Family, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 6

As we round the second hour of opening gifts,  the 17 people crowded into the living room press on. The Christmas spirit will not be defeated. Neither will the commitment to go in turn around the circle, youngest to oldest, until every wrapper has been ripped from its mooring.
 
“Wait, who gave you those earrings? Who? I can’t hear.”
 
“What are they? Gold? Let me see.”
 
“Pass them over here. Who were these for?
 
“Where did she find them? They’re beautiful! Really!”
 
We holler over each other against the silvery tree. Its branches spread out over the only window in the room. All day, a relentless barrage of icy steel has been raining from the sky. No one has walked or run. We eat giant handfuls of Chex mix and leftover sausage balls. The mimosas are flowing.
 
“Who’s older? Who’s next? Come on, you’re not next! What year did you graduate?”
 
Cackles and shrieks. 1965? 1966? My grandmother argues with her youngest son.
 
“Mom, you graduated in 1938!”
 
“Don’t tell me. My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I’m not that far gone. It was 1937.”
 
“You were born in 1920.”
 
“I know when I was born!”
 
“Geez, leave her alone! Not everyone is 18 when they graduate!”
 
“Let it go, people! Who’s next? Someone open a present!”
 
“I am! I’m opening this one!”
 
“What is it? I can’t see. Wait, who’s it from?”
 
On and on. A cousin steps away from the melee. A moment later, I stand to stretch my legs and refill my glass. The silhouette of the towering man, that cousin 10 years my junior whom I held as a baby, barely registers. He is loitering on the back patio smoking a cigarette. My head is half down. My attention is only on seeking relief for the pounding in my head. A third mimosa will certainly not help, but it is easier to come by than a nap. I wince when he slides the shrieking glass door open a crack.
 
“Hey. It’s snowing.” He grins and the door squeals shut.
 
I glance up through the glass and see giant globs of wet snow plopping onto the concrete. The white lumps splash between the puddles and mix to a slush. I grin back and nod.
 
Sneaking into the living room, I catch Bug’s eye as he waits with commendable patience in front of his pile of unopened gifts. I beckon him to me and whisper, “Come here. Look outside, out where your cousin is.”
 
Bug leaves the living room and steps through the den. He stands at the glass door and stares out, trying to make sense of what he is seeing. My big cousin looks down with his signature wry smile. Bug catches his breath.
 
“IT’S SNOWING!” He screams, races into the living room, and pounds right into the middle of the crowd.
 
“IT’S SNOWING! IT’S REALLY, REALLY SNOWING!”
 
“What? Now?”
 
“In Dallas? No way.”
 
Everyone drops their packages, their plaster smiles, their stiff endurance. All 17 folks unfold themselves from their couches and corners. The heavy wooden door sighs open and the assembled mass piles out onto the front porch.
 
“Lookie there! Snow!”
 
“Well, I’ll be.”
 
Bug is dancing from foot to foot. “See! I told you! It’s real snow!”  The other kids tiptoe out in their socked feet, mouths open, faces turned to the sky.
 
“Snow! On Christmas!”
 
“In Dallas. If I wasn’t looking right at it, I’d never believe it!”
 
All 17 folks get their fill of wet, frosty air and make their way back into the living room to finish what we started. No more order. Just opening, just trusting there is enough attention. Just smiles and noise and happy gathering. It is an embarassment of riches. No one can remember the last gift or the next. It doesn’t matter. We sit surrounded by tins of candy, books and Xboxes, jewelry and soup mix and hand-painted santas.
 
Outside, the snow turns to flakes and soon the white fluff dusts the yard. My headache is long forgotten. The gifts lay abandoned at the foot of the silvery tree in the empty living room. All 17 folks clatter around the kitchen, gabbing, running dishes under the hot water, laughing. The older kids run outside and have a snowball fight. Their bright eyes flash as they come in and press their red fingers to our warm skin before running away giggling.
 

Family, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 8

The three grown sisters are in the kitchen attempting to make the cranberry sauce. “Where’s the zester?”
 
“Just use a grater.”
 
“Don’t give me ‘just.'”
 
“I don’t know how to work this food processor. Where do I put the stuff in?”
 
“Here, geez. Snap it like this.”
 
“But how do I get everything back out?”
 
“Just use a spatula and scrape it into the bowl!”
 
On the stove, the berries are boiling hard. Sugar in, orange zest in. Their mother is back in her bedroom “resting.” This is code for preparing for the next bout. When the avalanche of family has pushed tempers to their limits, napping is the only way to re-boot. I have done so twice already today and Bug is back on his little pile of blankets right now taking his siesta.
 
We started out the day at the local Y. The nice man at the counter must have seen the desperation in our eyes. He smiled gently as he handed us a week guest pass.
 
“How much?” I asked, reaching for my wallet.
 
“It’s on the house,” he whispered. “Merry Christmas.”
 
Bug climbed non-stop in the Adventure Zone for kids, I shimmied in a mega-Zumba class that had three rotating instructors and took up the entire gym, and my dad fought his way onto an elliptical for some hard sweating. The place could not spare a single square inch for stretching. Every medicine ball had been claimed. We were not the only ones looking to pump endorphines into our systems to offset the pre-Christmas crazies.
 
Naps and exercise are sure bets, it seems. At least until we start drinking.
 
People enter and exit my grandmother’s house in threes and fours. The front doorbell rings then the sliding glass door squeaks. More cousins and uncles. Unfixed dinner plans. Re-routed afternoons. We crowd into the breakfast nook and leave the sprawling rest of the house unoccupied. “Why does everyone always sit in here?” Bug asks. “That dining room has a lot more seats.”
 
“I don’t know,” I say. “Anyone?”
 
A cousin shrugs. She is tucked into the corner in a low chair. “Because this is how we have always done it.”
 
Three bottles of wine are on the counter.
 
The wheels on the ancient drawers scream in protest as an aunt digs in the back for missing tools. My mother is on her knees in front of the buffet. Her head is halfway into a cabinet searching for a China bowl which may have been here once.  She pulls open a drawer, looks in, and sighs.
 
“Well, here are the candles I was looking for.” She still has not found the bowl. She glances up at me typing here in the dining room and narrows her eyes.
 
“Don’t you dare write about us.”
 
Never.