When I tell people my parents are divorced I get a sympathetic sigh as if it is the most tragic thing they can think of, which makes no sense to me. I hardly remember my mother and father together, and I love having such a big family. Sadie and I have two sets of grandparents and two sets of step-grandparents living within miles of our home, so Christmas is outrageous.
On Christmas Eve, we have dinner at Henry’s father’s house. Henry has a sister with two girls our age, and Pops remarried a younger woman with whom he had another child. The boy is two years younger than me, but Sadie and I call him Uncle Joe and try to make him ride us around on his back. Pops is grouchy and reacts to every present with, “What the hell am I gonna do with this?” My mother insists on bringing him a fruitcake every year to solve that problem.
Henry feels the same way about presents and intentionally returns his gifts to the giver the following year, certain that no one ever remembers the thoughtless items. He was correct until last year when his brother finally caught on and gave him a belt buckle engraved with his name. Of course, Henry held it up and asked, “What the hell am I gonna do with this?” Sure enough, he wraps and returns it to his brother this year, continuing the antics. My aunt Liz, who married into the family, is possibly the sweetest person on the face of the earth. She has a soft voice and treats me and Sadie like her own. I receive a furry blanket with my name embroidered by one of her sisters, of which she has three, all living nearby with their respective families, extending the relatives even further.
We wake up on Christmas morning at Chestnut Street to Henry jumping around the room and talking in his goofy voice, “Oooh, looky what we have here,” just as excited handing each of us our gifts as we are to receive them. Always colder than anyone else, I sit by the kerosene heater with its big, bright ball of red heat and pull my nightgown over my knees. Henry asks me to go turn down the stereo in the next room, and when I return he and Mother look at me as if I’ve grown horns. “I told you to go turn it down,” he says.
“I did,” I start to defend myself, but he looks to Sadie and asks her to do it instead.
Within seconds of disappearing from the doorway she is screaming, “BIKES! BIKES! AHHHHHH!” There in the kitchen are two shiny pink and grey ten-speed bikes that I missed completely.
We walk over to Maple Street and, of course, I am the butt of jokes because of the bikes. It’s always the same. Emma is an airhead. She lives in another world. Earlier that year, I burned a hole through the front of my dance uniform on the morning of the recital. The paperwork said it had to be ironed, but the top was made of nylon and I watched in horror as it disintegrated upon first touch. Grandma came to the rescue and patched it with only minutes to spare. It couldn’t be seen from the stage, but up close everyone asked what happened, and I had to admit my stupidity. Someone in the family brings it up every time they need a laugh.
It’s true. Not having control over my wandering mind is a problem, as evidenced by the way I smashed up my last bike when I was flying down the slope on Hill Street and ran into the back of a parked truck. All I remember is thinking about what my teacher said that day about my jean jacket smelling like cigarette smoke (from Yorkshire Lane) in front of the whole class. When I came to, my old baseball coach was kneeling over me surrounded by every single kid in the neighborhood.
We open another round of stockings and gifts, and Grandma makes her popular Mickey Mouse pancakes. “Oops, that one’s a squirrel,” she says when she messes up.
Around noon, Sadie and I are shuttled over to Berritt Street, which is always the loudest and craziest with wrapping paper flying and a buffet of Mom Stephens’ luscious cooking. The house at Berritt Street has a wishing well in the front yard and the sign outside reads Xanadu, meaning ‘welcome’ in every sense of the word. Though she’s been divorced from my grandfather (the tootsie roll man) since their kids were young, he will be there sitting in the chair holding his cane across his lap and smelling of old newspaper and cigars.
Several of my aunts’ stray friends from high school always join, as well as the man we call Mr. Rogers. Rumor has it that my uncle Kenny ran away from home at sixteen because Mom Stephens worked all the time and my father beat him up constantly. Kenny was taken in by Roger, a social worker whose only son had died young, and he encouraged Kenny’s reunion with the family. More than ten years later, Mr. Rogers and his sister continue to join the Berritt Street Christmas chaos. For years I thought they were related to us.
