbread.
"Ain't that the truth!" BA said.
Amy knew they'd spent a Christmas in a POW camp, all of them malnourished, feverish, and suffering from varying degrees of abuse. They rarely talked about it, but she doubted it was ever far from their thoughts every December. Even now she saw Hannibal's glance sweep over the others as if doing a head count. Fewer of them had come out of that camp than had gone in, and Amy wondered what lessons Hannibal had recorded in the Smith family book about that experience. It must still be a bitter memory for all of them, but most especially for Hannibal. It was time to change the subject.
"BA, how's your mom doing?" she asked.
"Good," BA said. "She's spending Christmas with my sister in Philadelphia this year."
"I didn't know you had a sister!" Amy said.
"Yeah. She a lot older than me and from my mama's first husband."
"So she's your half sister."
BA shrugged. "We don't do no half-nothin' in our family. You in or you out. She always been just my sister."
The reporter in Amy sensed a story there, a story she couldn't help pursuing. "What's the age difference between you?" she asked.
"She was ten when her daddy died. My mama got married again a couple years later, and I was born the next year."
"So about thirteen years?"
"Yeah. She got married young and moved away when I was about five."
"How did your mom feel about that?" Amy asked. "Eighteen is young to marry."
"Got her out of the South," BA said,"and away from a town where she had to step off the sidewalk for white people and hide everythin' she thought and felt from the men that lynched her daddy."
The others didn't act surprised, so they evidently already knew this story, but Amy was appalled. Of course she knew about the Jim Crow laws and the lynchings in the South, but it had never seemed so personal to her. "I'm sorry, BA," she said. "This is a terrible day to bring up bad memories."
BA shrugged. "Just a part of life," he said. "We was sharecroppers and we owed everything we had to the white man who owned the land. I knew from the time I was old enough to talk that you had to mind what you said and who you looked at. I hated it, even as a little boy, but I did it `cause I knew what they'd done to my mama's first husband for standin' up for himself."
"I thought you grew up in Chicago," Amy said.
"Mostly I did," BA said. "The Christmas after my sister got married, my daddy woke me up in the middle of the night and told me we was going to go north to see Santa instead of waitin' for him to come to us. When I was dressed, my mama picked up her knitting bag, and my daddy carried me out of the house, and we walked ten miles to the highway where one of my daddy's friends met us and drove us to a train station even further north. If the land owner had known we was plannin' to leave, he'd have stopped us, but my mama and daddy was experts at hiding what they knew from white men. By the time everyone else woke up, we was long gone. We made our way to Chicago with nothin' but the clothes on our backs, twenty dollars, and the family Bible in my mama's knitting bag. But the first thing I saw when we got off the train was Santa. And my sister's husband, who'd paid for our train tickets. He took us to their apartment. She had a tree and presents and we didn't have to step off the sidewalk for nobody ever again. It was the best Christmas I ever had."
Amy had to blink back tears. She could picture BA as a little boy stepping off of a train and into a whole new life, determined to make eye contact with whomever he wanted to and say whatever he felt needed saying. To be able to do so had to have been one of the best gifts he had ever received, and he had certainly made the most of it.
Hannibal volunteered Face and Murdock to help with the dishes while he retired to Amy's breezy little balcony to smoke a cigar and BA helped Amy wrap a few last-minute gifts she'd brought back for her neighbor's small children. Face looked around Amy's small kitchen, deftly avoiding the soapsuds Murdock kept trying to flick at him, and said, "We should get her a dishwasher."
"Okay," said Murdock affably. "Where are you going to steal it?"
"I'm going to acquire it at Appliance Hut," Face said.
"With a truck."
"And some paperwork."
"So you're just gonna walk in there, flash a little paperwork around, and walk out with a brand new dishwasher?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
"Good idea. Can I come?"
"Only if you promise not to start improvising. I hate it when you do that." Face held a glass up to the light, examined it carefully, then put it back in the dish water. "You missed a spot."
"You know," said Murdock, grasping Face's wrist with a soapsud-slick hand, "you're a very controlling person."
"One of has to have some self-control or we'd end up improvising an entire five-act play every time I try to run a scam." Face extracted his hand and started drying dishes again.
"Now, Face, you know that drama therapy is an important part of my treatment," said Murdock with a pout. "I have to have time and space to act out my insecurities and deal with the traumas of my involuntary incarceration."
"It's my involuntary incarceration I'm worried about," said Face, "when your playacting gets out of hand and someone asks one too many questions."
"Aw, you know I'd never let it get out of hand!" Murdock said, trying his "I'm wounded" look again and getting about the same result.
"I'll think about it," said Face. "But you play it straight."
