“She looks like a little skier.” Jack leaned over and kissed his great-granddaughter’s head. “Are you bringing her out to the pond?”
“Yeah…” CJ had told Owen to stay in bed and taken care of feeding, cleaning, and dressing their daughter. Because of the cool morning, he added a hoodie and knit hat to her attire. “The outfit was a present from our friend, Gus Kenworthy. The Olympic skier you met at our wedding. This is the first time she’s worn it. Finally grew enough.”
“I think I remember him. There were so many people I’m not sure who I met. Speaking of crowds, is she going to be okay today? Between the wedding and wanting to meet Liebe, every relative within a hundred kilometers’ going to be here.”
“Should be. She’s pretty good with strangers. I mean, we have people over all the time, and she’s never been fussy. You wanna hold her?”
The smile on Jack’s face told CJ he had made the right call. He handed the infant over and went to get a refill on his coffee. “What time are the cousins getting here?”
“A couple of them are already running around outside, kicking a football. The others should arrive shortly.” Jack chuckled when Liebe tried to grab his glasses. “Those kids are excited about meeting their little American relative.”
CJ had met Owen’s aunts, uncles, and cousins during previous trips. The kids Jack referred to were either teenagers or pre-teens. The Listons had a dam on their property, and the pond behind it was home to yabbies. A freshwater crustacean—a type of crayfish—they were a staple on Christmas Day. Jack and his grandkids caught them early in the morning and cooked them in a big copper pot―salvaged from an antique washing machine―by boiling them in salt water.
“Good. Better if she meets them a few at a time. Ozzie and I want her to feel at home with her Aussie family.”
“Thanks again for bringing her, CJ. You have no idea how happy you boys made me when Owen told us she was coming with you.” Jack’s voice trembled as it had when he first met the girl the previous day.
CJ liked the old man, and the emotion-laden gratitude touched him. “Wouldn’t have it any other way, Jack. She’s a Liston. She belongs in Australia as much as she does in the States.”
During his first trip to the Hunter Valley, CJ discovered most Australian families had forgone the hot meal traditional in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year. In its place, dishes appropriate to the warmer weather predominated.
He looked forward to the feast. If it was anything like what he previously experienced, platters piled high with ham, chicken, crayfish, oysters, and more would burden tables with their weight. Salad and vegetable platters would also abound. Best of all, wine would flow by the case, which was appropriate considering just beyond where they would eat were acres of Liston grapevines.
Finally outside and with the morning warming up, CJ removed Liebe’s coat and hat. He sat on the pond’s edge with her while Jack supervised his grandkids baiting the flexible-netting baskets and tossing them in the water. The lanky teen who caught the first keeper brought it over for his little cousin to examine.
“This is a yabbie, Liebe. Really good eating.”
The girl reached for it but yanked her hand back when the wriggling creature snapped its pincers. “Don’t be scared, kiddo,” CJ said. “You’re the one who’s gonna eat it before the day’s over.”
“Prolly not. We’ve started feeding her solids, but it’s stuff like mashed fruit and vegetables. She only has a couple of teeth, so she can’t really chew.”
Freed from her father’s grasp, Liebe crawled along the shoreline under CJ’s watchful eyes. He allowed her to play in the mud until she tried to get in the water. “No swimming today, Liebe.” He and Owen had already taken her to a pool for incipient lessons. “Hey, Jack. She’s covered in dirt. I’m gonna take her back inside and clean her up.”
“That’s good. We’ll see you in a little while.”
Pam’s reception when he walked in the house was a surprise. “Oh my God! What have you done? She’s filthy! Why did you do that?” The woman did not look or sound pleased.
“Give it a break, Mum.” Owen sat at the kitchen bench nursing a steaming mug; he shook his head and rolled his eyes for CJ’s benefit.
“But she’s too young for this. She could get hurt. And she has mud on her face. Did you let her eat dirt?” The scowl aimed at CJ was further proof of her unhappiness.
“Chill-pill time, Pam.” CJ’s admonition did not appear to mollify his mother-in-law. “It’s not her first time rolling in mud, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. She did puke once when she ate grass, so we removed that from her diet.”
Owen’s chuckles appeared to further infuriate his mother. “Are you guys trying to hurt her? Don’t you have anyone teaching you what to do with a baby? What if she catches something? I asked everyone coming over if they had a cold or anything else. I don’t want her around sick people. She could—”
“ENOUGH!” Owen’s shout rattled Liebe enough she held onto CJ a little tighter. Losing his temper was rare for the Aussie. “What the hell’s gotten into you? You’ve done nothing but nag and complain since we got in. I know you’re nervous about the wedding, but you have to dial this crap back. Don’t make me regret bringing her.”
