Monday, December 27, 2010

A Christmas miracle

Nothing happened

On Christmas Eve I received in the mail a card from my parents. To my astonishment, it wished me Season's Greetings. Since Mom & Dad have been inducted into the Bill O'Reilly school of obstreperous observation of “Merry Christmas or Else!”, this was an unprecedented departure. I have never before received a holiday card from my parents that was not overtly religious. It gave me pause.

A positive omen?

Having ascertained from Mom (I'm not speaking to Dad, after all) that dinner on Christmas day would get under way shortly after 11:00 a.m., I timed my arrival at the family homestead to a nicety, turning onto their county road at a quarter of. To my horror, however, not a single vehicle sat in front of their house. I was unmistakably the first to arrive. I considered looping around the block (that's a four-mile detour out in the country, where each block consists of 640 acres), but decided instead to take advantage of the opportunity to secure the pole position in the driveway for my later departure. I placed the car so that no one could block my escape. (It also meant that my Barbara Boxer and “No on 8” stickers were on prominent display.)

I entered the house. The tables were set up and the place settings laid out in the dining room, but the room was empty. Mom & Dad were in the family room, being (further) deafened by the television (tuned to Fox, of course). I cleverly entered the house with my hands full of gift bags for my various nieces, nephews, and grand-nephews. (No grand-nieces yet.) Mom grabbed me and hugged me anyway, but Dad had to wait till I had deposited the gift bags in the living room and then accosted me with an out-thrust hand. Interestingly, Mom chose that moment to give me another hug and got in his way. An accident, perhaps—or she feared I might snub him. But Dad tried again and I deigned to shake his hand. (Mom was right to be concerned. I hesitated a moment.)

The truce was now official.

I fetched a second batch of gift bags and fussed over grouping them according to recipient families for a while, killing a few minutes. I stepped outside to snap some photos of the dairy and, in the opposite direction, the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, which were remarkably sharp and visible after the series of rainstorms. With the air in the valley having gotten rather bad, the mountains are usually obscured by a pervasive haze. When I was a kid back in the sixties, the Sierra was spectacular on a daily basis, so of course we hardly paid them any attention.

A nephew finally arrived with wife and son in tow. Then a niece and assorted grand-nephews. (My parents currently have five great-grandsons, some of them older than their youngest granddaughter.) The house began to fill up. All of my siblings eventually showed up, along with all of their spouses (save the one estranged wife) and all of their children and children-in-law. Even my godson from out of state was present, as well as one cousin who is my parents' godson. Twenty-nine people in all, which was not a record-breaking crowd by any means.

Still, my sister's grandson—an only child so far—was slightly overwhelmed. My sister tried to put the two-year-old at ease by identifying me and her other brothers to the little guy. “See? I have three brothers. See how lucky I am?”

“That's certainly not what you used to say,” I observed.

My grand-nephew was uncertain why my brothers and I were chuckling, but he took it as a good sign and broke into a grin. His parents have told him he'll have a little brother or sister by the end of spring.

Mom cut back (a little) on cooking this year because it's started to overwhelm her. Sensible move. Therefore she fixed only one turkey for Christmas—along with stuffing, potato salad, mashed potatoes, torresmos (fried pork), cranberry, and dinner rolls. One brother broiled a batch of steaks, my sister-in-law provided a shrimp salad, the cousin brought a ham, and my sister provided her weird but tasty orange Jell-O marshmallow-cheddar salad, plus pumpkin pies, cookies, and brownies for dessert. No one went hungry, although a vegetarian might have been a little overwhelmed. (I'm not aware that we currently have any in the family. It's an omnivorous group.)

In the aftermath, adults took turns keeping track of the hyperactive children (preventing things like cliff-diving off the piano in the living room, where two of the little ones were pounding out a random-key duet). A niece's spouse tried to talk sport vehicles with me (I asked him when in the seventies American Motors had taken over manufacturer of the Jeep from Willys—which established my street credit that I even knew it had occurred—and launched him on a happy discourse). Dad showed off his gargantuan project of digitizing old family photos and slides, which is supposed to result in a DVD album to distribute in the near future. (I'll need to turn down the sound: a loop of Mozart's “Eine Kleine Natchmusik” is sprightly and entertaining background music only the first twelve times you hear it.)

The party started to break up at 2:00, with people trickling away. I dug out a copy of my unpublished book and gave it to Mom, who seemed mildly surprised but did not react very much. I wondered if my sister had already spilled the beans to her about the book's existence. She said no, that Mom was still in holiday-overwhelmed mode and it would sink in later. When my sister got out the door, I also made my escape. No overnight stay for me this year. I told Mom good-bye and hit the road. Dad was otherwise occupied (probably back at his slide show) and I didn't seek him out. No point in tempting fate.

The trip home was accompanied by some rain, but nothing spectacular. It was a long day with several hours of road travel (scenic Highway 99!), but it was also a rather successful day.


AnyEdge said...

