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    A Modern Xmas Carol

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All contents © 2011
by Lorin Killoy
    With sincere gratitude to Charles Dickens, The Army of Dorkness, my dear brother Fran, and especially the World's Greatest Husband.  -Lori

Stave I: Spirit of the Partner: Brian
Stave II: Spirit of the Past: Fritz [or Poppy]
Stave III: Spirit of the Present: Fran
Stave IV: Spirit of the Future: Anna
Stave V: The Beginning of It

Stave I: Spirit of the Partner: Brian
    Brian was not dead; There is no doubt whatever about that. Brian was very much alive, and he was the World's Greatest Husband to Lori. 
    When the two met in college, Lori told Brian that she had epilepsy and what to do if she had a seizure. Three years later when Lori did have a seizure, Brian not only remembered what first aid to administer, but he also remembered to note what happened to Lori during the seizure so she could tell her doctor for proper diagnosis and prognosis.  Although the medicine prescribed controlled the seizures, the pills made Lori confused, and Brian patiently helped her adjust to her new medication. He also drove her wherever she needed to go, including to the department of motor vehicles to surrender her drivers license, as the law required her to do after a seizure.
    Lori resumed her undergraduate studies seven years after quitting college because she was working on campus anyway and wanted to finish her BA. Lori went to school part-time while working full-time because their finances required it, and even paying part-time tuition was difficult for their limited budget. Not only did Brian put up with the added financial burden, he set up a computer for Lori in a corner of their basement so she could do her homework in peace. Sometimes he was lonely when she'd sequester herself for hours at a time, but when she finally graduated after three years of very hard work, Lori bought Brian a special certificate of gratitude to thank him the most. 
    When Lori's parents died twelve days apart after long illnesses, Brian was there with hugs and sympathy. He stood next to her and her older siblings during the four-hour visitation and wake, then attended the double funeral the next day. He held her as she cried, and listened as she told the same stories over and over again about her parents, especially her beloved Poppy for Lori was a Daddy's Girl.
    Brian loved holidays, especially Christmas, because it gave him a chance to shower Lori with gifts. They both were technophiles, which made shopping easy. Brian gave Lori an iPod shuffle for Valentines Day one year, and a PlayStation 2 with Dance Dance Revolution for a combined anniversary/birthday present another year. Christmas one year comprised a digital camera complete with memory card, rechargeable batteries, and carrying case. When the iPod shuffle wore out because Lori listened to it every day at work, Brian replaced it with a Zune that not only played all of Lori's music files, but several video files as well. Every holiday she begged Brian to consider their limited budget, but he always bought her something special - or several somethings special, no matter the cost.
    Lori loved Brian, too, but she didn't love most holidays. Valentines Day, Easter and Halloween were all right because of the candy, and Lori could be as generous as Brian; however, their budget wouldn't allow a generous Xmas, so Lori never looked forward to December because of money, their messy house, and having to get together with her siblings and all their children and grandchildren when all Brian and Lori had were furkids: three cats and a new puppy. December traditionally was the most challenging month of the year for her because of the overwhelming stress and overstimulation of Xmas. 
    Xmas is an onslaught for the senses: Xmas lights outside on trees and houses, Xmas music on the radio, and Xmas specials on TV, even the scents of the season with woodburning stoves and goodies baking. Xmas marketing had become increasingly more pervasive year after year. Not only were ads on television, radio, in the papers, and catalogs and other fliers in mailboxes, but ads also popped up in e-mail inboxes and on most websites. The year prior to this story, Lori took a page out of Keith Olbermann's script and made a special comment to the jewelry industry on her blog: "My husband is not a bad man if he doesn't buy me diamond jewelry for Xmas; He is a good person who knows what his wife wants for Xmas! I am not your typical female: I've been to the opera, and I've been to Lambeau Field. I far prefer Lambeau. I dress in fleece, and I own only four pairs of shoes (sneakers, dress shoes, winter boots and summer sandals). I already own more diamonds than I want and/or need. I don't want diamond jewelry for Xmas! I'd far prefer Packers tickets to diamonds." Brian read her blog and was relieved because he already purchased tickets for the Packers-Lions game - the final game of the season. This year, Lori read an online article describing five excellent gift ideas for women. Being a little short on one of her X-chromosomes, she wanted none of these items, and yes, jewelry was on the list.
    Then there was the spirituality of the season: Neither Brian nor Lori were Christian, but they lived across the street from a Catholic church. The "Keep Christ in Christmas" yard signs sprouted perennially, which is ironic considering that during various parts of history, the Christian Church wanted nothing to do with Xmas, thinking it too Pagan or not solemn enough. The Puritans of Great Britain felt that Xmas celebrations had gotten out of hand so much that during the reign of Oliver Cromwell, the British Parliament abolished all Xmas festivities. Mistletoe especially was forbidden by Christians because it was associated with Druids and other Pagan customs. The annual "War on Christmas" made anyone want to say "Bah, Humbug!" and brought vividly to life the first Xmas episode of South Park which introduced "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo." Again the marketing of the season was endemic as different faiths, and especially different sects of Christianity, vied for time and attention.
    Lori's inner Scrooge yelled at her as she looked at the list of Xmas gifts yet to be bought. This year was especially tight because Brian and Lori were employed in state government, and all state employees were mandated to take unpaid furlough days. Brian and Lori loved having the day after Thanksgiving off, but both their paychecks were hit hard just in time to purchase Xmas gifts. 
    The tree needed to be put up and decorated. Cinnamon rolls, cookies, and a gingerbread house needed to be baked. She had a haircut scheduled, dinner with her best friend, and Xmas shopping with the WGH. So much to do. In years past, they would finance Xmas on Master Card, but their debt became so bad that they had to go into credit counseling. Now Lori felt they didn't have enough money for all the gifts they wanted to give. It's no wonder that as soon as the holiday music played and the holiday ads aired, Lori would have a Pavlovian response of tears instead of salivating. She'd like December if she went to bed on November 30th and woke up on New Year's Eve. Xmas was her second least favorite holiday after Mother's Day. 
    On December fifth when she was fifteen, she tried to commit suicide because she battled depression for the first time and just wanted the pain and stress to end. Mercifully, friends found her and stopped her. The next day, one of them showed her a beautiful sunset and said, "See what you would have missed?" Since then, Lori celebrated what she called "Life Day", and no, she did not get the name for this tradition from the Star Wars Holiday Special, which she had never seen. Rather, she celebrated the fact that she still was alive by taking the day off of work and watching the sunset at approximately 4:23 PM. 
    December fifth of this particular year found Lori curled up in her king-sized bed surrounded by her cats and puppy. She was attempting to adjust her attitude about the holidays by watching the Xmas specials she normally avoided, so she programmed her Tivo for a holiday wish list. 
    Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Rudolph's Shiny New Year both were a good watch, but she didn't like the CGI Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys. Mickey's Christmas Carol miraculously stuffed the entire Dickens classic into a half-hour and still kept the strong message. The SpongeBob SquarePants Christmas special was nicely done and also contained a good message.