The out-of-character explosion surprised CJ, but he could understand it. Pam was annoying and getting on his nerves too. Her tears came as a shock. She slumped in a chair, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed. “You don’t understand. None of you can. I already lost one Elizabeth. I couldn’t handle going through that again.”
Comprehension accompanied the open-mouth expressions on CJ and Owen’s faces. “Oz, could you get another outfit for her? Maybe the red tights and dress?” He shooed his husband away with a hand and moved next to the crying woman. “Here,” CJ said as he sat the girl on the table in front of her grandmother.“Why don’t you help me clean her a bit. We can do it in the sink. OZ! Bring a towel too.
“You really should relax, Pam. Nothing bad’s gonna happen to her. And she’s not going to catch anything. Knowing she would be in a plane full of strangers, as soon as she was old enough we had her vaccinated for as many things as we could. You have to remember this is Liebe, not Liz. Just like nobody could prevent what happened to your daughter, nobody can foresee what will happen with this munchkin.
“But we can’t stop the unexpected. We refuse to live in fear. Owen’s heard me tell my parents and grandparents similar things before. We’ll look after her the best we can, but we don’t want her to live in a bubble.
“Listen, Ozzie and I have already discussed that when she’s older, we’ll send her down here every year to spend time with you guys. Please don’t make us doubt our decision. If you smother her, she may not want to come visit. Just so you know, in a year or two we’re gonna try for a second one. And I know Spencer and Tilda want to have kids too.
“Try to relax and enjoy her and any future grandchildren. I promise we’ll take good care of our kids so you can spoil them rotten when they’re around you.” The gentle tone apparently calmed her enough; when Liebe smacked her forehead with a tiny hand, Pam laughed.
“I was going to bring her clean shoes too but figured she can crawl around the house barefoot.” Owen raised an inquiring eyebrow and CJ gave him a wink.
“Sounds good to me. Why don’t you help your mom, and I’ll get her something to drink. Pam, can I take one of those guava juices in the refrigerator? I’ll dilute it with water so it’s not as sugary. I wanna see if she likes it.”
“Of course! You don’t have to ask. Can you get that stuff in America? If she likes it I can always send you some every month when we send you the wine.”
“Nah, we can get it. I grew up eating everything guava. The fruit’s popular with people from the islands, and a couple of Latin brands sell the juice. I’ve even seen organic ones at Whole Foods.”
“That’s a food store, Mum. Here, let me take her clothes off and you can wash her. I brought a fresh diaper in case she needs changing. We want her to look cute when the rest of the family meets her.”
“Oh, she’s cute even covered in dirt. You have no idea how much everyone’s been looking forward to seeing her.”
Leaving Pam to finish dressing the girl and give her the juice-filled sippy cup, CJ and Owen went in search of Spencer. “He was on the phone talking to Tilda last I saw him,” Owen said.
They found him on the veranda where the meal would be served in the late afternoon. “Hang up, Spencer. She’ll be here in a little while. You can talk to her then.” CJ tried to grab the phone but his brother-in-law swatted his hand away.
“Gotta go, babe. The Yanks are bothering me. See you when you get here. I love you too.”
“Oooh… I love you too. Isn’t that precious?” CJ’s mocking tone garnered him a middle finger.
“What the hell do you want? If you’re gonna make fun of me, I may disinvite you and find another groomsman.” Spencer had already mentioned he liked having the two visitors around; their antics made him laugh.
“Yeah, right. We wanna talk about your mother.”
“Bloody hell! What the fuck she do now?”
“Chill, man. Not so loud.” CJ and Owen recounted the breakdown they had witnessed and suggested they all take it easier on her.
“Fine. I’ll try, but I may have to walk away if she starts up. You have no idea—”
“Ho, ho, ho! Happy Christmas everyone.” The greeting came from around the building’s corner. When the three young men turned to look, John Paul Smith led his husband and parents onto the lawn behind the railing. All wore white–trimmed, red, Santa hats.
“JP! Tom!” CJ vaulted over the wooden barricade, landing next to the two visitors from America. Tom Kennedy and JP were his dads best friends and next-door neighbors. After hugging them both, he repeated the greeting with the older couple with them. “Kate, Joe, it’s so good to see you again.”
Laughter erupted from Spencer. “Bloody hell, CJ, you and my brother have become irrelevant. All anyone cares about’s your daughter.”
Kate and Joe Smith, JP’s parents, both grinned. She embraced Owen and noisily kissed his cheek. “You’re my new favorite. Spencer’s been jumpier than a roo on a hot day recently.”
