***To hear Parts 1 and 2 of this essay read aloud, visit WordPlaySound and listen to the December issue.
My Christmas memories are an amalgam of simultaneous dread, distortion and melodramatic nostalgia that could have all occurred on the same Christmas that I was seven, nine or twelve. With the Tree-Returning Incident, for example, I said I was nine but I may have been seven. Or twelve. That event may, in fact, have been the same year my father and his brother chose affirmative action as the topic of discussion to best celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus.
I do not recommend this...ever.
Grandma -a lady who believed that you could outgrow being Chinese and thus had very little perspective to add to a discussion on affirmative action- was there and I had to give my bed up to her -I always had to give my bed up to her and I felt this was a great injustice since no one else had to give up their beds. She and my mother only ever greeted each other through clenched teeth. Like all good Jewesses, my mother decorated the house in all its Christmassy fashion, right down to the red bow on our Westy terrier, who, quite matter-of-factly, chose my other uncle's foot as his fire hydrant. Andy Williams was singing carols on the record player -yes, indeed, I said "record player," people. My father even bought a 3D puzzle of Yuletide London, which tormented us into believing that at least three pieces were missing. Everything was perfect, especially the twelve-foot tree my father erected after three relentless hours of fir needles and curses. The arena was optimized for the self-destructive forces of sibling rivalry and familial angst. In other words, the scene was primed for the Bumpuses's dogs to destroy our turkey.
Yes, sir, affirmative action. Not the least probability that such an intellectual venture could spew forth such vitriolic tidings of Christmas joy.
Two hours after the table was cleared, my father and uncle were still asserting liberal and liberal-liberal standpoints with their overly assertive Italian eyebrows. I had long ago immersed myself in the foam-and-picture world of 3D London to avoid any verbal spillover. The debate was no longer about affirmative action. It was simply about anger. Although the Tree-Returning Incident and the Great Affirmative Action Debate may or may not have been the same year, something nasty had undoubtedly gone viral in our home at the holidays because this may also have been the same Christmas on which we thought family friends had lost their son to a fatal car crash.
The Houstins* moved with us from Long Island to the same neighborhood in Connecticut. Brian and my brother played soccer together. I remember not liking them because when my parents vacationed in Hawai'i for their fifteenth anniversary, leaving my brother and me at the Houstins's home, I held my s*** in for all five days. It was my way of saying, "Mrs. Houstin, I find your peculiar brand of cuisine most displeasing, your disposition most unkind, and your oddly masculine voice somewhat petrifying. I shall, therefore, not defecate this morn."
My father warned my brother that Brian was the kind of a**hole that would one day be driving a car in which the passenger would be killed, that Brian wouldn't die. My brother paled when the prediction came true. We actually received a phone call reporting that Brian died in the hospital, to which my mother buried her face in her hands. I didn't understand why. The other boy was dead on impact. I knew his father and had heard that he was a nice boy. We didn't like Brian. And, he killed somebody else on Christmas Day. I remember thinking the wrong boy died when I heard that Brian was still calling the hospital nurses "bitches" after the accident.
Sometimes I don't understand Christmas. We struggle so much to be with the ones who we love but who we can't bear to be near for longer than it takes to say, "Hello." We try to please the ones who don't want to be pleased. We try to talk casually with people we can't chat with. We try to love the people we wish were dead and try to be sad when we think they actually are dead. You needed to be vigilant to avoid catastrophe. You could never let down your guard lest you allow a poor discussion topic to enter the room. And, then we spend the rest of our lives wishing we had back the Christmasses that went bad. Is this the meaning of Christmas? Love the friends and family you have now because they might be gone tomorrow? Love them because you might not have the chance to love them ever again? Is the message of Christmas Spirit so obvious? Is it this contrived? This trite?