"Play it straight?" Murdock shifted closer to Face and slung an arm around his shoulders. "Where's the fun in that, eh?"
Face looked at the arm, at the soapsuds dripping down the front of his shirt, and back to Murdock's eyes. "The fun," he said, "comes later. When we're, ah, sorting out the various, ah, hoses and, you know..." he shifted under Murdock's arm and leaned toward him, eyes closing as their lips drew closer, "screwing the parts together."
"Mmm, yeah, screwing parts."
Amy padded into the kitchen in stocking feet and indulged in a few moments of pleasurable voyeurism before she cleared her throat. Face opened one eye and reluctantly broke the kiss. "Sorry to interrupt," Amy said, putting the forgotten coffee mug in the dishwater. "The dishes aren't nearly as much fun when I have to do them."
"Too bad you don't have a dishwasher," Murdock said. "Oof!" He rubbed the spot where Face's elbow had caught him in the ribs.
"Yeah," said Amy. "Maybe when I get a raise. Still, I don't think doing dishes would be quite as...stimulating...even with a dishwasher."
"Depends on the dishwasher," said Face with a smirk.
Amy rolled her eyes. "Hannibal says to remind you it's about time to head over with the Santa gifts for the orphanage."
Face nodded and turned back to the dish strainer. "We won't be long," he said.
"What was Christmas like for you when you lived there?" Amy asked.
"You mean, was the orphanage full of pinched-faced, shivering orphans asking for a second bowl of porridge and all that?"
"I suppose that's what a lot of people think of when they think of orphanages," Amy said.
Face lifted a stack of dinner plates and placed them in the cupboard. "For me, it was fine because I didn't know anything else. I don't really remember anything about my life before I got there. At least nothing about Christmas. For the kids who'd had families and remembered them, it was harder. Most years there was a new kid who sat by themselves and cried." He flipped on the hot water and rinsed a couple of glasses then put them in the dish strainer to dry and turned his attention to the silverware. "Especially the first year, those kids always had the hardest time. But it's not like we did without. The people of the parish were always fairly generous, and even if what we got wasn't always brand new, the staff did what they could to freshen up a used toy before they gave it to us. When I got to be one of the oldest kids there and too old to believe in Santa Claus, I started helping do the repairs and keep track of which kids would get which presents so there was always an equal number of gifts for everyone."
"It sounds kind of nice, actually, all things considered," Amy said.
Face shrugged. "It wasn't like being adopted, of course. That was kind of everyone's Nirvana, and we all knew, or thought we knew, that kids with families made out better than we did and had rooms of their own and grandparents who spoiled them. But the orphanage staff tried. There was a tree with homemade ornaments, and we each had a stocking and got a few presents. Father M and the nuns tried to make it as much like a family holiday as it could be. All in all, it wasn't bad."
"Now, though," Murdock chimed in, "the kids get new toys."
"How do you do that?" Amy asked.
"Oh, you know," said Face, "we...acquire things here and there all year."
"And the money he sends the orphanage every month helps, too," said Murdock.
"Aw, Face, you send them money?" said Amy. "That's lovely."
"It's an...ah...investment," said Face, reddening. "I can take it off my taxes."
"You don't pay taxes!" said Amy.
"I still know right down to the penney how much I would have paid in taxes and how much I would have been able to deduct. And the government owes me a lot of money! You know, sound investment strategies really help build up that retirement nest egg," Face said. "You about done there, Murdock?"
"Riiight," said Amy with a smile. "It's all about the bottom line with you, eh, Face?"
"A fool and his money are soon parted," said Face ambiguously.
"What was Christmas like for you, Murdock?" said Amy. "You lived with your grandparents, right? Did you do anything special?"
"Well," said Murdock, letting the water out of the sink and considering his answer, "there was the year I brought the animals in from the barn so I could hear them talk on Christmas Eve."
The others stood and stared at him for a moment until Face finally said, "How did that go for you?"
"It went just fine," said Murdock. "The hens settled in at the top of Christmas tree and picked a few bugs off the branches. They said it would be nice if my grandma gave them more corn and could we please keep the dog away from the coop when they were laying `cause it was always using words they didn't want the eggs to hear."
"Uh-huh," said Face. "Chickens in the tree."
"The goat ate the bottom of the tree, including the paper chains I'd made in school. He said they were the best he'd ever had and that he didn't know how much longer he could resist the temptation to knock Grandpa over the fence every time he bent over to tie his boot laces."
"You let a goat in the house?" Amy said. "A real goat?"
"Well, what other kind of goat do you think we'd have on a farm, chica?" said Murdock. "Of course it was a real goat. His name was Rudy." He finished rinsing the soapsuds out of the sink and dried his hands. "I miss old Rudy. We used to have some good conversations."
