We Make Memories Together, Pretty Or Not
"Hang on a second," Dad said. "Do you think we should all head over there in the same car?"
"What are you even TALKING about," asked Jess, my sister.
"Well, I mean, I don't mean to be grim on Christmas Eve here, but what if there was an accident on the way to church? That way some of us would be spared and the whole family wouldn't get taken out. You've got to think about these things, you know."
"Dad," I said, "that sort of makes sense. Should we borrow two cars from the neighbors and drive over in four vehicles so only one of us gets wiped out, or just risk it in two separate cars? But hang on. Doesn't taking four separate cars mean that it is four times more likely that one of us will be in a car crash tonight?"
"I don't know," Jess interjected. "But it makes this idea four times as fucking stupid as it already is. Let's GO for God's sake, SHIT."
It may have been 55 and drizzling in Norfolk this Christmas Eve, but it was a white Christmas at our church, same as it is every year. Even if our congregation were capable of clapping to a song, our hymns are delivered with a reserved, earnest piety that leaves little room for rhythm. As Presbyterians, we are not so much moved by the Spirit as we are gently nudged by it. Personally, I have only seen our church decorated with poinsettias or palm fronds during the last decade, and the Holy Spirit tends to move me into dreamland.
We were out of church in record time. I just got laid off and neither my sister or I are engaged yet. None of us were that anxious to discuss those details with former Sunday School classmates who are off making money and families or converting heathens in Asia somewhere.
"Layla's stomach looks all swollen," Jess said immediately when we came home from church. Layla is Jess's dog, a nervous little black lab/beagle mix with tremendous separation anxiety and a broader palate than all the goats in Afghanistan combined. Last week she climbed on top of the dining room table and ate an entire package of chocolate covered cashews and a largeish sack of spoonbread mix, chasing it with the contents of two water bowls and half the water in the downstairs toilet. This suspicion was not without probable cause.
"Swollen" was putting it mildly. The dog looked eligible for UNICEF aid. Her stomach was so distended that she couldn't lie down. All she could do was sit awkwardly or stand there, shifting her weight uncomfortably, glassy-eyed and panting. "My God, the fucking FRUITCAKE" Jess shouted. "BAD DOG!" There was more cursing, followed by spanking, followed by even more cursing.
My sister's 30 pound dog had unwrapped a 5 pound fruitcake (my other grandmother's Christmas gift), removed it from its decorative tin and eaten the entire thing.
Just imagine: consuming 1/6 of your body weight in fruitcake.
Details are hazy here, and I'm not a judge. But it seems that my mom had left the fruitcake on the kitchen floor -- despite knowing the dog's Hoover-like tendencies when left unsupervised. My mom's feeling at the time was that the fruitcake was in an aluminum tin requiring opposable thumbs to open, and if my sister's dog weren't so miserably behaved, none of this would have happened in the first place. I had no patience for a standoff over a fruitcake on Christmas eve, and I snapped a little bit.
"I'm not saying who it is because I have no idea," I exclaimed at the ceiling above the Christmas tree. "But if somebody would say 'I'm sorry' to somebody else right now, and then the recipient of that apology would then say 'I'm sorry' back, we could all move forward emotionally right now, JESUS CHRIST."
As it turns out, we were all very sorry, very soon. Immediately following that proclamation, the perpetrator wobbled in front of the Christmas tree with a crazed look in her eye and vomited giant chunks of fruitcake all over the carpet. Lots of times. All night long.
"Jeff, it's like these are puzzle pieces for a 'build-your-own-fruitcake' set, for real," Jess said, picking up a fresh deposit an hour later. "Can my dog even chew, or is she secretly part python?" She had a point. The fruit looked nearly reusable. Imagine if Spider-Man imprisoned bad guys with fruitcake secreted from his wrists and you'll have a pretty decent idea of what decorated the living room carpet, the stairs, an easy chair and the area under the Christmas tree during the night.
Other families spent their Christmas morning together basking in the scent of aromatic food, perhaps the scent of cinnamon, nutmeg or spiced cider. We had our Christmas coffee by the tree while marinating in a stale potpourri of fruitcake, Lysol, and canine bile. We were laughing pretty hard at the whole situation at this point, though, which is the important thing. I had tears coming out of my eyes. But man, that smell was kinda brutal. It was too cold to open all the windows, and spraying air freshener would have made it worse. Something came along to replace it soon enough.
We keep all our bread, cereal, cookies, and other various carbs in the oven. Always have. The cabinets are full of canned goods, dried beans, rice, Jell-O in flavors long since discontinued, you name it. No room for bread in there. When zombies take over Norfolk, Virginia my family will be able to barter food for our choice of assault rifles and still have three squares a day until the Rapture takes us all home.
Usually, people remove all the foreign objects from the oven BEFORE turning it on. Most of the time. Or we at least catch it in time. This morning, my mom turned the oven on to preheat and immediately picked up the phone to call someone about something totally unrelated. Within minutes flames were leaping inside the oven and the noxious smoke that can only be released by burning plastic filled the entire house -- effectively masking the vomit smell. Suddenly it was no longer too cold to open all the windows in the house.
After the smoke cleared, we scraped several pounds' worth of plastic-infused mincemeat cookies out of the bottom of the oven. We packed up and headed over to my aunt and uncle's place, where we were greeted by Uncle Jimmy, resplendent in his Christmas Pants.
Although his pants were fantastic (bright red corduroy with little wreaths embroidered all over them!) and we all had a lovely time exchanging gifts and eating together, it was honestly the most uneventful part of the day.
We rolled home early, by 6 o'clock or so. It felt like midnight. My dad and sister took the dogs out for a quick walk.
"Don't let Layla come over here in the neighbors' yard," Dad said. "Why not?" Jess asked.
"I just barfed. I just barfed in the neighbor's yard and I don't want her getting into it."
There was no sound, no fanfare, no suggestion that he would be returning home. The man might as well have dropped a nickel into the storm drain, for all the consternation it was causing him.
Barf avoided, dogs voided, everyone came inside. We all settled into my bedroom -- and I am so, so grateful to still have one here -- to watch 'Little Miss Sunshine' as a family.
It pleases me deeply to think that it took one brilliant writer many torturous rewrites, two amazing directors and a cast full of comic geniuses to come up with a family as eccentric, cursed and lovingly dysfunctional as my own this Christmas. That's the thing about the Simmermons: We make memories together , pretty or not.