We had two more hours to go.
David looked at me from the driver’s seat and we both knew the game was over. We would need to pull over for a nap before resuming. We both felt like absolute failures. I had eaten an entire bag of sour gummy bears in vain. It was no use. Nausea and night blindness were overtaking us both, so we stuffed our shame down into places from which it could only reemerge later as a drinking problem or a personality disorder and went to sleep. David was immediately out; even the dog in the back seat snored and farted comfortably under the warm glow of truck stop lighting.
I closed my eyes and the sounds of the long day reverberated mercilessly as I phased in and out of gummy bear infused sleep. I settled in to let my mind review the day on its own and maybe just schedule a meeting to review it with me later.
We had just left the Jones family Christmas party. Every year, or almost every year, I make the trek to Michigan. Every year I think I should maybe do something else this time, but every year, I go anyway.
Over 70 years ago, I haven’t thought about the math, but my dad is 68, so I can only assume it has been longer than that, Bob and Geraldine Jones started something. My father is one of twelve children born to the devout Catholic couple emerging as a family out of the Second World War.
Most 30 year olds now with the standard 2.5 children in tow, demand a fully loaded SUV, larger and with more amenities than the farmhouse in which my grandmother raised 12 children. And yet, she somehow made it seem effortless, at least to me. She ran her family like a good general, confident in chaos, able to organize fun so that you couldn’t even tell it was organized at all. Their kids grew up and had kids of their own and by the time I arrived, I was already embedded in an elaborate system of family dynamics that seemed to breathe and play and move all the time.
Honestly, I cannot even give an accurate number of all my first cousins. I know them when I see them. And still, year over year, I watch as their own children begin to look so much more like them. When we’re all together, it’s like a strange time warp occurs and I see us all again, huddled on the floor at Grandmas feet on Christmas Eve, listening to her voice that both sang and cracked at the same time.
I loved her voice. And every year, on Christmas Eve, We all got to drink in that salty, sweet, rhythmic voice as she gathered us around to read the Polar Express.
That’s not how the evening started, however. It started with standing room only chaos. Whether you were a Jones or married to a Jones, you were there. I’ve realized now that most families do this awkward dance between in-laws. There is a sharing phenomenon that gets played out between the families of adult children with children. We all scrap for attention and the kids are caught in the exhausted middle trying to please both sets of parents or, God forbid, the ruthless dance of divorced parents. There is something evil about the way this all goes. But not back then…not for Grandma and Grandpa Jones…at least not how I saw it. You went to their house on Christmas Eve. You wanted to. But also grandma had the kind of power that compelled you. She never demanded or used guilt, but you somehow just knew that was where all the warmth was and to do anything else seemed a little wonky.
You entered the farmhouse from the side porch into a cramped mud room stuffed with coats and boots. It was a wet carpeted mess of melted snow, and too few wall hooks considering the demand. From there you could already hear the muffled hum that humans make when large numbers are pressed into small spaces.
Then into the kitchen, buzzing with women mashing and warming things. I’ll admit, you never went for the food. It was made in huge quantities like an army would require and you couldn’t take the kind of time or money a smaller family could in making special fancy things. But we did have chop suey …lots of it. I don’t know why. Maybe someday I’ll ask where it started, but I haven’t asked yet, because it was what I knew, and as far as I knew, why would you even ask?
At some point the food would all be out taking up the whole dining room table. This was ok, because no one ever expected to be eating seated at a table. You were lucky to find something to sit on at all. Many just hovered around waiting for a spot to open up, many knew well enough not to leave their chair if they had one and were simply committed to never getting up for the bathroom. Many others leaned on walls and milled around, happy enough to refill their drinks and chat with the sitters and other wandering guests. There was no elbow room.
Many of the men would eventually slink out to the zib-zab room, a large front room in grandpa’s pole barn heated by a wood stove and furnished with the most horrifying couch you’ve ever seen. It was warm and quiet compared to the house, and the couch pulled you in despite, or maybe because of its worn and broken frame…also there was a lot more beer. I used to think it was called the zib-zab room because of a tool grandpa used to use with when he would do part time work for a local plastic factory. It made this funny “zibzab” noise so that made sense to me . The actual reason has to do with some sign some guy left there that read zibzab on it…I like my story better. This is also the place from which Santa would dress and emerge when the time called for it.
I didn’t know this when I was little. I simply knew that at some point, when the adults seemed to be wrapping up all the eating and mingling, someone would plop a single chair in the middle of the living room already packed beyond capacity, and Grandpa would sit down with the biggest, most Holiest Bible I have ever seen, to date. It was goldish all over with the face of Jesus according to Warner Sallman on the very front cover. From it, Grandpa would read the Christmas story, not the easy one either, the one from the Gospel according to Luke who spared us no details. Some years went better than others, Sometimes he ended with a dirty joke or took more liberties embellishing than others, but it was always his gravely, monotone voice grinding out the story as recorded by Luke that we got to hear out of that gold Bible. After this he pulled out his harmonica and played Silent Night as we all sang along. The mood was somber; our voices were sweet and pure. And even though the situation was an absolute fire hazard as the huge Christmas tree bulbs lit our hope filled faces and threatened to burn holes in the carpet, I felt safer than I ever have. I understood for a minute what life was all about.
