The winter holidays are funny things. Some people get all giddy at the thought of the festivities. You know the ones. Those folks who put their Christmas lights up in October and keep every strand in place until tearfully taking them down in April. Wreaths are a permanent fixture, and they feel compelled to send out those incredibly detailed family newsletters where everyone is happy, successful, and using all their spare time to feed the homeless.
Others, however, dread those year-end family/friend celebrations. Some despair at the thought of ugly-sweater parties, accidental pauses under the mistletoe, secret Santas, and those groaning tables of tempting but questionable potluck fare.
Don’t get me wrong. When I was a kid, I thought Christmas was grand, even though my parents made us work for every one of the cool things we got. In our house, one had to prove oneself worthy of those special gifts. I’d skied for several years before Santa deposited those bright-blue skis with my name engraved on the tips under the tree. And he added a light blue jacket that matched a new ski outfit. Very cool. Then, Santa decided that after two years of renting a clarinet, I could have my very own. Same with the guitar that appeared magically under the tree when I was 15. A sweet Yamaha 12-string that arrived via reindeer sled, three years after I’d begun plunking away on an old hand-me-down. Back then, we had to prove to “Santa” that our hobbies were not just passing fancies. And anticipation—a quaint idea in our world where everyone wants things right now—was a constant companion.
When my siblings and I were older, however, the thought of returning home for the holidays necessitated pre-party meet-ups at a local bar where we would fortify ourselves against the coming family event. Why, you ask? Mostly, we dreaded those gatherings because we had a very small group of partiers. Our whole family consisted of Mom, Dad, three siblings, two aunts, and an uncle. Despite the usual copious amounts of alcohol, everyone was pretty reserved, unless an argument broke out, which happened periodically since we were all loud and opinionated and no one ever agreed on anything. With such a small bunch of revelers, it was damn hard to hide when things got heated. And since no one in the group was apt to don an elf hat and be silly or break into Christmas carols, mostly we were so bored we couldn’t wait for the celebration to end. (I could also add here that my Mom was not a very good cook, but since she’s still chugging along at almost 97, maybe I should just let that slide.)
Note that my small family was not of the huggy-kissy variety. We are of stoic Irish extraction, so Christmas Eve visits to my Italian friend’s home were a revelation. Two hundred people would materialize turning her house into a Sicilian-style, lipsmacking, backslapping madhouse. I’d watch her mother prepare for the locust-like arrival of the relatives. Just making cookies was astonishing. Since no bowl was big enough for the massive batches of Christmas cookies, five pounds of flour and a big sack of sugar would be dumped on the kitchen counter. A hole would be hallowed in the middle of the pile and a dozen cracked eggs would be deposited inside. Then she’d add everything else and mix the batter by hand. I was always sure those eggs would come oozing out and spill onto the floor, but they never did. Occasionally, Nonnie—my friend’s tiny, black-clad, widowed grandmother— would wander through, look at me and say something in Italian. I’m pretty sure she was trying to figure out how she ended up with a red-headed, freckled, blue-eyed granddaughter whose name she didn’t know. But then she’d grin, pat me on the cheek, and shuffle away. When comparing my family’s staid Christmas events to the frenetic Italian version, I could sense something was missing. Ours just wasn’t fun.
I know what you’re thinking. Christmas, isn’t about parties and revelry and gazing at my friend’s handsome cousin Vito leaning rakishly against a doorjamb beneath the mistletoe. No, it’s a religious holiday. As a former, hardcore Catholic, I am well aware of that aspect of the event, and I admit that I sometimes miss all that gilded, incense-infused, clerical pomp. But as anyone who has ever watched TV around the holidays knows, Christmas is really about buying stuff and parties. (Some of you are now praying for my soul, but one must tell the truth.)
Today, I wince at the frantic holiday activity that seems to consume people. My sweetie pie and I long ago stopped exchanging gifts, because there’s nothing we want or need. And since the kids are all in their twenties, there seems no reason to haul out the decorations. Note that I learned a neat trick last year. If the kids want a tree, I’ll buy it, but they have to put it up and take it down. So far I’ve had no takers.
I will admit that Peace on Earth is a swell Christmas idea. But when I hear the phrase I always picture Mulder in the TV series X-Files when the disturbed FBI investigator is given a wish. “I want Peace on Earth!” he says with conviction. Suddenly, there’s silence and the genie explains that all the people on Earth are now gone, as per Mulder’s request.
Which reminds me of that other winter holiday: New Years. As a former waitress and bartender, I might have relished the results of Mulder’s wish during that particular celebration, considering the usual mass of crazy revelers standing six deep at the bar. New Year’s Eve was so out of control that I have hidden myself at home on that night for decades. And I wear a hard hat, just in case some celebratory wacko feels like shooting a weapon into the sky to ring in the new year.
All that said, please don’t think me Scrooge-like. If you invite me to a holiday party, I promise I will kiss and hug and backslap in honor of those long-ago Sicilians. I will embibe and try every dish on your buffet. And, even though it didn’t work out so well for Mulder, I will make the most important wish of all. “I want Peace on Earth!” I’ll cry. And maybe, if you all don’t disappear, you’ll wish for it too.
Ancient ruins, haunted memories, and a ruthless criminal combine with a touch of mystic presence in this taut mystery about a crime we all must address.
Contemporary Women’s Fiction/Suspense
September 13, 2021
Maggie, a National Park Ranger of Native American descent, is back at The Castle—a six-hundred-year-old pueblo carved into a limestone cliff in Arizona’s Verde Valley. Maggie, who suffers from depression, has been through several traumas: the gang rape she suffered while in the Coast Guard, the sudden death of her ten-year-old son, and a suicide attempt.
One evening, she chases a young Native American boy through the park and gasps as he climbs the face of The Castle cliff and disappears into the pueblo. When searchers find no child, Maggie’s friends believe she’s suffering from depression-induced hallucinations.
Maggie has several men in her life. The baker, newcomer Jim Casey, who always greets her with a warm smile and pink boxes filled with sweet delicacies. Brett Collins, a scuba diver who is doing scientific studies in Montezuma Well, a dangerous cylindrical depression that houses strange creatures found nowhere else on Earth. Dave, an amiable waiter with whom she’s had a one-night stand, and her new boss Glen.
One of these men is a serial rapist and Maggie is his next target. In a thrilling and terrifying denouement, Maggie faces her rapist and conquers her worst fears once and for all.
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