Each year I become more disillusioned and more disoriented. Maybe I was a well-adjusted optimist in my first years and my life is some kind of cruel experiment to test human tolerance for having everything valuable and civilized slowly removed from one’s existence, piece by little piece. As if god were some Nazi archaeologist of the soul.
However, I don’t believe in god. And I spent the first years of my existence in and out of hospital beds with recurring bouts of bronchial pneumonia, so I could not have been so well-adjusted. Beds is too kind a word; they were like cages. They were probably just cribs, but I remember bars, and that I could not get out. Unless my parents were visiting for Christmas. I remember being allowed out for that. One year they brought me a little rocking horse. Of course, it might all have been a dream. My parents and grandparents are gone and the rocking horse disappeared many years ago, so there is nothing left to vouch for these memories. But I don’t think it is. Anyway, while it’s all likely far less personal than I imagine it to be, the effect is the same.
I was named for Christmas. (Normal parents would have decided that Natalia or even Natasha was a perfectly acceptable name and not gone about bastardizing it beyond all recognition.) I wasn’t born on Christmas but I was scheduled to make my premiere in this world around August 25. My mother called me “Christmas child” when I was growing up. Christmas was by far my favorite holiday, despite having spent my first few ones in the hospital. All of my life I have genuinely mourned the fact that Christmas is relegated to a few days out of the year. I observed that during Christmas, people were more generous, empathetic and selfless than normal. Suddenly intent to provide comfort and assistance to the less fortunate. Yesterday those we called “welfare queens” and “too lazy to get a job” were, during the holidays, unquestionably deserving of our handouts. Magical… People seemed more forgiving of petty incursions in a dogged determination to maintain a positive Christmas spirit, tolerating long lines and bad weather with a humble, “we’re all in the same boat…” attitude of perseverance and camaraderie. There was something Communist in the air. During Christmas, Americans spoke of “peace” like it were a noble ideal to which we should aspire, and not a liberal plot to undermine our nation’s freedom. Plus you could cut down a whole tree and bring it indoors, string lights all over everything, sing sentimental songs, eat cookies everyday, dress up like elves (we did! each year my mother dressed us children as elves and sent us out to hand-deliver her local Christmas cards.), make a list of all your worldly desires and mail it to someone whose sole job it was to provide you with these things because, and for NO other reason (!!!), you were a good person. And there was snow. Heaven.
Yes, the world would be infinitely better if it were always Christmas…
…Things look a little different when you are all grown up, orphaned and on a budget. And have a Republican step-family. Who think, “Hundreds of dollars in Old Navy gift certificates!” when they wonder, “What to get T- for Christmas?” Jesus, I said I needed pajamas. I didn’t say I needed 15 pair of pajamas! Just one! To wear when I visit them! Because I can’t possibly romp around my parents’ home in the same thing I romp around my own home in! Not only would it be inappropriate, but I’d perish of hypothermia! These people refuse to turn the thermostat above 70F, and will only give in and kick it up to the high 60’s after I turn visibly blue (convincing me the thermostat is already rigged a good 10F below the registered temp.) And then they have the nerve to judge Putin for freezing the Ukrainians! Insanity! (Erm, It’s well possible that this is an exaggeration and I want to reassure the world they would never knowingly do anything to harm me or anyone else.)
But it is still my favorite time of year. Which is really saying a lot. I mean, you have no idea…
Despite their politics, I quite like my family. It’s a pretty brilliant situation, having a step-family inherited from a dead mother; if we did not like each other we could bail. Theoretically. Fortunately, in addition to being likable, they are decent, responsible types who probably wouldn’t bail even if they could. So this year, like every year, except for the year when Bush was re-elected and the thought of dinner with those responsible for the fact was too much to bear, I went home for Christmas. This year, like every year, except that year, I put a great deal of thought and preparation into gifts, packed too much stuff, took the business-class Amtrak home, and spent the next week feeling disillusioned and disoriented.
How is it possible to spend the first 18 years of your life in an area and still feel like an alien there? While I might be crushed under the weight of my own existential awareness in Chicago, I generally feel fiercely self-confident, independent, self-sufficient and courageous. Like Mary Tyler Moore in the opening credits of that old tv show. At home (if it can be called that) I don’t even know how to operate a coffeemaker! And I can’t do anything without my coffee! Why don’t people have french presses or espresso-makers? Why do they buy these plastic electric contraptions that don’t even make good coffee??? Probably I do know how to operate a coffeemaker, and it’s just meant to taste like drain water. I could go out and buy coffee from a proper coffee shop, but I don’t drive. And you can’t go anywhere without driving. Even if there were a place within walking distance, which there is not, there are no sidewalks. Only vagrants walk around. I’m like a helpless baby, a helpless vagrant baby, completely dependent upon others. With no car, all I can do is sit at home and watch tv and eat leftovers. No. I can’t even do that. Quantum physics make more sense to me than the tv/dvd/dvr/stereo sytem/hd/Netflix/universal remote contraption. Which …. actually requires another remote to use. And I don’t trust microwaves.
