I found a box of Christmas decorations in my attic. It’s filled with old trinkets and ornaments from childhood.
There’s the ornament I made in pre-school—a petrified gingerbread man who’s missing half of his face.
An ornament from fifth grade—a miniature Bible, splayed open to the book of Hebrews. It reads: “It is appointed for man to die once, then comes judgement.” A little uplifting treasure from a fundamentalist childhood.
And there’s the clay figurine I made for my father. It is an uneven lump, supposed to be man, eating oysters. But it looks more like a cow eating a ball of gray-colored mud.
I remember when I brought it home in my bookbag. I remember how the sun was in the early afternoon.
I remember my father was seated at the head of the table, asking what I learned in class.
Mama interjected, “Show Daddy what you made in school today.”
I presented him this clay atrocity. He looked at it and said, “What is it?”
“What’s it look like?” I said.
“A Jersey cow eating a rock?”
“No,” I said. “It’s you, and you’re eating an oyster.”
“Why’re my nostrils so big?”
“Teacher told us to explore symbolism.”
“That means I’m a Holstein?”
“It means that we can make our parents look like whatever we want.”
“So you made me a cow?”
“No, I made you a cow-BOY, see the little hat?”
“I look like a hot-air balloon with a face.”
He hung it on the tree and tapped it with his finger to make it sway. “That’s a big oyster I’m eating,” he remarked.
Oysters are a tradition in my family.
That following Christmas, we awoke early. He wore the robe my mother made for him—he did not wear a robe any other day of the calendar year. Among my gifts were a few records, slacks, some books—and I know this is weird—oysters.
Daddy sat beside a fireplace and listened to Nat King Cole while sipping cider and eating oysters on crackers.
“Why do we get oysters every Christmas?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Just ‘cause.”
“You don’t know why we do it?”
He had to think about this. “Guess it’s ‘cause my parents did it, and your mother’s parents did it. Sometimes we do things our ancestors did just because.”
“Your ancestors ate oysters on Christmas?”
“No,” he said. “OUR ancestors at oysters for Christmas.”
He handed me some gray snot on a Saltine cracker with hot sauce. It looked like a wad of prehistoric phlegm.
“Try it,” he said. “It’s good.”
I ate it. I fell in love. I would become a lifelong oyster enthusiast.
For supper, my mother made oyster dressing like she did every year. Some years it was oyster stew. Before, I’d always eaten her Christmas fare without asking what the oversized gray boogers were. I guess it had never occurred to me that there were little bivalves in my food.
That year, I poked at my plate and asked, “Are these actual oysters?”
She nodded. “Of course, what else would they be?”
“But why at Christmas?”
“Because, it’s just what we do.”
What she really meant to say way that her mother had made oyster dressing at Christmas. Her grandmother made oyster dressing at Christmas. And hundreds of years ago, our Catholic-European ancestors probably jumped into the freezing bay water and slurped oysters in the nude, then promptly died of hepatitis A.
And I don’t know why I’m telling you so much about oysters.
Anyway, tonight we decorated our tree. It’s a small tree. I placed a lumpy ornament on the bow that resembled a Jersey cow. And I listened to Nat King Cole.
I sipped cider, thinking about a man who left this world by his own choosing. He wasn’t a villain, but a man who made a bad decision. I wish I could see him again. I wish I could spend a holiday with him.
But you can’t change the past. You can’t bring people back from the dead, no matter how many words you write.
You can only do things your ancestors did.
So that’s what I’ll do. I will wake early. I will wear a robe. I will eat oysters on Saltine crackers with hot sauce. My wife will make oyster dressing, or stew. And I will remember someone very dear to me. I will do this for the very same reason he did it.