Leaving the cemetery, I began to feel anxious, which is not an emotion that should be prevalent on Christmas day.
Jessy invited us to spend Christmas at her house, with her family, and that seemed like a fine idea to me, especially considering the fact that my mom had barely even spoken to me since Thanksgiving. But then Corey mentioned that our mom had put up the tree and seemed to be sort of trying to put together some semblance of a decent Christmas for us. I had sworn after this last Thanksgiving that I was tired of watching everyone go through the motions, sitting in my mom’s dining room and barely even conversing on holidays. It’s strained, with my brother Corey and I typically being the only ones talking.
Whatever. Driven by guilt as always, I adjusted plans because God forbid we should have the audacity to make plans that don’t involve that stomach-churning cruise down Gillcrest Drive. In my mind, I said that I was doing this for Corey, not my mom.
The plan was to stop at my dad’s house first. It was around 5:00, and I called him to make sure it was OK, since he was on call for his job with the gas company all day.
That was not a very pleasant phone call. He had apparently just gotten called out, in the middle of starting dinner. He sounded harried and put-off by the idea of us stopping over. I promised him that I didn’t want to get in the way, just wanted to give him his gift. That was all. We were only a few minutes away, so he (unconvincingly) acquiesced and I hung up. I had planned on spending about an hour there and then shooting straight to my mom’s, who lives quite honestly about two minutes away. But this threw a wrench in my plans, because my mom wasn’t having dinner until 6. We would either have to drive around, killing time, or pray that she let us come early.
In normal families, this would be a non-issue.
As I dialed her number in the car, my hands shook a little and my stomach clenched. I never know what I’m going to get with her. Especially on holidays.
I tried to sound as pleasant as possible when I asked if we could come over earlier than 6. I heard somewhere that most daughters can just show up at their mothers’ house whenever they want. I wonder what that’s like.
Over the phone, my mom huffed a little. “Like, how early?”
“I don’t know…a half hour?” I cautiously broached.
Lots of irritated sound effects exploded from the other end. Her voice took on that high-pitched, teetering-on-the-edge tone that I grew up with and still makes me want to punch myself in the throat. She started screaming about having to leave the dog outside for even longer in the case of having the nerve to crash her house any earlier than the set time. (She always uses “the dog” as an excuse for everything, like the time I found a painting I made for her one Christmas shoved in the back of a kitchen cabinet, and it was all, “Oh, that’s because THE DOG was trying to eat it.” OH OK.)
“You know what?” I shouted into the phone, cutting off her unwarranted histrionics. “Just fucking forget it. It’s clear we’re not wanted there!”
“YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT GOES ON ON MY END!” she screamed like a crazy lady.
A sure sign that she could take her goddamn forced holiday obligations and fuck herself with it. I disconnected the call, refusing to entertain one second more of her guilt-pinning. I sat for a few seconds, holding my breath while tears stung my eyes, and then gasped to Henry, “NO ONE WANTS US.” That’s one fucking awful feeling, like we’re pestilence-coated vagrants roaming the streets, looking for discarded soup cans to scrape out with our tongues.
Meanwhile, we had just pulled into my dad’s driveway. “You knew what to expect,” Henry said calmly. “You go through this every year. We’ll find something to do.”
“We’re not supposed to go to Jessy’s until 8 now!” I whined. “And it’s only 5!” It would be senseless to go back home, since my dad lived halfway to Jessy’s. I yanked my dad’s growler of vanilla honey apple cider–which, twenty-four hours ago, I was so excited to give him–from the trunk, told Henry and Chooch to stay in the car, and then walked dejectedly inside my dad’s house.
I could tell he was in a shitty mood as he stomped around the house, getting ready to leave for work. “I didn’t even get to start the goddamn turkey!” he spat, shaking his head in disgust. I tentatively handed him his present and said that I’d get out of his hair.
“No, that’s stupid,” he said, losing some of the angst after I told him what my mom had said. “You guys are more than welcome to hang out here, even though I have to work.” My brothers were sitting in silence, watching one of the Bourne movies (Corey said our dad is currently obsessed with the trilogy, but hopefully it’s not as intense as the Great Reinhold Caramel Carabou Ice Cream Infatuation of 1999), so I waved in Henry and Chooch from the car. My dad made Chooch a mug of hot chocolate and then left for work. We stayed there for about an hour, for most of which Ryan was asleep on the couch, and I at least got to give Corey his presents and fill him on the latest wave of drama.
Sharon called while I was there and I nearly snapped back my thumb with all the aggression I aimed on the decline button. Leave it to my mom to sic her psycho sister on me.
Piggy-backing that call was one from my mom herself. She left a curt voicemail in a wavering, staccato Sally Struthers cadence, saying that I can grab the turkey from Sharon’s on the way down to her house. Just like that, as though the previous phone call hadn’t happened. No apologies, no warmth in her tone. Just a very mechanical, sterile demand left on my voice mail. I relayed the message to Corey and Henry, and, with my heart rate quickening a little, I said, “No. No, I’m not going over there! I’m not going to let her rule me like this!” She thinks she can just flip out of me whenever her stilted reality calls for it, and that I’ll still come back and bow to her, to continue walking on eggshells around on her. And then I thought to myself, “When was the last time she asked me how I was doing? When was the last time she didn’t call to ask to borrow money or my car or to make the audacious requests that I ask my co-workers for LEGAL ADVICE on her behalf, when she hasn’t even bothered to ask me what I do at my job?” Then I looked at my kid, acting like a complete hellion yet somehow not arousing Ryan from his nap, and I made the firm decision that my mother was not going to have the privilege of seeing my kid on Christmas.
