I have often wondered how outsiders see into other families. How do they grasp the mechanisms that make them function, each in its own unique way? Perhaps one of the best opportunities to find the answer to this question is at a holiday gathering. For me, the moment of insight into my own family, my seeing it as a stranger might, came one Christmas after my brother had recently been married, and I had just become engaged.
I come from a family of two parents, three brothers, and me. One of my brothers is younger by two years, and the rest of us are similarly spaced. I often wondered — and still do — whether or not my parents only had sex when they wanted to conceive a child. Two years probably seemed like a proper length of time to wait before having another one.
But let me get back to my story.
Christmas in my house was not festive. It had all of the trappings: lights, tree, ornaments, stockings and the holiday dinner featuring a white linen tablecloth and an enormous turkey. From the outside, it probably looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. But to me, it was just another occasion for putting on my happy face. It had nothing to do with reality.
Around mid-November, my mother switched into her holiday mode. One year she baked dozens of small fruitcakes to give as gifts. They were about half the size of a fireplace brick. The perfect doorstop. I don't know who were the lucky recipients of her generosity. Probably the neighbors, all of our relatives, the members of our church congregation, and my father's co-workers.
Another year, she made Christmas trees out of wooden dowels and the kind of wire chenille that looked like strings of caterpillars, with a glass bead glued to the end of each branch. She made them in pale blue, pink, white, and dark green. They forested every horizontal surface in the house until one day they were gone. I think they went to the same places the fruitcakes did, and probably met with the same ending: consignment to the trash. Because who needed a fake tree to detract from your real tree, whether it was flocked, tinseled, made entirely of silvery fronds or culled from the Y-Men's lot?
In the midst of all this, there was an expectation that we buy or make presents for everyone in the family. I cannot for the life of me remember anything I gave my brothers or my father. But I recall saving up to buy my mother an oil cruet, a skillet, a saucepan, a baking dish. Why her gifts were entirely for the kitchen, I do not know. Perhaps it was my symbolic way of imploring her to feed me. Not just my body, but my spirit as well.
She had made Christmas stockings out of red and white felt, one for each of us, with our names carefully machine-stitched onto them. They were hung on the front door when the tree was put up and decorated. But they were strictly ornamental. No candy or gifts were ever placed inside of them.
This did not bother me until I heard my classmates talking about what they had gotten in their stockings: chocolate Santas, candy canes and the like. One turned to me and asked whether I opened my stocking on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. "Christmas morning," I lied. Then I went home and told my mother in what must have been a pleading tone of voice that other parents — I knew Santa did not exist, so I must have been six or seven — filled their children's stockings with candy and toys.
"Really," she said.
My voice rose, enthusiastically describing what my classmates had told me. I added that some kids opened their stockings on Christmas Eve, and some on Christmas morning. It really didn't matter one way or the other.
"Uh-huh," she said.
My stocking was empty on Christmas Eve, but I wasn't worried. I was convinced that my stocking, and those of my brothers, would be bulging with goodies in the morning.
When I got up, our stockings were empty. I was crushed. Then my mother said, "Go look on your door."
Hanging on the doorknob was a pair of old footie pajamas of my younger brother's, with a string sucker, the kind we were given in the checkout line at the grocery store, in each toe.
I took the suckers, pretended I was excited, went into my room, and cried.
So when my sister-in-law and my fiance´came for Christmas Eve fifteen years later, I was in a panic. His family gave so lavishly that there was a literal wall of gifts next to the tree, and as many underneath. I could in no way compete with that.
After the reading of the Christmas story in the high breathy nasal voice that came to my mother in moments of intense religious feeling accompanied by the urge to win souls for Christ, she gave her lecture about how Christmas was not about presents, it was about Jesus. She went on like that until my father gently stopped her. He knew how to do that. I knew what to expect.
My brothers and I gave books and record albums.
My mother gave me underwear. She gave my brothers socks. She gave my sister-in-law an oversized, undersexed flannel nightgown. And she gave my fiance' drill bits.
I had tried to prepare him. But he was still astonished. I was mortified. And we proceeded to our Christmas Eve smorgasbord as if this was how every family celebrated the holiday.