"I can't believe your grandparents let you get away with that," Amy said.
"Get away with it?" Murdock said. "Who do you think brought the cow in?"
"Sure. You don't think we'd leave her in the barn all by herself do you? She was doing fine till she dropped a cow pie in the corner. Grandma didn't like that much. Put her in a really bad mooooood."
Amy groaned and said to Face, "Is he serious?"
"Serious as a heart attack," said Face. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
"That's what the squirrel said," said Murdock.
"The squirrel?" Face said.
"It came in with the goat," said Murdock with a shrug.
"So what did you talk about?" Amy said. "The weather? Animal lore? Did you ask them for the meaning of life?"
Murdock shook his head. "My grandma always told me you're supposed to let the guest lead the conversation and not ask impertinent questions," he said. "So mostly we talked about their food. I made sure to get them what they wanted after that."
He folded the dishtowel neatly and hung it over the sink. "Better get cracking, Faceman," he said. "Santa has a lot of work to do this evening." He walked out of the kitchen, leaving Face to put away the last of the dishes.
"Do you think that's real?" Amy said.
"I'm sure the part where he brought the farm animals into the house is real," Face said. "For the rest, I think he thinks it's real. And if he thinks it's real, then it's real for him, and if it's real for him, then, well, it's real for me."
"Because you love him."
"Yeah," Face said softly, "and because he needs someone to believe in him." He leaned back against the counter and folded his arms across his chest. "Murdock lost a lot of himself in `Nam," he said. "When we found him in a VA hospital after we escaped from Fort Bragg, he was all...all fragmented. It was like there were bits of the old Murdock inside his head, but he was a kaleidoscope. Every time you saw him, the parts fell into different patterns. You never knew what you were gonna get." He gestured toward the doorway with his head. "He's finally, all these years later, starting to put himself back together again the way he was. He's happy, and we've built something good together. I want it to last. If it means indulging the occasional fantasy about talking goats or sock puppets or an invisible dog, I'll do it."
Amy laid her hand on Face's arm. "I think you've been selling yourself short all these years," she said. "Who knew you were such a wellspring of compassion and understanding?"
"Don't ruin my reputation," Face said.
Hannibal, BA, and Murdock trooped back into the small kitchen, with BA clad in a red Santa suit. With gold chains and earrings dripping off of him, he was the most bejeweled Santa Amy had ever seen, but the outfit looked good on him, and she knew he was going to enjoy spreading Christmas cheer at the orphanage tonight.
"You done here, kid?" asked Hannibal.
BA looked around. "Amy, you need a dish...oof! Murdock, watch what you doin', fool!"
"Better be on our way," Face said, hustling the others out. "Father Magill will be wanting to put the kids to bed soon. Bye, Amy!"
Amy followed them to the door. "Thanks for everything, guys," she said. "You really salvaged the holiday for me."
"Merry Christmas, kid," Hannibal said, handing her a cigar box with a bow on it. "Let's go, guys."
Amy smiled to herself as she shut the door behind them. "Murdock, you ain't no goat!" she heard BA bellow from down the hall. "Stop tryin' to eat my beard!"
Amy opened the box and found a book: Wars and Warriors of the Smith Family, 1774 to Present. Her own copy of the Smith Family Wars!! She leafed through it quickly and discovered bits of wisdom in Hannibal's own bold script in the margins. She hugged the book to herself, overcome. She wondered if Hannibal knew how grateful she was, how warm and wonderful it was, to be accepted as part of their little family. To be called "kid," sometimes like he called Face. To be trusted, though it had taken awhile, with secrets both personal and professional that the team never talked about with outsiders. With the exception of the Christ child carving in her creche, it was the best gift she'd ever been given.
She wandered over to the creche and examined her layout with a practiced eye. The shepherd was once again becoming intimately acquainted with a wise man, but this time she let it be. What the hell, she thought, as she noted with amusement that there was a goat nibbling on the wise man's robe, they'd probably both benefit from the relationship. What was wiser, after all, than a man who knew that the gift of true love might come in a truly unconventional package?
She sighed contentedly. She'd had a good dinner, her little home was decorated, and best of all, she hadn't had to do dishes. Tomorrow she'd write down the stories she'd heard tonight and save them for publication in some future edition of this book to be read, cherished, and passed down from generation to generation to learn from and celebrate the deeds of the very extended Smith family. "Merry Christmas, guys," she said softly as she turned off the little light that illuminated her creche and headed for a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a soft bed, leaving her little santons to keep watch over the exquisite Christ child and his earthly parents. Maybe sometimes it really did take a village.
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