A memoir about Christmas in my family
"Rise and shine--Santa came!"
Behind the door, my seventy-eight-year-old grandmother sounds excited, even childlike, but an undercurrent of strength reveals the woman who worked in radio as a young, single mother, interviewing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney--though she will not mention this until I am in my twenties--favoring stories about her childhood during the Depression as if retelling them helps keep poverty at bay.
"Once, I had a birthday party, and my mother served lime-green Jell-O because we couldn't afford cake. Jell-O! All the kids asked where the cake was--then they laughed, took their presents and left. To this day, I can't stand the sight of Jell-O."
Helping my grandmother hang clothes on the line outside to dry, I'd listen politely, just as I'd listened many times before. "Grandma, that's awful! Kids can be so cruel".
"We couldn't afford to buy school clothes, so mom cut up her old dresses to fit me. But they never fit right, and the kids at school would always make fun of me."
I'd plop the oatmeal cookie batter onto a baking sheet while she opened the oven door. "Grandma, that's awful! Kids can be so cruel."
"We had to move in with my grandma--your great, great grandma--She wouldn't let us in the main house because she didn't like Catholics, and my cousins would stand on the porch above and spit on us--she gave them cookies--But we only got biscuits hard as rocks," she'd pause in contemplation, rinsing the dishes and placing them in the sink for me to put in the dishwasher.
"Grandma, that's awful! Kids can be so cruel."
The she'd continue, "But grandpa was a peach. His name was George Washington Cheek--isn't that something? He always carried a flask and would visit us down in the basement-- even sneak us cookies, sometimes."
I'd smile and nod, picturing my great-great-grandfather as Jack Lemmon, sneaking my young grandmother cookies and taking swigs of whiskey from his flask as he hid in the basement from his bigoted wife.
But my grandmother's stories were still just stories to me--past relics that evoked only the tiredest of cliches.
This morning, I picture my grandmother in the hallway as she commands us to get up. She's wearing blue jeans and a red sweatshirt emblazoned with all things Christmas. Festive earrings highlight thick, wiry curls which are never quite to her satisfaction--even after a visit to the salon. Magenta lipstick and coral blush distract from exhaustion that's already creeping into her eyes--she's been up for an hour and a half--an hour after some of us stumbled off to bed.
No matter how tired, we never plead for another ten minutes of blessed sleep, nor do we hesitate to rise from the beds in spare bedrooms, or the blown-up mattresses that are carefully arranged on carpet in the rumpus room downstairs. Though the red digits on the clock radio read 5:00 am; this is her day. Each year gives our aging matriarch another opportunity to create the Christmas she envisioned as a child; each year grows closer to her last.
Snatches of conversation from the kitchen down the hall drift under the door. An aunt grumbles about the time, "Too damn early." she complains. She complains about everything, but this time I agree. Someone laughs in response.
I hear an uncle groan down the hall. Last night, he played bartender into the earliest hours of the morning--feeding frozen margarita mix and tequila into the blender, pouring whiskey into tumblers filled with ice, and mixing gin and tonic in tall, skinny glasses with a long metal spoon. My head aches, and my mouth tastes of cotton. The liquor cabinet above the island in the kitchen never closes during family holidays.
In a little while, someone will play Santa Claus and pass out presents to four generations of us gathered around our personal Mt. Everest--carefully wrapped boxes and bags adorned with tissue and ribbon--eclipsing the Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. Squealing with excitement, great-grandchildren will rip off colorful wrapping paper--each box, a new delight. But we, the baby boomers, genXers, and millennials, will take our time and smile politely to one another for clothes that don't fit our taste and tools we already own, and we'll pretend that we don't recognize the set of placemats from our sister as the ones we'd given her two years ago. At the end of the day, we will carry gifts out to cars and try to find room for things we don't really need. The greatest generation birthed prosperity out of scarcity, desperation, and trauma--only to witness its progeny bloat on a steady diet of excess.
As a child, I couldn't hear the strength in my grandmother's voice or recognize the significance to her stories--only my excitement at the promise of presents under a supersized tree dipped in ornaments and tinsel. I didn't acquire a Christmas morning hangover, notice my aunt's complaining or sideways gestures fueled by old grudges from one relative to another, and my uncle's bloodshot eyes. Stuffed with my grandmother's homemade baked goods--chocolate fudge, sugar cookies, Russian tea cakes, and jelly thumbprints--I wrapped myself in a warm cocoon of spun sugar and fell asleep,
It's 5:00 a.m. on Christmas morning. My grandmother's laugh floats out from the kitchen. I smell fresh coffee and warm cinnamon rolls. I swing my legs onto the floor and walk towards the door.