by LILIBET SNELLINGS
Most every surface in my parents’ Georgia home is monogrammed — the bath towels, the coasters, the seashell-shaped soaps. Give a waspy Southern woman a millimeter of material and she’ll figure out a way to put someone’s initials on it. During the holidays, the monogrammed cocktail napkins are replaced by a stack of green ones that say, in gold letters, “Holidays with the family are always a trip. A trip to the liquor store.” I think these napkins were created with my family in mind. Or, as my grandmother once said, elbow-deep in a Scotch-and-soda, “Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Protestants don’t recognize the Pope as the head of the church. Baptists don’t recognize each other at the liquor store.” We’re not Baptists – but based on my family’s idolatrous worship of alcohol – we might as well be.
While most children spend the week before Christmas shopping and wrapping, I prepare by resting, hydrating and stretching. You have to understand, these people are animals. And by animals, I mean my two grandmothers, ages 86 and 91, my grandfather, age 88, and the biggest booze-bag of them all, my great-aunt, age 89. If these folks don’t have a drink in their hand by 4 o’clock, they rattle their canes in protest. And they only drink the hard stuff, or “meaningful drinks,” as my dad calls them: bourbon-and-water, scotch-and-soda, gin-and-tonic, vodka on the rocks, Bloody Marys, (but only if it’s before noon), and wine (but only if it’s with dinner). If there is one thing dignified, upstanding, Southern wasps like to do to celebrate the birth of Christ it is get hammered.
At the helm of this holiday operation is my mom, a perky perfectionist who was once crowned “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” at The University of Georgia, and the “Miss Augusta” runner-up. Christmas gives her an excuse to be as peppy as she already is — being in a great mood at 7 a.m., showering people with presents, decorating and re- decorating, drinking in the afternoon. So hopped up on the holidays, she didn’t even notice one year when I wrapped a cashmere sweater I had borrowed from her two years prior. “Oh I just love this,” she said, swirling a celery stalk into her Bloody Mary. “And it’s just my color.”
My mom desperately wants us to share her zeal for the holidays. One Easter, she so wanted her “children” – ages 29 and 26 at the time – to participate in an egg hunt that she stuffed the plastic pastel eggs full of money. Sitting on the patio, hungover, sweating, hands shaking, her “children” were barely breathing let alone showing any interest in skipping around the yard for eggs. Finally, she yelled, “Damnnit y’all, there’s money in them!” Some eggs had singles, some fives, others tens and twenties. My brother and I tore towards the lawn. After several slide tackles and a yellow-card’s worth of elbowing each other in the ribs, our knees skinned and covered in grass stains, my mom got just what she wanted: joyful holiday togetherness.
My mom never turns down an invitation and certainly not at Christmas. Every year on Christmas Eve she insists we go to this god-awful caroling and Yule log-lighting party and literally drags the entire geriatric wing of the family along, all of their various contraptions – a walker, two canes – clunking beside. But they don’t seem to mind. After all, these bloodhounds can smell eggnog from a mile away.
My least favorite of our holiday traditions is the dreaded staging of The Christmas Card Picture. While this was a perfectly acceptable tradition when my brother and I were kids, now that we are adults, it is just plain embarrassing. At least for me. My brother now has a wife and two children so in our Christmas card picture it’s very obvious that there is 1) an older couple in their sixties 2) a cute young married couple in their thirties with two darling little boys and 3) shoved somewhere on the periphery: me.
I am sure the 400-plus recipients of the annual card must wonder:
“Is she still single?”
“She must be a lesbian.”
“Betty with a lesbian daughter, no.”
“But she does live in California.”
“And I think worked for the Obama campaign.”
“Oh, the horror.”
A couple of years ago after the cards were delivered, my mom got an e-mail from a friend in Texas: “Just wanted to say I’m so happy to see that Lilibet is expecting!” My mom called me, immediately, horrified. I ripped the thing off my fridge. “Oh my god,” I said, “I do look pregnant.” Something had gone horribly wrong with the lighting, the angle, something. We discussed this, in disbelief, for the next hour. “She was the only one to say something,” my mom said. “I wonder how many people thought it but didn’t say anything? I mean, my Lord, do these people actually think I’d put you in the picture pregnant with no husband?”
