A pandemic Christmas is strange, but so is my family
As a child, Christmas was a special time. After my parents divorced and mother ran off to be a “Gypsy,” there was a drastic shift.
Family Christmas gatherings became filled with the kind of drama I had only witnessed in movies. Instead of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, everyone is getting roasted and toasted.
Sister and I plan to meet at father’s house on Christmas. Not for a home-cooked meal, but to dine out.
Sister shows up late, throwing father into a tizzy.
Stepmother’s lip quivers to hide a snarl, disgusted by sister’s heavy blue eye shadow and ragged boots. We arrive at the restaurant to find a line out the door, wrapping around the building.
“This is why I told you to be at my house 11 o’clock sharp! But since you were late, we won’t even get a meal!”
Sister’s blue eye shadow shimmers as she closes her eyes, whispering to me in the backseat, “Merry F*cking Christmas.”
The entire family does fine dining next time, Christmas Eve. Sister has surgery on her feet, and hobbles in with a walking cane, loaded up on post-operative pain meds. Brothers arrive, each with their new or first wives.
Eldest brother’s wife wears a red, tight dress and talks about licking chocolate off of her husband’s body. Third brother’s wife gasps, “Inappropriate!”
Eldest brother’s wife snaps back, “Do you want to duke this out over a shot of tequila?” Father tells everyone to just relax, everyone’s fine.
Sister’s bandaged foot is elevated on the dinner table, balancing on the corner next to her wine glass. The glass does not survive.
There is cursing, a divide between pious perspectives and loose behaviors. I cannot pick a side, so I choose role of spectator, judging quietly.
My hair is short. I’m wearing a polo shirt, dressed like my abusive boyfriend as instructed. Twinning in male attire. I hardly interact with anyone, as he shakes his head, see how messed up everyone else is?
I avoid alcohol in fear of the scene. Father asks me to join in, I decline. He argues that Jesus drank wine, and so should I.
Another wine glass spills on the table.
Stepmother fusses at the waiter for giving her water, she only wants the Martini, then shoves an entire basket of complimentary bread into a To Go box.
Father decides that next Christmas, we should celebrate in his home.
Brothers and stepsister, working hard to repopulate the Earth, show up to father’s house with their herds of children for Christmas. We try to keep count of the number of grandkids, but always miss one, hustling to add a mismatched stocking with their name on it.
I walk in dressed like myself again, free of the abusive ex-boyfriend. Eldest brother walks in with his latest trend, an overgrown handlebar mustache. Stepmother scowls at the sight of his face.
Third brother walks in with his new wife, last year’s wife replacement. New sister-in-law greets us and discusses her ex-husband’s porn addiction while everyone digs into the casserole.
Eldest brother corners youngest sister to challenge her on religion and politics, bullying her to tears, with a grin.
A wine bottle is somehow pressurized with a cork. As father opens it, the cork shoots upward, red wine spraying like a hose against the white ceiling. There is laughter and confusion, how dark red wine managed to coat the crown molding.
Sister climbs on top of the counter and straddles the cooked turkey, holding a bottle of cleaning solution to spray fresh ceiling stains. Eldest brother yells, “Don’t spray the meat! Save the turkey!” As cleaning solution rains down softly, a fine mist upon the smorgasbord of food.
Third brother is newly ordained as a pastor for our ex-pastor father’s church. He gathers everyone for a personally prepared Christian rap, a musical performance. It drags out for ten minutes, while twenty small children are scolded into sitting quietly, listening to lyrics about the blood of the Lamb.
Third brother’s youngest son ignores his father’s performance, counting dollar bills that his grandfather loaded up in his stocking. 1, 2, 3… get money! He smells his fingers, inhaling the wealth.
Stepmother chases her own grandchildren outside in low heels that are one of a collection of fifteen pairs of the same shoe. Wearing her personal uniform of tights, skirt, and polyester blouse, which there are also fifteen pairs of.
The only day stepmother has ever worn a different outfit, was the Christmas after plastic surgery. Red skin melts from her face, her vibrant wig is off, wearing a leather jacket similar to Michael Jackson’s in Thriller and her only pair of jeans (that we never see again). While siblings prepare food, she washes her car in the driveway.
Her grandchild trips and falls on the concrete. Stepmother bends over, dumping her entire glass of wine as she helps the child. Wine flows down the driveway from a bottle worth hundreds of dollars, but she will get a refill.
Father glues a penny to the concrete, and chuckles as he watches stepmother discover and try to pick it up, pranking his wife. She struggles briefly, then keeps the penny.
Stepmother stocks a bedroom full of gifts, none of which are for any family members. Gift baskets piled inside are her special collection of door-prizes she has won, by the dozen that season.
Nobody knows how she wins every prize at every event, every year. Siblings are skeptical, while father laughs with pride at her luck. She also wins an iPad, cruises for two, teeth whitening, and liposuction.
She will win another twelve door-prizes next Christmas.
Two months until Christmas, father receives an update from Ancestry.com, that a stranger linked to his DNA wants to speak with him. Father laughs, “I hope my sins from my past aren’t trying to find me,” joking that his history would give us another sibling, though we have plenty.