    The History Channel aired a show that discussed the events surrounding the birth of Christ: The census discussed in the Bible supposedly took place about six years before Christ was born, so was Mary a political opportunist who insisted that Jesus be born in Bethlehem to fulfill ancient scripture? Was Christ really born in late December, or was that date chosen to piggy-back on the ancient Pagan holidays of Saturnalia and Yule? Lori thought the topic fascinating and the questions worth exploring - after the holidays.
    The Food Network was in overdrive for the season. Lori saw Good Eats's "The Cookie Clause" last year, and maybe even Rachael Ray's Holiday Entertaining in 60 before as well. She decided not to watch Paula's Cookie Swap because she already knew which cookies she wanted to make. However, Food Network's constant airing of "Share Your Season" ads didn't improve her mental health on the holiday season, especially in this terrible economy. Lori knew that food pantries and homeless shelters were overburdened, and every time she saw a Salvation Army bucket she felt pressured to give even though she didn't have much herself.
    How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff version, not Jim Carrey) still was beautiful and as poignant as ever. Although she owned A Charlie Brown Christmas on DVD and didn't have to worry about the networks cutting it to shreds to air more advertising, she was disappointed that the Christmas Specials for the Powerpuff Girls and Casper the Friendly Ghost were programmed, but not what were actually shown. The two different versions of the Messiah were on a Christian station that contained far too many proselytizing ads, so she deleted them without watching them through. The Nutcracker Suite, even performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, still was boring. Lori saw it locally on a school field trip nearly thirty years prior, and all she remembered about it was falling asleep. 
    Suddenly, Lori heard footsteps coming up the stairwell from the main floor. Why wasn't her puppy Prince Nibbler barking? He and his feline siblings didn't seem to notice the sounds in the empty house. Was it her imagination? Maybe it was Marion, the ghost of the former lady of the house who had died in the next bedroom on Xmas Eve two years before Brian and Lori purchased the home. Marion was a nice ghost, who wondered why Brian and Lori didn't have any human children. Because her critters had no reaction, Lori wasn't too worried when the footsteps sounded closer to her bedroom door. 
    It wasn't her imagination; It was Brian, but he looked transparent. Even though Lori could see the small bedroom on the other side of the hall through him, she was too excited to see him to take much notice. "Sweetheart! You're home already? Excellent! Come into bed; let's snuggle."
    "No, I can't. I'm still at work and in a very boring meeting. My part was done in less than three minutes, and now I'm stuck listening to others drone on." The Spirit of Brian explained. "You fell asleep while watching The Nutcracker, and now you're dreaming about me."
    "Well, at least I'm not dreaming about my dead parents again."
    "Not yet." Seeing the scared look on her face The Spirit sat down on the bed and said, "Don't worry, I promise it will be okay. Remember when I asked you to stop wearing black all the time?"
    "Yes. You said I was dressing to hide myself. No duh, considering that I'm obese."
    "But you are a beautiful woman, and I want people to see you as I see you: a very beautiful woman. I also want you to be as happy during the holidays as I am."
    "But you don't do as much for the holidays as I do" 
    "Do those things really need to be done?"
    Lori was silent. She hadn't thought of that.
    "Come with me," The Spirit held out his hand, "I want to show you something."
    They flew out the window and headed southeast. "You know the routine method of operation: no one can see or hear us. We merely are observers; an audience to the play of your life." The Spirit pointed, "Look at your friend Fred."
    Although they were above a suburban house, they could see and hear the occupant inside. Like Lori, Fred was a Pagan, and he was planning his annual Yule ritual. He hummed as counted to make sure he had enough candles and bells for everyone on his guest list. Lori felt guilty that Fred invited her every year but she never went. 
    Brian and Lori flew even further south and headed toward Chicago. Lori's friend Frances was typing on the computer as her daughter dicatated her e-mail to Santa. Lori recalled that Frances posted in her blog that she completed her Xmas shopping before Halloween.
    Then they flew even further to Frank's house. He was on his fourth day of baking cookies, and would be baking a batch a day for another week. He measured ingredients, then his kids stirred them into a large mixing bowl. 
    "Maybe if I didn't procrastinate so much," Lori said, "I'd be done with our Xmas shopping and baking, too."
    "I'm not showing you these things to make you feel even more stress." The Spirit said as they traveled back home.  "I'm worried about you."
    "You're such a good husband, my love, so patient and giving."
    "And you're a good wife, but even my patience is running low dealing with your holiday depression and stress. It's supposed to be a happy time of year, and I and the furkids want you to be happy, too; so I've brought in the big guns: You're going to be visited by three more people from your life."
    "Wait, this sounds way too familiar."
    "Of course it does; you and I are two of the few people who've actually read the original Dickens rather than just watching the many interpretations on TV." 
    "But I don't want to miss the sunset..."
    "You won't. I'll be home by then, and we'll go watch it together. In the meantime, for your own sake, remember what has passed between us!"

Stave II: Spirit of the Past: Fritz [or Poppy]
    Lori laid back down on her bed. The youngest of their three cats, Princess Queen Gleep, was curled up next to her, so Lori snuggled in and rubbed her cat's belly as she wondered who would be visiting her next. She didn't wait long.
    "Hello, Lollypop!" It was her father back from the grave he shared with Mary, his wife and Lori's mother. The Spirit of Fritz, like his formerly living counterpart, had the looks and intelligence of Homer Simpson, but the heart and faith of Clarence Oddbody, the guardian angel from It's a Wonderful Life, Lori's favorite Xmas movie. He still was wearing the sweatshirt in which he was buried: "Poppy is my name, spoiling is my game." 
    "Poppy!" She sprang up and hugged him. "I've missed you so much."
    "I've missed you, too, Lollypop, but we haven't much time if you want to see that sunset. Grab my arm."
    "Where are we going?"
    "You'll see." They flew west to the two-story, four bedroom Cape Cod house that Lori lived in for the first twenty years of her life. The exterior was green, which let Lori know this was before she went to college when her parents had the house recovered in white siding. 
    "It's St. Nicholas Day when you were about ten." The Spirit said. "Look at the shoes."
    On the stairwell to the upstairs bedrooms were four pairs of shoes: one for Lori who was the youngest, two for her brothers Tom and Fran, and one for her sister JoEllen who was the oldest. Lori could see an oversized apple and a softball-sized orange in each pair and knew the toes contained nuts, chocolate kisses, small candy canes, and Lori's favorite Xmas candy: peppermint nougats. "Aunt Jean told me that Grandma did that for Mum and her siblings while growing up."
    "And your mother continued the tradition." The Spirit said, as his younger self appeared at the top of the stairs dragging a large, worn box. "We're setting up the Xmas tree this day."
    They followed the younger father to the living room on the main floor where Mary opened the box. "Fritz, you brought the wrong box. I told you I need the tree first."
    "I brought the first one I could reach."
    "Why didn't you put the boxes in the attic the way I told you to? Do you even listen to me?"
    Fritz went back up the stairs to the boys' bedroom. The crawl space under the eaves of that room served as the house's only attic space, where the Xmas decorations and other seasonal items were stored. 
