Olivia woke early on Christmas morning feeling almost excited enough to leap out of bed. She was sure that Florie and Carmen would like their new dresses this year, even though her offerings had not been a hit last year. This year, she was sure, the darling prints and delightful spiral of ruffles were irresistible – how could they not love them?

Olivia did not leap out of bed, though. She rolled herself upright with her feet over the edge of the mattress. She looked at her swollen ankles and frowned. Gently she put some weight on her feet and let her knees wake up before standing. She reached for her fleece bathrobe and wrapped it around, tying the belt in a bow. Quickly she brushed her long hair and wound it in a knot at the back of her neck. Now she was moving, she felt better.

The ranch house was quiet with six inches of new snow around it. No wind yet. Good for the crops!

Looking down the stairs at the Christmas tree – a bushy juniper – with its lights and sparkling chains, Olivia thanked God for all their blessings, especially each other. She descended the stairs carefully, enjoying the domestic scene.

“They will want coffee; I’ll do that first.” Olivia talked to herself, keeping herself company.

The girls came down, Jaime came down, the coffee got done, and everybody got some. “Let’s open the presents!” It popped out of her mouth the moment she sat down in her Lazy Boy chair.

Florie and Carmen exchanged glances. Oh well, wait till they see them! The dress pattern is darling.

“Jaime, find my presents for Florie and Carmen, would you?”

“Mama, don’t you want to open one of your presents first?”

“Oh, no, I want the girls to open theirs first.” Why was Jaime shaking his head? “Oh, Jaime, come on.”

Jaime was trying to say something to them without her knowledge, but she could read lips as well as they could. Jaime had seen the dresses. He shouldn’t have thought he needed to tell them to say thank you. She taught them manners.

First Carmen got hers open, and held it up. She pressed it to her front. It would be a little loose so she could grow into it. Olivia would have hoped for a little bit more excitement, but Carmen gave her a sweet smile. “Mama, this is perfect for parties. You know I’m not much for girlish clothes, but this is really pretty. Thank you!” She gave Olivia a Christmas hug that warmed her heart.

She could see Jaime was anxious, but now he smiled. “You will look beautiful and grown-up in it. Old-fashioned is coming back.”

Florie tore hers open with impatience. She shook the bundle of ruffles and set it down on her lap, scarcely looking at it. “Carmen is a hypocrite, Mama. She doesn’t like your dresses any better than I do. You should listen to us, and pay attention to what we like to wear. This is a dress for a grade school girl. It is so uncool. I’m telling you the truth because it’s a waste of your time and money and we want you to stop!”

“Florie!” Jaime made the windows rattle with his bellow. “Shame on you! Selfish little bitch, you’re wrong about the dress. You don’t deserve to have it so good…”

Jaime’s harangue continued at the top of his voice, but the girls shouted over him. Olivia put her hands over her ears to shut out their meanness and tears wetted her cheeks.

[rewind]

Florie woke on Christmas morning when she heard her mother’s heavy soft footsteps pass her door. She found she was grinding her teeth, dreading the scene she knew would soon play out.

It was no secret that Mama had been sewing every day while they were at school. She knew as certainly as she knew her name, Florinda Lourdes Diaz, that her present would be a new, homemade dress suitable for someone five years younger than she. No fourteen-year-old would be caught dead in a cotton print dress with gathered skirt hemmed below the knee.

Florie threw off the covers and pulled heavyweight tights and leg warmers on under her nightgown. Then she paused a moment, considering what to wear on top. She was only home with her family, but if someone dropped by to wish them a merry Christmas, she didn’t want to be in a bathrobe.

As she went to the closet, her hip just happened to bump the footboard of her sister Carmen’s bed.

“Wake up, you little toad.”

“Toad yourself, Florie.”

From the closet she pulled a short midnight blue tunic. After a complicated series of maneuvers, Florie’s nightgown came off over her head, revealing a fully dressed teenager.

Next stop was the vanity where a curling iron, eyeliner and a tiny bit of mascara perfected her toilette.

Then with great dignity, Florie descended the staircase as gracefully as a cat.

“Mmmm. Mama, the coffee smells good. Is it ready?”

It was not ready, so Florie went to wait in the living room. There were the soft bundles in Christmas paper and yarn ties with their names on them in Mama’s handwriting. Florie’s heart sank, even though she knew they would be there. How could she pretend to like it and then refuse to wear it? Wouldn’t it be better to be honest? Mama herself forbade them to tell lies.

Carmen arrived, and looked down at the presents, her face expressionless.

“You know Mom’s going to give us dresses, don’t you?”

“Of course. What of it?”

The further conversation irritated Florie. Carmen was going to be deceitful, pretend to like the dress, pretend to wear it, and Mama was going to throw that up to her forever. Last year all over again. Rrrrrrrr. The toad.

Of course, that was exactly what happened. Carmen sucked up and Florie couldn’t stand pretending to like the Christmas dress year after year, and said so. Jaime blew up, there was pandemonium, and the happy beginning ended with Mama in silent tears. Why did she have to be so stubborn!

