I was several months pregnant with my second child the first Christmas we lived in this house. My older daughter squirreled away all day at preschool, I spent the bulk of my time that holiday season lying on the big brown sofa next to the fireplace reading, staring at the Christmas tree and moving peacefully in and out of consciousness. I should have felt guilty lazing away like that but I refused to. I knew all too soon the demands of an infant would deny me proper sleep and as this second pregnancy had left me in tatters (I’d been sick too much, my back had ached too much) I didn’t allow myself any guilt whatsoever. So I read and re-read Angela’s Ashes and thought of poor little Frankie McCourt refused the pleasure of his Christmas ham for yet another year and I slept and read and slept and read and wallowed in the decadent freedom of my pregnant solitude.
It was during one of these late afternoon periods of intense dream-sleep that I heard a heavy knock at the door. My brain was fuzzy in a way that only a pregnant woman can understand; a hormone induced coma that impacts mind, body, appendages. All encompassing and disorienting I struggled mightily up through the layers of fog for several moments until I recognized the sound for what it was, got up, and stumbled to the door.
I opened it and took in the sight of a white van at the curb and an old man on my stoop, the old man struggling under the weight of an enormous and fragrant holiday wreath. He looked fantastically annoyed at having knocked for so long and had been about to turn and walk away when I had finally opened the door. Still confused from my hurried waking I stared at him for a moment trying to make sense of this sudden stranger until common sense kicked in. Delivery Man. Someone had sent me a wreath. This pleased me.
“Johnson residence?” He asked me and quickly I said “Yes.” Which wasn’t a lie, not exactly, because until a couple of months before it had been the Johnson residence. But the Johnsons had moved away and technically now it was the Matthews’ residence. Or the Poore residence if you were one of the few that cared my name is different from the others who live in my house. In general I don’t quibble over things like that, though I do always take note. I’ll answer to Mrs. Matthews if I don’t know you and am being polite. But if you’re one of the handful that pays attention and knows that Matthews is not my name and who acts accordingly when addressing an envelope or calling my home then in my brain you are awarded bonus points, the proper acknowledgement of my true identity always worthy of extra recognition.
But the old guy with the giant wreath couldn’t be bothered with such post-modern feminist distinctions of my married name versus my maiden name; in fact he had not even asked that question. He had asked specifically “Is this the Johnson residence?” and I had said “Yes.” I had also then prepared to launch into a lengthy explanation that while it was the Johnson residence (past tense) and sometimes things are still delivered under that name technically it is no longer the Johnson residence, indeed it is the Matthews residence (or Poore residence if you are so inclined). The words ordered themselves in my brain and on my tongue sluggishly, my synapses just as lethargic as my body and still unrecovered from their fugue until I realized just a beat too late that 1. I would look like a crazy person if I suddenly changed the name of my residence (especially when combined with my general naptime dishevelment) and 2. It didn’t matter because he was already gone, having walked down the sidewalk, climbed back in his van, and driven away to leave me standing cold on my doorstep holding an enormous and fantastically fragrant wreath.
I closed the door behind me and stared at the thing. It was a good thirty six inches across and fresh as a newly cut pine. A note was attached and I slid it out of its envelope dreading the thought of having to call the delivery place to tell them there had been a mistake when in the man’s eyes there had been no mistake at all. He had done his due diligence. He had asked me my name. And for some confused reason I had lied and he had given me the wreath. It was enormous and beautiful and clearly very expensive. I opened the little card labeled “To the Johnsons” with dread, prepared to see it sent “With Love” from some distant grandmother or beloved aunt, a gift from afar to let them know they were missed and thought of, a probable tradition that I had usurped in a moment of confused sleepiness. The card instead said “Happy Holidays from Signa Pharmaceuticals!” and I breathed a sigh of relief.
A crummy and thieving pharmaceutical company had sent it which made sense because the man who had lived here before us had been a physician. The company had probably sent this same wreath to every doctor in town. This very expensive wreath. And to pay for it they had jacked up the rates of insulin and dementia drugs. Old people were pinching pennies this holiday season to pay for this ostentatious wreath to decorate the home of some wealthy doctor who could certainly afford to buy his own wreath. Outrage! Indignation! By stealing this wreath I did a good thing, a noble thing. No brownie points for Signa Pharmaceuticals this holiday season. Dr. Johnson wouldn’t be pushing anybody your way in the New Year because his papal ring had not been kissed. Take that big healthcare! Every now and then the little guy does win one! And on and on. These were the things I told myself to feel better about stealing the wreath.
