In my youth, many a cold December afternoon was spent, but definitely not wasted, lazily dreaming. I would stare out the window into the glistening white, Midwestern winter, letting my imagination soar freely. Unlike the other little boys who were salivating over a new baseball bat or “robots in disguise” (it was the 80s, we all made mistakes), I was leafing through the pages of an old copy of Town and Country, praying for an Hermes goatskin card holder or personalized bocce ball set. As my gaze slid across the slick, shiny pages of “Christmas in the Hamptons,” I came to the realization that reams of four-ply cashmere weren’t what I wanted at all. All of my Christmas wishes could have been encapsulated in five words: a normal Christmas, God dammit.
Well, here’s a shocker: I’m still waiting.
“Thanks! I, wow, I just, umm — I’ve always wanted — this is just great! Thanks!” As I began pulling the strange assortment of goodies out of my “Victorian Christmas” stocking (my stepmother had picked up a copy of Martha Stewart Living, and much to my surprise, happened to be literate), I was completely aware that the true meaning of Christmas wasn’t what you actually got but rather “the thought” that was put into it. Anyone who knows my father would realize that I was getting nothing. Goose egg. Big zero. I got several oranges (simply for effect, this is what the Victorians did apparently. Unbeknownst to me, however, the Victorians also used puffy paint to scribble your name on your stocking. I thought that maybe the misspelling of my name was for an added sense of realism, a kind of subtle comment about the elitist schooling system of England, but then I remembered the time my stepmother asked me if they had “black people in France.”). My stocking also produced some chocolate and an emergency car kit. My brother got the same exact thing, right down to the jumper cables and the flashlight. The only difference, obviously, is that he has a car.
I guess I could applaud the effort, but really, I didn’t even applaud when I saw Faye Dunaway in ‘Master Class,’ so the chances that a couple of roadside flares and some citrus fruits were going to get a standing “O” were looking pretty slim. I just don’t know what they were thinking.
Giving me a car kit is like giving Kate Moss a rack of ribs! I don’t have any use for it, and even if there were a situation where it might come in handy, I wouldn’t know what the hell to do with it! (In case that wasn’t obvious, see the Town and Country reference above. If it’s still not obvious, then I would like to thank you for my car kit, as you are most likely my stepmother.)
As I struggled to find words to express my gratitude, the doorbell rang. Our dinner guests had arrived. The most interesting thing about Christmas with my father is the plethora of people I have never seen before in my life, many of whom are surprisingly related to me (by marriage — I share none of their genetic code, and even if I did, do you honestly think I’d let that get published?). Think of it as a kind of Agatha Christie murder mystery, only with eggnog and without the sparkling English discourse.
With that in mind, I now present to you the cast of characters and some of the wonderful things that spilled forth from their lips during dinner. And yes, I do realize that this is a journalistic cop-out and provides you with a litany of freakdom as opposed to actual context, but really, once we edited this for content (a couple glasses of wine and it became a blue Christmas, and no, this is not an Elvis reference), this was all that remained.
Leroy — College student and my stepbrother. The first time I met Leroy I assumed that perhaps I could find some connection with him, maybe forming a kind of alliance against the crazed Republicans surrounding us. That is of course until we broached the topic of Christmas decorations in public schools. You might be surprised to know that, according to him, “Angels aren’t so much a Christian thing as a holiday symbol.” Apparently the Kwanzaa angels skip my house every year.
Sharon — Recent divorc*e and freelance crazy person. This was my first encounter with Sharon, who apparently is my father’s friend from church. Although I had never met her before she wasn’t shy at all about sharing tidbits of her personal life. For instance, the fact that her husband Edward left her for “greener f******g pastures” and that aliens talk to her in her sleep through a microchip implanted in her left forehead. She also claimed that late-80s metal band Motley Crue was behind the interplanetary power struggle being played out in her solar plexus. Rockin’.
Carrie — Sister to my stepmother and self-proclaimed “Ms. Holiday Wet Bar 2002.” Mostly harmless, despite the fact that with that much alcohol coursing through her veins, she was definitely a fire hazard. Carrie did have many wonderful stories to tell about the eating habits of her son’s Burmese python. I began to notice a pattern as most of them ended with “–and then he just smacked its head on the table and tossed it into the cage. Oh, Sis, the turkey’s great!” She was also a budding stand-up comedian and took every opportunity to play off Sharon’s mentions of Motley Crue with a Tommy Lee joke. This also provided a nice segue into stories about her son’s massive python. I can hear thunderous applause in this one’s future (sadly it’s not an enthusiastic crowd — it’s most likely flatulence).
Mike — Fry cook. Some years my father decides to invite some anonymous person from his church over for Christmas dinner. This year, we were really blessed. I still know relatively nothing about Mike except that he worked at Arby’s (his t-shirt asked me if I’d like to try their new “Big Montana”) and that he “ain’t shy!” A fact which he felt the need to prove over and over again by refusing to use the serving utensils and actually just handing me an entire Cornish game hen. “Go long!” he’d say. I lost three pounds over break, and I thank Mike for every ounce.
My Father — Retired engineer and serial husband. My father is by far the most interesting character in this entire spectacle. When not regaling us with tales of his volunteer work at the University of Kansas Medical Center (essentially, he recounts episodes of ER and spices up the dialogue with some four-letter words), he was responding to Leroy’s incessant questions about “the horrors of ‘Nam.” This Christmas he tried to help with the dinner, as I found out once I had penetrated the hard flaky crust of the ball of dough he kept referring to as a “biscuit.” ‘Nam hero or not, no amount of Napalm could have cooked those biscuits.
Once dinner was over, I went back to my mother’s house where I dined on cooked biscuits and turkey offered up on a fork. It was nice, but boring. No one talked about hacking through the jungle or how to feed a rabbit to a snake. You see, Christmas with my father is one of those rare opportunities where I am reminded of what’s truly important: the geographical distance between my family and me.
I guess I never really got the normal, magazine Christmas I had been praying for all those years, but maybe it’s because I was praying to the wrong deity.
Next year, I’ll make sure to pay tribute to the Kwanzaa angel. n