“Of course!”, her high soprano voice bellowed, “the two fattest motherfuckers in the family are in the kitchen —exactly where they don’t need to be!” My Great Aunt Sue entered my childhood home spewing her typical insults as she spotted my mother and my uncle doing various tasks to prepare for Christmas dinner. “Aunt Sue” (as I was told to call her despite being my great-aunt — maybe ‘cause no one could accept there was anything great about her) had on one of her typical outfits: a brightly colored, polyester suit (typically wide-legged pants and a long sleeveless vest), with a blouse that had a self-tying bow at the collar, patent leather loafers (either white or black depending on the time of year), and at least one large brooch.
She never seemed to be able to stuff all of her hair underneath her curly, auburn wig, so random gray stalks of it would stick out. She liked to wear hats too (either white or black to match her shoes) so the stacking of her hair, the wig, and the hat gave her a bobble head effect. She’d come in with her sole contribution to the family dinner, Jell-O, in a small Tupperware that indicated that she didn’t intend on sharing — and her bag of unwrapped Christmas gifts: socks for the men and Queen-sized dark-tan pantyhose for all the women (regardless of their size or skin color). She didn’t join us every year for Christmas, but every year that she did, we were guaranteed that she’d distribute both pantyhose and insults.
My Uncle James, her nephew, missed most of her insults because he slept through most of Christmas. With his mouth wide open, a thick swamp of salvia collecting at the valley of his slacked lip, he’d sleep on the couch in front of his TV stand, as others around him rooted on their teams or at the dining room table while politics, sex, race, religion were passionately debated, until it seemed that the swamp of spit was about to waterfall onto the table waking him up and causing him to participate in the conversation as if he had been lucid the entire time.
His sister, my Aunt Joyce, would chuckle when James would awaken and insert a comment that showed he, on an unconscious level, had kept up with the conversation because his comments were always relevant. Sibling love made her focus on his ability to merge his thoughts in rush-hour-conversation-traffic more than the fact that he had fallen asleep at the wheel. While he was dozing, she’d oftentimes dole out an additional helping to the meal on his plate, which he’d enthusiastically eat when awake. Perhaps this was his way of loving her back because Aunt Joyce was a terrible cook, who only seemed to get worse with each passing year as she tried to create meals that considered her Southern background and her transition to the Nation of Islam which prohibited pork.
Joyce’s daughter, my cousin, didn’t make the transition to being a Muslim as easily as her mother, so I would slip her pieces of pork when my aunt was mid-debate or distracted by shoveling more food on my uncle’s plate. My cousin and I would be sitting next to each other, so I could easily slip a piece of ham under the table into her open, waiting hand. Every now and then, others would catch the transaction; but no one ever ratted us out because this was a community of pork lovers. I’m 72 years old and damn near done had me some pork every day – a little brown liquor too –and doc says I’m healthier than most 50 year olds – the talk would go.
These folks could talk. That was about all they seemed to have in common — this mash-up of people who would find themselves at our home for Christmas. Throughout the years, there’d be various friends who would pop up and in: handy men who helped my mother with her rental homes, old fellow professors from my mom’s college teaching days, my mom’s temporary husband (long story), those who always got drunk and those “who won’t touch the stuff”. Some years, we were the Brewster’s Place of Christmas.
Other years, for this reason or that, it was just me and my mother. Those years, we acted a bit too accommodating to each other—normally set in our “only child” vs. mother roles because we both felt the emptiness—the shift. The disappearance of even one person can make a family suddenly feel like a situation. But we worked it out — our unconventional holiday happiness. And I look back now, us cooking, and cleaning, eating while watching t.v. in the family room — as a gift.
Each Christmas was a bit different. I didn’t have the solidness that comes from huge families and long traditions. We did always have a fake Christmas tree with white and red twinkly lights, red balls, and white tinsel swirled from bottom to top. We’d place the stand by the fireplace in our family room and organize the fake, metal sticks into the rough metal holes and then weave the lights throughout, to ensure there was twinkle everywhere by the fireplace. Same tree, with the same coordinating candy cane colored decorations, every year. And besides the consistent menu of candied yams, collard greens, rolls and ham; that’s is where the sameness of Christmas ended.
But it was always Christmas—whoever came and whatever we made of it. It was, as it always is, up to us to make something out of what we’ve been given (and rarely is anybody given the fairytale). It was always odd, dysfunctional, too crowded or too empty, too wild and sometimes too boring; but it was always ours — our Christmas.