Knowing that the people who had lived here before us often drove past while visiting friends I was nervous about hanging it on our front door. If this really was something that they received every year they would see it and know we had stolen it and used it ourselves instead of telling the delivery people that the Johnsons had moved. It was too pretty to waste though and I enjoyed looking at it and the way it made the house smell. So instead of hanging it outside the front door I hung it inside the front door where I could enjoy it from the safety of the living room sofa. In this way I spent the entire holiday season, pregnantly drowsing away in front the Christmas tree, reading and re-reading Angela’s Ashes and smelling the purloined Christmas wreath that hung on the inside of my house.
For an entire year I tucked away the memory of the stolen wreath. Then one afternoon as I prepared to get my baby boy up from his afternoon nap I heard a knock at the front door. Walking past the Christmas tree in the living room I grabbed the door handle and opened it to discover a delivery man standing on my stoop holding an enormous and fragrant wreath. “Johnson residence?” He asked. I looked into his aging face, the very same aging face that I had stared at in confusion 365 days earlier and, fully aware of what I was doing this time, afraid he would remember me from before, answered confidently and without hesitation “Yes.”
Again I hung the wreath on the inside of the house, still afraid that the Johnsons would drive by while visiting friends, notice our beautiful wreath and remember that once, when they had lived in that house they too had hung a very similar wreath on their door and I would finally be exposed as the cold-blooded thief that I am.
Prolonged exposure to crime really does make you immune and by year three I was over my worry of being caught. When the delivery man again brought the wreath I again answered a very bold “Yes!” to his question “Is this the Johnson residence?” This time I hung the damned thing on my front door for the whole world to see. By nature I am a pitifully honest person. My conscience eats away at me by the littlest fudging of the truth or misconstrued notion. Outright thievery is something my psyche simply cannot handle. But for some reason I had reconciled things where the wreath was concerned. I’m sure it was because it was being sent by a nameless corporation who couldn’t bother to vet their mailing list. If it had been an actual person sending it I’m sure I would have corrected it the very first year. But I hadn’t and so now I had to live with the disappointing knowledge that in such a short time I had spiraled so very far down into my own sad version of a life of crime.
Year four I stood in the dining room going over homework with my then eight year old daughter, the large picture window overlooking the already darkening street. The Christmas tree blinked sporadically from the next room. From the corner of my eye I noticed a white van creep up along the curb, slowing as if to read house numbers. I recognized the van immediately, knew it for what it was, knew exactly what its timing meant. I knew also that my daughter had noticed the van, that she would crowd beside me at the door in excitement at a holiday delivery, and that she would hear the man ask “Is this the Johnson residence?”
She would also hear my answer.
Never in my adult life had I been faced with a more instantaneous moral dilemma that required a more instantaneous solution. I was right that she’d noticed the van as soon as I had and her kid antennae had perceived something exciting was about to happen. As the old man climbed from the front of his van and ambled around to the back to open up the cargo door to retrieve what I knew for certain was an enormous holiday wreath I turned to my beautiful daughter, the most scrupulous human being I know and confessed.
“Hey, so, you know that wreath we always get every year? Well, the first year they accidentally delivered it to the wrong house. I knew it was the wrong house but I was confused at the time because I was sleepy and, it was just weird. Anyway, I accidentally said it was the right house and he drove off before I could tell him it was the wrong house and I wouldn’t have kept it if it had been from a grandma or somebody special but it was just from an evil company and they’ll never care that they sent it to the wrong place and anyway, it’ll just go to waste if they send it back because it’s not like we even know where it’s supposed to go at this point, so why waste a perfectly good wreath, right? So I need to know, when this guy asks if this is the Johnson residence, should I say yes so we can get the pretty wreath that we always get every year or should I tell him no because it’s not ours even though if they take it back it’ll just go to waste and that would be a shame. So...what should I tell him?” I finished my defense summation in a rush, envisioning the moment of truth which would arrive as soon as the old man mounted the stoop. With expectation I looked down at my daughter.
She was staring at me with all of the horror and disappointment that an eight year old girl wearing a powder blue izod and khaki school jumper could muster. It was with great restraint and with an eye on what the thirty year old her would look like that she peered through her wire rim glasses and said to her mother, “You mean all these years you have been stealing that wreath?” The way she said it, with withering judgment and ice, shrunk me to the size of a pea. I had worked hard to shape her into a person with a powerful moral compass. I just never expected her to so rapidly zero its sights in on me. “Um, yes. I guess you could call it stealing though I do think that’s an ugly word. It was really just a misunderstanding.” I feebly tried to explain myself, knowing the battle was lost. “Yeah Mommy, but after that first time you knew it wasn’t ours but you did it anyway. I don’t want some stolen thing in my house for Christmas. It’s not ours. You can’t keep it.” At that exact moment there was a knock at the door. I looked down at my daughter who was staring at me like I was the biggest fool in all the world, her biggest disappointment being that I had somehow thought she would be on my side. I opened the door to the same old man from years one, two and three and this time when he asked, perfunctorily at this point “Johnson residence?” I looked back at him and with shame and contrition answered very simply “No.”