Upon entering, the sleigh bells hanging on the inside door handle ring loudly, prompting a dramatic welcome and hugs all the way around. Two overflowing stockings hang from the chimney for me and Sadie, but both of us immediately scan the room for Cousin Jake so we can run off.
My father’s clan arrives two or three hours late, which occurs year after year but never goes un-scolded by Mom Stephens. Sadie and I will join them for dinner with my stepmother’s family at The Keller House. It is the biggest one of all made of brick with tall white pillars in front. How she went from this to Yorkshire Lane is a mystery.
The inside is cluttered with china cabinets full of hummels and smells of cats. There is an intriguing wooden contraption that looks like a small windmill except with the fan part laying flat on top and candles in a circle around the base. When the candles are lit, the fan turns. It is the only one I’ve ever seen and comes out at Christmas, along with the ever-breeding collection of nutcrackers. I call dibs on the labyrinth and sit down by the coffee table to play, prepared for Sadie to nudge my elbow just as I’m about to get the marble past the last hole.
Mr. Keller is a retired Navy Colonel and was stationed for many years in Bremerhaven, Germany, where my stepmother was born. He rants and raves about politics or something to no one in particular and between sentences yells for Mrs. Keller who is cooking in the next room. She ignores him and after the third “LILLIAN!” he gets up from his armchair and goes to the kitchen himself. His spoiled dog, Queen Elizabeth, has stolen Jenny’s baby blanket and threatens to bite the hand of anyone who dares to reach for it. This is a common occurrence, and Mr. Keller bribes the dog with M&Ms, reinforcing the ransoming. It’s a ratty old blanket with a silky border that Jenny rubs between the fingers of her left hand while sucking on her right hand at the base of the thumb. She is teased relentlessly for not being able to find her thumb as a baby.
My stepmother Rachel is the youngest of five. Her sister is married to a preacher, and they drive in from Louisiana with their four kids who are not allowed to play with me and Sadie because we celebrate the devil-worshipping holiday of Halloween. Uncle Jim is deaf and lives in the basement, where he has an extravagant model train collection, a full-scale dark room, and thousands of recorded beta movies. He is the only mailman I’ve ever known personally, once assigned to a route in my mother’s neighborhood. I always said hello just before remembering he couldn’t hear me. Another brother is married to a woman who wears shiny purple jogging suits, has purple fingernails, and drives a purple car. She has one of those annoying laughs that ascends and descends and could never be passed off as genuine.
The oldest, Uncle Al, lives on the opposite coast and, except for this year, rarely comes home for the holidays. Someone has gone to pick him up from the airport, but Mr. Keller doesn’t know. A head peeks in the front door, and we wave them in quickly. Al sits down on the couch and opens a newspaper in front of his face before Mr. Keller returns from the kitchen with the M&Ms, continuing the rants and raves until finally he stops mid-sentence and says, “Who the hell is that?” Al drops the newspaper, and a melodramatic reunion begins.
Oma sits quietly in the corner, knitting elaborate stockings with our names on them. She must be a hundred years old, and if she speaks at all, it is with a heavy German accent. I don’t think she has any idea who I am.
Mrs. Keller is very formal with respect to table setting and etiquette and, except for my father who has a stolen bread roll hidden in his lap, no one eats until Mr. Keller sits down at the head of the table and says in a hurried, monotone fashion, “Bless-us-and-these-thy-gifts-we-are-about-to-receive-from-the-bounty-of-Christ-our-Lord-Amen.” The only thing served that is not German is the Irish coffee at the end of the meal. When it is time to leave, Mr. Keller is still in his seat at the now-empty table, fast asleep with his chin in his chest.
Sadie and I conk out on the drive to Yorkshire Lane with Jenny on my lap and our heads pressed against the side of Casey’s car seat. Another round of gifts under my father’s tree is waiting to be opened the following morning.