Saturday Excerpt: Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners by Gretchen Anthony
As the holiday season draws closer and closer, we can’t help but turn our attention to our loved ones. Whether you’re planning a large Christmas gathering or a cozy holiday celebration, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a hilarious look at family and what brings people together.
Violet Baumgartner has opened her annual holiday letter the same way for the past three decades. And this year she’s going to throw her husband, Ed, a truly perfect retirement party, one worthy of memorializing in her upcoming letter. But the event becomes a disaster when, in front of two hundred guests, Violet learns her daughter Cerise has been keeping a shocking secret from her, shattering Violet’s carefully constructed world.
In an epic battle of wills, Violet goes to increasing lengths to wrest back control of her family, infuriating Cerise and snaring their family and friends in a very un-Midwestern, un-Baumgartner gyre of dramatics. And there will be no explaining away the consequences in this year’s Baumgartner holiday letter…
Full of humor, emotion and surprises at every turn, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners brings to life a remarkable cast of quirky, deeply human characters who must learn to adapt to the unconventional, or else risk losing one another. This is the story of a family falling to pieces—and the unexpected way they put it all back together.
Dearest loved ones, far and near—
Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners!
By the time you open this letter I’m sure it will be old news that 2017 has been a monumental year for our family—one that we’re certain to treasure until the end of our days. So tonight, as I sit tucked into my warm house with a steaming cup of Christmas tea, I feel nothing but blessed. And while I know that my modest little Christmas correspondences can’t hold a candle to the day-to-day joys and sorrows of your lives, I do hope you’ll indulge this meek attempt to share a glimpse of our year with you.
The biggest Baumgartner news, of course, is dear Ed’s retirement from BiolTech after 30 extraordinary years. How proud we are of you, Ed! Though you know I’m loath to brag, I can hardly constrain myself. How can the Good Lord expect me to go humbly about while congratulatory cards and letters flood our home? I can’t help but repeat here what’s been said to us in those notes—that millions of people around the world are living healthier, happier lives because of this dear man’s research into FBD. And to think that I am the lucky girl who gets to wake up next to him every day!
But as each of us knows, all good things must come to an end, including my brilliant husband’s career. This could mean only one thing: Time for a party! And was it ever! We welcomed hundreds of guests, including many of you reading this letter now, and we thank you from the bottom of our overflowing hearts for joining us in celebrating my dear husband’s life and achievements.
The night included all the trappings, of course. A select few from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra charmed us with Mendelssohn and Brahms while we nibbled on shrimp cakes and (wickedly expensive but wildly popular!) Brie-en-croute. Later, a jazz quartet, fresh in from their latest tour of New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, rang in the midnight hour while we popped corks for the Champagne toasts.
Now, if you’ll permit me just one modest name-drop (those of you disinterested in the gossipy comings and goings of local celebrities may skip ahead to the next paragraph)…the evening included a most unexpected and wonderful guest! Imagine our surprise when the ballroom doors opened and who should walk in
Violet nearly leaped from her chair at the sound of the phone.
Good Lord Almighty, she thought. Are You trying to take me home with a heart attack?
An hour or so earlier, before sitting down at the computer to write, she’d paused to consider disabling any possible distractions—doorbell and phone included—but decided no. She wouldn’t put the day’s To-Do list in jeopardy. Silence was a poor trade for accomplishment.
She took a deep breath and ran the tips of her fingers across the nape of her neck to gather herself.
“Hello. Baumgartner residence. Violet Baumgartner speaking.” It struck her that she’d been answering the phone in this manner for more than thirty years.
There was an audible pause on the other end before a man finally cleared his throat and spoke up. “Yes, Mrs. Baumgartner? Harvey Arpell from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Standard. Re- turning your call.”
Arpell was top priority on the day’s list. Draft Christmas letter was second, followed by Confirm menu, and those tasks were both well underway. Her mind buzzed with efficiency.
“Now, Mr. Arpell. I need to know if you will be bringing a photographer along with you on the sixteenth. If not, we will need to hire one to meet you there.”
Arpell cleared his throat again. She hoped this wasn’t a chronic condition; phlegmy encounters were so off-putting. She couldn’t expose her guests to that.
“The sixteenth?” “Yes.”
“November 16? As in, next week?”