    Fritz dragged down box after box, and Mary opened each one. "This ornament is broken! And this one! I pack them as carefully as I can, and every year you break something when you take them upstairs. I can't have anything nice."
    The fake tree was missing some of its branches, and it was hard to tell which branches went into which holes in the trunk because the color codes faded with use and time. The strings of lights had broken bulbs and wouldn't light up when first plugged in even if Fritz remembered to check them before stringing them on the tree. The tree skirt had holes in it that Mary tried to arrange so one couldn't see the holes. Lori and her siblings decorated the tree with ornaments that they made, or that they received from the family's subscription to World Book Encyclopedia's "Christmas in [a different country each year]" series, or other ornaments that Mary bought at the post-Christmas sales years prior. Lori's favorite ornament was a simple gold ball that had beads glued on for a face and a red cloth cap with white pipe cleaner trim. Even though it was meant to be Santa Claus, Lori called it Gilligan, after a character from a favorite TV show. They hung a red and green plastic chain that had a "Merry Xmas", also in red and green, around the large mirror in the living room. Fritz placed the angel with its full but wrinkled skirt on the top of the tree. The children added tinsel one strand at a time for best effect. Once all was done, those who had held on to their tempers went outside to see the tree in the large picture window that was beautifully reflected in the mirror on the far wall.
    As they went back into the house, Mary told her children, "Remember, no going into the basement until after Xmas!" None of them dared disobey, fearing the wrath of their mother.
    Xmas Eve found the occupants of the green house in quite the frenzy. Mary shouted up the stairs, "Tom! Fran! Have you washed up?" Fran had, but Tom didn't. "Well hurry up! We need to get going to mass!"
    The child Lori laid on her bed in her room on the main floor. She was reading a book and trying to avoid her mother, but it didn't work because Mary saw her daughter when she came out of her own bedroom across the hall. "Lori, Get up! You'll wrinkle your clothes, and you know we're in a hurry! Your brothers are servers in the mass, and JoEllen is doing one of the readings. Let's go everyone!"
    Finally they were in the car, and Fritz dropped his family off at the church door so they wouldn't be more tardy as he searched the crowded lot for a parking space.
    Back home after mass, the family gathered in the living room to exchange gifts. Fran wrapped everyone's presents in brown lunch bags to be funny and save time. Mary unwrapped a jar of cashews from Fritz, and asked him, "Why would you give me a thing like that?"
    "Because you like cashews..." he said. Mary scowled.
    The last gift to open was for the whole family: a new stereo and a stand to put it on. Fritz brought out his toolbox to assemble it, while Mary read off the directions. "No, Fritz, that piece doesn't go there!"
    The adult Lori couldn't stand it anymore. "Poppy, how come you let Mum talk to you that way?"
    "Because I loved her very much. She saved me from my parents' house: a life of alcoholism and neglect."
    Lori knew that her paternal grandparents were alcoholics, but she never considered what that meant to her father, who broke the cycle of alcoholism. She looked back at the young family as Mary shooed the children to bed.
    Later that night, the insomniac child Lori pretended to sleep while her parents got out of bed and shut her bedroom door. She could hear Mary nag Fritz as he hauled packages up from the basement, and Mary arranged them under the tree in the living room. 
    "You knew the truth about Santa Claus by this time, didn't you?" The Spirit asked his daughter. 
    "I learned the truth when I was six, and Pam, a girl in my class, spilled the beans not only about Santa Claus, but the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy as well." Lori said, "Your not-so-discreet activities confirmed the truth behind the myth.  I got Pam back though when she tried telling me the truth about Uncle Sam. She kept insisting he was a fictional character, too, and I kept insisting that he lived in Omaha, Nebraska. Pam didn't know my mother had a brother named Samuel."
    When the parents were back in bed, and the child Lori could hear their snores, she took her pillow and blanket to the living room. In the dark, she found the plug for the tree's lights. She loved the soft glow they made that were so like the candles that decorated the first Xmas trees. A few of the strings had blinking lights, and others reflected in the tinsel that fluttered silently in the faint rush of air from the heating vent on the floor. Lori curled up on the couch and finally fell asleep.
    Xmas breakfast was a batch of Mary's famous homemade cinnamon rolls eaten as the family took turns opening gifts from Santa. The adult Lori said to the Spirit, "When I was a teenager, JoEllen told me that the gifts Mum opened on Xmas Day were the gifts we received from the neighbors."
    "Yes, that's right." 
    Lori saw her younger self open her favorite childhood Xmas gift: the Fisher Price Little People Castle that included a hidden passage, a royal family, a dragon, a knight, thrones and a carriage. The children also opened practical items such as clothing and underwear, and deodorant and other personal care items in the stockings. "Santa" also placed near the tree bowls of nuts, fruit, and candy. Lori recognized her favorite peppermint nougats, the kind with the red and white border around a white middle with a green Xmas tree in the center.
    Xmas lunch was at Aunt Marie's house, who was Fritz's sister; Fritz had three siblings who all had children, and Marie's best friend and her family also joined the festivities. After lunch was eaten and the the gifts were opened, the children played with their presents of small hand-held tricks. Lori's favorite was the magic cup that had a hidden ball within
    Dinner was at Aunt Jean's on Mary's side of the family. Mary was from a good Catholic family of twelve, and a cacophony of three generations was stuffed into Jean's house. The child Lori, her siblings, and cousins all loved Jean and John's big old house because it had two stairwells, and they had fun playing tag or hide-and-seek going up and down those stairs. They were not thirty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like thirty. Uncle John told them to stop and sit still as Aunt Jean was cleaning up the wrapping paper, empty envelopes, and empty gum wrappers on the floor. Lori took a book that she had hidden in her coat pocket and went off alone to read.
    Mary's maiden name was Lord, and because her birthday was the day after Christmas, she loved to say, "First came the good Lord Jesus; then came the good Lord Mary." The family cooked a brunch for their mother, and Mary had given her youngest daughter her credit card to buy a nice gift. The young Lori thought the blouse she purchased was beautiful. 
    "I don't wear white." Mary said after opening it. "I'll have to take this back."
    The Spirit told his adult daughter, "She returned it, but she never bought any new clothes for herself until she absolutely had to. That's why she always wanted two separate gifts: one for Christmas and another for her birthday. One gift was not acceptable no matter how nice or expensive; she wanted something special for her birthday."
    "I tried giving her something special year after year. Remember about ten years ago? I gave her a Happy Memory Jar: for four months I tried to think of as many good things as possible from my childhood and wrote them down on slips of paper that I put in a glass jar that I decorated with ribbon and faux fruit. Not only did Mum accept this gift with the warmth of a northern river fish, but later I discovered that she was using the jar to store sugar free candy for you."
    "She didn't like to receive her birthday gifts on Christmas Day. You could have come for her birthday."
    "I couldn't spend two days in a row with a woman I could never please."
    "She loved you very much; you should have heard all the good things she said about you."
    "I know, Poppy, Aunt Jean told me about the compliments; but it would have been nice if Mum said good things to me rather than being such a bully."
    "That's just the way her mother raised her. It's that German stubborn streak all the women in her family have, yourself included. Look."
