Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present, and future. — Gail Lumet Buckley
Despite a resolution to skip all holiday hullabaloo, I agreed to celebrate Christmas with David’s family — provided it be a low-key affair — as trade-off for having him spend Thanksgiving with mine. I had so easily disengaged from all the “holidaity” last year that I wouldn’t have thought the differences between the celebrations of David’s clan and mine would matter much.
It was with a strange sense of detachment that I watched my in-laws open gifts on Christmas Eve. David and Ency — mother and son both sensitive and solicitous when it comes to shifts in my disposition — inquired after my well-being. “I’m fine,” I’d say, “just quiet.” To which one or the other would respond, “You being quiet is not you being ‘fine.’”
They were correct in their assessment. I was funkified, but I wasn’t sure why. All the elements were at hand — a beautifully decorated tree, wrapped gifts, tons of food — and yet nothing about it was reminiscent of the holiday I’d celebrated for 30 years with my family. It just didn’t feel like Christmas. The most bothersome thing about it all was that I wasn’t supposed to care.
On Christmas morning I called my father. I hadn’t been awake for long, but I knew that even though Dad was three hours behind, he would have already finished journaling, meditating, and walking. When he answered, Dad told me he was fresh off a phone conversation with his three siblings, who had congregated at
Aunt Diane’s place in the Hamptons. I was surprised to learn that Aunt Carol, a woman with 19 grandchildren, had chosen a kid-free version of Christmas. Whereas, for a child-free-by-choice woman like me, a quiet recess with a group of sharp-tongued and hilarious New Yorkers like my Dad’s siblings sounded ideal.
I told Dad that though I always enjoyed visiting my in-laws, it felt unnatural to be celebrating Christmas anywhere but home. Dad took a deep breath, as if voicing for the first time a concept he’d divulged before: “You know, all your happy Christmas memories are in spite of me, not because of me,” he said. “Mommy was always into all that; each year I just couldn’t wait until it was over.” But unlike prior accounts in which Dad would explain his aversion to the excess on which my mother insisted, this time he elaborated, excavating insight from beneath the protective layers that had formed over wounds inflicted long ago.
Dad rarely spoke of his childhood. But a daughter can glean a good deal from the silent expanses between words. For example, I knew my grandfather, an Irishman, was a serious drinker, though I had never seen him drunk. I understood that despite Grandpa’s bouts of belligerence, he never raised a hand to Grandmère; that when she became ill with emphysema, he doted on her, hardly leaving her side until she took her last laborious breath. I knew from Dad’s carefully chosen words that he had forgiven Grandpa his transgressions; that the impression Dad carried in his heart of his father was swathed in deference.
“It had to be hard to be left in a home when you’re five years old,” Dad said. He told me that Grandpa’s father was one of the casualties of the 1918 flu pandemic. Unable to provide for her three children, my great-grandmother placed her daughter at her sister-in-law’s and her two boys at St. Vincent’s, though no one knows for how long. In adulthood, Dad discovered that the “college” his father told him his Uncle Eddie attended off and on was called Sing Sing.
While his brother was paying the price for his chosen career, my grandfather met Mary, the love of his life and mother of his children. Mary, who I knew as Grandmère, looked after their children in a small Brooklyn apartment while Grandpa worked his way up Wall Street, eventually attaining the position of treasurer of the credit division for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Grandpa and his colleagues began each day with a boilermaker at a bar on Rector Street. As Dad put it, “Wall Street was filled with functioning alcoholics.” No matter how adroitly Grandpa fulfilled his familial duties, his wife and children came to learn that Christmas was a chariot on which his mysterious demons would arrive.
“It was always the same,” Dad explained. “He’d scream obscenities, words I could never repeat” — this was saying a lot, given Dad’s partiality for colorful language. “We never knew who those words were directed at.” Dad continued, “He’d shout, ‘We’ll beat ’em all!’” In a softer, more futile tone, Grandpa would often turn to his wife and, using his nickname for her, repeat the phrase: “We’ll beat ’em all, Mare. We’ll beat ’em all.” As my Aunt Diane told me, for my grandfather, life was a battle.
My dad had chosen to share this history with me now so that the story he was about to impart would make sense. Earlier that morning, he’d called his siblings to wish them a Merry Christmas. When my Uncle Jimmy got on the phone, Dad said, in a resonant voice, “This is the Ghost of Christmas Past.” Then he let fly a reminiscent collection of curses before roaring, in Tiny Tim–like finality, “WE’LL BEAT ’EM ALL!” My uncle burst out laughing and insisted Dad repeat the sentiments on speakerphone for all the family to hear — a request my father granted only after he was assured who was present. When he repeated his Christmas greeting for his sisters, the entire room erupted with laughter.
When he’d recovered from his guffaws, Uncle Jimmy told Dad that before he’d called, they’d all been caught up being phony, taking pictures and opening presents as if trying to re-create a cheery Hollywood version of a holiday none of them really cared for. But it hadn’t been Christmas, Uncle Jimmy said — not until Dad called to infuse the day with the essence, for good or bad, of what Christmas had always meant for his family.