At the other end of the jolliness spectrum – the very other end – is my dad. He sees the holidays as nothing but one giant MasterCard bill. Bahumbug doesn’t even do it justice. Perhaps ba-hum-to hell with these damn Christmas lights, why don’t we have any vermouth, damnnit Betty if I have to listen to that damn Rod Stuart Christmas CD one more time–bug.
My dad absolutely hates getting presents and typically responds with, “How much did this cost me?” instead of “Thank you.” That is, unless he really wants something, then he buys it for himself, wraps it, and signs the card, “To Bill, Love Kiki.” Kiki is his imaginary girlfriend and he thinks this is hilarious. Throughout the years Kiki has given him every club in his golf bag.
The only presents my dad does like are ones that did not cost any money. When I ran track at the University of Colorado and my brother played golf at the University of North Carolina my dad received every possible university-logoed item: socks, hats, shoes, t-shirts, golf balls, women’s-sized shoes – he did not care – as long as it was free. At my first job after college I raided the office’s supply room for gifts. That year he got boxes of pens, staples, paper clips, a bundle of highlighters. I’ve never seen him so proud.
While my brother is more willing to spend money on presents, he never purchases any of them until the day before. “I’m just headed out to get a coffee,” he’ll say, meaning: “I’m going to the shopping center down the street to buy all of your presents.” Fortunately, there is a bookstore, but aside from books, his presents are, for the most part, entirely useless. Over the years he has given me a George Foreman grill (how was I going to get it back to California?) a Slap Chop (“As seen on TV!”), foot cream, and a pair of men’s socks. His last-minute wrapping jobs are a vision as well: always an abstract experiment in torn paper and Scotch tape. (I don’t think he’s ever used scissors.) Selfishly, I like it when he lacks creativity and just gives me money. This, however, is never your standard affair either. One year he wrapped up a crumpled handful of bills – some ones, some twenties — just whatever was on top of his dresser I am sure. It totaled 68 dollars. The card read, “Dear Lilibet, I hope this helps get you back above the poverty line.”
One year, a friend asked my dad if we had any Christmas Day traditions. My dad thought for a minute, and then replied: “No, we generally just sit around, drink Bloody Marys and insult each other.”
Being funny is something to be with this group. Everyone is always trying to outwit one another with the notes on their gift tags, the more absurd the present, the better. The worst wrapping job wins.
Gathered around the dining room table for “supper” on Christmas afternoons, my dad will say, “Cheers,” clinking a dessert spoon against his wine glass, “To your mother. Who managed to only burn three of the five casseroles this year.” I’ll look around the table. Yet again, my mom has found a way to put a pecan in every single dish. Somehow, every year, she manages to forget that her daughter is deathly, gone-to-the-emergency-room-four-times allergic to nuts. My grandmother refuses to believe I’m allergic to nuts. “That is just the wildest thing I’ve ever heard,” she’ll say, heaping a giant piece of pecan pie on my plate. Picking at the crust, I’ll decide the only way to avoid anaphylactic shock is to drink my dinner. So I’ll dive nose first into a glass of Cabernet so large a small bird could bathe in it.
An hour later, after everyone has gone back for many helpings, and me for many refills, my teeth will be stained purple. I will get up to go to the bathroom and, while zigzagging back to the table like a shark swims, I will think: As crazy as they are, I love these people. I’ll plop down in my chair and put my elbows on the table. “All I have to say,” I say, with a slight slur, “is that we are not taking a goddamn Christmas card picture this year.”
My mom, still in monogrammed apron, will say, “For goodness' sake, Lilibet, don’t say that word, it’s Christmas.” She’ll shake the ice in her fifth vodka-cran. “Now be a lady and fix your grandfather another drink.”
Lilibet Snellings is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her website here, and she tumbls here. She twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about the auditions.
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