A Christmas Story

“Such things take time.” Emilio poked at the embers of the fireplace and the log ignited, projecting orange reflections on the walls of the great salon.

A pleasant smell drifted from the kitchen, where Iria explained to Colette that neither she nor Emilio eat meat, but this meal was a Portuguese Christmas tradition, and they served meat because her guests expect it. The mixed scent of the oven and burning candles was also a pleasant reminder of her happy childhood.

Iria had also invited her elderly neighbours, so they would not spend Christmas Eve alone. Our daughter Clara played chess with the 85-year-old Matilde, while Matilde’s husband commented the moves in Portuguese. Clara does not speak the language, but all three laughed a lot when Clara tried to explain Matilde’s mistakes.

There were other friends of Iria sitting at the long table, but of her two children, only her daughter Leonor had come, with her husband and two children. Iria’s son Renato was backpacking somewhere in Tanzania. Iria seemed to be in a good spirits, but we knew her well enough to notice that something was wrong.

“Six months is a long time,” I said to Emilio. “I went to her office in late September and didn’t notice anything at all. Both seemed in good spirits.” Emilio hung the iron rod next to the fireplace. “That’s at work. Privately they haven’t talked since June.”

Iria was born in the Azores, where she spent her childhood in a rather modest environment. She lives only for her two children, whom she raised alone. To give them a good education, she had worked for several years in a Lisbon hospital. She is now settled with her adult children in the Algarve. Leonor is a musician and Renato, a young doctor, has recently started working in his mother’s office. Emilio explained the reason for their dispute. Last June Renato told his mother that he did not want to spend his time in an office, because for him ‘there are more important things in life than the worries and laments of privileged elderly people’. That triggered a passionate conflict, and they have not spoken to each other since then.

“After Eleonor changed from her medical studies to music, she hoped that Renato continues and will become financially independent. However, she should accept their decisions.

You can’t force your children into a way of life.”

“Did she try to talk to him again?”

“The two are quite headstrong. He’s been traveling for a month now and hasn’t called his mother yet.” I could imagine how Iria was feeling, with no news from her son backpacking in the African bush.

Emilio and Iria knew each other for only a few years. Iria had been tired of men, but the inconspicuous Emilio, with his calm and sensitive manner, had won the heart of this energetic, independent woman. When talking to Emilio, she told us once, she gets the impression that his gentle eyes and peaceful gaze looks deep into her mind, leaving behind some kind of serenity.

“The roast will soon be ready, perhaps we should start.” Iria came out of the kitchen and helped Clara and Matilde to put the chess pieces away. Much to the reluctance of her daughter, Leonor also cleared the dominoes.

The numerous appetizers were carried to the table, and when everyone was seated, Emilio asked us to each take the hand of our two table neighbors. Then he spoke in a local dialect that I did not understand. Every now and then someone laughed, and his last sentences contained words like “tolerance” and “completeness.” After that, there was a moment of silence, until he looked at Iria and asked her to start, “…otherwise we will still be sitting here, when the roast had long been charred.”

Then the telephone rang.

“Please don’t answer, ma, I will.” Leonor knew that even on Christmas Eve, her mother would not refuse a patient’s call. She walked around the long table into the hallway and picked up the smartphone. She listened a moment, then came back and wordlessly handed it to her mother.

After a moment, the table went so quiet that we heard the wood cracking in the fireplace. None of us wanted to listen into the conversation, but we were embarrassed to see tears rolling down from Iria’s cheeks. Only Emilio smiled into his plate.

Iria did not say a word. She listened in silence, for a long time. Then she glanced around with glittering eyes.

“Yes, Renato, that is what we will do,” she said. Then she handed the phone to Leonor and explained that she had just received her gift before the meal.

Hearing this, Leonor’s daughter was protesting, she also wanted to have her present now!

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