Instead, for Christmas, father gets a new brother! He always wanted a brother. Father was one of two children. Their parents were socialites, an honorable lifelong marital pair until they passed.
Father does further DNA testing, confirming the man from Ancestry.com is his half-brother, at an age midway between father and his sister.
We gasp, bewildered by the revelation. An uncle has been delivered, via grandfather’s top secret affair.
Before negative feedback is too far gone, father insists this is fine. It is our duty to embrace our New Ancestry.com Uncle. “And he’s coming to Christmas!”
Before New Ancestry.com Uncle shows up to Christmas, father calls an important family meeting in his office with his adult children. Siblings only!
Young kids are littered in every room, and spouses of adult siblings are grumbling to be excluded from the secret family meeting. Left behind to wrangle the family daycare alone. I bring my first infant along as a witness, too anxious to part from him.
Father shares how special it is to meet his blood brother, for us to keep judgments at bay. But most importantly, there are other family secrets to reveal. Grandfather, who slept with a 16 year old girl that birthed New Ancestry.com Uncle (unaware of the father), wasn’t the only one with dirty secrets. Grandmother needed some airing out, too.
Father announces that grandmother was first married to a criminal who shot a sheriff, forced into marriage with that culprit.
For reference, father breaks out a faded newspaper that reports the first husband’s arrest. Our grandmother’s name is written in print. She escaped the marriage while he was behind bars.
So, everyone had secrets. Call it even, kids.
New Ancestry.com Uncle arrives at our massive family gathering. Everyone is baffled at his spitting image of our grandfather, the father he never knew.
Did we embrace him? Yes. Did he join our annual musical performances of our melodic family (not counting third brother’s Christmas rap)? Yes again. His unknown genes make him an equally skilled musician.
He is accepted into the family jam session. The ex-dining room converted into a music room, where a wall of large 1970s speakers stack from the floor to the ceiling. The volume is cranked up at maximum level. There are no windows, only speakers.
Irritated wives hide in back rooms with infants, trying to drown out the concert from sleepy baby ears.
But microphones are provided. Brothers and father sing loudly, competitively. New Ancestry.com Uncle joins in, but only to perform a solo.
Tired infants cry, but you cannot hear them.
It was the new hybrid family Christmas, with plans to celebrate the same the following year. But New Ancestry.com Uncle unexpectedly passes away two months after Christmas. Father is heartbroken, which then breaks us all.
Christmas is tearful, memories of our New Ancestry.com Uncle haunt father. To cheer him up would be ideal.
Kids are playing outside in a rented Fun Jump, that comes with free tattling and injuries.
Nephew runs inside holding his eye, sobbing. Young step-niece gave him a black eye. A family debate breaks out as nephew’s eye swells. Did he deserve it? Is it okay for girls to punch boys? The defense is that she attends a rough public school, and knows how to defend herself.
A toddler is in the corner of the living room, finding a moldy grape under father’s couch from 2012, having a small appetizer. Oh no, that’s my child!
Father’s fridge is always stocked with outdated, perished foods from prior holidays. “What? Sour cream from 2010 is still good!” He licks it off his finger to prove his point.
The excessive Christmas feast is made in advance. But Christmas morning there is one single item forgotten, so father heroically speeds off to the store. Likely for a can of green beans that nobody eats. He brings the only alcoholic beverage he knows I will drink, I toast to Christmas.
My toddlers start having diarrhea in the Fun Jump. I panic. Is this from moldy food or a virus?
Brothers compare their latest fads and diets. Debates of religion, the war of churches between family members, and politics emerge in conversations.
Luckily the conversations are halted when the family talent show begins. Sister strums her guitar playfully with kids, but it is abruptly ended. Stepmother bangs a spoon on her crystal glass, frowning as she tries to get everyone’s attention. It’s time for the official show.
Ordained third brother switches up his routine. No rapping, this time he chooses spoken word poetry. After ten minutes, I run off chasing after my toddlers. His rhythmic poetry echoing behind, more about lamb’s blood.
The grandchildren sort through stockings filled with dollar store finds. The boys secretly stab each other with fake knives after frustrated parents discourage violent games.
Middle brother and his wife who are from out of state promise to visit more the next day, and sleep at father’s house.
At midnight their baby vomits every 30 minutes, on every sheet. From moldy food or a virus? At 6 AM, while they launder sheets full of puke, stepmother interrupts the laundry load with her own clothing, and asks if they want to go shoe shopping. The baby pukes again.
They pack up, and peel out of the driveway. A text is received hours later, “Sorry, we left. It was just time for us to go.”
On December 1st, 2020, middle brother’s wife gets an alert on her phone, “Don’t go back to town for X-mas.” A calendar reminder she set incase they got amnesia from the last experience. But instead, a pandemic has occurred. The reminder is unnecessary.
Christmas comes only once a year, but the memories last a lifetime. After pandemic debates, the family concludes that this is the year we will cancel our gathering.
It will be a quieter Christmas, the most Silent Night. I enjoy hot tea, admiring our tree, recalling family history I have suddenly grown keenly aware of. I search my soul for peace on earth and solutions for future gatherings. For the warmth of this season to soothe residual bitterness in my bones.
This Christmas will be void of the ghosts of Christmas past, thanks to the pandemic of 2020.
Until next year.