    They now were in a two bedroom bungalow that was just a few miles from the green Cape Cod. As tiny as the house was, it was packed with dozens of people playing cards. Four around the dining room table and another four around a card table. Two more card tables were set up in the living room. Not only were people playing cards at the table in the tiny kitchen, four more people were huddled around a TV tray. Lori immediately recognized the annual Lord Family Euchre Tournament for her grandfather's birthday on New Year's Eve. The phone rang, and her Uncle Peter answered, "Hello, House of the Lord, St. Peter at the Gate speaking." 
    Lori said, "I didn't learn how to play euchre until my teens, but like so many of my cousins, I was afraid to play in this tournament."
    "Gee, I wonder why?" The Spirit said as he looked at the group around the dining room table.
    Lori's grandparents - Mary's parents - sat across from each other. Papa Lord was in his usual spot next to the window, and win or lose he didn't move. Everyone else moved in deference to the aged patriarch of the family. Lori looked upon her now deceased grandfather and saw the scars on his arms from his melanoma. Grandma Lord dealt: three cards to everyone, then two cards to everyone. She set the remaining four cards on the table face down and turned over the top one: the Jack of Spades. 
    "Pass." said Cousin Marvin to Grandma's left.
    "Pass." Said Papa Lord.
    "Pass." Said Uncle Peter at Grandma's right.
    "Well, I'm not passing on a bower." said Grandma as she exchanged the Jack with one of the cards in her hand.
    "Pass." Papa Lord said again.
    "I'd better be able to count on you for at least one trick."
    "Too bad we're not playing 'Three Nines Takes the Blind.'" Papa Lord said, referring to the cards still face down on the table.
    Marvin led the hand with his highest card: Ace of Diamonds. Papa played the Nine of Diamonds; Uncle Peter the Jack, and Grandma the Queen. Marvin swept the cards toward him and played another. After Marvin swept up the third hand of cards, Peter pounded his fists on the table and shouted, "Euchre!" An aunt at another table laughed the Lord Family Cackle.
    "Harold," Grandma shouted at her husband, "You were no help!"
    "I told you!"
    "Papa at least had the courage to talk back to Grandma." Lori said to The Spirit. "Yet you never talked back to Mum unless you knew you were right."
    "Which was very rare." The Spirit said.
    "When we were kids, JoEllen, Fran, Tom and I knew that if Mum was mad, big deal. Mum usually was mad about something. If you were mad, then we became part of the wall and took what was coming because if you were mad, then we really did something wrong."
    The Spirit chuckled.
    "Where am I, Poppy?"
    "Downstairs with your cousins who are playing go fish instead of euchre, but you're..."
    "...reading a book?" Lori said. "That's a habit I inherited from you."
    "Along with my patience."
    "I'm not as patient as you were. You put up with Mum for over forty-eight years. I moved out of your house after twenty."
    "Your spouse doesn't test your patience as much as my spouse did. Look."
    Lori hadn't noticed that the scene had changed as they were talking. They now were at the Parthenon, a Greek restaurant downtown that was famous for its gyros. The Parthenon hadn't gone through its major renovation yet, so the scene was from about twenty years earlier and prior to Brian and Lori's wedding. When Lori saw herself seated at a table with Brian, her older brother Fran, and Fran's wife Tammy, she remembered this Xmastime exactly and smiled.
    Fran was busy enjoying his gyro because up north where he and Tammy lived they didn't have a good Greek restaurant. Tammy was the one who started the conversation. "So, when are you two getting married?"
  The younger Lori was eating a gyro and practically hissed at her sister-in-law in an attempt at whispering, "No, sis! Brian and I talked about this at Cousin Lisa's wedding. He doesn't want to get married ever, and neither do I."
  The scene quickly changed to Brian's apartment later that evening. "Would you like to open one of your Xmas presents early?"
  "Uh, yes?" The younger Lori said.
  Brian presented her with a beautifully wrapped shoebox. Inside was a nice big robe with her initials on it. "My mother made it for you at my request." he said. Then Lori noticed something in the pocket: a Winnie-the-Pooh doll. A note was pinned to its chest:
  To the light in my darkness and the dawn of my every day. I love you, Brian. P. S. By the way, will you marry me?
  Lori thought he was teasing until Brian reached around behind the bear and tugged on a brown ribbon tied around the bear's neck that matched its fur so well Lori didn't notice it was there. Tied on the ribbon was an engagement ring. Lori gasped. When she regained the power of speech, she said, "Yes!" and hugged and kissed Brian.
  "I wasn't the first person you told." The Spirit said.
  "No, I told Tammy first. You were the second person I told. Brian was the only one who replaced you as the number one man in my life."
  "That's the way it should be. I missed my 'Daddy's Girl' after you married Brian, but I am so proud of the woman you've become. Plus, Brian is a good guy who makes you happy. Look."
  The scene changed to West Towne Mall. "It's Xmas Eve, the first year you and Brian were married. I believe you two are in the food court."
  Lori saw her younger self showing a flannel shirt to Brian, who had almost no gray to his hair at the time, "You want to know something? I've always hated receiving practical gifts for Xmas."
  The newlywed Lori remembered all the years of clothes, deodorant, and school supplies as gifts. "I've always hated that, too."
  "Let's promise each other never to give practical gifts for as long as we're married."
  "Agreed." and they sealed it with a kiss. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go return this shirt."
  The Spirit said, "In over eighteen years of marriage, the only practical gift he's given you is a KitchenAid mixer."
  "That wasn't a practical gift; I only use it to bake Mum's cinnamon roll recipe."
  The scene changed to later that evening, when Brian and Lori were at Fritz and Mary's house for dinner. "Merry Xmas, Mum!" Lori hugged Mary.
  "Hello. Do the dishes." Mary said. Even though Lori hated washing dishes, she was full of the Xmas spirit, so she dug her hands into the water in the kitchen sink. As she scrubbed, Mary took a long look at her daughter's clothes: a white turtleneck under a long black skirt and black tee-shirt with white dots all over it that Lori wore over both turtleneck and skirt. "That's a horrible way to wear that outfit; it makes you look fat. What are you up to - 300 pounds?"
  Brian was the only one at dinner that night who noticed that Lori hardly ate anything at all at the Xmas Eve feast she loved so much.
  "I know she was a harsh woman," The Spirit said, "but your mother tried to raise you the best she knew how, even if she didn't always succeed."
  "She succeeded." Lori said. "When she had her first cancer diagnosis and was in the hospital after the surgery, I visited her. Mum said she wanted someone to sit with her until she fell asleep, so I stayed. As she was falling asleep, she said, 'I wish I had been a better mother to you.' I honestly told her that she was a good mother. All my siblings and I are adults who contribute to society in a positive way. What I didn't say was that she was a lousy mom. I could never talk with her about my problems."
  "And she never could talk with her mother about her problems."
  "But Mum had the chance to break the cycle of bullying and didn't;" Lori wiped tears from her eyes. "You had the power to break the cycle of alcoholism and did, even if you smoked instead."   "Which led to an early death for me and the woman I loved." The Spirit said, "You have the power to break the cycle, too."
  "I know."
  "You know, but do you realize it?"
