It began as a Christmas gift for my mother, Mary. We’d plan a holiday play, musical, or concert and dinner afterward. What do you give a septuagenarian who you already got the one gift they’d been waiting for – a grandchild? Every year we’d take her to a different holiday-themed performance-–A Christmas Carol, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Christmas Goose, The Nutcracker & the Mouse King, or White Christmas.
In these holiday moments, I could feel the delicate gold cord that bound us together, that made us a family. Ethan, my husband, Helena, my teenage daughter, and I were embarking on our annual holiday tradition. I look at the clock on the dashboard – it reads 5:46. We are nowhere near Logan’s Square. The concert starts at 6:30. It’s a Friday night in Chicago. And it’s snowing. The GPS says the arrival time will be 6:13. Our car creeps down Chicago Avenue. I squinted my eyes, and the arrival time is now 6:20.
For the first time since I bought the tickets, I read the instructions on the Fever ticket app. “No, no, no.”
“What now?” Ethan asks, his hands gripping the steering wheel and his eyes trained on the stalled taillights in front of us. Normally, he is the calm voice in our family, the first to wrap one of us in his massive Teddy bear hug. But being late, inclement weather, and traffic has brought out his Grizzly side. The irritation in his voice at a solid “I’d rather be anywhere else than driving into the city in the snow to go see a concert I don’t want to see.”
I read the instructions out loud. “Ample street parking. Please arrive thirty minutes before the performance, doors close at the start time, and late admission cannot be allowed under any circumstances.”
“We’re never going to make it,” he says, shaking his head and pointing at the arrival time.
“What’s wrong?” Helena asks.
This a child is so plugged into her EarPods that you can shout her name five times before you receive a response – yet one whiff of a problem, and she suddenly has the infrasound hearing of a bat. There was a time when the two of us, Helena and I, would sing along to Kelly Clarkson. Now she’s locked away from me, alone with her iTunes and me on the outside trying to make contact.
“Um, mom, read the arrival instructions,” Ethan said.
“Yeah, and so?”
“We shoulda left a lot earlier,” I reply.
“They might not let us in if we’re not there by 6:30,” Ethan fills her in on the additional obstacle our little family is currently facing.
“Moommmm? We’ll never make it in time.”
I am still not used to hearing her swear; and I think that the words don’t sit right in her mouth. They cut through her round cherub cheeks.
“Helena, watch your language; we don’t talk to each other like that. What do you want me to do about it now? I can’t move cars. I can’t stop the snow. I’m doing my best.”
As I hear myself talk, I realize how much I sound like my mother – word for word. It was the last day of the fall semester of grad school. It was brutal in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. Returning to school at fifty, was forcing me to grow and stretch, to be honest and authentic in a way that took me thirteen billion light-years away in the farthest galaxy from my comfort zone. And I still had to turn in two more papers before the end of the weekend. I was ground down because my life was a constant push and pull – pull from my grief and a push from the metamorphosis of what my life was changing into as a writer and as a teacher.
At this moment, making our way through the dark and the cold, all I wanted was my mom to be here in the car with us, reminding me – “not to get my bowels in an uproar.” The holidays and grief go hand in hand, like peanut butter and jelly. There are moments when grief can just catch you off guard. But this grief, I could trace easily to its inception. The year we went to the CSO Christmas concert, we were broke. I got the tickets on Hot Tixs or Goldstar, and we were in the nose bleeds. The top balcony at Symphony Center floats at a vertigo-inducing hundred feet above the main stage. I took one step down the stairs and swooned like a Victorian woman who needed a fainting couch and her smelling salts.
“Watch it, sweetie; I’ve had people pass out up here,” the grandfatherly usher with his sharp red blazer and curly gray hair said as he grabbed my arm. “Here, you have a seat up here with me, and when you’re ready, you can go down with your family.”
I never made it down. Eventually, they all came up to me. Helena, about six years old, dressed in some sort of frilly taffeta dress and patent leather Mary Janes, passed out in my arms during the second act. She was heavy, almost too big for me to hold like that, but I managed. There’s a picture of me holding her with a content, happy smile. Looking at that picture, I can feel the pulsing gold invisible string that tethers our little family together.