Have you written here regarding the schism with your father?

Zeno said...

Yes, indeed.

Karen said...

It does indeed sound like just as successful a visit as you might possibly have had, under the circumstances. Congratulations!

Disturbingly Openminded said...

My father was a Lutheran-Missouri Synod minister and my mom was the quintessential minister's wife. I became atheist, which everyone tacitly agreed not to talk about. It really broke their hearts when I married a Jewish woman. They thought she was great; they just hoped she would convert to LC-MS someday (ha!).

Christmas was always a bit strained after that. My mom would be extra-bright and cheerful in my wife's presence. My dad would be extra quiet if the topic ever turned to things religious. I finally got my wife to stop talking about religion. She was utterly mystified by my parents's religion and mistakenly thought that Lutherans like to dispassionately discuss theology.

I enjoyed reading your story, Zeno.

Me? I spent the day gutting out my basement.

Zeno said...

Well, DO, I certainly like to dispassionately discuss theology, but that's because I don't take it too seriously. I regard it as entertaining banter. Your wife might not have realized how deadly serious your parents were about it. No fun in that!

ShockedISaid said...


Vegetarians would not have been overwhelmed by the repast. They would have been most decidedly underwhelmed, given that there was nothing for them to eat.

Fortunately, things went well. I used to have a very difficult relationship with my father-in-law. But not any longer. Over the years, he has finally realized that he's an atheist and is reveling in it. Now we have nice long talks in which we make fun of religion.

The Ridger, FCD said...

@ShockedISaid: "Vegetarians would not have been overwhelmed by the repast. They would have been most decidedly underwhelmed, given that there was nothing for them to eat."

Oh, I'm not so sure. I don't know any vegans, but the vegetarians I do know could have noshed quite happily on the "stuffing, potato salad, mashed potatoes, ..., cranberry, and dinner rolls." Also the "weird but tasty orange Jell-O marshmallow-cheddar salad, plus pumpkin pies, cookies, and brownies for dessert."

Zeno said...

I'd have to warn them off the stuffing, Ridger, since my mother mixes in chicken broth or drippings from the turkey pan. (I'm not sure which.) Her stuffing is not a vegetarian dish. If Mom were aware of vegetarian guests in attendance, she would have made certain to have a veggie lasagna on the table, too, I'm sure. And she would have seated those guests at one of the satellite tables where they wouldn't overhear my father muttering about "tree-hugging weirdos." Mom's a good hostess.

ShockedISaid said...


You'll note that your list doesn't include any entre-like dish. Eating like that feels weird and is rather unsatisfying. The dinner would have been underwhelming for vegetarians and vegans.

As Zeno says, vegetarians and, particularly, vegans must be careful about what's in the dishes. One wants to stay vegetarian or vegan, but not offend people by interrogating them about the ingredients in their food.

I'm vegan. Going to someone's home for dinner can be a real challenge. Because I've been vegan for so long, everyone who knows me knows that fact. And if they don't know me, I tell them and ask them if there will be anything for me to eat.

Often, my wife and I will eat before going to the dinner so that we're OK having a light nosh of various side dishes. Or my wife will create a spectacular vegan dish that everyone loves. That can actually be a problem, because the omnivores quickly scarf the vegan dish, leaving nothing for us to eat.

drmathochist said...

Point well taken by now, ShockedISaid. And trust me, we're all glad that all that junk about Zeno's family has been swept aside for the really important part of the story: a chance for you to advance your sociopolitical points.

Blake Stacey said...

Pumpkin pie isn't an entrée? This changes everything!!!

ShockedISaid said...


I wasn't making any points, sociopolitical or otherwise. I was just responding to Zeno's vegetarian comment. Zeno's post was about personal things and my comments were also.

Blake, You're right. My wife would completely agree with you that pumpkin pie is an entree. She insists that it's a wonderful breakfast.

The Ridger, FCD said...

But, ShockedISaid, "nothing to eat" and "no entree" aren't the same thing. I agree that only eating the sides can feel weird, but that's not at all the same thing as having nothing to eat.

ShockedISaid said...


Fair enough. Chances are though that most every side was un-vegan -- so I wouldn't have been able to eat them. Not that they should be. I get it that I'm the one with the off-beat diet, particularly at Zeno's parents' home.

Kathie said...

ShockedISaid, even without trying, the apple pie (which I made for last Saturday, as a matter of fact) is strictly vegan, as it uses vegetable shortening in the crust, and contains no dairy (let alone meat) products*

So just think, that vegan dessert is as American as, well, apple pie!

* Unless, of course, one optionally wishes to top it with ice cream :-)

ShockedISaid said...


Nice! Lots of foods are vegan and super-duper yummy. There's even some vegan ice cream type stuff that's really quite good to top the All-American dessert.

Leareth said...

Orange Jello salad? *cackle* wow, I hadn't realised any family was weird as mine. My grandmother always makes Green Jello salad, it involves pineapple in some way.