Readers Report Back From… Family/Holidays

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In the spirit of holiday and family, please enjoy our festive, sad, and maybe even twisted selection of Rumpus readers’ takes on the season. Edited by Susan Clements.

My little sister cries every Christmas because of Santa Claus.  He doesn’t tiptoe into her room and stab her with icicles from the North Pole, but he does scare the shit out of her.  That’s not true.  She only woke up Christmas morning with a steaming present in her panties once, and I think the snickerdoodles my mama made were the cause.  I ate them too, and let me tell you… no.  Forget it.  This is about my little sister and why Santa Claus makes her cry, not about me and how every year I have to spend the Christmas money I extort my relatives of on new bedspreads and sometimes — if I take a few Christmas Eve bong hits that lead to a few extra snickerdoodles — on a new mattress as well.

My little sister was eight years old when she started crying on Christmas.  Before turning eight she was living in a Chinese orphanage run by communists who sapped and impurified her precious bodily fluids so she couldn’t cry.  Even if she could cry she wouldn’t because she didn’t know about Christmas.  I didn’t know about Christmas either — a birthday party for a pederast who bowls in a purple jumpsuit? — but I did know about Santa Claus and when my little sister arrived I told her all I knew:

I couldn’t speak Mandarin and she couldn’t speak skateboard slang, so I drew a picture of an obese man, made crawling motions and pointed to the fireplace, did my best “Ho Ho Ho” while chugging milk and shoving cookies down my throat, and then took her to Paranormal Activity to illustrate how he watches us sleep.  She started crying immediately.

And then I started crying.  Actually, I cry the entire Christmas season.  It always starts on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  I think it’s from the hormones inside the turkey.  They make me more womanlike — more insightful and compassionate.  Then I watch recent immigrants spend their slave wages on TVs that tell them what to buy next and fat American children gouge their faces with pastries in warm cafes while homeless old men rot in cold gutters.  And I cry. I cry at the capitalistic orgy that is the Christmas season.

Then, after drinking some eggnog and rum, I get all warm inside and sing Christmas carols.

— Christopher Forsley

***

I know my instincts well and ignore them like I ignore mother’s advice. Mother tells me I need nothing, that everything can be found within my own person, as if I were one large overcoat with 30,000 unchecked pockets. Sometimes this is true. The things I do not know I know. The punch to the stomach I gave the first strange man whose hand wandered a little too close to my lady parts in a dark movie theater, for example, was like finding $10 unexpectedly. Sometimes you just know what to do. You don’t need to ask. But what to do when you check your pockets and come up with nothing?

“Let your needs tunnel through you, let them hollow you out so you become lighter,” my mother says. “You ask for nothing. When someone offers you something, you should refuse three times before accepting”. My mother and I are chopping wood in preparation for the coming winter. Daddy is busy tinkering with the oily heater in the basement. I want to ask my mother why they are still married, how she can believe in marriage at all. Instead, I ask why Daddy shuts the hot water and heat in our house during the coldest months, when it is nicest to take a bath. Why we are the only family in the suburbs of Philadelphia who chops firewood out of necessity, rather than to make their holidays feel more authentic. “Because your father is a sadistic tightwad who has his family suffer for the sake of his art, that’s why”. Tightwad. The word makes me feel the phlegm gather at the wayback of my throat and I lean forward to spit a long delicate strand into the leaves.The underground feminine position, that old chestnut. The slow horror of seeing that what you need lies in someone else’s hands. And here it is much too late, as you find you are buried in mud, though only moments ago you believed yourself to be weightless.

— Ella Boureau

***

My uncle and I were wrestle-fighting* in an alley the day before I left Seattle. The scene was a spectacle, an argument about lifestyles that turned physical. This had happened in the past when, after a Christmas party at my house, he interrupted my drug-free sleep with a bag of cocaine, depressed and insistent upon sharing.

When I moved away for college, I became one of the few constant absentees from the family. During each biannual visit, I realized they were keeping secrets from each other, with good intention. To save one another from any sort of emotional pain had become their end goal. They were all engaged in a subterranean wrestle-fight.