So my visits back home for the holidays turn into cycle of trips: outside to smoke cigarettes to stave off panic attacks, and inside to put on a smile and ask how I can help with the preparations of x, y or z. When inside, I feel the urge to escape, to preserve my sanity and to privately feel sorry for myself because my mother is dead. When outside, I feel the need to go back inside, to be with my family, to show them I am appreciative. I’m like a dog. Life has turned me into a dog.
Like a dog, the only other thing I do when home is eat. I’d like to be able to say that I have long, meaningful discussions about life with my family. I used to. But my step-mother, living up to her title, has instituted a new rule that no politics or religion is to be discussed at family gatherings. Being a family member, whose life is largely devoted to various political endeavors, and being in town for … Christmas, I had nothing much to say, other than , “Uhm, how do you work this thing?” as I stood before various appliances like a deer in headlights. I was later to find that this “no interesting conversation” rule only applied to me, as I watched with horror while my step-mother’s very conservative family interrogated her Pakistani Muslim son-in-law. At Christmas Eve dinner. My horror may have been intensified by the dessert everyone was eating which contained, among other things, processed cheese, marshmallows and bananas, and possibly mayonnaise. Otherwise, the week had been a sequence of delicious, long, quiet meals. Tuesday we went to an over-priced local wine-bar full of over-served local university professors. Wednesday I ordered the crack cocaine of pizza: Imo’s. Saturday we dined at a Middle Eastern joint after going to see Nine at the Tivoli.
Look, I am not going apologize for being an elitist snob. Being an elitist snob is one of the few aspects of life I find dependably rewarding. I’m not an elitist snob in order to impress others or as a pretense to anything I am not or because I think I am better than anyone. I am an elitist snob because … oh it’s too complicated to explain here. It involves astrology and philosophy and possibly religion. It’s my own personal choice. Deal with it. I have to deal with everyone else’s ridiculous beliefs.
Fortunately, my step-father’s family are also elitist snobs. And immense fun. And they don’t censor other people. They are actually some of the neatest people I’ve ever met & I just adore them. Christmas Day was spent with them, doing more eating, and a lot more talking. Over the past few years, my family has established no less than 3 formal obligatory meals, all of which take place within the space of 24 hours. In addition to the Christmas Eve dinner with my step-mother’s family, there is the annual champagne and eggs Christmas breakfast with my step-father’s gigantic Sicilian family, and Christmas dinner with our immediate family.
The champagne and eggs breakfast takes place each year in the spacious Victorian home of the late Sicilian family patriarch, and it is just as sumptuous and elegant as it sounds. I look forward to this event every year. Most of those who attend are family, eggs are cooked to order, everyone is kind, whether you are a complete stranger or raving liberal and everyone is welcome. And well fed. From an e-mail I received last week:
“Christmas breakfast this year was one for the record books. At the end of the day we had gone thru 80 eggs, 7 lbs of ham, 11 tins of biscuits, 18 lbs of Italian sausage, 12-13 lbs of potatoes, 3 and one half coffee pots (30 cups per pot), 4 gallons of orange juice and 17 bottles of champagne. We had the surprise of a snow fall that started about 8am and continued thru most of the day, yet despite the weather we estimate that there were over 70 people who attended (Thank you!) this year.”
The weather was in fact dangerous. The roads were littered with cars and trucks that had lost their grip and flown in all directions, and generally not in those intended. People say they don’t know how I live without a car. I don’t know how they live without mass transportation. We’ll have to pry their automobiles from their cold dead hands, it appears. Literally.
