Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Day tradition

A Christmas Day tradition in my family involved a large family gathering & Christmas dinner rotating between our house, & my mom's brother & sister. This was not  a tradition I liked.  In two of every three years it meant traveling up to Sparta in far north Jersey. my uncle's place,  or down to my aunt's in New Brunswick (fine house, I admit) & being trapped for hours  in unfamiliar homes with cousins I didn't like. The payoff: The usual turkey dinner, a few meager gifts of the aunt & uncle variety, & hours of tedium culminating in The Group Photograph, which seemed like the main reason for the thing. I despised having our own house invaded by these people every third year. Normally messy & cluttered, everything, including our bedrooms, had to be straightened up before these relatives arrived. Mom was under extra stress; she was not a good stress person to begin with. I forget what my paternal grandmother did those years; hide in her room, probably. These were the protestants. They could remind her only of her biggest failures: not keeping dad in the Faith & her grandchildren raised Methodist, which undermined her  matriarchal position vis her own younger sisters.

One of my cousins was an outrageously insulting brat. True, I was also brat, my three older siblings certainly capable of calculated brattiness, & together we were, on occasion, conspiratorially bratty. But we also had good manners when required (the lost courtesy of standing up when an adult entered the room for the first time & stepping aside from your seat until the adult chose where to sit), & speaking rudely  to grownups was a grievous act  even I rarely transgressed. My cousin R was eye-poppingly rude, the popping eyes being my dad's with his then undiagnosed thyroid condition. R had, in his own home, a wonderful collection of toys, but we doubted he had any friends.

Two my uncle's three kids were legendary (to us) wallflowers. They shrunk into invisibility upon contact with us. Trying to engage them in conversation, or any shared activity, was pointless. You were lucky to get four word sentences out of them. Our grandfather adored them, which was infuriating. My sister, a small girl accustomed to dealing with  three brothers & our friends, could have easily grabbed each by the hair, cracked their heads together & thrust them into the coat closet by the front entrance,  kicking the door shut with her heel, & chosen the exact moment when no adult would see her doing it. But they were harmless, defenseless creatures, really, friendly actually, & my sister could play the good girl well. My aunt's dapper husband (the boy brat's father), whose sports coats  I coveted when I was old enough to appreciate such things, recognized early on that my sister was a spirited, male-savvy  female worthy of his compliments. Our two ultra-shy girl cousins weren't even in the game.

So it was, on the occasion of these Christmas gatherings, that my three siblings & I found a rare solidarity. We had to band together just to keep from being bored to tears. In our own home, we had to protect our turf.

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