Our last holiday show with mom was White Christmas; we held hands through the entire performance. We had front-row seats, and she would nod off throughout the performance. Even then, she still wove the cord between Ethan, Helena, and me – binding us altogether. Every so often, I’d catch the eye of an actor and smile like what can you do – it’s Drury Lane dinner theatre in Oak Brook, IL, not the mainstage in Covent Garden, London.
This was our first holiday event, post-pandemic, and mom’s death. It was just the three of us and the golden cord was severed.
“Well, if they don’t let us in, we’ll just go to dinner,” I said.
“Where did you make reservations,” Helena asks.
“Well, find somewhere to go; it’ll be fine,” Ethan jumps in. “It’s a big city, lots of restaurants.”
As it is with groups of threes, there is always the odd person out, and that person is usually me. Ethan knows this, and he tries to run interference between us – his spirited teenage daughter going through puberty and his spirited wife going through menopause.
It never fails to get the three of us out of the house, whether it’s to catch a 6:30 AM flight or a 6:30 PM concert, which is an enormous hurdle for our little family. Ethan is ready ten minutes before we are supposed to leave and pushes us along until he finally gives up and waits in the car. Only to sit and stew and text us from the garage.
“What’s going on?”
“Are YOU coming?”
While I try on every article of clothing in my closet up until the moment, we need to leave, looking for the one top that will make me look thirty pounds thinner. I am short. I am all butt, boobs, and big hips. My well-placed highlights cover my white silver hair hiding underneath, concealing my real age, and my bangs hide my forehead lines like a map running left to right and right to left. My too-white teeth, once straightened in high school, are now moving back to their original crooked and spacey destination. And my Helena, lost in her own teenage dream Phoebe Bridgers haze, is drawing on thick charcoal winged eyeliner with precise precision.
Just as the clock strikes 6:30, we turn down Kedzie, the boulevard Stan Mansion, our destination, is located. We have now slipped through the space-time continuum into a time-traveling black hole and are now back in early nineteenth-century Chicago. Time has stopped. Even the snow is falling at a softer, gentler pace, and each snowflake is framed by the light emanating from the cast iron luminaire streetlamps. The curvy rolling street is lined with cars to the right and snow-covered trees and grass to the left.
Finally, we pull up to the mansion, a monument to the Golden Age built for a chapter of the Knights Templar. It’s lit up inside and out with sparkling lights like a magic carpet ready to fly us away.
The ample street parking was a lie. The street is lined with cars.
“What now?” Ethan asks.
“We keep driving until we can find street parking.”
We drive two blocks. No parking spots. We circle around the neighborhood until we find the promised ample street parking in a residential area about four blocks from the concert.
It’s 6:39 – past our admission deadline.
“I didn’t bring a winter coat,” Helena announces as she steps out of the car.
“What? It’s snowing and twenty degrees,” I reply.
I look at her black velvet dress and the delicate black silk bow in her hair and notice her shoes. She wore her chunky patent black Mary Janes with white tights. No boots.
“Come on, we gotta start walking,” Ethan says as he locks the car. “What’s the cross street? So, we can find our way back.”
“Do you want my coat?”
“No, mom,” she says as she stomps down the street.
“Watch the ice,” Ethan warns.
“I can’t believe you didn’t bring a proper coat,” I say. I know this will piss her off. But the mother in me – she can’t help herself. I have to say it out loud.
“I thought there’d be a valet or something. I didn’t know where we were going. Where are we?”
“Logan’s Square,” Ethan and I respond in unison.
We march along the snowy street in angry silence. At this moment, I regret keeping up this family tradition. The holidays were already too stressful, and adding this to the mix just didn’t make sense to force us to continue to do this when no one really wanted to. I considered saying, let’s just forget about it, go home and order a pizza and watch a movie on the couch with the dogs. Helena could hide out in her room and scroll Tic Tok till her eyes rolled into the back of her head. This forced family time was pointless. And the one person I really wanted to be here with wasn’t. The one person who could bring us back together. And nothing would change that.
Once we arrive, there are three ushers checking people in. I’m so relieved to find out that their strict seating policy was a lie, like their ample street parking. I pull up the app as the usher pulls out her wand, ready to scan our tickets.
I show her the QR code like Miss Universe, poised to reveal her hidden talent. She scans it, and we begin to walk inside.
“Wait, you should have two more tickets,” she says.
