Family is all around me. Children screaming. Adults laughing, telling the same worn-out stories they tell every year. A lit tree. Bing Crosby on a radio.
We are celebrating the holiday with extended family. We do this every year. It’s a way to commune together, eat lots of food, and to try to have a good a old-fashioned nervous breakdown.
My elderly aunt made me swear not to use real names if I wrote about these people, to protect the privacy of those implicated.
Of course, she is mainly concerned about my uncle—who we’ll call “Otis.” He worries her around the holidays.
Let’s just say that Otis loves a good party. In fact, he starts practicing for Christmas around early March.
Nobody will ever forget the Christmas he stood before an in-ground swimming pool, singing “YMCA,” then did a belly flop, only to find out the pool had been drained for winter.
This afternoon, my wife and I wandered through Aunt Bea’s door carrying casseroles. We were greeted with hugs from white-haired women who smell like Estee Lauder and wear polyester blouses.
I brought gifts for the kids, a tradition in my family. Ever since childhood, for as far back as anyone remembers, uncles and aunts have been demonstrating affection for children by purchasing heartfelt gifts that were on clearance at TJ Maxx.
Last year, for instance, I bought my cousin’s kids some patriotic tableware, and gluten-free breadsticks from the dollar bin at Marshalls. They haven’t spoken to me since.
My aunt’s house is decorated to the hilt. In her kitchen, tables are weighted with more food than I’ve ever seen.
This brings back good memories. Memories of casseroles, backyard games of Red Rover, twinkling lights. And my uncle Bill, carrying me on his shoulders, parading me through the house, asking if I’d been a “good boy this year.”
“Yeah, I’ve been good!” I’d shout.
“Well, I have a present for you,” he would whisper. “But you can’t tell your aunt about it.”
“Oh boy!” I would say. “What is it?”
He would present his hand to me. “Pull my finger to find out.”
Speaking of uncles, right now they’re all in the den, drinking Uncle Otis’ spiked eggnog. They are gradually falling into a stupor before the television.
Cousin Floyd has already had three cups and is outside playing tag with the kids. Floyd runs in lazy zig-zags, and has been “it” for nearly an hour and forty-five minutes.
Anyway, the whole place is buzzing. Women are in the kitchen, rushing from counter to counter. Children race around furniture, strung out on sugar. My cousin Cheryl’s dog is committing a Biblical act upon my leg.
Soon, it’s time for supper. And this means we gather into one room and hold hands around my aunt’s table. We form a human chain. And I am taken back in time.
I remember when I was a boy. I remember how my father would invoke the blessing the same way each year: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.”
It’s been awhile since I last heard that prayer.
I have memories of sitting at the kids’ table, eating seconds, and thirds, sometimes fourths. And I remember the blessed women who would always bring sweet potato pies—shut my mouth. These are memories you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to part with.
Aunt Bea elbows me. “Would you ask the blessing?”
“Me?” I say.
All my life, I have been a child at Christmas. Asking a blessing is typically an honor that falls to a father, or a grandparent. I am neither.
People smile at me and bow their heads. Uncle Otis hiccups.
She nudges me again. “Go on, say a prayer.”
I am at a loss for words. There is silence around the table. And it’s hard not to think about the past right now. It’s hard not to recall all the people we’ve lost over the years. It’s hard not to feel a little choked up.
Then, the words sort of fall from my mouth:
“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.”
Everyone closes with “Amen.” We eat casseroles, Virginia ham, and potatoes. The memories are so thick we have to swat them away like gnats.
After the table is cleared and the dishes are washed, my aunt finds me sitting on the porch. I am overlooking kids, running through the colors of dusk, laughing.
I love to watch children play. Children still believe they have a million years left to live. If only that were true.
“Life moves so fast,” my aunt says. “Doesn’t it?”
She’s right. And it’s not slowing down. But the faster it gets, the more beautiful it becomes to me.
Merry Christmas to you and your family this year.
Someone please keep Uncle Otis away from the swimming pool.