  Lori thought a moment. "Not yet, but I'm working on it.
  "That's my girl." he said.
  "I miss you both so much. I've even dreamt about you and Mum and your house."  
  "I appreciate you thinking of us, but you need to let us go and get on with your life. You let me go physically because you knew I was in pain and suffering. Now you're the one suffering, so you must let go emotionally of me, your mother, and especially the pain of the past."
  "You've gotten wise in death, Poppy."
  "I always was wise; I just hid it well."
  "True. My favorite piece of your wisdom is-"  
  "...you're okay; just the rest of the world is screwed up." The Spirit smiled.
  Lori laughed despite her tears. "Yes." Then she noticed that they were back at the home she shared with Brian and their furkids.
  "I'm sorry, Lollypop, but it's time for me to go."
  Lori cried even harder as she hugged her father one last time. "Goodbye, Poppy."
  "Just remember that your mother and I always want you to be happy."

Stave III: Spirit of the Present: Fran
  Princess Queen Gleep didn't seem to mind the sudden wetness on her fur that came from Lori's eyes. Lori clutched her cat and wondered why Brian would be so cruel to show her her father, only to take him away again. "From one Daddy's Girl to another." Lori whispered into her cat's fur. As she reached for some tissues, Lori realized she wasn't alone.
  "Hey, Sis." said the Second Spirit. It was her brother Fran. Although he was four years older than Lori, only a tinge of gray at his temples gave away his age. He still had a full head of hair, unlike their father. Like their father, Fran was dressed casually in jeans and a comfortable old sweatshirt and very huggable.
  "Fran!" Lori wrapped her arms around her brother. "I just saw Poppy."
  "I know, and Brian never is cruel. He's trying to help you - we're all trying to help you - and sometimes confronting our feelings hurts."
  "Is that you the big brother talking, or you the lay Methodist minister?"
  "A little of both."  
  "I guess it helps that you're married to a counselor. Sometimes when I'm visiting you, I feel like I'm being analyzed."
  "Is that such a bad thing?"
  "No, my insurance doesn't have to pay you for the therapy."
  The Spirit laughed. "Come on. Let me show you what this Xmas season is going to be like."
  "To where are we flying?"
  "Walking." Fran descended the stairs. "Our first stop is your kitchen."
  Lori was confused until she reached the bottom of the steps and smelled something very familiar. "Yeast."
  Sure enough. An image of Lori was in the kitchen, and she was baking cinnamon rolls. The yeast was growing in a bowl of water while Lori measured and sifted flour into her KitchenAid mixer that contained scalded milk, melted margarine, salt, sugar, and beaten eggs. A Mannheim Steamroller CD was playing in the boom box on the table, and occasionally Lori sang along with the Xmas carols she knew so well from her childhood. During "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabelle", Lori sang in French; "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful" was sung in Latin; and "Silent Night" was sung in German.
  "I didn't know you knew so many languages." The Spirit said.
  "I can carry on conversations in English, French and American Sign Language; but I know a smattering of German, Spanish, Italian, Gaelic, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and, of course, Latin from our Catholic upbringing, which also is where I learned "Un Flambeau, Jeanette Isabelle", "Adeste Fidelis", and "Stille Nacht".
  "You're smiling." The Spirit said as he pointed to his sister who was cooking.
  "Yes, I enjoy baking Mum's cinnamon rolls. Did you see the cookbook?" Lori was referring to The Lord Family Cookbook. When their mother's family produced this book, Mary bought a load of groceries and finally wrote down the recipes for which she was famous: not only her cinnamon rolls, but her taco and dill dip recipes, her light and fluffy cheesecake recipe, and even her "Quick and Easy Brownie" recipe, whose first ingredient was "three boxes of Jiffy brownie mix." As each of her children moved out of their house, Mary gave them a copy of The Lord Family Cookbook, and although Lori had quite the cookbook collection, her family's was her favorite. The page that contained the cinnamon rolls recipe was splattered from years of reference.  
  Brian entered the kitchen and kissed Lori, who by this time had plenty of flour splattered down her pajamas. "Merry Xmas Eve! I didn't think you'd get up early enough to bake."
  "Having a puppy that wakes you up to go to the bathroom makes an even more effective alarm clock than a cat who wants to be fed breakfast." Lori turned to hug and kiss her husband. "While the dough is rising, I'll go out and shovel the front walk and steps."  
  "I'll get dressed and fire up the snowblower to deal with the driveway."
  Not only did Lori bake the cinnamon rolls after dealing with the snow that fell the night before, Brian and Lori then worked on a batch of spritz cookies together. Lori kneaded red food coloring into one batch of dough and green into another batch. Brian selected a disc from the spritz press's box and formed a series of wreaths and then trees onto a cookie sheet. "Do you know what the secret ingredient in our cookies is?" he asked.
  "No, cat hair!" he said as he shooed Gleep away from the cookie sheet.
  The Spirit laughed, "And you wonder why Tammy doesn't permit pets in our house."
  "For me and Brian, cat hair is on the Food Pyramid." Lori said as she watched herself take another batch of cookies out of the oven.
  "Come on, next stop." They headed south, just as she flew with Brian, but instead of looking in on friends, The Spirit took Lori to the home of her in-laws. "I hope you like pizza because that's what your mother-in-law is serving."
  "I love pizza. What a wonderful idea! She doesn't have to cook for all of us, with the way her health has been fading." Lori recognized the Papa Murphy's take-and-bake wrappers and instructions as her father-in-law Ed put the pizzas in the oven. A knock on the door gave brief warning as Brian and Lori entered the house.
  "Merry Xmas, Mom and Dad!" Lori hugged her in-laws, and her husband did the same.
  "You call your in-laws Mom and Dad." The Spirit said.
  "Fran, I call your in-laws Mom and Dad. It's just my habit from childhood. Everyone in my grade school class, and especially in my Girl Scout troop, called each others' parents Mom and Dad. On my wedding day I asked my father-in-law, who'd had a bit to drink and was having a very good time, what I should call him. He was fine with me calling them Mom and Dad, and I love it, too."
  Brian's brother Rick hadn't arrived yet with his family, so Dad asked Brian for help with his computer. While the two men were downstairs, Lori brought out the latchhook rug she was working on.
  "This was supposed to be your Xmas present, Mom." Lori said as she showed her mother-in-law the sunflower pattern, "But hopefully I'll be done with it by Mother's Day."
  "Oh, that's all right." Mom said, "I know you're busy. How's your job?"
  "Well, the unpaid furlough days have hit us hard; we didn't have enough for all we wanted to buy for gifts."
  "You don't have to get us anything. You gave us a pan of cinnamon rolls already!"
  "Mom, I'd buy you the sun and the moon if I could. Instead, we had to settle on gift cards for everyone."
  "Gift cards are nice gifts. Then you can buy whatever you want."  
  Sure enough, when the gift cards were distributed later in the evening, Mom and Dad loved theirs to Old Country Buffet, where they eat frequently. Lori was grateful that her in-laws gave her another gift card to JCPenny, so her next two haircuts at the salon there would be covered. Rick's kids loved their cards for McDonald's almost as much as his wife loved the pan of cinnamon rolls, which would make a good breakfast the next day. Lori gave Rick a check for the Girl Scout cookies she ordered from his daughter with the instructions, "Don't cash it until after the New Year."  