“For heaven’s sake, no.” Next he’d be asking if she were catering her party with Costco party trays. “December 16. The retirement party for my husband, Ed Baumgartner. You’ll recall that we discussed it at length during the Overbergs’ fund-raiser for the Minnesota Orchestra last month. You expressed quite an interest in attending.”
“I’m afraid I—”
“I’ve assembled a press kit with Ed’s biographical information, as well as a list of career highlights. I had planned to drop them in the mail to your office today. Unless you’d prefer I have the package couriered.”
Of course he’d remember; he’d commented on Ed’s Medical Legion of Honor lapel pin, which Ed hadn’t wanted to wear but which she’d strongly encouraged. Their wear it or don’t discussion had made them almost late, and yet, here she was, taking calls from one of Minnesota’s premier reporters.
“Mrs. Baumgartner, you’ll forgive me. Remind me who your husband is again?”
Violet grabbed the locket at her throat and wrapped it tightly in her palm. This wasn’t at all the conversation she’d been expecting and she began to doubt her choice of reporters. He showed no grasp of the facts nor the opportunity before him.
“My husband, Edward Baumgartner, is retiring after thirty years with BiolTech. He is a premier researcher in his field and holds several patents for FBD treatment devices. You likely have heard of the F8 Triscope Method, which he developed, and which proved foundational for all subsequent FBD treatment methods.”
Violet had invested no small bit of her life mastering the subtle language required to describe a condition as sensitive as the one to which dear Ed had dedicated his work. His career was her work, too, after all.
“And, by FBD, you mean—what, exactly?”
Good Lord. Violet shook her head. She was most definitely rethinking her choice of reporters.
“Functional Bowel Disorders.”
“Ah, of course.”
“FBD is actually a category of disorder, inclusive of several subcategories of gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome—which, thanks to all the advertising with which we’re assaulted these days, is more commonly known as IBS—and FD, or functional dyspepsia.” She paused to let him absorb the details and to come to terms with the fact that, yes, she did in fact know what she was talking about. “IBS, alone, is estimated to affect nearly twenty percent of the American population.”
Arpell hmm’d. “That’s an awful lot of—well, you know…” He paused, and experience told her he was weighing his choice of words. There wasn’t a punch line she hadn’t heard—bowels were such an easy target—and she hoped he’d rise above.
“Stomach pain,” he said, finally.
She smiled. Perhaps he wasn’t as thick as he’d begun to sound. “Indeed it is, Mr. Arpell. And my husband, Ed, has been doing his best to soothe that pain for millions of affected people most of his life.”
Arpell was quiet on the line, though Violet believed she could hear the ticking of his keyboard. She had him intrigued.
“Is he one of the company founders?” Arpell’s keys ticked away. “I’m looking at their website right now, and I don’t see his name listed along with the other executives.”
Did this man ignore everything she’d just said? Ed hadn’t sacrificed his laboratory for the politicking claustrophobia of the boardroom. He applied his life to science, to improving lives. He’d made the world a better place. Certainly not even a man made dumb with phlegm would argue otherwise.
Violet felt a sudden pang of sorrow for the reporter’s wife—imagine living a life of not being heard.
“Mr. Arpell, let’s not get hung up on titles. Certainly we can agree that a scientist of my husband’s stature deserves a bit of public recognition at the close of his career. And I believe you’re just the man to tell his story.”
The keys stopped clattering and Violet could tell immediately from the tone of Arpell’s voice that she would not be striking this task from her list today.
“Look, Mrs. Baumgartner. I’m sure everything you’ve told me about your husband is worthy of a wonderful retirement farewell. I just don’t think it’s something that falls into the category of news.”
Violet took her pencil and wrote f/u for follow up next to Arpell’s name on her notepad. Then she placed the pencil quietly on her desk and rested her fingertips gently on the warm locket at her throat. She would let a week pass, then call again. If experience taught her anything, it was the necessity of easing into a subject like FBD. The reporter needed time to let the subject marinate. Right now, she knew his mind couldn’t help rubber-necking at the horrors of intestinal distress.
“Very well, Mr. Arpell. But I do ask you to rethink your decision the next time your dinner disagrees with you.” She paused, exercising her belief that to be the first to hang up from a phone call was to admit defeat. “By the way, would it affect your decision if I happened to mention that national broadcaster Rhonda Nelson was scheduled to make a surprise visit?”
Let him chew on that for a moment.