Next up to the chair was Grandma to lighten the mood a little. She read the Polar Express all the way through, and we listened all the way through because we knew what came next and the energy was palpable. Most times, I’m so thankful we didn’t have cell phones growing up. We were there for all the boring parts of life you miss when your face is in a more interesting screen of unreality. You actually miss most things, and then later wonder why you ended up so lonely. But I wish I could have recorded her then. I wish I didn’t just have to rely on my sticky childhood memories. Because she was beautiful. She sat like a humble queen in the middle of us reading a story we had heard many times before. It didn’t matter. She was love itself, she made us better than we really were, and I would gladly get lost in a whole world of unreality if it meant I got to hear her read to me again.
She would finish the story, her eyes would look up knowingly and from somewhere in the kitchen, a single jingle bell would ring. Then from the belly of the zib-zab room Santa would make his triumphal entry. The spell was broken and chaos would rein again. One of my, by now, fairly intoxicated uncles would be the chosen Santa and in donning the uniform, be required to sit in the chair next to distribute presents by name to all us kids. Inappropriate jokes, lots of awkward lap sitting, and laughter was all there was left in us after such an evening. It was uncomfortably perfect.
The kids unwrapped their gifts, the adults exchanged theirs. Some years the pattern was different. Some years it seemed like we did things in a slightly different order, but at the end of it all, sometimes many and sometimes only a few stayed in the dimly lit family room to sing half of every Christmas Carol we could remember. For over 70 years this family has refused to learn all the words to a single carol. We sing the parts we like and mumble the parts we don’t, then we trail off into the next one with renewed confidence.
As I lay here at a truck stop in the middle of the night, tired and disillusioned by my own broken expectations, I can’t help but think how they just may have gotten the carol singing right all along.
It was a long time before I realized that not all Christmas Eves looked like this. That some families are small and quiet and play board games. Some families go to Vegas, or Florida, or do nothing at all. Some dads don’t see their kids, some moms are in jail, or high, or are taking selfies with a new husband, and some, never made it through the year. The day comes around again but someone is gone and they are mourned again. It’s worse now though, because what you’ve lost has a fragrance and color with it… the pain has texture.
It was a long time before I’d realized that Christmas had become pretty disappointing for me too. It was a reminder every year that I wouldn’t hear my grandmother’s crackly voice giving orders about what went where or see her looking up mischievously after the last sentence in the Polar Express when the bell would ring. My first husband’s family was of the quiet, board game variety. It was a nice change in some ways, but small families seemed kind of sad to me, and I never quite got my footing when there was no uncle in a Santa suite, no singing…no chop suey.
David has his own baggage. His childhood memories lie in stark contrast to the Christmas he was able to have with his own children after the divorce when the kids were still very young. The kids are probably ok… they don’t know any different… but he does, and so do I. Maybe it’s just the price of growing up and living out the consequences of all our terrible decisions. That’s probably likely. But also I think Christmas has always been a bit of a mix bag of expectation and disappointment.
Hope broken down by what we thought it would look like and the big hairy thing we’re looking straight at in disbelief and denial instead. Right from the jump, God’s plan for reconciliation with humans was a real bummer. I suppose it’s lovely to have a baby and all, and to have angels say nice things about you. But also you’re having it in a barn, with no epidural, and your family thinks you’re a whore, all those tight lipped smiles at the baby shower… oh yeah, and now the current government wants to kill it. But just hang in there, 30 years later, things get real uncomfortable. Other than that… Peace on earth.
It’s a perspective thing. This probably didn’t comfort Mary a whole lot when she learned about the slaughter of all the baby boys just like hers in the village she had recently fled. Seriously, what have we done to this holiday that would require the expectation of perfection and peace?
Christmas annually fails to live up to my childhood memories. I am older and all too aware that the holiday doesn’t go well for so many…that their own lofty memories are dashed by their current reality. Death, divorce, and dysfunction are breathing down the necks of us all and are called into sharp focus around Christmas. If you live long enough, you know what I mean. It’s just a real mess. There’s not one person who doesn’t get seriously, clinically disappointed this time of year. If you haven’t been, then it’s you. You are the disappointment.
But it’s ok. I think Jesus likes it that way. It keeps us all from getting too uppity.
No matter what has happened all year, you sit down together to listen to a story you already know. You buy the things and you eat the food. And when it’s time to sing the carols, or deal with family, maybe you just sing out real loud the parts you like the best. You mumble the rest and move on quickly when it gets obvious no one knows what they’re doing anymore.
My grandparents have been gone a long time now. But when I make the drive to Michigan to put myself in the middle of the chaos they started so long ago, I get to see them again. It’s different now. I’ve been away so long that I barely know all my cousins anymore, or their kids… they are legion. But I see my grandma in my aunts as they try to organize the food and their grandchildren. In my uncles who have an incredible way of filling a room with laughter, and, my dad, as he sits in the dark with his lighted Christmas neckless flashing, he closes his eyes to sing silent night, the parts he remembers, I see my Grandpa again.
But most importantly I see what love looks like when it shows up, no matter what, for over 70 years…
Like singing a song without knowing the words, like a teenage mother getting run ragged because God asked her to step up a little, and maybe like sleeping in a truck stop parking lot just to get a glimpse of your grandma again.