  In years past, Brian and Lori spent Xmas Eve night at his parents' house, but this year Lori's siblings actually made plans to get together for the first time since their parents died. With the new puppy, Brian and Lori had to go home anyway. Again, Prince Nibbler woke Brian and Lori up early, which was good because Brian wanted to exchange gifts before heading up north.
  "So I finally complete my Xmas shopping?" Lori asked her spirit brother.
  "You will be very grateful not only for gift cards, but for the Internet and express shipping. Just make sure that Brian has something to open Xmas morning. I'm not going to show you a detail of this scene because I don't want to ruin the surprise of what you receive for Xmas from Brian. Just know that your husband will shower you with gifts as he normally does, and you will love each and every one." The Spirit said. "Now, you and I fly north while you and Brian drive."
  Lori and The Spirit flew above the highway and past the billboards that advertised the Wisconsin Dells. In the caravan below, Brian was letting his wife sleep as she always did on a long road trip. She awoke in time to see the beautiful bluffs created when Ice Age glaciers retreated from this part of Wisconsin.
  Brian parked the car outside Fran's large house out in the country, not too far away from the sign that read "Heaven on Earth." Their nieces and nephews outside shoveling the driveway big enough for a half-basketball court and trampoline congregated around their crazy aunt and uncle to greet them enthusiastically with hugs. Lori loved her nieces and nephews so much, especially her Godson Trey, Fran's son, who at thirteen now was taller than Lori.
  Inside, Tammy still was in her pajamas. "You're early!" she greeted her sister- and brother-in-law with loving hugs and showed them her new satin pajamas from "Santa." Lori grabbed an oversized mug of milk and sat at the kitchen counter while Tammy worked on cleaning breakfast dishes and setting out some munchies for people to snack on until dinner was ready. Brian sat down, too, and helped himself to some cheese and crackers.  
  "How are things with you?" Tammy asked.
  "Better." Lori said, "I've been working on adjusting my attitude about the holidays, but it's hard. I have forty years of holiday anxiety to overcome."
  Fran came in from helping his children shovel, sat next to Brian, and dipped some celery and carrot sticks into the bowl of French onion. "I used to feel stressed about the holidays because of our childhood. Our mother did work hard to make the holidays special for us, but at a price: she was so stressed out about all she needed to do that we felt stressed, too, and thus couldn't really enjoy the holidays."
  "Exactly what I've been discovering!" Lori said.
  Brian looked at his wife, "We shouldn't do anything for the holidays that makes us feel stressed. I see so many people I know getting themselves all twisted in a bunch with stress over the holiday season and not realizing that they are doing it to themselves."
  Fran heartily agreed. "Hear! Hear!"
  Lori looked uncomfortable, "Like me?"
  "Especially you." Brian said.
  Lori was rescued at that moment by the arrival of Tammy's parents Roy and Joyce. "Hi Mom! Hi Dad!" She hugged Fran's in-laws. "Merry Xmas!"
  "Merry Xmas, Lori. Brian." Roy said. "We brought Pastor Dave, from our Church. He and his family wanted to travel to Minnesota for the holidays but couldn't due to the weather."
  Pastor Dave's wife was helping their three absolutely adorable daughters take off their coats. The youngest kept smiling at Brian because she thought he was Santa Claus, and the older two (who were adopted from Libya) were so pretty, they looked like miniature versions of Michelle Obama.
  "I feel awkward about crashing." Pastor Dave said.
  "Don't be." Lori said. "One: Fran and I come from such a large family that this gathering actually is small for us, and two: we are such a welcoming family that even I call my brother's in-laws Mom and Dad."
  "The more the merrier." Fran waved at the people in the room, "I like to be surrounded by a lot of loved ones at Xmas, so welcome Pastor Dave and family!"
  While Tammy went to dress, Fran opened the oven to check on the ham. As he was using a plastic contraption that chopped potatoes into equal pieces, Lori said to him, "Brian's not much of a ham-eating person."
  "Does he like shrimp?
  "Loves it."
  "Excellent! I was debating whether or not to bring out the shrimp. This seals it."  
  Soon the shrimp was thawed, the ham was done, and the potatoes mashed. The snacks were removed from the kitchen counter and replaced with plates, silverware, and steaming hot bowls of food. Everyone assembled in the kitchen and held hands as Fran led them in prayer. When everyone else said, "Amen", Lori said, "Blessed be."
  Dinner was fantastic. Joyce made lefsa for them to eat on Xmas Eve, then forgot to bring it that night, so she brought it for the Xmas day meal. Lori hadn't had lefsa in over twenty years, and Joyce's lefsa was very, very good. Pastor Dave suggested eating it with margarine and brown sugar, which was good, but most preferred it plain or just with margarine.
  For their Xmas Eve mass the evening prior, Fran composed and sang a special song about being one of the shepherds in the field tending his flock who were told by the angel about the birth of Christ, as described in Luke 2: 8-14. While she listened to him reprise the song for his guests, the real Lori's inner cynicism kicked in, and she told her spirit brother, "You do realize that Jesus probably was born in the spring or early fall, and that a lot of the events surrounding the birth of Christ have been questioned or corrected by modern scholars."
  The Spirit said, "So what? The birth of Christ, to me, is a matter of my faith. Does it really matter if the events are historically accurate?"
  "But look at your house." Lori pointed to the Xmas tree, the wreaths and other greenery hung on the walls. "Evergreens are from the Pagan Yule ritual; they represent light overcoming darkness on the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice. They have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus."
  "Except that His birth represents Good conquering Evil, just as Pagans have light conquering darkness."
  "Unfortunately, too many Christians don't see Paganism that way."
  "There are some upon this earth of yours," returned The Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us." More gently, he added, "We have to keep going. You know that Xmas isn't the end of the holidays in our family. Now we head south to Ella's Deli on the 26th."
  "I am looking forward to that least of all because it would have been our mother's birthday, and we're getting together with both you and Tom and your families. Stress overdrive."
  "Lori, don't take this the wrong way, but frequently you worry about crap that never happens. Watch."
  Lori watched herself as she and Brian arrived at Ella's. Both her brothers already were there, and Tom rose to give his sister a hug. His wife Diane rose to give a hug, too.
  "That's surprising." Lori observed to her spirit brother. "Diane's not a hugger because of the issues from her past."
  "She's thawing now that she's a grandmother." The Spirit said.
  Diane's daughter Stacia arrived with her son, who was celebrating his first holiday season. Stacia offered to let Lori hold him. "I know he's not related to Tom biologically," Stacia said, referring to her step-daughter status, "but doesn't he look like Tom?"
  "Chubby cheeks? Little hair on his head? and a Chicago Bears outfit?" Lori laughed in the familiar Lord Family Cackle, "Yeah, that's my brother all right."
