From the family who brought you To Kill a Snake with a Moccasin, I give you another instant classic: Christmas Dinner.
But before I start, let me get some disappointing news out of the way: my father – despite his best efforts to impress me with a story about chasing a mouse around his garage – will make no further appearance in this post. Instead, it’s my grandmother, a spunky lady of 94 who recently admitted to using her cane to knock items off the top shelf at the grocery store, who will play the lead role.
It all started when another family member – who we will call ‘Someone’ because she’s under the impression that this blog is popular and I purposely do a lousy job of convincing her otherwise – told “everyone” that she only wants to hear “happy stories” during the holiday break.
“It’s Christmas,” she reminded, her gaze falling directly on my grandmother. “I don’t want to hear any sad stories today.”
If there is an easier way to prompt an elderly woman to list, in order, all the times she has ever been cold in her life and the circumstances surrounding that misfortune, I don’t know what it is.
“We put hot bricks in the bed to keep warm. Did I ever tell you that before?” she asked. “There were three people in the same bed and it was still cold.”
“Alright, that’s enough,” Someone interjected. “We all know that story.”
On some level, I don’t blame Someone for cutting my grandmother off. After all, her stories seem to be less about sharing significant life events and more about casually recapping when and how everyone else in them eventually died. I guess that’s what happens when you’re the last one living.
“Tell us about the happiest day you ever had,” I suggested. “How about the day you met Pop Pop?”
But my grandmother only got as far as arriving in Philadelphia with a certificate from secretarial school and no job before she changed the subject by pointing out a flaw in the foundation of a gingerbread house we were making.
And perhaps that’s for the best. Usually her stories about my grandfather start with him making soup from ketchup and water during the Great Depression and inevitably make their way to him eating too many cookies during the last few years of his life. The high point, if we get there, is either about him fishing off a pier in Florida while she was tasked with fending off a flock of pelicans with a broom or the time he started a print shop with no real experience and several cases of paper bought on credit.
“I told him not to buy that paper,” I’ve heard her say more than once. “We had no money to pay for it!”
That my grandfather did pay for the paper upon the completion of his first job and that his business turned out to be a huge success is not a theme that gets a lot of airtime in her re-telling of events. Though she will admit that he did (eventually) build her the gigantic kitchen she always begged him for.
“And thank goodness,” she said. “The old kitchen was a closet. I mean, literally. It was a closet.”
Had my grandmother told the story of how she and my grandfather met, that’s probably how it would have ended: with her demanding that we all imagine how crowded a coat closet would be once you put an oven in it. But, she got sidetracked – as is often the case when making a house out of candy.
Over dinner, my brother reminded her. “You never finished the story about Philadelphia. I want to hear it.”
“Well I remember our first house,” she said. “It was a nice house we moved to. I liked that house.”
For a second, we all brightened. It seemed as though our family might get a Christmas miracle: A happy story.
“But the neighbors,” she continued. “Well we called them ‘The Fat Family’.”
We all groaned.
“The little girl was always walking around with a cup of M&Ms and she had chocolate all over her face,” my grandmother grimaced. “It was terrible.”
She put down her fork.
“Anyway,” she continued. “We came to find out later, that they called us ‘The Loud Family’.”
“Why are you laughing?!” she demanded. “It wasn’t funny! My feelings were hurt!”
“But you called them The Fat Family,” I said. “That’s the same thing!”
“WELL THEY WERE FAT!” she yelled.
“Alright, that’s enough,” Someone said, putting her head in her hands. “It’s Christmas. Can everyone please just be happy?”
“Well I just think we should be realistic,” my grandmother shrugged.
“Not on Christmas,” Someone shot back. The rest of the table fell silent, which reminded me that I needed to air my grievances about how loudly everyone had snored the night before.
“It sounded like a pack of motorcycles in here!” I complained. “And it’s not healthy to snore. That means something is restricting your airway.”
“Well it’s not sleep apnea,” Someone said.
“No one said it was,” I replied.
“Good,” she said. “Because that’s when your heart stops in your sleep and you die for a minute.”
“I don’t think that’s right,” I said under my breath.
“It is!” she insisted. “You die in your sleep for a second and then you wake up.”
Then, just for good measure, Someone mimicked jolting awake, a forkful of roast beef still in her hand.
“Excuse me!” my grandmother said, whipping around in her seat, the throw pillow she was sitting on nearly sliding out from under her. “That’s an awfully sad story you’re telling.”
Everyone – except Someone – laughed uproariously.
“I mean, really,” she said over the din. “It’s Christmas!”
And with that, my grandmother raised both arms as though she were a football referee declaring the game-ending touchdown.
My grandmother may not realize that her stories are, in fact, consistently and unnecessarily negative, but she is certainly aware that they are hers to tell exactly as she wishes – even when someone, or Someone, specifically asks her not to.
And that’s a good piece of advice to remember in 2016. May we all mix the happy with the sad and tell all our stories well.
Happy new year… from the loudest member of The Loud Family.