Family, Fun, and driving — circa 1997
T’was the day before Christmas, and all through the house,
we were preparing to leave (just me and my spouse)
The home was in chaos, the wife was a hare,
running around from here and to there.
We have to visit friends and relatives, one and all,
but we had last minute shopping to get done at the mall…
O.K., enough with the rhyme. We had a typical Christmas… for us. Well, OK, it may have been atypical, but only because of the degrees at which everything happened this year. We do a usual routine. We visit my family on Christmas Eve, and visit my wife’s family on Christmas Day. There can be no two more different families on the face of the planet.
The Journey is the reward
We did start the holiday with the last minute chaos to get out of the house — and my wife has this Bizarre need to make sure the house is clean before we get out. I am not sure what it is, but I think she figures that if we were going to die in a horrible car accident while traveling (or our house was to catch fire when we were gone), then whomever visited our house last would think, "Gosh what a loss to society because they were so clean".
We live in San Diego — my Grandparents live in Burbank, or basically a 2 hour drive. Did I mention this was Christmas Eve (day) and southern California? We also had to make a few "quick" stops along the way. So we got on the road about 10:00 a.m. (we wanted to be at my Grandparents at or before 4:00 p.m.).
The first leg of our journey was to some friends house about 45 minutes away (on the way) — and for this part of the journey we made great time. The roads were clear, and life was good, and we made it right on time. While traveling, the desert bugs (all of Southern California is really a desert) decided to come out, and kamikaze into our windshield like an egg storm. It was "cute" the first few dozen times I wished, "Merry Christmas Mr. Bug", as one exploded on our windshield (in my best Jimmy Stewart impression) — but the novelty soon wore off (for my wife), and I was threatened to let them go without the mandatory last words, or I had better start writing my own. Well, someone was certainly not in the Christmas spirit.
We arrived at our friends house and had a great visit, exchanged gifts, and was soon ready to get on our way. Half way to my Grandparents (with one other stop along the way).
A lot had changed on the freeways in the the last couple hours. Hmmm… people were getting off work, others were heading out of town — and we had get to Garden Grove to drop some stuff off at my wife’s Parents (the In-Laws).
My wife is not a traffic person, and her heart was starting to bug her (angina), and every person on the road seemed to think being one car length ahead of me would fulfill all their Christmas wishes. I had my usual knack for picking the slowest lane on the freeway, and hours of Christmas Carols, on all the radio were starting to take their toll. My wife’s normally sunny disposition was starting to feel the effects of "El Nino" — and I saw dark clouds coming from the passenger seat of the car.
I knew we were visiting traffic hell, when traffic didn’t clear up after we had passed the El-Toro ‘Y’ (14 lanes of parking in each direction). Huh, oh. The 20 minutes jaunt from to the in-laws took a festive 2 hours (with a top speed of 15 mph). There are lots of reasons to love L.A., but traffic isn’t one of them.
On the road again…
So we had a quick visit with the in-laws, and dropped the gifts out of the car (ones that we would open on Christmas with her family), said "Hi, Bye", then hit the road immediately, and headed back to the freeway.
My wife’s angina had stepped up the discomfort a degree or three, and naturally, I picked the perfect route to get to the freeway. I was going to take a slightly more round-about (but far more clear) path to my grandparents (a path that the spousal-unit was none too sure about): I took a road called Chapman to the 57, to avoid the 22->91->5 nightmare — while mentally admiring my seasoned traffic avoidance handiwork.
Did I mention this was Christmas Eve?
Chapman goes right past a place called "The Crystal Cathedral" where the T.V. Evangelist Reverend Scheuller does his sermons. He had just survived a heart attack, so his Christmas Eve sermon brought a few more of the massive flock than was norma. We were stuck in even more festive traffic than before. My wife’s disposition turned from overcast to funnel-cloud, "Good choice of directions" was the frosty quip from the passenger side of the car. Up in volume went the Christmas Carols.
At 4:00 we hit the freeway had completed the normally 5 minute gaunt to the the freeway. Whew, on our way — if you can call 20 mph on a crowded freeway, "on your way".
