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Our Merry Mary Frances Christmas

The story here is all about living up to expectations

After 25 years, Mary Frances tracked down her sister for a family reunion that is the Christmas the author remembers most.

Once I got married, it seemed as though the children started coming along on a regular basis like the books in the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Elizabeth, Ester and Ruth. They just kept coming. That’s what good Catholic wives and mothers did back in the day. I learned how to stretch the grocery budget with lots of rice and pasta. Money was always tight, especially at Christmas time.
    One year, I was so excited to get a part-time job at the mall wrapping gifts. What a great job! I loved choosing the perfect size boxes, color coordinating the foil paper and ribbons and creating a work of art. Customers always seemed to be in good holiday spirits, and when they retrieved their packages they would be ecstatic over the beautiful wrappings and big, festive bows. I was overjoyed as my tip jar runneth over. Every dollar went into my Christmas fund so I could give my family a wonderful Christmas.
    Working a second job, addressing Christmas cards, baking cupcakes for Sister Michael’s class and sewing costumes for the three wise men was exhausting.
    I wanted to decorate my children’s packages as nicely as I decorated the strangers in the mall, but there wasn’t enough time. When I did find the time, I slapped wrapping paper and scotch tape on the boxes and threw them in a pile.

The author’s children Luke and Ester in 1993 as Joseph and Mary in the school play.

    The children did not share my holiday enthusiasm, and I could not get any help decorating the tree. Their contribution was a nativity scene featuring Kermit the frog as baby Jesus and Transformers standing shoulder to shoulder with the shepherds.
    Christmas morning found me sitting in holiday traffic on a two-hour journey to my mother’s house, crammed in the minivan with six cranky kids, listening to holiday music for the sixth week in a row. Three of the children had already asked “Are we there yet?” One child had to go to the bathroom and another was torturing her baby sister.
    Christmas at Mom’s house was never going to be like the homecoming at the Walton’s or George Bailey’s in It’s a Wonderful Life. But it was my family — including Mary Frances after a very long absence — and I had to make the best of it.

My Years with Mary Frances

    I grew up with my aunt Mary Frances by my side. We played together and dressed our dolls together. She read books to me and taught me the numbers on the playing cards when we played Go Fish. She even tried to teach me to crochet, but her fingers went too fast. Her stitches mesmerized me, as repeated over and over again, they formed beautiful creations from a ball of cotton yarn.
    After we were tucked in at night, we would giggle under the covers hoping not to be heard. My grandmother would have to shush us several times. Mary Frances, however, could not be quiet. She had the biggest mouth in town. My grandmother told her that if she were ever on stage, she would not need a microphone. Her voice was big and booming.
    Mary Frances knew all of the songs from the 1940s and ’50s. Heck, I think she even knew the show tunes from the Vaudeville era. She could belt out every verse of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and she sounded like Ethel Merman, too.
    And she had a laugh! She had a laugh so loud that if the toy manufactures could put it in a can and sell it, they could have made billions. She was a squealer. She squealed with every ounce of energy the good Lord gave her and then some. I know the neighbors six blocks away could hear her singing, laughing and squealing.
    My mother, on the other hand, was extremely reserved and quiet. I could sense that Mary Frances’s outbursts of laughter and squealing got on her nerves. Mom would tug at her sister’s shoulder: “Calm down! Calm down! That’s enough! That’s enough! Stop laughing!”
    I was six years old, and Mary Frances was 35.
    During the Depression, Catholic Charities gave my grandparents, Maria and Francesco Cappelletti, an infant they named Mary Frances. Soon, the doctors advised my grandparents to put her in an institution. Her mind would never develop past the age of five. She would never learn to read or write, and she would be a burden. My grandparents ignored the doctors and devoted their lives to caring for her, delighted as she sang and squealed with laughter. During World War II, they adopted another child, my mother Mary Catherine.
    After my grandparents were gone, Mary Frances came to live with us. Mother became ill and had to be hospitalized for a long time. My brothers were sent to live with my dad.
    At the ripe old age of 12, I proudly took on the responsibility of caring for Mary Frances and the house until life could return to normal. I felt so grown up as I prepared SpaghettiOs for dinner, bathed Mary Frances for bed and packed her a lunch to eat while I was at school. It wasn’t very long before social services intervened and took Mary Frances away.
    After 25 years, Mary Frances tracked down my mother’s phone number, called and asked if she could visit for Christmas. The news spread like wildfire throughout our family. We were all excited to see her. She had been a part of ARC of Anne Arundel County (in 2007, the name was changed to The ARC of the Chesapeake Central Region). With a support person, she was able to maintain an apartment; work every day, prepare her own meals and balance her checkbook.

Our Christmas Reunion

    Mary Frances had decked herself out in Christmas garlands for the occasion. Her hair was now all grey, but she was the same Mary Frances.
    With the excitement of a child, she opened each gift. No matter how small the trinket, she loved it. After our fizzled Christmas morning at home, Mary Frances made my holiday spirit shine a little bit brighter.
    By dinnertime, our oldest brother still had not shown up. He was always late, always taking care of last-minute details at his shop, even on Christmas day. Mom kept calling him, asking “Where are you? Why aren’t you here?”

Ruth and Matthew with Mommy, the author.

    “Soon,” he said again and again, “I will be there soon.”
    We ate dinner without him because everyone was hungry, and Mom didn’t want the food to get cold. As the evening dragged on, I feared I would not get to see him before my long journey back home.
    Suddenly, he burst through the front door with a huge, life-sized teddy bear, shouting, “Merry Christmas, Mary Frances!”
    As he placed the big bear in her lap, she squealed at phenomenal decibels. She squealed and laughed, and everyone around her squealed and laughed as her reaction was so infectious. I laughed so hard that tears swelled in my eyes.
    I stood by her trying to help her manage the bear, but I was laughing so hard I wanted to fall onto the floor. The whole room was in hysterics watching her struggle to hold onto this huge stuffed bear while she laughed and squealed and gasped for air.
    Then my mother tugged at her shoulder: “Calm down! Calm Down! That’s enough! That’s enough! Stop laughing!”
    I put my hand on my mother’s hand, and her eyes shot toward me. With tears of laughter streaming down my face, I pleaded, “Let her alone.”
    My mother smiled a rare smile.
    Mary Frances laughed for what seemed like eternity, until she decided she was going to sing Christmas carols. Now the neighbors six blocks away could hear her singing, laughing and squealing.
    I am reminded of a poem by Dr. Seuss:

It came without ribbons! It came ­without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!
Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a ­little bit more!

    She was returned to our family, my aunt with the big mouth, who was never supposed to read or write or be anything but a burden. By simply laughing, she put into my heart the love and joy I was so desperately seeking that Christmas.

•   •   •

    There have been amazing moments in my life. Some have been funny, some heartbreaking, some have been life altering. But that Christmas I spent with Mary Frances is the Christmas I remember most.

Editor’s note: Traditions return at holiday time to knit our pasts and present into a garment we wear into the future. At Bay Weekly we’ve made it a holiday tradition to tell you a story of how the season’s milestones are cele­brated in our extended family. This year Victoria Clarkson takes her turn.