“Sorry, guys,” Joe added. “But you have to realize my son and son-in-law have been here for almost a week already. We’ve heard so much about the little girl, we want to see if she can really walk on water.”
“Oh, crap. You too?” CJ shook his head at the two men he considered his uncles. “Bad enough she can do no wrong by my dads and the grandparents—and that includes Pam. I think Geoff’s the only realistic one around here. He told Pam that Liebe’s shit still smells like shit.”
“Is she inside with Pam?” Kate had already started walking towards the door.
“Yeah, CJ got her filthy at the pond. Mom was changing her clothes and giving her some juice.”
“We’re going inside then.” Joe tossed a set of keys at Owen. “You three go get all the presents in the ute and bring them in.”
CJ smacked his forehead at the number of packages in the vehicle. “Oh, poop. This better not be all for us. I don’t wanna carry back more than we came with.”
“Poop?” Spencer was definitely trying not to laugh. “Don’t be a wanker. We can always ship stuff to you.”
“We’ve both been trying to clean up our language, Spence. Because of Liebe. Although CJ has to work harder at it.”
Chuckling and jostling each other, the three young men trudged inside to find Liebe laughing while Joe tossed her in the air. “I hope she pukes on you.” Owen directed an evil look at his uncle. “CJ’s ended up covered a couple of times. He loves doing the same thing with her.”
“Spencer! Call Tilda. Find out when they’re getting here so we can open up presents.” Pam’s bossy attitude had Owen squeezing his brother’s arm to prevent a nasty retort.
Moments later the question did not matter; car engine sounds announced the arrival of the Linsay family. “I guess they’re here, Mum. Can I ignore your orders now? Or do you still want me to call Tilda?” The sarcastic tone earned him an icy stare from his mother and a slap to the back of the head from his brother.
Once greetings were dispensed with, and everyone who wanted one had a glass of wine, CJ clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention. “Although Ozzie and I said not to get us presents, we brought some for you. Nothing big or fancy, but we hope you like them.” CJ counted the number of youngsters and retrieved an equal number of envelopes from his backpack. “Since we have no idea what you guys want, we figured Amazon gift cards were a safe bet.”
“Thanks, CJ! Thanks, Owen.”
“Mate, this is awesome! Thank you!”
“Oh yeah! I wonder how many songs I can buy with this.”
One of the parents glanced at the cards and their jaw dropped. “Bloody hell! That’s way too much money, guys.”
“It’s not.” Owen dismissed the concern with a hand wave. “Remember the exchange rate. That’s Aussie dollars and we get about one-and-a-half for every American one.”
“Our turn.” Geoff Liston reached for a folder on a side table, retrieved two laminated cards, and passed them to his son and son-in-law. “Jack and I began plotting when we heard you were pregnant. One’s for the two of you, and the other one’s for Liebe. She may want to frame it when she’s older.”
CJ’s excitement got the best of him. “Fucking A!” Abashed, he covered his mouth with a hand. “Sorry… This is awesome! But why are we getting labels instead of bottles?”
“Because we haven’t bottled it yet, you wanker.” Spencer would later explain one of his fights with his mother had taken place when she wanted the labels to be pink, and he reminded her of CJ and Owen wanting to avoid gender stereotypes with their daughter.
“This is incredible, Dad.” Owen passed one to a cousin so everyone could see them. “So you’re doing two special bottling of Liebe Reserve? A verdelho and a shiraz?”
“Yep. Just for 2020 though. We’ve been working on them for a while, and we’re using only our best grapes.” Geoff sounded proud. “It won’t be a large bottling. You guys will end up with about half. The rest we’ll keep with the family here.”
“You know these are getting framed and hung in our wine cellar.” CJ thought Owen’s head might fly off he nodded so vigorously. “May need a few more of them. I’m pretty sure my dads will want to do the same. When Liebe was born, they had those special cigar rings made for the ones we handed out. We have a few of those, and it’ll be cool to put all the labels together.”
“Okay, our turn again.” Owen reached for the bag CJ had tossed behind the couch. “This may be a little egotistical, but all of you get family pictures.”
“Those of you at our wedding met our friend, Clive. He was our photographer. We asked him to take our first family portrait, and he flew to Washington Thanksgiving weekend to do it.” CJ reached in the bag and retrieved a handful of small folders.
“You should have seen us that Friday. CJ and I rushed to buy a tree and decorate it so we could take pictures in front of it.”
“So each one of you gets one. We have some with the three of us and some of only Liebe.” CJ and Owen alternated comments seamlessly.
“Since we had so many to carry, we had them mounted but skipped the frames. We didn’t want to schlep any more luggage.”
