Today, we are pleased to return to “Bay Rhum Christmas,” by Frances Key Phillips, originally published on The Masters Review in 2015. In this story, a woman visits her daughter’s home for the holidays and comes to terms with the realities of her grown family. Phillips offers a narrative about love, memory, and life, examining the ways in which it fulfills and disappoints us with direct and touching prose. We are excited to return our attention to this great story for the holiday season.
“I warm the rum before pouring it over,” Bronwen says, smiling. “Helps it burn.” It’s a bit of a cheat, but this last resort is called for, considering all that has happened.
Bronwen isn’t greeted by anyone at the door, though she knows she can be seen through the house’s large front windows as she walks up the path. A carrier bag holding two boxes of gold-foil Christmas crackers swings from her forearm. She is hardly surprised at the oversight: Carys’ household always gives off a hectic air, despite there being only two adults and one docile child living in it. No one ever sits down, or at least not when Bronwen visits. But she does not feel unwelcome. She is arriving at precisely the time she has been told to arrive, just as she will leave at precisely the time she has said she will be leaving.
Blinking against the morning’s fine snow, she lets herself in and hangs up her winter coat in the hall closet, sliding her cap-toe pumps in small circles on the putty-colored carpeting to dry them.
In the kitchen Carys taps the side of a sieve and powdered sugar drifts over a plate of mince pies, blanketing them. Condensation, like that in a terrarium, clouds the corners of all the windows. The house’s warmth creeps up Bronwen’s neck. Carys has the same dogged look she got as a child whenever she was concentrating on something beyond her easiest grasp.
“Nadolig llawen,” Bronwen says from the doorway after waiting to be noticed becomes tiresome. She looks forward to holidays and birthdays, when she can resurrect the Welsh of her childhood without her children pulling faces.
“Merry Christmas to you, too.” Carys pushes her cheek out for Bronwen to kiss. She smells like frying oil and onions and her hair is cinched back into a thin tail. Greasy strands snake along her shining forehead like scribbles from a pen.
“You’re just in time, Ma. Can you do the custard? Marged’s done it once already but it seized. We’re both hopeless at it.”
“No trouble,” Bronwen says. “I’ll just get an apron on.” She will show them how it’s done. This time, make them write it down. “Should I put these on the table?” Bronwen asks, holding the bag of crackers out.
“Paul can help Sally to set them out. She’ll like to help.” Carys hands Bronwen a stiff holly-patterned bib and she slips it over her head, pulling its stingy strings tight around her hips.
Bronwen bites into one of the mince pies. Shards like mica shatter onto her front. Carys has done them nicely, their elegance not betraying the cook’s anxiousness. Until a couple of years ago, Bronwen handled the whole Christmas meal herself, the girls helping out here or there and Trevor seeing to the wine—opening bottles to air them, putting Champagne on ice—and the music—popular holiday music to start and later a loop of carols, hymns and Gregorian chants. Bronwen never let any of the day’s labor get away from her: any fluster she felt was hidden from the rest of them.
Marged, Bronwen’s younger daughter, comes in holding a bottle of Pellegrino in each fist. “There you are. Come and open your presents, Ma,” she says, leading Bronwen by the elbow to the living room so the task can be ticked off Marged’s list.
“I was just…”
“That’s all right. We can do that later, can’t we?” They leave the kitchen before Carys can answer.