[rewind]

Carmen woke when her older sister, Florie, bumped her bed on purpose.

“Wake up, you little toad.” Was Florie already mad at her? It was Christmas morning and Carmen had not done anything yet.

“Toad yourself, Florie.”

Carmen pulled the covers back up to her nose and waited for the crankypants to leave.

Then Carmen was out of bed, out of her nightgown, in her underwear, in her jeans, in her sweatshirt and trotting down the stairs – in about the time it took you to read about it.

“Mom, can I have a cup of coffee because it’s Christmas?”

“You’re too young to start drinking coffee, sweetie. It will stunt your growth. But okay, today is special.”

The coffee wasn’t quite ready, so Carmen went to look at the presents.

Florie was waiting there, too. “You know Mom’s going to give us dresses, don’t you?”

“Of course. What of it?”

“Are you going to wear yours?”

“Of course. Only question is when and where. Not at school. I’ll take my school clothes in my back pack and change when I get there.”

“But people will see it when you come in.”

“Not really, I’ll have my coat on.”

Jaime put the present in her hands and silently mouthed the words, “Smile and thank Mama or you’ll be sorry.”

Carmen put her thumbs in her ears and waggled her fingers. Jaime could not keep his face straight.

Mama looked bewildered. “What’s funny?”

Jaime blew it off. “She’s just being silly, Mama.”

Carmen felt her mother’s eyes on her as she held up the dress. Yes, nasturtiums make a nice floral. Yes, Mama put a lot of love into that ruffle that started at the waist and wound around twice before it got down to the hem. Yes, it was a nice dress. But it was not Carmen.

Honey catches more flies than vinegar. Carmen, the naturalist, wondered about that. She remembered seeing plenty of flies around vinegary salad plates. Anyhow, she tried to say something Mama would believe and feel good about.

Then Florie lit into her, Jaime blew up, everybody went crazy, and the fun was over. Florie deserved to be showered with a cold hose. Mama was heartbroken, and Carmen’s stomach hurt for her.

[rewind]

Jaime had been up late putting presents under the tree. He heard the girls in their room, but was not ready to leave the warm cave of his bunk. As he lay there, he thought of his mother’s shining face the night before when she confided in him that she was excited to see the girls’ faces light up when they would open their presents in the morning.

Months ago he had tried to hint that she should do something else for Christmas this year, but Mama was deaf to things she didn’t want to hear.

Jaime felt sad for her. His sisters might not pretend they liked Mama’s presents.

He wished Christmas didn’t exist. Well, he’d keep some of it. But he wished they could agree not to give each other presents. It would prevent a lot of pain.

After a few minutes of listening to the voices below, Jaime took a deep breath and hit the frigid air. He decided to add sweatpants and a bathrobe to his long underwear. He would get dressed when the house was warmer. He pulled on his slippers and padded downstairs.

“Good morning, Mama. Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas to you, son.”

“Did you get a good sleep?”

“Oh, not bad. Could have used more of it.”

“I know what you mean.”

“Here, the coffee is ready. Have a cup.” She reached for a mug and held it out.

“Thank you. Don’t mind if I do.”

The girls came in from the living room clamoring for theirs.

When the hubbub died down, the family moved to the living room. Mama clasped her hands and a broad smile wreathed her face. “Let’s open the presents!”

Nothing could distract her, Jaime knew, so he handed the soft packages to Carmen and then Florie with silent instructions to act grateful. Carmen made a face at him, but he couldn’t be mad at her, she was too cute. Florie just gave him the stink eye. They dared to do that in front of their Mama as if she couldn’t see them. Man! They deserved a whipping.

Carmen behaved acceptably. But Florie, now, she went way beyond unacceptable.

“Carmen is a hypocrite, Mama. She doesn’t like your dresses any better than I do. You should listen to us, and pay attention to what we like to wear. This is a dress for a grade school girl. It is so uncool. I’m telling you the truth because it’s a waste of your time and money and we want you to stop!”

Mama’s feelings were always transparent to Jaime, and at this moment he felt he had been kicked in the stomach by a horse. The next few minutes were a noisy blur to him. He had no control over his tongue and, later, no memory of what he said.

Tense quiet settled in the room, except for Mama sniffling.

Jaime formed a clear picture of the action he must take. He was the man of the house. It was his job to decide things in emergencies. Dire punishment, but not too dire, that was what he wanted. He ticked factors off on his fingers. Church and school were in different towns. No school friends came to the neighborhood dances.

“Be silent and listen, all three of you. Excuse me, Mama, but I am the male head of this household and I have made my decision. Sisters, you will wear those dresses every other time you go to church, and you will wear them to every summer dance at the schoolhouse.”

“Jaime, who says you…”

“Florie, I have said. If you don’t obey me without another word, I’ll sell your turquoise cowboy boots. And Mama, you’ve been told. They don’t want any more dresses full of home-made love. They don’t deserve them. So don’t make them.”

Jaime stared at each of them in turn, daring anyone to defy him. Snowy silence returned to the ranch house.

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