On Nantucket, the Christmas season is different.
The island, fifty-two square miles of flat sandy land, lies in windswept isolation almost thirty miles away from the continent and all its institutions and entertainments. In the summer, the sun shines down on golden beaches and a serene blue sea. In the winter, gale force winds lash and howl over the ocean, cutting its residents off from family, friends, and often fresh bread and milk as Nantucket Sound freezes over and no planes fly, no boats sail, to or from the island. When the sun sets early and rises late, deep black water surrounds the land in infinite darkness.
Then Nantucket comes truly alive. Islanders have the leisure to savor the Charles Dickens charm gleaming from the glistening cobblestone streets and historic brick buildings. They relish the coziness of the small town where they know everyone, and everyone’s dog. After a hectic summer, they enjoy the tranquil pace. They take time to stop, look, listen, pat the dog, tickle a baby’s chin, chat, and laugh. They attend Christmas pageants, holiday fairs, and all manner of cabarets. The town lines the central streets of the village with dozens of small evergreens twinkling with multicolored lights and weatherproof decorations. The islanders pause to gaze up at the forty-foot spruce blazing at the top of Main Street, and they nod in appreciation and gratitude.
They celebrate light, life, and laughter as the winter dark wildness descends.
The Christmas Stroll began as an occasion for merchants to welcome islanders into their shops for hot buttered rum, spiced apple cider, warm gossip, and good cheer. Store windows were artistically decorated with mermaids and Santas, seahorses and fairy-tale scenes. Mr. and Mrs. Santa arrived on a Coast Guard boat and were delivered to the Jared Coffin House by horse and buggy. The aroma of fresh fish chowder and island-brewed beer wafted enticingly from the restaurants. The town crier strode through the streets in tall hat and cape, and Victorian carolers enchanted the salt air with song.
Not surprisingly, and oddly around the same time the one-hour fast ferries started their rounds, news of Nantucket’s Christmas Stroll spread to off-island friends and relatives of the townspeople. One sparkling winter day, a Boston television station sent a reporter and cameraman. After that, the annual event was famous.
For children, it was magic. For adults, it was a chance to be childlike.
For Nicole Somerset, the Nantucket Christmas Stroll was close to miraculous.
Four years ago, Nicole was a widow. Her friend Jilly insisted that Nicole travel down from Boston for the weekend to enjoy the Stroll. Nicole came, and fell in love with the charming small town, its festively bedecked windows, its fresh salt air and chiming church bells. She fell in love with a man, as well.
She met Sebastian Somerset at a party. They liked each other a lot, rather quickly, if not immediately, but being older, and possibly wiser, they took time getting to know each other. Nicole was widowed and childless. Sebastian was divorced, with a grown daughter.
Nicole was a nurse. She had just retired at fifty-five, but she missed her patients and colleagues. She missed her work, too. She liked to keep busy. Sebastian, sixty-two, had worked for a Boston law firm. He had also just retired, realizing he’d spent too much of his life working. He wanted to enjoy life.
Slowly, cautiously, they began to date, discovering that together they enjoyed life a great deal. Sebastian owned a house on the island, and as the days, weeks, and then months went by, he introduced Nicole to the pleasures the island offered—swimming, sailing, and tennis. In turn, Nicole introduced Sebastian to the delights his first wife had disdained: homemade pie, eaten while watching large-screen television; walking rather than biking through the island moors; stopping to notice the birds and wildflowers rather than jogging to keep his heart rate up; or watching the sun set on the beach rather than attending a cocktail party.
Sebastian’s first wife, Katya, was a perfectionist who had kept him on a tight leash and a rigid routine. After a few months of relaxed satisfaction with Nicole, Sebastian worried he would gain weight and develop heart trouble. To his surprise, he gained no weight, and his blood pressure actually dropped. When he asked his doctor about this at his annual check-up, Maury Molson leaned back in his chair and shrewdly raised his hairy eyebrows.
“Sebastian, you’ve been going through life as if everything is a competition. During this past year, you’ve stopped to smell the roses, and it’s been the best thing you could do for your health.”
Sebastian chortled in surprise. “I’m shocked.”
“Me, too,” Maury told him. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you laugh like that before. And it’s true, happiness is the best medicine.”
When Sebastian told Nicole about this, she beamed and responded, “You make me happy, too. Although I haven’t had my blood pressure checked.”
“I wish we could live together for the rest of our lives,” Sebastian allowed, looking worried.
