This is the story I like to tell:
My entire family is sitting around the oak table my dad affectionately calls the aircraft carrier. It has been refinished almost as many times as there are people sitting around it: 15. My siblings and I make 8. My parents: 2. My grandma: 1. And our friends and their 2 children: 4. My mom has decorated the house with fresh evergreen branches. It’s our second year in South Dakota after moving there from Texas and my mom is excited for things like snow, evergreen branches, and fresh sap that makes our hands sticky when we decorate the tree. She festooned the house weeks ago and now the needles drop to the floor every time we walk by the fireplace mantle. In honor of the day, my mom has lit brilliant red candles all over the house. She lit them, just before we bowed our heads to pray.
As my dad intones the “Amen” the son of our friends looks up and in his laconic teenage voice he says, “Is that normal?” We all follow his gaze to the mantle where flames are shooting up from the evergreens. My mom screams. My siblings yell. Someone knocks over a glass of water. I think I hear someone else swear. Jelly stains the table. The baby and my big sister are crying. Now my mom is running in and out of the dining room. “CARL!” she screams my father’s name. “CARL!”
My dad stands and walks slowly over to the mantle. He inhales and with one breath blows out the flame. Then, he walks back over to his chair and begins to serve himself turkey. He is taking his first bite as my mom rushes in with a pitcher of water and douses the singed branches. That’s when my brother starts laughing.
I like this story because it says all the things about my family that I want to believe. When I tell it, I leave out certain details.
Half of the house we are in is stripped to the lathes and a sharp cold wind is penetrating the plastic barriers that are duct-taped up in the doorway between the kitchen in the dining room.
There has already been a fire in the oven that day.
There has already been screaming that morning and my eyes are swollen from crying.
That story is one of those that live on in family lore. “Is that normal?” is something we say when we see impending disaster. It always makes us laugh. Each person in my family tells the story differently. Some include my mom setting the oven on fire that morning. Some don’t mention the pitcher of water. I’ve been told the pitcher of water never happened. My mom likes to clarify that she was trying to find the fire extinguisher and not just running around with her hands in the air in a blind panic. I like my version better.
But no one includes the crumbling house. No one includes the screaming. No one remembers my wet exhausted eyes.
It’s almost Thanksgiving and then almost Christmas. I love putting up my Christmas tree and the wreath that I spent hours hot gluing. I love braving the mall to take my daughter to see Santa and slurping candy canes while we wait in line. I love making cookies every Monday in December and letting Ellis’ face turn red and green from licking icing from the bowl. I love the Grinch doll that bounces and sings a mechanical song as my daughter presses the button over and over. I love Christmas music and shouting about donning gay apparel in the car, while Dave winces and bears it. That is the Christmas story I want to believe in.
There are no swollen eyelids. There are no scream fights in the car. No one ever has to make the choice between sitting next to the person who assaulted them at Christmas dinner or being left alone in a hotel. No one has panic attacks in the closet while the turkey is in the oven.
I always feel torn between the details I tell and the ones omitted. Because there are so many lovely moments. So many good memories and so many more to be made. So, I try to prune. I help set an idyllic scene–candles, trees, artfully wrapped presents, Pinterest-crafted reindeer snacks–but some corner of the house is crumbling. Some part of the scene is on fire.
Over the holidays, family feels like an exercise in submerging a beach ball. Throwing my body on top, trying to push the ball beneath the surface of the water, to pretend it’s not coming up over and over and over. To pretend the house isn’t in a state of disrepair. To pretend I’m not crying. Living in fear of the moment someone calls out, “Is that normal?” And we all scream because we can’t ignore the disaster in front of us.
I do love Christmas, genuinely and wholeheartedly. But we have to make room for the real story. For the real pain. For the ugly details on the periphery. Some people will spend the holidays explaining their divorce. Some will spend it in the hospital. Some will spend it telling their relatives why there is no baby or smiling like their grandma doesn’t think they’re going to Hell. Me? I’ll be sitting at the table, my eyes still stinging, wondering why this has to be normal.
PS I would like to just acknowledge Captain Awkward’s post on the holidays and it’s influence on this post. A friend recommended it to me and I love it. I think I’ll be reading it a lot this month.