I walked into my dad’s kitchen and called Jessy, who said we were more than welcome to come over early. Just like that – no groaning and grunting to aurally convey how put-out I was making her; no adopting terse tones to relay how inconvenienced I was making her. Just a short and sweet, “No problem, babes. See you when you get here!”
On the drive there, I asked Henry, “Do you think it’s wrong of me to not go over my mom’s?”
He shook his head without even considering it. Because Henry has been around for nearly a decade of holidays at my family, and a lot of those holidays were quite literally “canceled” by my mother. It was only two years ago that we had Thanksgiving at our own house because my mom wasn’t speaking to me because I had the nerve to tell her to stop texting me racial jokes. And then poor Corey got caught in the crossfire because he was ballsy enough to eat dinner with the blacklisted. I thought back to all the Christmases growing up where I would storm out of my grandparent’s house because someone in my family (back then, usually my dad) was treating me like shit; for the longest time, I associated Christmas with TV dinners and Star Wars marathons, roiling jealousy and slamming doors, a dining room table decorated with snide comments and a cloud of blubbery tension.
“I’m done,” I said to no one in particular.
At Jessy’s, the house was full of warmth and loud laughter. Tommy wore the Elmer Fudd-inspired hat we bought him all night long and Jessy practically had Christmas spirit oozing from her pores. It was the most relaxed and happy I had seen her in awhile, and that was enough to alleviate all the stress I had compacted in the last hour. Jessy’s mom and her husband were also there, along with her brother and Pap. They welcomed us with bigger arms than anyone in my own family ever has. And every couple of minutes, Jessy’s mom would turn to me and say, about Chooch, “He is just so damn cute.” I was glad that someone appreciated him.
“Did you guys eat yet?” Jessy asked after everyone exchanged presents (those two spoiled the shit out of ALL of us), and I was already near-attacking her with my hungry “No!” before she even finished asking. She took us into the kitchen and brought out the leftovers for us to make a plate. I didn’t even heat mine up; I just stood there shoveling various types of potatoes into my rumbling belly, pausing only to rip into a biscuit with my gnashing incisors.
“You can sit down, you know,” Tommy said, watching me stand there, feeding from a paper plate like it was my first brain as a zombie.
Corey sent me a text saying that while Ryan obediently showed his face at our mom’s, Corey opted out and stayed at our dad’s, prompting our mom to call him and hysterically accuse of him and him alone of ruining Christmas and that she threw all the food in the trash.
“I’m done,” Corey texted me, having no way of knowing that I verbalized the same sentiment an hour earlier.
She never called me though, not after spewing her detached ambivalence all over my voicemail.
I know, I should cherish these years with my mom. Who knows how much longer either of us will be around, right? I know this. I consider this always. But she makes it so hard to care sometimes, when I am consistently the only one making an effort. I have my own family now, and that’s the one I won’t be taking for granted. The others had their shot. They (mainly my mom and Sharon) have proven time and time again that I am nothing to them unless I have something that they need. Maybe it’s selfish, but I wanted to have a good Christmas, and I know it was the right choice because not once did I get that nagging feeling that we were overstaying our welcome or that Chooch was giving someone a headache or that Henry was in pure taste bud hell having to eat a turkey cooked by Sharon.
Besides, at my mom’s house, no one plays Pass the Buck, but it’s tradition in Jessy’s family and it just so happens that not only was it my first time playing, but I walked away with the pot, motherfuckers! I ran into the living room to tell Jessy, who retreated in there to watch “Despicable Me” with Chooch once she was out.
“I know, babe,” she laughed when I told her I won. “I heard.”
Maybe I was a little overzealous about it, but I beat her BROTHER and he’s basically a professional, with a string of fingers around his neck taken from all the fuckers who’ve tried to swindle him out of his money in the past. He’s pretty hardcore about it. Don’t play him unless you have regenerating digits.
The night wound down as we lounged around the couch, talking and laughing, watching Chooch get near-mauled by a dog 1/4 of his size. I looked around and thought, “This is where I wanted to be from the get-go.”
I actually almost left my FIVE DOLLARS AND TWENTY FIVE CENT winnings there that night, but Jessy was kind enough to remind me to take it.
“I’m putting it in my savings account,” I said, and everyone laughed. Little did they know I wasn’t kidding! I’m really that much of a hoarder.
It was after midnight by the time we got home, and I was still smiling. I will always remember this as the Christmas where someone else’s family loved me more than my own, and where I learned I like black olives penetrated by a sliver of sharp white cheddar, like a stinky, aged penis.
The next day, my dad called to apologize once more for being so abrupt when I stopped by, and to thank me again for the cider. I’m certain I won’t hear from my mom for at least half a year, and it will be me breaking the ice.