“Darling, why can’t we?”
Sebastian had furrowed his brow. “I think you should meet my daughter before we go any further.”
Sebastian and Katya had a daughter, Kennedy, who was, Sebastian uneasily confessed, emotionally complicated. A carbon copy of her blond, beautiful mother, Kennedy tried to emulate Katya, meaning that she tried to be perfect, still not understanding, after all the years of living with her, that it was so much easier for a woman to be perfect when she focused only on herself.
Because Katya had been a kind but cool mother, Sebastian had, he admitted, cossetted, pampered, and perhaps even spoiled Kennedy a bit. Okay, perhaps a lot. Now married to a perpetually flustered stockbroker named James, Kennedy found herself overwhelmed herself by the responsibilities of grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and caring for their son Maddox.
Kennedy was further dismayed by her parents’ divorce.
Katya had been thoughtful enough to wait until Kennedy’s wedding five years ago to leave Sebastian for her tennis coach, Alonzo. Kennedy couldn’t understand why her father, who could always do anything and everything, couldn’t win Katya back. When Sebastian had admitted to Kennedy that he didn’t want Katya back, that he was more contented without her, Kennedy had dissolved into a weeping fit and said she never wanted to see her father again.
Kennedy changed her mind when her baby boy was born. She didn’t want her son to grow up without his grandparents, even if they were no longer married. For the past four years, Sebastian’s relationship with his daughter had been close and comfortable. Kennedy had even accepted Alonzo’s presence in her mother’s life, although she told her father it broke her heart every time she saw Katya with that other man.
So naturally, Sebastian worried about telling Kennedy about Nicole.
Sebastian paced the living room of Nicole’s Boston apartment as he strategized the first meeting. “I’ve told Kennedy I’ve been seeing someone. I’m going to tell her I want to bring you to dinner, to meet her. That should indicate that I’m serious about you.”
Nicole had no advice to give. She had not been able to have children. All her nurturing instincts had gone into her nursing profession. She thought Kennedy sounded like a difficult personality, but how bad could she be?
“Tell Kennedy I’d like to bring dessert,” Nicole offered.
“Why would you do that?” Sebastian looked genuinely puzzled.
“It’s a nice thing to do,” Nicole explained gently. She’d begun to see that in Sebastian’s former social-climbing world, niceness had no place. His life with Katya had been all about ambition. “It will save her from cooking something.”
Sebastian thought this over. “I see.”
When she stepped into Kennedy’s home, it was Nicole who saw, and her heart plummeted for the man she’d come to love and for his daughter. Clearly Kennedy had copied her mother’s style of décor, best described as “Glacial Chic.” Walls, furniture, floors, even wall art, were white. The living room coffee table was glass with sharp edges. The dining room chairs and tablecloth were black; the plates white. It was a hot summer evening when she first entered Kennedy’s home, and Nicole wished she’d brought a pashmina to ward off the chill.
Kennedy, blond and wire-hanger thin, wore a white sleeveless dress. Her husband, James, wore a starched white button-down shirt with khakis. Only little Maddox, chubby in his navy blue and white sailor outfit, provided a dash of color.
Everyone shook hands politely, and then Nicole sank to her knees in front of Maddox.
“Hi, Maddox. I’ve brought you a present.” She held out a brightly colored gift bag. She’d spent hours considering what to bring for the child, knowing as she did all the restrictions his mother placed on his life. Maddox was two then, much too young, Kennedy insisted, to watch any television. Also, he could not have any candy or anything sweet. Also, he was not to have anything “technological”—no remote-controlled cars or dump trucks, no handheld video games.
Wanting to get him something special, Nicole had bought him a silly-faced, shaggy-haired white goat which, when a button was pushed, burst into “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd” and continued singing through the entire song, wagging its head and batting its long black eyelashes.
Maddox clapped his hands and giggled when he saw it. Kennedy opened her mouth to object, but after a moment could think of no objection, and managed to say, “Tell Nicole thank you, Maddox.”
“Thank you,” Maddox said.
Nicole beamed as she rose to her feet. She had passed the first test. Proudly, she wrapped her arm through Sebastian’s arm, giving it a quick smug hug.
“Love-dovey—ick!” Maddox giggled.
Nicole started to pull her arm away.
But Sebastian laughed and with his other arm reached out and pulled his daughter next to him. “Maddox, I like hugs from my women.”