  Throughout the meal, Lori had an interesting time explaining kosher dietary laws to her nieces and nephews, who had no clue as to why orthodox Jews have to eat a certain way, and thus, why a kosher deli like Ella's has beef franks rather than pork hot dogs. She was surprised that her brothers didn't remember the Seder meal for Passover that they participated in at grade school as part of their Catholic education. After all, Jesus Christ was Jewish, and the Last Supper may have been a Seder meal, which is why Passover and Easter always are so close to each other on the calendar.  
  The Spirit asked his sister, "Is it so terrible? You look like you're having a good time."
  "Yeah, I guess I am." Lori said, "I just wish..."
  "Nothing." Lori said.
  "I know what you're thinking." The Spirit said, "Time to hand you over to the next spirit."

Stave IV: Spirit of the Future: Anna
  When Lori was in grade school, she played both Marley's Ghost and the Last of the Spirits in a dramatized version of A Christmas Carol. Her first costume was a white shirt with pair of white pants rolled up to the knees to look a little Victorian. She wore white tube socks and powdered her face, hair, and some chains. It was a good effect, but not as good as her third ghost costume. The teacher who directed the play gave Lori a black velvet skirt and wrap to wear. The skirt went to the teacher's knees, but it was long enough to go to the floor on Lori, and the wrap covered her from head to waist. No one knew who played the third ghost until the curtain call when Lori walked out on stage and dramatically threw off the wrap. When it was time for the Spirit of the Future to arrive in her dream, Lori thought she knew what was coming. Boy was she surprised.
  It was a little girl.
  The Spirit had long, straight brown hair and blue eyes, and she was dressed in a little blue fleece sundress exactly like one Lori had in her closet. Like Lori, she looked well fed. Unlike Lori as a child, The Spirit seemed very confident; she had good posture and looked Lori right in the eye.
  "You're not what I expected." Lori said. "I expected the Grim Reaper or the Angel of Death, but you look like a good angel - an adorable little angel. In fact, you look like the little girl I'd like to have someday."
  "I'm glad to hear you say that," The Spirit said, "because I'm Anna, the girl you are going to have someday."  
  "You're not Death?"
  "No, I represent Life and Happiness. You know what any religion teaches you, not just Paganism or Christianity: no one needs to fear the future or death if one leads a good life, and you most certainly lead a good life. Let me show you the future."
  Instead of flying anywhere, the room itself transformed. The king-sized bed with the furkids was replaced with a white crib containing stuffed versions of Winnie the Pooh in a nightshirt, Piglet, and Eeyore. The room was decorated with a mural of the 100 Acre Wood, and on a shelf above the crib was the Winnie-the-Pooh bear that Brian used to propose to Lori many years before.
  "The scenes you see will fly very fast," Anna said, "because 'always in motion is the future.'"
  "Are you going to be a Star Wars fan, too?" Lori said.  
  "I'll be your daughter, so of course I'll be a Star Wars fan. We will have many a pleasant evening watching movies together and eating popcorn."
  Lori smiled as her future self entered the room holding a baby. "Are you hungry, Princess?" The baby cooed. The mother sat in the white gliding chair that was used in place of a rocker in deference to Anna's fursiblings. As Lori fed her baby, Princess Queen Gleep curled up in her lap. Lori didn't shoo away the cat, but adjusted so that she held her baby to her breast with one arm; the other arm she used to pet Gleep.
  Then the scene changed again. The crib converted into a twin bed, and a child-sized table and chairs that Lori's in-laws gave them were in the corner. Lori recognized the matching rocking chair that contained an oversized Winnie-the-Pooh bear. Brian sat squashed in one straight chair as he waited patiently for his little girl to pour him a cup of pretend tea.
  The room changed even more this time, indeed, there seemed no order in these latter visions. Instead of a bedroom, they were in Lori's home office and craft room down the hall. Lori was sitting at her computer and typing away. Anna came in crying and clutching a doll. "Samantha broken!"
  "Let me see, sweetheart." Lori examined the doll. "It's just a torn skirt. I can fix that no problem." Lori showed her daughter how to thread the needle on the sewing machine, then held her little hands as they guided the fabric to be repaired.
  "I thought you were supposed to show me scenes of Xmas?" Lori said.
  "Okay." The Spirit said, and they were in the living room. Anna was in a bassinet as Brian and Lori set up a faux Xmas tree that had fiber-optic lighting effects. Lori hung an ornament that said, "Baby's First Xmas", but the date was unreadable.
  Brian dug into the green and red plastic bin that stored their ornaments and pulled out a gold ball with a red cap glued on it. "Here's Gilligan" he said, as he handed it to Lori. Behind her on the wall were two big stockings and five little ones: four of them paws. Anna started fussing, so Brian picked her up from the bassinet. He sniffed her and said, "Someone needs a diaper change!" He started singing "The Poopy Diaper Song" as he took his daughter upstairs.
  The scene whirled even more than before. The Spirit took Lori to her in-laws home again. Ed was playing peek-a-boo under a baby blanket as toddler Anna laughed the Lord Family Cackle. Another whirl and they were at Ella's Deli. Anna was seated in a high chair surrounded by her many cousins, who took turns playing with her and feeding her ice cream, though more of it was on her face than in her mouth.
  Another change in scenery took The Spirit and her charge back to their home kitchen where Lori was teaching Anna how to make Mary's cinnamon rolls. As Lori rolled out dough to the size of a cookie sheet, Anna used her little Tupperware rolling pin to roll out a square about a half-foot long. When Lori cut the filled and rolled dough and put it in a cake-sized foil pan, Anna put her smaller rolls into a tart-sized pan.
  "That's very good, Anna" said the mother.
  "May I please take to school?"  
  "Of course. Thank you for asking so nicely. Do you want to eat them at lunch?"
  "No, I want to give to my teacher."
  Both Loris smiled, but the one who was cooking said, "Be sure to tell them it's your grandmother's recipe. If they want a copy, they can e-mail me."
  The Lori who was watching said, "I'm sorry that you'll never know your maternal grandparents. They would love you very much."
  "I met them already." The Spirit said. "In the worlds between. Poppa taught me to be patient, and Grandma taught me how to be organized."
  "Yes, I learned how to be organized from her, too."
  "You know, you can use those skills to dump the stress of the holidays." The Spirit said. "You completed your bachelor's degree thirteen years after you graduated high school while working full time. You were in a beauty pageant and the largest contestant, but you came home with a trophy for organization. You can do anything you set out to do, so for you to dread the holidays because of the self-imposed stress is silly."
  "But I don't want you to feel the same stress I felt growing up."
  "You are not your mother; you are my mother."
  "But my mother was so much like her mother..."
  "Do my uncles parent the same way my grandfather did?"
  "Look at the bed." The Spirit said.
  They were back in the bedroom of the present. Lori looked at her sleeping self and all the critters surrounding her.
  "You and Daddy bought a king-sized bed so you could have everyone in this home in this bed at the same time, and I look forward to the day I can join you on this bed." The Spirit said, " Daddy will teach me to play and laugh, but what I'm looking forward to most is being your daughter because you will shower me with love and affection. I'll be a hugger just like you, and I'm going to be so happy, Mama!" The Spirit wrapped her arms around her future mother.