After another hour and a half of misery, my plan paid off, and the route I chose cleared up — and we practically zipped in to Burbank… by 6:00 p.m. I avoided dismemberment by pointing out that my route choices, finally paid off. The radio announcers were mentioning the 17 fender benders to avoid, that I had deftly dodged by taking a long-cut up the back route. And for a brief moment, while driving through Pasadena, we got a beautiful clear night view of the L.A. skyline (20 miles away), and we could see all the way to the ocean (about another 20 or 30 miles).
We arrived at my Grandparents at the same time as my parents, who had flown in from London, England, using Einstein’s relativity, they had let after us, 1:00pm their time, and had still beat us there. Fortunately, there was no fear of us being the latest people there: the world would stop turning on its axis if my brother arrived on time, and he strolled in around 8:00 p.m. — coincidentally just in time for the the table-scraps, desert and the gift exchange.
My Grandfather is a first generation German-American depression survivor, who fought in WWII and is slightly to the right of John Birch. My Grandmother is an Italian immigrant whose "hot-blooded" culture dominated the family. My Mom and her brother have had a rivalry since childhood that almost guarantees a holiday argument, that will require bringing up issues that are at least 40 years in the past. A second Uncle (Roger), who is a gay communist brings his "partner" (Paul) to all these "gatherings" since forever. Paul is a hoot, I think in gay parlance, he’s what’s known as a leather-buddy, lush, that believed gay-biker gear is appropriate for X-Mas dinner with the family. He wore pants so tight that you could tell his religion, and my fashion-observant wife pointed out he had a large hole in the front of his pants and wasn’t wearing any undergarments. Did I mention that my grandfather is conservative? Add in an assortment of kids (grand kids) and spouses, and you get about 20 of the nicest people in the world — that in NO WAY should ever exist in the same place at one time (let alone celebrate a holiday in a 1500 sq. foot house). Which is proven each and every holiday. This Christmas was no exception.
The hypothalamus inspired Four-F’s of Christmas are to mix lavish amounts of food, fighting, freebies, and then fleeing (freedom). Not necessarily in that order.
(1) Food: Italian Grandma’s have an exact formula for food preparation: food = visitors ^ 2. We had some 30lb mutant super-turkey, a ham that came from a state fair swine, a full sized dining room table (seats 12) filled with green beans, stuffing, twice baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberries, gravy, rolls (and other breads), salad, and this doesn’t count the Smörgåsbord of Hors D’oeuvre’s that people were pre-filled with upon household entry. Not to mention the nut and candy dishes strategically placed within arms reach –no matter where you sit in the house. Since we can’t think of sitting at the dining room table (where would the food go?), we have card tables in all the other rooms of the house. I was surprised by the frugality this year, as the steak, lamb and pot-roast were not present as well. We finished off the meal with some cheese-cake (I could kill the person who brought that), cookies, coffee, cake, and assorted other deserts.
Italians measure love by how much food they cook — and my Grandmother really really loves her family.
(2) Fights – No Christmas at my families house would be complete without at least one good fight. Grandpa says, "leave the the knives on the table" to avoid physically injury — but screaming, shoving, and as much psychological damage as possible is tolerated. This holiday fight had something to do with Roger being mad that his partner (Paul) was hammered before he got there, then continued to imbibe until vomiting commenced. I believe Jay Leno was made aware of the drama, having placed his studio a mere 5 miles from the festivities. Hey, this was better than normal — my wife and brothers fiancee had been shocked the first time they heard stupid-C-word used as a pet name, pushing was involved in Christmas, or seen a harmless sounding comment escalate into a death-match involving wrongs done in childhood. Who needs T.V.? In my family, I am the quiet and non-opinionated one.