My uncle kept his turmoils locked away, but he hadn’t practiced enough to really bury them. When I refused to do coke with him, his temper flared, he attacked me for being too straight-edge, he told me it wasn’t a vibe I should keep alive.

He and I are two uncoordinated fighters in a shitty venue, and when I look back on the scene in the alley I enjoy playing “Strangers” by the Kinks. We are but one product of a family system dominated by a mandate to remain apathetic in the face of our destructive personalities.

My grandmother suffered severe abuse as a child. She was raised in a family that kept her father’s suicide a secret, learning through a childhood friend a decade later. And when my mother was sexually abused at a young age, nobody called the police or alerted the military heroes of the family, who would have turned vigilante. They just didn’t invite Uncle Harvey to dinner anymore, and they kept quiet as to why.

When there is conflict, most of them spend considerable energy following their own rule of silence. But oppressive rules should be disobeyed, and who if not family can we rely on to put a spotlight on our misconceptions and on the flaws we carry into the world? It’s the stuff of being raised.

In the alley, my uncle says, “Don’t judge me so much.” It’s a fair request.

A spectator says the police are on their way.

“It’s all right,” my uncle says to him. “We’re Irish. And we’re family.”

[*Wrestle-fighting occurs when two people engage in physical combat while using creative methods to inflict no actual harm.]

— Jared Gilpatrick

***

I fell in love with Robby Meeropol when I was 19 years old. The first year we lived together, I read his parents’ prison correspondence on my lunch hour at work, then went home at night and compared his raccoon eyes with the photographs of his five-year-old self visiting Death Row at Sing Sing. Since then I’ve reread the prison letters many times, trying to find the real people inside the drama of their situation.

In those early days I believed that Robby’s parents were totally innocent and were framed by the government. Over the past forty-five years I have learned a lot about who did what and who did nothing. I now understand that the U.S. government killed Ethel and Julius knowing they did not steal the secret of the atomic bomb. Still, when I started writing fiction ten years ago, I had no intention of exploring the Rosenberg case. Somehow, though, my stories kept taking me to the intersection of family and politics, to the faultlines where domestic life meets the injustices of the world.

Soon my first novel, House Arrest, will be published. Some thematic parallels to our family history will likely be noted: the child watching the father arrested by “cops in suits,” the activist parents’ deaths, the child haunted by the parents’ actions. Because of course these questions – of competing loyalty to ideas and to people, of forgiving our families and ourselves – fascinate me as a person and a writer.

Families provide the raw material of so much literature. So many writers return time and again to recurring themes of family alignments, of secrets and lies, of regrets and complicated legacies. These themes – as ideas, arguments, images – spiral and corkscrew through our thoughts and our writing over decades but often evade full comprehension, resolution, even articulation. As writers, we continue to chew on them, trying different interpretations and resolutions, different plots and characters. Trying another way to understand.

No, it doesn’t surprise me that the ghosts of Robby’s family – my family now – wormed their way into my novel. It will happen again.

— Ellen Meeropol

***

I’m afraid of holidays. Afraid I won’t get one. Afraid if I do, it won’t meet my expectations. My holiday desires — and dreads — are particular.

I like ten days at a 5-star resort at a pristine beach on a crystalline turquoise lagoon. The water is refreshing but not cold. And no coral. Coral is overrated in my book. Treacherous. It attracts suspiciously psychedelic fish.

There’s a slight breeze to temper the heat. Enough to cool shoulders and brow, but never enough to stir the white sand.

Other guests are silent. Childless. Invisible.

Perfect food — healthy, fresh, delicious. Champagne. Lots of it. Staff materialize when needed, disappear just as surreptitiously.

When it all comes together the holiday is a beautiful thing.

You gaze at your husband, lolling on the lounger in the dappled shade of the palms and remember why you married him. How handsome he is. How cute his snoring and snuffling that, at home, drives you to earplugs and lying on your hands so as to resist grabbing his pillow and smothering him.

Sex happens daily. Sometimes you even instigate.

You read, snooze, handhold, share showers. Laugh, talk about things other than mortgages, kids, work.

Secret smiles. Bottom pinching.

When you arrive home after a holiday like this you’re set up to cope with real life for another year. Or a few days, at least.

