The aromas brought it all back. The turkey breast this afternoon, roasting in the oven; stuffing coming merrily to a boil on top of the stove. Imagination even added the scent of mincemeat...though come to think of it, Mom stopped baking mince pies for Christmas after Dad died. Forty years ago.

And now there are other smells. Food odors clinging to the greasy roasting pan. The strong, soapy fragrance of dishwashing liquid... It's never easy to get the pan clean.

I want to finish the dishes quickly. It's Christmas night, and I have other things to do. Why does it take so long to clean this pan?

I'm tired, I suppose, because I was up late last night watching Midnight Mass from St. Patrick's...even though I'm not Catholic. I tried to watch it with Mom last year, but I nodded off. Mom, by her account, stayed awake.

Then, I recall, I bedded down on the couch, where I always slept when I stayed over at her place. My feet were almost under the Christmas tree. Mom, as always, gave me a good-night kiss on the top of my head. And then I heard her go through her little ritual of saying good-night to photos of Dad, my deceased sister, and her one grandchild and one great-grandchild--the latter two very much alive, but a hundred miles away. It was only a ritual. She did miss them. But deep down, I knew, she was as content as I that we would be alone together for the holiday. I was smiling as I drifted off to sleep. All was as it should be, as it always was, and soon it would be Christmas morning...

But that Christmas morning, one small thing was not as it should be. For several years Mom had been unable to shop for my presents. She was, after all, in her nineties. So she gave me a check, I bought my own gifts and wrapping paper, and Mom wrapped them and put them under the tree. But there was always one present she arranged herself, over the phone or by mail, and it was always the same: a Waldenbooks gift certificate.

Last year there was no gift certificate. And Mom never mentioned it. She had forgotten.

After lunch there was another wrong note in my perfect day. Mom admitted she was tired, and agreed to take a nap in her favorite chair while I washed the dishes. No big deal...except that it was a running joke between us that she genuinely liked to wash dishes (and, supposedly, hated to dry). It may even have been true. When I was there, she always insisted on washing while I dried.

But of course, she'd been up late the night before...

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful, and I forgot the nagging worry at the back of my mind. As always, our misadventures in preparing Christmas dinner sent us into gales of laughter. I started trying to thaw frozen squash too late, and finally had to give up on it. Mom found the turkey breast harder to slice than usual--because of a dull knife, she said.

The dinner--what there was of it, without the squash--was delicious. Mom, in a mellow mood, even proclaimed that she'd finally gotten to like the smell of my favorite table wine.

After dinner we adjourned to the cozy kitchen and began cleaning up, giggling like a pair of schoolgirls. Mom washed the dishes with her usual enthusiasm, while I, wielding a towel, found it hard to keep pace with her.

And then the only thing still to be done was the pan.

This pan.

This damn pan.

Mom was washing it, and started to say something. But her speech came out hopelessly garbled. She kept scrubbing away at the pan, talking gibberish.

At first I thought she was fooling around. Or choking on her dentures. I had never read that garbled speech is a sign of a stroke.

Mom didn't realize anything was wrong. She kept fussing over the pan--trying, apparently, to ask me if it looked clean yet--with water running into the sink the whole time. If I hadn't been there, the apartment below would have been flooded. (Why do I think of that? Why do I care?)

I struggled for what seemed an eternity to get the pan away from her, the water shut off. Steer her toward a chair. But I couldn't prevent her falling to her knees on the floor, and I had to leave her there while I called an ambulance.

In the weeks that followed, my mind played tricks on me. At times I convinced myself I was having an extended nightmare. (Pam Ewing dreamed an entire season of Dallas, didn't she?) I thought everything might change if I lay down to sleep on Mom's couch again, near the still-decorated tree. I would wake, and it would be Christmas morning...

But I tried it, and it wasn't.

So I began telling myself, instead, that I'd slipped into a parallel universe.

Meanwhile, the doctors said Mom had suffered only a mild stroke. But she believed she would never go home again, and she was right. By mid-April she was dead.

The pan...oh yes, the pan. It's as clean as I can get it. As clean as it will ever be.

Funny, I thought I had so many things to do tonight... I don't feel like doing them now. Whatever they were.

In fact, it may already be time to start saying good-night to the photographs.

(The End)