(3) Freebies (Gifts) – Just when everyone is debating their two choices: food coma, or a quick visit to the vomitorium to avoid exploding, we go for the gift exchange. My family believes in buying gifts for everyone else — and measuring love in overt displays of excess. We rearrange the furniture, and pile the gifts in the center of the room. This years pile about 3-4 feet tall, and about 20 feet long — it was a light year because my parents came from England so we (and they) had to buy smaller gifts (for travel). The kids are all now in their teens (or older) so gift certificates are becoming more popular. The kids distribute the gifts (seeing if they can bury any of the "sitters"). Then everyone opens their gifts at once, for about an hour, throwing the wrapping at various trash-bags, and shouting "thank you’s" across the maelstrom to various gift givers… while trying to hide the terror in their eyes at some of the gifts recieved. Some grins of delight are indistinguishable from the grimace of constipation (or look of horror of ever wearing that).
My Grandfather got some big "bear" slippers. I got a 1995 J.R.R. Tolkien Calendar, as I had read Lord of the Rings once, in Jr. High School, and the family is determined that I still love fantasy, and a 2 years expired Calendar was not going to go to waste once found. My wife won the big prize this year: a Faux-Cat-Fur Coat, with tiger striped pattern, fur and satin alternating (in patches), neon kitty lining, and a large cat embroidered on the back. My wife is a low-keyed dresser, and this coat would embarrass a pimp. My Mom had liked the coat in Paris or something, and figured if it is something she would wear herself (so no malice intended). I kinda liked it, and had to chime in with, "Oh you have to try that on" to show everyone, to scalding looks from my spouse. It fit her perfectly. I so wish I’d had a camera to capture that for posterity, as that was the one and only time she wore it. But I was able to capture the coat, modeled by an adorable friend-of-the-family we donated it to.
I got lots of clothes in last years size, due to a phenomenon I describe as "programmers ever-spreading-ass" the only way I was getting my 34" ass into 32’s was with bacon grease after liposuction. Thus the weekend will be spent exchanging for things that more match my tastes and size. (While debating with various store clerks, as my family doesn’t believe in receipts). But the generousity and sincerity of my family is truly wonderful — even when they miss the mark (by a mile).
(4) Fleeing / Freedom – By 11:00 p.m. we slip off to the local Holiday Inn (we were not going to try the trek home). We crashed in a freezing room, with sub-standard Hotel heating system, and slept the fitful rest of PTSD sufferers everywhere.
After waking up to frost in the room, I has an environmentally conservationists shower, that had the stream pressure of an 80 year old man with prostate problems. Then we headed back to Grandma’s house for breakfast and to say goodbye. Due to booking problems with the Holiday Inn (they had billed my Brother and I for our rooms), my Grandmother got on the phone to spread a little Holiday cheer to the Holiday Inn. My Grandma wasn’t pleased in the slightest, and prepared Waffles, Omelettes, and other breakfast goodies all during the verbal assault she was commiting on the poor manager who had dared to take our money after they had paid/booked the rooms. I’ve seen her bring seasoned salespeople to tears.
On the road again… and again… We packed the car like the Clampets leaving for Beverly Hills, and went on our way back to the In-Laws for Christmas merriment. And was spared more traffic angst I wanted to stop for Gas in a bad part of town, but my wife has no sense of adventure (or humor) about some things.
My wife was raised by her single-mom, with help from her Aunt and Grandmother. Her Mom has since remarried a mild-mannered trucker. His Sister and family were over. Their family holidays are as surreal to me, as I’m sure mine are to her.
Her family chats, watches T.V., and snacks. No yelling. We sit down to a quiet meal (at one table), with a reasonable amount of food, and have a polite conversation that avoids controversial issues like baptists avoid eye contact while dining at hooters.
We retire to the living room, where we chat for a bit (quietly). About the only thing that disturbs this is the occasional gaseous emission followed by, "Oh, pardon me". This behavior is completely foreign to me, because my family is far more likely to quietly sneak one into the sofa, then blame the person next to them, which will end in a big family squabble over some similar event happening in the third grade.
Anyways, after a serene discussion, we enter the event of passing out a reasonable amount of gifts — then one at a time, open the gifts (in turn) and "oooh, aaaah" at the gifts — and comment on their lineage, what we were thinking when we got them for each other, and comment on the frugal reuse of last years bows, boxes, bags and ribbons. All the gifts are shockingly appropriate, in the right sizes and styles, with gift receipts on the bottom or in the cards (just in case). What planet is this?