Despite the fact that by the evening of the 25th we have consumed more food and alcohol than some people might see in their entire lives, we still set aside an evening for all of the siblings (and their significant others, and their children, and their parents) to spend some quality time together. My step-sister has taken it upon herself to host our family Christmas dinner each year. In addition to being a pastry chef, it turns out she is also an incredibly amazing cook. And my step-brother is in the wine business, so we have a pairing for each course. And yes, we eat in courses. Like civilized people. This year it was pared back: roasted vegetable terrine, asparagus soup, beef bourguignon with buttery herbed rice, a walnut & watercress salad, a cheese course and a torte of layered chocolate ganache and peppermint meringue. I think last year she out-did herself with the menu:
Piquillo Pepper Cheese Crostini
Roasted Butternut Squash & Apple Salad
Standing Rib Roast, Spinach-Porcini Stuffing, Irish Whisky Gravy, & Horseradish Cream
Potato-Mushroom Gratin with Truffles
Cheddar & Chive Yorkshire Puddings
Sherry Vinegar- & Molasses-Glazed Carrots
Broccolini with Pecan Brown Butter
Chocolate-Coffee Gingerbread with Hazelnut Poached Pears
Maybe you have some image of some bourgeois family in Middle America mindlessly going through motions, discussing a feature in the New Yorker, annoying the shit out of you. We eat well. Obscenely well. It’s undeniable. But we’re not a bunch of boring waspy types. These people are Catholics with a wicked sense of humour and a joie de vivre that we could conceivably harness as an alternative energy resource if things get as bad as the peak-oilers say it will, whose classiness is organic, not an act they have to maintain, and who therefore have no qualms about being positively naughty and subversive.
Inevitably the meal devolves into a rather tipsy scene in which we manage to crack ourselves up until we’re crying with laughter and truly, genuinely happy together. For example, this year my step-father spontaneously burst into a rendition of, “People are strange,” during the course of conversation concerning someone who is in fact strange, and the whole table chimed in, with some doing back-up, and it went on like that for several songs. Several .Doors songs. “Ok, we’re the only family in America sitting around the table on Christmas singing Doors songs.” “It’s a Very Doors Christmas Special!” The songs continued, but with a Christmas theme (think: Riders on the sleigh…) “Next year we need a “Whiskey a Ho Ho” sign over the door!” It was the first time during the visit I thought, “My mother would really enjoy this.” She would. I was not raised like normal children with their “Goodnight Moon” and “I’m a little Teapot” and marshmallow cheese salad and no politics at the dinner table. I was raised with the Transcendentalists and the Doors and the Hair soundtrack and whiskey for desert, even for the dog. Some children in my town were not allowed to play at our house. Oh, and there was politics. When my Irish liberal hippy free-spirit feminista mother married my too cool for school neocon Sicilian step-father, politics at the dinner table evolved into a genuine spectator sport for the rest of us. Their passion for their political beliefs was only outweighed by their impressive theatrical skills. I miss those days…
I guess the holiday ended on a good note. (If you can call returning home with a raving sinus infection, “good.”) After our “Very Doors Christmas” with my cool step-siblings and the romantic breakfast gathering the kind of which you only see in movies, all of the other crap was probably worth it. It’s very difficult, celebrating the holidays when your mother is dead. Other people’s families are always awkward. Other people’s homes and beds and water pressure and coffee makers and feeble urban development and fascist rules and weird deserts, those are difficult enough to deal with. But to have to deal with them without the one person in the universe who has to love you no matter how big a fit you throw about them. It’s difficult. And to be expected to celebrate with those you love when the one you love most of all is not now and never will be again there with you. It’s difficult. Jesus it sucks, to perfectly honest.
When I was little, there was a large pine tree in our backyard. It was full of sap and needles and we weren’t supposed to climb it, but we’d clamber our way up into it anyway. We ruined our clothes and scraped our legs bloody. Sometimes we’d have pine-cone wars. Sometimes I just went up there for the view. Once you were up there you didn’t want to come down, because that meant jumping into a pile of dead needles. Rootless now (and tree-less urbanite to boot), I’ve climbed into someone else’s family tree. I get bruised and caught in line of their fire, but suppose I appreciate the perspective. And it beats the dead needles I’ll land on if I bail.
What – you think that is a shamelessly lame-ass metaphor? Well, it is. But I can top it! Check this out: the ‘rents were not even planning to put up a Christmas tree. They were too busy doing other things. I always thought “putting up a Christmas tree” was one of the things that kept people too busy to do other things at Christmas. Anyway, you can’t invite me to your home for Christmas and not have a G**D***Christmastree, people. This is not the first time this has happened to me, and I did exactly what I did on previous occasions when faced with this atrocity: I put one up by myself. Oh yes, in another person’s home. Earlier I said I like Christmas because it was like Communism, referring to the painless redistribution of wealth and comradeship experienced by otherwise ruggedly individual greedy Americans. But it also reminds me of Communism because it brings out the dictator in me! Anyway, I went to someone else’s family and put up their Christmas tree for them and, lo, it was … fake.
Right now, if you were writing a paper, you would cite that in support of your thesis statement. But you aren’t writing a paper and I am not living in a novel. So it only means that they, like many Americans, have a fake tree, and that it’s all likely far less personal than I imagine it to be.
But the effect is the same.