CJ handed the top one to his mother-in-law who looked at the picture and immediately started sobbing. Pam wiped the tears away and smiled. “Thank you! It’s gorgeous and I love the inscription.” They had written a short, personal dedication on the back of each photograph.
“If you’ll notice, Liebe’s wearing the same dress today. We bought it for the photo shoot and decided she should wear it again on Christmas.”
“Speaking of Liebe, Spencer and I decided to get her something a bit more age-appropriate.” Tilda pointed at a brightly wrapped box underneath the Christmas tree, and one of the younger Listons handed it to her. “I think you can fit these in your rucksack.”
“Look, kiddo. A pressie for you.” Owen held the girl on his knee while CJ stabilized the package. Liebe tore the colorful wrapping off with gusto. “She’s starting to fuss. I think we need to feed her after this.”
“Oh, these are great!” CJ retrieved a small, plush kangaroo and handed it to his daughter. Inside the box were half-a-dozen other animals native to Australia. “You got an entire zoo, Liebe! Thanks, guys. Great idea.”
“And on that note”—Owen stood with the baby—“I’m going to get her formula, feed her, and then put her down for a nap. I’ll be back in a tad.”
Pam jumped out of her seat. “I’ll come help. We have ripe pears. You want me to mash one up for her?”
“That would be great, Mum.”
In addition to Tilda’s parents, there was one guest CJ and Owen had not previously met. Reverend Hugh Pearce, the priest performing the ceremony the next day, arrived while Owen was putting Liebe down for her nap. They exchanged a brief greeting before sitting at opposite ends of the room.
When the meal was over, guests lingered around the table sipping wine and nibbling on fruits and sweets. Pam left her spot and approached CJ and Owen. “Do you guys think we can bring Liebe back out? I want Father Pearce to meet her.”
“Sure, Mum. We’ve been playing with her naps for about a week to deal with jetlag and wanting her to be awake for the ceremony tomorrow night. It’s about time to get her up.”
While Owen went to get the girl, CJ refilled his glass and sat next to Margot and Tyler; he wanted to get to know Tilda’s family better. Owen returned, joined Pam and the priest, and handed Liebe to his mother. Pam was speaking, but CJ was unable to hear the conversation. When Owen shook his head vigorously and yanked Liebe out of her grandmother’s arms, CJ excused himself and moved closer to his husband.
“It’s not happening, Mum. We discussed it before she was even born.” Owen sounded adamant. “I’m sorry, Father Hugh, but whatever she planned for tomorrow morning isn’t happening.”
“But why? It’s not like it would hurt her. And it would make me happy.” Pam’s pleading sounded pitiful.
“Which part of it’s not happening don’t you get, Mum? We don’t want her baptized. We don’t want a christening. We don’t want her associated with any organized religion until she’s old enough to decide on her own. You know how CJ feels about that matter, and I’m understanding his logic more each day.”
“I thought he’d changed. I mean, you guys had a priest marry you.”
“Because I asked. And because we were two adults making the decision. We weren’t forcing anything on someone without the capacity to make it.”
“You could ask him again. He wouldn’t say no to you. Or we could just sneak off tomorrow morning and do it. He wouldn’t need to know.”
Owen’s expression darkened. When CJ lost his temper, everyone knew about it. He vociferously bulldozed his way through confrontations and opponents. Owen was much more subdued but just as effective. He was soft spoken when involved in a disagreement but precise when refuting faulty arguments. It was why he had shocked his husband when he yelled at his mother earlier in the day.
“CJ! Dad! Could you join us?” Liebe seemed to understand it was not a regular conversation going on around her; she clung to Owen’s shirt so tightly he had to carefully pry her hands open. “It’s okay, Liebe, your other dad will take you while I finish talking to your grandmother.”
“I’ll take her.” Tom Kennedy had apparently been paying attention to what was going on. “She knows me and JP best. We’ll entertain her while you finish your conversation.”
“Thanks, Tom.” Owen kissed his daughter’s head and handed her over. “It’ll only be a few minutes.”
With Liebe out of the way and his husband and father at his side, Owen took a deep breath before turning to his mother again. “Listen to me, Mum. I can’t believe you just asked me to do something behind CJ’s back. That’s offensive on so many levels I want to scream.” He glanced at his father for a moment. “Dad, Mum needs help. She needs counseling and maybe drugs.” The hand CJ rubbed down his back seemed to help him keep his calm.
“Liz is gone, Mum. She died three years ago. I miss her too. But you need to deal with the loss if you’re going to move forward. Liebe’s not Liz. She’s not your daughter. She’s ours. You don’t get to decide what happens with her. We get to determine how she’s going to be raised. And if you can’t accept that, you’re going to lose a granddaughter and a son. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find a bottle of something or other and finish it.”