However, flip the coin: 5-star resort; rain; wind; highly visible, disgruntled others. Nothing to do but play card games. You hate card games.

You’ve read all your books because the should-be-turquoise lagoon is turbid, swimming with slimy sea slugs enticed out to party by the torrential rain.

All you can think of as you gnash your teeth is how many thousands of dollars you’ve wasted in this hell bloody hole.

The flight home caps it off. It’s bumpy, the food beyond disgusting. Babies howl. The guy on your left in the row of three — you were supposed to be in a two-seat row — is making no attempt to conceal his various digestive disorders.

To your right is your sleeping husband. Why did you ever marry him? He can’t even look after the passports, and boy is he getting a tummy. When did he get so grey? At least your sharp elbow in his ribs halts the snoring.

Holidays. Blind faith. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them.

— Deirdre Thurston

***

My youngest brother was a sick baby.  As it is with trauma, the memories of my own life begin with him.  The death alive in our house meant something had to end, and I’m grateful now it was our family and not my brother.  We made it until his third Christmas; I was a crisp eight.  It ended when I walked in the kitchen and found my parents crying — the brown gingham wall-paper an ugly backdrop for any scene.

We went into the living room and near the tree, they told us their news.  It knocked an inch off my height.  My dad assured me their separation was temporary and yet, within a year my mom had moved away with another man.  He had two sons and soon they would have a daughter.  The irony of leaving two sons and a daughter, to raise another two sons and a daughter, is fresh.  I became a doctor, a lawyer, a girl-god of forgiveness.  It’s either that, or I rage.

My step-mother dove into our cold soup with a slab of balm that soothes cracks.  She came with a giant family, too — a fucking tribe — and so we made memories: Christmas trees so tall they wouldn’t stand; white wine cigarette smoked sausage casserole; diet-coke-stocked cooler on the patio; the white Levi’s phase; John Denver.  Fourteen family members in exchange for one mother.  It’s a gain.  And yet. . .

If my heart stops I want an archaeologist.  Who better to dig and hit the source of the bad blood — to study this line, which to my horror, shows a history of mothers who leave?  Still, I want to be a mother.  So the greatest lover and I tried, made a baby, and miscarried.  Not to be defeated, the greatest lover and I made a second baby, and miscarried.  We cried until there were no more tissues left in the world.  When the doctor said ” Your new family is immanent,” it occurred to me: My children want me to prove I won’t give up — won’t leave — before they are even here.  So the greatest lover and I begin again.  I mean, it is Christmastime.

— Lissa Downey

***

I used to think suffering and grief, maybe even heartbreak and adversity, bestowed a kind of wisdom. That is bullshit. My daughter died two years ago, four days before Christmas. It was Winter Solstice when I found out she was dead after 38 weeks of pregnancy. It was the longest night of my life as I labored to birth a dead child. So long, in fact, I feel like it is still going on and on and on.

In winter, the world grieves.  Persephone goes to the underworld, and her mother roams the earth mourning. I understand that instinct. I wanted to take all life with me as I grieved for my daughter. I wanted no celebration, no harvests, no bounties. In spite of it, or perhaps because of it, I have come to love this time of year. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I have never stopped loving this time of year. My grief season is the season of grief. It is sad, dark and lifeless. There is also joy here, in the nooks and crannies of the month. Juxtaposed against the grief, it makes me maniacally giddy. My grief feels so strange right now. Not quite there and not quite gone, like an emotional ghost of Christmas past. I can see and feel it, but I don’t always trust what it is. While there is no wisdom in daughter death, I do believe there is a freedom in pure vulnerability of grief and loss. And freedom brings a kind of wisdom.

By all rights, I should boycott the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not only is it the time that my daughter died, almost every person I have loved who has died has done so between those two holidays.  I have just come to a place of acceptance that the days around the holidays are just days, like all the rest of the days of the year, when people’s kids and their grandparents die. I had a horrible Christmas once. I feared I would never love the holidays again. But then they came and I baked. I cried. I sang songs. I watch the world go into hibernation. That felt like a little gift. Christmas will be hard at times, no doubt, but until it is, I am going to sprinkle my world with red and green sparkles.

— Angie Yingst