At Home

Christmas, in three parts

This year I tried to curate the holidays before they even happened. I discovered this can lead to moments of both disappointment and happy surprises.

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Part 1: December 23, my apartment

At 7:00 a.m., the house smells of brisket, which cooked for eight hours through the night. I check my old phone for the first time in a few days. (My work phone is now my primary device.) I find a text message delivered the day before from my stepsister saying she and her boyfriend will be coming for dinner. Good thing there is plenty of food, I think. The previous few days were filled with grocery shopping, trips to the LCBO, list-making, cooking and baking. I messed up some macaroons, even though the recipe from my Grand Bruit, NL cookbook seemed so simple. To the coconut, eggs and sugar, I added the zest of a Meyer lemon and almond extract. They oozed out in the oven. Still, they were delicious. The gingerbread and sugar cookies–some sprinkled with cinnamon, others with coloured sugar and star-shaped beauties sandwiched together with the strawberry jam I made in July–came out nicely. Ina Garten’s French potato salad turned out, too. The dates, wrapped in double-smoked bacon and stuffed with a cube of Parmigiano Reggiano, are ready to be baked. Fancy French cheese, salami and olives warmed with orange zest and fennel seeds are set out on the coffee table. The Christmas tree was lit and a log was readied in the fireplace. The Beast prepared a Christmas play list on my computer. All we need now are the guests.

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The invite said 2:00 p.m. I promised that dinner would be on the table at 6:00 p.m. That would give us plenty of time for visiting, snacking and drinking. My dad and stepmom arrive right on time. My stepsister and her boyfriend, who is working nights over the holidays to earn extra money, say they will arrive later. My brother, sister-in-law and two-year-old nephew arrive at 5:30 p.m. (Babies can compromise schedules.) No matter, it gave the Beast and me plenty of time to drink three bottles of wine and eat most of the snacks with my pop and stepmom.

The living room felt full and warm with eight adults and one child. The dining room even more so. We ate mostly in silence. I should have cooked twice as much brisket. Did I find my dad and brother in the sunroom talking before or after dinner? I can’t remember. I proudly show them the bottle of Tasmanian single malt whiskey I brought back for this very moment. I imagined us all enjoying a siphoning of the golden stuff around the fire. Instead, I pounce on the father-and-son tableau in the sun room, hoping to fix the moment in their minds forever and poured them each a small drink. My brother wasn’t drinking, though. I insist. He obliges. The scotch is nice, they said.

Some guests sit around the fireplace. Others remain in the dining room. I wash the dinner dishes and hand out pieces of lemon pie with a secret layer of mashed-up amaretti cookies. We watch my nephew open presents. I got him one of those pedal-less wooden bikes. The Beast assembles it, my nephew patiently standing by his side. This made me happy.

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Part 2: December 24, the Beast’s parent’s home

The Beast works every Christmas Eve. He drives home at 5:00 p.m. in his boss’s Audi, which she has leant him for the holidays. He needs to change into a suit, which he does every year for his family–mostly to make them laugh. We take a cab back to Leaside so we can drink. Dave, the Beast’s dad, makes a perfect turkey dinner to which Marg, the Beast’s mom, contributes her famous carrot casserole. I have a second helping of it, and the Brussels sprouts. All four brothers, plus me and and the oldest brother’s wife, open our stockings, which are filled with provisions from Shoppers Drugmart–Q-Tips, deodorant, Advil, mascara, shampoo–that will last us until next Christmas. Every year, I assemble a stocking for Marg. This year, there is a dress from Club Monaco to show off her figure. She puts it on and we ooh and aah over how good she looks. Dave used to fall asleep downstairs in the family room after Christmas dinner but since he stopped drinking, he is present and full of conversation. I talk on the couch with him and Marg about real estate and the future. This is so nice, I think.

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In the past, there have been outbursts on Christmas Eve. A brother may have drunk too much, and runs outside in the snow with no shoes on, some of us in close pursuit trying to find him. A neighbour complains after one rants on the front porch or after the instruments come out and music is played at deafening levels. We sometimes laugh over these memories–including the ones that I wasn’t present for. Like the time one brother asked to open a gift before Christmas and Marg and Dave obliged. It was a book: Chicken Soup for the Teenager. No, it was Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for the Teenage Soul. The brother shouts, I don’t get you gifts that point out your flaws! This memory gets shared every year. This year, save for the Beast pretending like two giant Christmas balls and a birch branch were a penis and balls, is so calm.

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Dave drives us home. The Beast and I get into our pyjamas, pour glasses of wine and watch It’s a Wonderful Life. I cry earlier this year–right when young George Bailey says his kid brother is coming next down the hill. We are asleep before he lassos the moon. When I wake up, the credits are rolling. I have to wake the Beast in order to get him upstairs to bed. It’s past 2:00 a.m. Let me stay here, he pleads. No, I say. It’s Christmas Eve and we need to be together.

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Part 3: December 25, my mom’s place

After we open our presents, the Beast and I load up the Audi with cabbage rolls, an Italian savoury pie called a torta rustica, cinnamon buns, cookies, clementines, five loads of dirty laundry and a wrapped-up Shelley teapot for my mom. I call my mom when we hit Woodstock to say we are less than an hour away. She sounds happy. She still needs to take her bath, though. Also, she says, Russ was taken to the hospital early this morning. Just the usual: his personal service worker (they come three times a day) discovered his catheter had fallen out over night. Because his kidneys hardly work, there was an infection. He was showing dementia-like symptoms. My mom had to calm the PSW down. This happens at least six times a year so she knows what to do.