  Tears formed in Lori's eyes again. "What did you call me?"
  "Mama. It's a title you've wanted to hear for a long, long time."
  Lori smiled despite her crying. Then the Spirit said, "I have to go now; Daddy will be home soon to take you to the sunset."
  As the spirit of her future daughter faded from her embrace, Lori woke up and realized that her arms were wrapped around Gleep, who was purring with all the attention.

Stave V: The Beginning of It
  Suddenly, Lori heard footsteps coming up the stairwell from the main floor. This time Nibbler barked and scared all the cats awake. Gleep's claws scratched Lori briefly as the feline fled the din caused by her canine brother. While the cats jumped off all sides of the bed, little Nibbler had to dash down the steps set up at the foot. He was out the door quick as a bullet, and just as quickly rushed back in ahead of his master, barking as if to announce, "Daddy's home!"     "Sweetheart! Are you really here?" Lori ran to Brian and hugged him; he seemed solid enough.
  "Yes, you silly goose." Brian kissed his wife. "Why do you ask?"
  "I had such a strange dream, even more vivid than usual. You were there at the start..."
  "Oh, really?" Brian raised his eyebrows twice.
  "No, not like that. You talked to me and showed me some of my friends. Then Poppy was there." Lori saw Brian frown. "I know, 'yet another dream about my dead parents', but this was different..."
  Brian looked at the clock next to the bed. "If you want to watch the sunset, you'd better get dressed. Then you can tell me all about your dream during dinner."
  "Okay, Love." Lori said, "An intelligent husband, a remarkable husband; the World's Greatest Husband."
  Lori dressed in the same blue sundress that the Last of the Spirits wore, but this being winter, Lori added a white turtleneck and thick black tights underneath. She hummed Xmas tunes as she brushed her hair and put on her jewelry. She lovingly looked at her engagement ring, now attached to a wedding band, that Brian gave her twenty Xmases ago. Then she dug into a small jewelry box hidden in her closet where she kept her precious jewels, rather than the large jewelry box that was really a small chest of drawers, where she stored her cloisonné pins depicting characters and symbols from her favorite comic books, sci fi movies, and football teams.
  In the smaller and more secure box was her mother's wedding set. When Mary gained a significant amount of weight and needed to have her wedding band enlarged, Fritz and Mary chose to take some of the gold from the engagement ring to save money. Mary wore her wedding band solely for many years until gold prices dropped, and Fritz decided to have the engagement ring made whole again. Unfortunately he had it restored to its original size rather than taking into account Mary's new ring size. So Lori was surprised when Mary opened the ring one Xmas Eve and was so thrilled with the gift that she cried. Mary put the engagement ring on her left pinky as Fritz apologized for his mistake. Through tears of joy Mary said, "I don't care; we can have it fixed again; it's just so beautiful and thoughtful!"  
  Thus, when Mary asked her daughters and granddaughters about what jewelry of hers they wanted after she was gone, Lori requested Mary's wedding set. Lori told Fran, but never their mother, "It's the only thing Poppy ever gave her that she liked.", which made Fran laugh at the truth in that statement. Lori put her mother's wedding set on her left index finger and thought, I am not my mother.  
  Brian drove them to the boat launch at Olbrich Park, which is where Lori discovered the perfect place for viewing early December sunsets. The low skyline on the shore of Lake Monona allowed the sun to descend unobstructed. Although a sign informed park attendees of the city ordinance banning feeding the ducks, Lori still brought some leftover bread crusts for the creatures whose quacking added sweet music to Mother Nature's twilight show. Other viewers sat in cars and one even rode in on a bicycle, but Brian and Lori sat on the shoreline's rocks until Helios and his fiery chariot could no longer be seen in the sky.
  The Melting Pot not only had an excellent "Big Night Out" dinner of salad and three courses of fondue for two, but they also served a chocolate martini with a yin-yang in white and dark chocolate sprinkles on top. As Brian and Lori enjoyed dipping vegetables and breads into cheese, then meats and other vegetables into a beef and burgundy wine broth, then fruits and cake pieces into chocolate, Lori told her husband about the dream she had. Brian was thrilled to see his wife so animated and excited about the holidays. All his years of trying to make December enjoyable for Lori finally seemed to be paying off.
  Brian and Lori watched It's a Wonderful Life back home in bed and surrounded by their critters. She realized that it had been twenty-five years since her suicide attempt; twenty-five years of blessings that she would have missed if she had succeeded that night. Even though she was full from such a big dinner, she reached into her nightstand where she kept a stash of candy. This month's selection was her favorite peppermint nougats because December is the only month they are sold. Sure, she had a mile-long to do list between now and Xmas, but for now, she snuggled in and thanked her husband for putting up with her. He said, "I think you have a harder time putting up with me than I do putting up with you."
  Lori still was a procrastinator, and it was the week of Xmas before she finally finished her gift shopping. As the Spirit of the Present predicted, the Internet and express shipping came in handy as Lori ordered a role-playing game book for Brian to open on Friday, December 25, as well as the wrist-rocket he'd wanted since he was a child. At Target, she picked up a gift card to add more money to his PlayStation Store account, and when she went to the grocery store to purchase the last items needed to bake her mother's cinnamon rolls, she happily placed a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket and wished the bellringer, "the happiest of holidays."
  The events of Xmas happened exactly as The Spirit predicted. Brian, the critters, and "Santa" gave Lori the latest Harry Potter film on DVD and Blu-Ray, the Badger Snuggie that she requested, and a shiatsu massage pillow. The latter was especially nice to use after they shoveled the late December snow.  
  In the week after Xmas, Lori took her personal digital assistant and the zippered binder in which she kept plans and to do lists, and she updated her goals and set a plan of action for things she wanted to achieve each month in the New Year. As she looked at the toy magic cup on her desk that always reminded her to play and have magic in her life, she resolved not to fall behind and especially not to procrastinate. She printed out lists of ideas to sort through in January and plan events for the year to come: friends' birthdays, the Passover Seder meal she wanted to host for her nieces and nephews, the gaming conventions she promised to assist with or even run, the annual Independence Day Party she hosted with Brian, dates to go on with the World's Greatest Husband like the Wisconsin Wolves games in the Independent Women's Football League, and especially Xmas. She knew that the best thing that to do is to be selective when it comes to Xmas traditions and events and tune out the extraneous crap; to figure out what makes the holidays enjoyable and special for her and those she loves and make decisions regarding gifts, gatherings, and other accordingly. Lori gave herself one whole year to get her life back on track.
  On December 31st, Brian and Lori attended their friend Walt's Annual End of Time Party, the New Year's Eve bash Walt hosted since Y2K. Lori always looked forward to this party not only because it meant the end of the Xmas season, but it also was a low-stress gathering of friends to play games, watch movies, drink, and relax. Despite his allergies, Walt let his friends bring Nibbler. As Lori watched her puppy nap under Walt's brightly lit Xmas tree, an idea struck her. She grabbed her PDA and its keyboard and typed as quickly as she could:
  Brian was not dead; There is no doubt whatever about that. Brian was very much alive, and he was the World's Greatest Husband to Lori...