Nicole watched emotions flicker over Kennedy’s lovely face: surprise at her father’s unusual spontaneity; joy at being hugged by her father; consternation at being hugged when her father was with Nicole.
Dinner was a complicated casserole with a French name and a salad of puzzling gourmet lettuce called frisée that felt like sharp bitter hair in Nicole’s mouth. Still, she appreciated the trouble Kennedy had gone to.
“This meat is so tender,” Nicole complimented Kennedy.
Kennedy actually blushed. “Thank you. It’s daub au poivre. The meat is marinated with wine and all sorts of herbs. I had to find lard for the recipe. Lard. Who uses lard anymore? But I wanted to make it authentic . . .”
She’s nervous, Nicole realized, as Kennedy babbled on. Not nervous about Nicole, but about the excellence of her cooking. Kennedy’s eyes flitted to her father as she spoke, waiting for him to praise her. Nicole kicked Sebastian in the ankle until he spoke up.
“It’s delicious, Kennedy. Never tasted anything better.”
Nicole could see Kennedy’s shoulders actually relax, dropping a few inches away from her ears. A tender spot blossomed in her heart for the young woman.
But when time came for dessert, Kennedy refused to taste Nicole’s deep-dish apple pie.
Putting her hand on her waistline, Kennedy said, “I don’t eat desserts. We all know that sugar is bad for us. And I have to watch my weight, like mother does. I don’t want to get”—she glanced at Nicole’s rounder figure—“pudgy.”
Sebastian chuckled around a mouth of delicious pie. “We all gain weight as we grow older, darling.”
“Mother hasn’t,” Kennedy reminded him. “She’s got a gorgeous shape and a flat tummy.”
She probably doesn’t eat lard, Nicole wanted to say, but kept her mouth shut.
And that, as far as Nicole was concerned, summed up her relationship with Kennedy. One step forward, one step back.
Nicole and Sebastian married. The January ceremony was attended by only a few intimate friends since they assumed Kennedy would refuse to attend. Katya was blissfully redecorating her Boston townhouse and continuing to see Alonzo. Kennedy’s husband, James, was doing well with his work, and Maddox was growing out of the toddler stage, becoming more manageable. A delicate harmony existed in Sebastian’s inner circle; Nicole and Sebastian did not want to disrupt the peace.
Nicole sold her small apartment and moved to Sebastian’s Nantucket house to live year-round. She made friends, loved the small town, and began to anticipate the holiday season.
This year Katya and Alonzo were going to a tennis and cleansing spa. That meant that Kennedy, James, and Maddox were coming to the island for Christmas week.
The entire seven-day-long Christmas week.
Why did his parents need another baby? Maddox wondered about this constantly. It was going to be a boy, too, his mommy had told him. Wasn’t Maddox a good enough boy for his parents?
He tried to be a good boy. He ate his vegetables, even though they sometimes made him gag. He strained desperately to comprehend the funny squiggles on the page every day when his mommy tried to teach him to read, and he had already mastered the art of using the potty. Most of the time.
But Maddox had seen babies. They couldn’t use the potty at all. So why did his parents want one?
“You’ll have someone to play with,” his mommy promised. But a kid couldn’t play with a baby. Babies couldn’t throw a ball. They couldn’t even lift their heads.
It was a puzzle.
He’d suggested many times that instead the family could get a dog. With all his heart, Maddox wanted a dog. He could throw a stick for a dog and play ball with a dog and cuddle in bed with a dog . . . although maybe not. Mommy said they would bring dirt and germs into the house.
Nicole had given Maddox had a stuffed goat and even though Mommy said Nicole was a hag, he loved the animal, which sang—until Mommy removed the battery. Maddox named him Yodel and held him when he went to bed at night, rubbing Yodel’s silky tongue between his thumb and finger. It helped him fall asleep.
He knew, of course, that a real goat wouldn’t have a satin tongue, and he wouldn’t be able to rub the tongue, anyway, that would get drool all over the bed. Anyway, he didn’t want a real goat, which was too big. He wanted a small dog, so he could put his arm around it and feel its furry warmth against his body. He would like that.
When he was little, his mommy had held him in her arms a lot. Now that she was all stuffed with the baby, holding Maddox was too hard for her. She didn’t have a lap to sit on anymore, and Maddox was always, she said, poking him with his elbows or knees. He tried to be careful, but now Mommy said she was getting breathless since the baby’s bum was pushing against her lungs.