We arrive and eat cheese and crackers around the kitchen table. While my mom is opening up her Shelley teapot, the doorbell rings. It’s two Emergency Medical Technicians with Russ. Normally the hospital calls before they send him home, says my mom. They bring him in on a stretcher. He is still exhibiting dementia-like symptoms but I guess he can do that from home. They get him into his bed and hand us a prescription for the infection. A prescription on Christmas day, which will be hard to fill. Russ has been talking non-stop about the Beast and me coming for Christmas. He barely recognizes us.

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The Beast watches a documentary about Robert Altman. I drift in and out of sleep on the couch, waking up to fold laundry. We decide to eat cabbage rolls in front of the television, since the dining room table is covered in folded laundry and besides, we are all tired. We choose episodes from the fourth season of Eastbound and Down. My mom says, let’s keep watching this. Every time I hear pussy, cunt, dick, suck and fuck, I squirm. This is not appropriate for Christmas. Thank goodness the phone rings five times during dinner. There is Russ’s brother calling from Florida; there are caregivers checking in; my brother and his family trying to reach us for some FaceTime, twice, and my Aunt Sandy, who calls to tell my mom that there is a Call the Midwife Christmas special on. Thank God we watch it.

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I apologize to the Beast and my mom but I need to go to bed at 10:00 p.m. I start to read A Room of One’s Own, a gift from the Beast. Eight pages in, I am asleep.

The next morning the Beast and I  pick up Russ’s prescription. We also go to a grocery store to get my mom, who doesn’t drive, a few supplies. The iceberg lettuce is all rotten. So we put back the items in the cart and go to another grocery store where the iceberg lettuce is marginally better. Also, seedless grapes are on sale.

We get back and unload the groceries. My mom says having two able-bodied young people with a car is like heaven. She is so sore, on account of her Lupus. She emits audible pangs doing simple tasks, like walking from room to room. I come up from downstairs, or maybe from sneaking a cigarette in the garage, and hear the sound of my own voice. It’s a tape from my childhood. I might be six. My mom is playing it for the Beast on a little stereo system my brother and I bought her maybe 15 years ago. I am singing a song I think I may have made up: Where am I, where am I? I’m in the galaxy. There’s no freedom, there’s no mercy, I’m in the galaxy. This tape used to make me burst into tears. I feel nothing.

We eat our brunch: torta rustica, salad and cinnamon buns around the kitchen table, with Young Mr. Lincoln playing on the TV. After, we play the tape again. Mom and the Beast suggest that I make a voice recording and text it to my brother. I say the file will be too big. I hear my brother making laser and blaster sounds that echo through the war in space epic he’s narrating on the tape. In the background, we can hear our budgies singing. (They died within minutes of each other.) I hear my dad’s radio voice, soothing and booming all at once, telling us that yes, we can stop the tape and listen back now. I hear me, talking about shapes. There are squares, like a TV, circles, like the sun, and triangles. But there are no triangles in our house. I hear my mom laughing in the background after I announce that my brother has disturbed me so I must pause. But stay tuned for Part two of “These are the Shapes You Can Find in Your House.”

I can’t remember the last time I heard our four voices all together.

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We leave after tea, which is served in my mom’s new teapot. It’s 4:00 p.m. We drive less than a kilometre before my mom calls to say we should have taken some potato chips home. I say it’s okay and to save them for next time. I promise to call when we get home and hang up. Then the tears run down my face. “Let’s go back,” he says.

“I don’t know why I’m crying.”

“Let’s go back. We can stay the night.”

“But you never get a day to yourself during Christmas. I want you to wake up at home tomorrow so you can just do nothing.”

“Well at least let me take you back and you can hug your mom again.”

“Okay, let’s do that.”

“Then we can also get some of those chips.”

“The chips stay where they are,” I say, “because then she’ll think that’s why we came back. That’s not why we’re coming back.”

I run into the house, hiding tears, and my mom is hiding a can of Diet Coke. She must have been waiting to have it until after we left. We hug and she says do you want the chips? No, fuck the chips. We hug and I say sorry for not being present this Christmas. Don’t be silly, she says. You did so much. You always do. I don’t think I do enough of the right things. I get distracted worrying about her soda intake or doing the dishes or folding the laundry. Then it’s time to go and it feels like no time was spent just being together. No time was spent listening to her. Oh but we were together, she promises. She is soothing me now. This is not the way the scene was supposed to unfold.

We get back into the car. She waves from the porch, smiling so big I can barely make out her eyes. It’s dark now on the 401. The Beast drives fast in the Audi. It’s built for this kind of driving, he explains. Out the window, I make out Orion’s Belt. Those stars, I think–before I knew they were balls of gas glowing billions of miles away, some of them already dead–I used to call them buttons in the sky.

Categories: At Home

9 replies »

  1. I loved reading this! The feelings you describe really resonate with me. I’m not sure if there is an answer to feeling more present, or like you did more. Just keep living…you’re very good at it!

  2. beautifully written jesse, happy new year sweety, hope we get to have lunch att he Elmhurst on seniors day in 2015

  3. I thought that my heartstrings were completely calcified by my eight hour Downton Abbey marathon, but there are some things, told beautifully enough, that you can never be inured against. All the feels, as they kids say. All the goddamned feels.

  4. It’s strange. My middle name is ‘Arla’ and I want to say exactly the same thing. As a young adult my Christmases were in three parts as well. You try to be all things to all people. It was a beautiful post, and ‘thank you’!

  5. Beautiful heartfelt piece Jess. As our mums age we all feel that we do not do enough, you are not alone. Love your writing.

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