While I like the peace (and the concept), long after the second or 3rd hour of peaceably unwrapping paper (and saving bows and ribbons), it sort of starts feeling like I’m watching the Stepford Wives. I catch myself insulting my Aunt-in-laws stickless dust-mop (a Lhapso Apso, or Shitzu: I can’t tell them apart), just to add a little action. The little fur-sausage, is not enhanced at all by the knit sweater it was forced to wear, and of course the dog loves me (most animals do), and it follows me around the house, breathing it’s little doggy breath on me, and staring up at me (with its one good eye and remaining teeth), trying to get me to rub him.
After many hours of friendly discussion and gift exchanging, with no blood, cursing, or arguments involving buying my Gay-Communist-Uncle a one-ticket to the Soviet-Fucking-Union (I never realized that "fucking" wasn’t part of their countries name until 9th grade), we, finally, say our goodbye’s and travel home, where my wife and I exchange our few gifts with each other, and crash in our own beds. Bliss.
The Holidays are a lot of "fun". I really do appreciate the events and the bonding. Nothing like familial hazing rituals to seal the bonds between couples. And the time spent with relatives makes it worth while. But it is so comical to look at yourselves as an outsider would, and just be amused by all the "goings on". Every holiday seems to leave at least a few scars along with precious memories. Like a nice morning walk and talk with my father, or some quiet discussions with my grandparents — those memories make the whole holiday chaos worth-while. On the other hand, I must say that I am glad that Christmas only comes but once a year.
Hope you had as much fun with yours.
Happy Holidays, and have a very good New-Year.
I wrote and shared that almost 20 years ago.
Since then, both my Grandparents and Step-dad have passed. My brother has Christmas events at his home (which run wildly on time, especially for having 3 kids). Roger and Paul broke up, and Roger retired to a cabin in the Sierra’s (where he’d once taken me backpacking for 3 weeks): so we don’t hear from him any more. My Uncle’s kids have their own lives, and have kids of their own (and their own places). There was a major family rift (over inheritance), that may be healing. We still visit some of the same friends, when we come into town (and their kids are starting college and leaving home). My Mom and brother are taking the kids to Knotts Berry Farm on the day-after XMas (just to get their dose of Holiday drama and chaos?), as the Christmas festivities are far more sedate (and leave fewer scars).
Our Holiday’s now more resemble my wife’s family gatherings, than own own childhood ones.
While I can’t say I miss the old style Holidays, at all (I far prefer the peace and calm, and much more civil gift exchanges)… and the food, while plentiful, is far less excessive. I can look back on the experiences, and remember them with fondness — like a kid growing up in a war-zone can remember the fun throwing rocks into mine fields or at enemy vehicles as they drove by. Ahhh, those were the days.
To help feed those feelings of melancholy and longing, amongst the much more on-target gifts (often with receipts included), we still get an occasional unintentional white elephant. Like my wife, who complains regularly about having straight hair (that can never hold a curl), so she got a hair-straightener this year, along with a tales about how useful they are to the perplexed stares of, "what makes you think I have problems with curly hair?" I suspect my wife will find that contraption as useful as I find the 34" pants I wish I could squeeze my 35" ass into. But my whiskey stones, wookiee slippers and StarWars themed PJ’s will get some use. Simultaneously. There’s a special place in heaven for Thomas Hancock, the man who invented elastic pants and stretchable fabrics.
While my wife, is by far the most considerate gift-giver amongst us (she pays attention to things people say, and remembers them while shopping, years later), my brother and I seem to have inherited my Mom’s ability to buy mis-targeted gifts. Thus the reason my wife does the shopping, and she knows to give me a specific list of things she wants, lest she get that Tiffany Colored-Glock Pistol I’ve wanted to buy her. While my beloved brother was discussing buying his Son (a truck race lover) an off-roading vehicle, to his wife’s horror and complete veto. What is it with wive’s lack of enthusiasm for giving their 9 year old children life endangering vehicles, when there are bathrooms to remodel?