I tapped the app. There is only one ticket. There is only one QR code.
Did I only buy one ticket?
I only bought one ticket.
“Mom, what’s wrong?”
There’s an antsy couple behind us. They are shuffling back and forth. Their impatience is like a toxic gas leak winding its way over to me and filling up my lungs, making it hard to breathe.
“There’s only one ticket in the app,” I say to the usher.
“This happens. Do you have the confirmation email?”
I don’t know.
Did I delete it?
I delete everything.
I probably deleted it.
I move aside and start scrolling through my emails.
“What’s the name of the app search by the name of the app,” Helena says as she grabs my iPhone, opens it with my password, and starts scrolling.
“Here it is,” Helena announces as she shows it to the usher.
“Okay, guys, come with me,” a tall cheery young man says, leading us through the marble foyer and up a set of slick marble stairs, “Don’t worry, you only missed about fifteen minutes.”
We wait in front of a hand carved wooden door. It’s the kind of door that makes me profoundly sad that we no longer have majestic doors like this in our homes.
“We can let you in once they finish this song,” he points to the empty room behind us, “We have a fully stocked bar if you’d like a drink now or after the show.”
We hear clapping.
“Okay, come with me. Where are your seats?”
He leads us into the dark room filled with people sitting in golden-backed chairs facing three violinists and one base player framed by candles, gossamer ivory curtains with large gold bows, and a display of lush artificial pine, spruce, and fir trees. The musicians were lit up from the bottom of the stage, giving them each a reversed halo effect.
“Do you guys want to sit on the balcony?” he asks, pointing to the riser off to the side of the stage, “There are plenty of seats up there.”
On the app, those seats were listed as VIP seats and were twenty dollars more per ticket. We make our way up the two steps to the balcony and find three seats. The anger is coming off Helena. We sit down. I sit in the middle, between Ethan and Helena, I can’t see because of a pillar in my eye-line, and I move. I reach over and touch Helena’s shoulder, and she yanks it away from me. This is our relationship now, me reaching out to her and her pulling away. I pray that it’s just normal teen stuff growing up, putting an ample crevice between us instead of building a gaping canyon that I may not be able to climb over.
As we listen to the first song, I think of my mom; I remember holding her hand in the dark throughout the entire length of whatever performance we were watching. Her soft skin. Her long nails. Every so often, she’d give me a squeeze, and we smiled at one another, lost in our own piece of holiday magic. Not Disney have a magical day or the manufactured big box I gotta get the right gift and bake the perfect cookies kind of magic. This was its own kind. For that tiny moment, everything was right in the world. We were together with our invisible pulsing cord connecting her heart to mine.
“Cali,” my mom says in my ear. “Get up and sit in between your husband and your daughter and hold their hands.”
And I get up and move into the middle seat between Ethan and Helena. It doesn’t matter that I can’t really see the stage. That’s what this night is for. I take their hands in mind. Ethan’s strong meaty hand wraps around mine. Helena, at first, pulls her hand away from me, and I gently take it back.
The string quartet begins to play the opening bars from “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The music hits me right in the middle of my chest, and my heart begins to shake off any remnants of sadness. It stretches and expands, opening up and letting my little family inside. I hold each of them, and with each beat of my heart, I bring them a bit closer to me, to us.
I can hear the lyrics to the song:
I’m dreaming tonight of a place I love Even more than I usually do
And Helena melts into me.
And although I know it’s a long road back I promise you
Then, Ethan squeezes my hand.
I’ll be home for Christmas You can count on me
And right then, I see the golden cord spin out from my chest and weave around Ethan and pierce his heart. It then twirls out and around us both, circling Helena not once but twice as it seizes her and encompasses all three of us, bringing us back to one another. And together, we sat holding hands, and I realized my mom was there, waiting for us in the dark. That she’d always be there to bring us back no matter how many times we might split and break.
Amelia Estelle Dellos (she/her) is a lifelong Chicagoan, an award-winning writer, and a filmmaker. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and teaches writing and rhetoric at Columbia College and Roosevelt University. Recently, she became the managing editor of Unwoven Literary Magazine. Her work has appeared in Big Shoulders Press, Allium: A Journal of Poetry & Prose, Grand Dame Literary Journal, PBS, Amazon Prime, and Highly Sensitive Refuge.