Saturday, December 25, 2010
Small Town Christmas
The clock tower struck twelve-noon. I heard the bells chime twelve times and the whole town sighed. Half the day had already come and gone. People in McDonough like to congregate in the downtown square. At this time of year, Christmas lights and garland are hung from every corner and post. A large red sleigh is outside for a Santa who comes twice during the season for pictures. The sky was a blurry mess of sleet and rain by the afternoon. White blinded the eyes of those who dared to gaze up at the sky for a moment. Men, women and children poured in and out of the small stores and restaurants. The pharmacy was getting particularly good business from the elderly who could not stand the relative frost. It was a calm afternoon. There was a mystifying gloom hanging above everything, but it was calm and peaceful, and rather soothing.
The night grew darker and cooler, and I was standing on the outside of a familiar front door. We were carrying two pies and some peppermint cookies. Shanna made them. She had some peppermint chips left over and threw them in the dough as simply as she would have chocolate chips. I envy her ability to carelessly throw things together in the oven. The things I bake never turn out disastrous, but they take much more cunning and concentration than I am often willing to give. Blake opened the door and we walked inside. I had been here once before, last year, at a similar event actually: a Christmas party for our church's band. And just as last time the only ones to come were the band members, with a few family, and the couple who work the slideshow and sound--though very few outside of the band were even invited in the first place.
We set our things down on the kitchen counter, and took a look around. Smiles, waves and hugs were exchanged briefly. It is amazing to me how I can know these people for half of my life or more and still find little to say to them each time I walk through a door. I exhaust pleasantries quickly and make my way to the nearest seating arrangement so I can at least act the part of comfortable; I do it every time, I have my routine down. Of course, when I did this time, I managed to get swiped into a conversation with two old men. Whenever two old men get together, they seem to love rambling. I was stuck there, listening to the nothingness of the old days, of which I honestly envy, and their on-end questions about my schooling. I escaped in time for prayer and food. I only say "escaped" because their questions caused me to have to really talk, and say more than the typical one or two fragments I typically utter.
There were appetizers, entrées and delicious desserts. The main dishes were two plates stacked high with honey baked ham and Puerto Rican pork roast. I took some of the pork, I knew I would have my fill of ham later, and took a large corner of baked macaroni and cheese. The rest of the spread was a game of chance. The most appetizing thing to me the whole night was the macaroni. Getting over a cold leaves your taste buds little sense to enjoy the finer parts of domesticated dining. But, being that I was second in this makeshift buffet line, I respectfully took some peppered green beans, mashed potatoes and homemade cranberry sauce. Everything else was left for the other ten or so to enjoy.
Everyone adjourned to the living room afterward for the white elephant gift exchange. I received a party-mix of songs from 2007. When I saw Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" on the track-list, I was hoping someone would figure it a nice gift by mistake and take it. Luckily, upon writing this, I have remembered I left the gift on the hosts' couch. (Which was an accident; it was the rush of packing food and trying to get out of the door without dropping anything.) At any rate, the game was more enjoyable than I apprehended and I was able to actually open up and laugh some. It is not without trying that I fail on occasion to be fun company. I have just trained myself not to say anything stupid at the expense of trying to fill a void. Which leaves me sitting quietly more than anything else. Wendy brought a Fushigi ball and Blake was the lucky one to get it. Through a little encouragement, he was convinced to put in the "Teaching Tutorial" DVD. A Fushigi ball is an illusion gag, basically, meant to look like it is floating between one's fingers. If done correctly, it is pretty intriguing. However, I have seen the infomercials. Everyone who purchases one and spends hours on end with it is more than likely going to look like the guy in the tutorial: the unwashed love-child of Criss Angel and Qui-Gon Jinn. Which is ironic--one of the "cradles" for holding the Fushigi was referred to as the "Vulcan" cradle. And he made sure to hold up the "V" sign and say the phrase, "Live long and prosper."
"Oh... I'm bettin' he's been single for a long time..." Shanna blurted out.
"And I'm bettin' it's gonna' stay that way," another in the room quickly responded.
The Fushigi was passed around and a few tried some of the tricks in the DVD, to no avail, of course. Those unwilling to try quickly got up from their seats, scared they would get hit in the head by the odd toy. I was one of the latter. But it was worth a few laughs. If anything, it was better than the game of Taboo one couple decided to bring with them. I am not a huge fan of board games, but every other gathering I attend manages to have one. The only one I can ever remember enjoying is Apples to Apples.
My most significant memory with the fruity game was with my family over some holiday. We all crowded the dining room table and dealt the cards. When it came to my father's turn, he being the crude comedian he is started laughing before he even set the card in the pile. The basic rules being this: an adjective is drawn and everyone is to look at their hand of noun cards and place one in the pile they find best-suiting. The adjective was "useless," and he handed a card with the notable noun, Helen Keller. I may be on a one-way ticket to Hell for laughing, but the joke caused both my cousin and I to gasp for air.
When everyone had exhausted their fun with the white elephant gifts and people were growing weary and tired, all of us who claimed to be full previously helped "clean-up" by consuming half of what was left in the kitchen as Patty and Nancy started up the dishes. We brought home a few leftovers and plates for my father and brother, and I was almost conned into taking half of Ruby's baked macaroni and cheese. She used a dish big enough for thirty servings. I may not have enough conscience to check expiration dates before I dive into a meal, but I know my limits on even my favorite of noodle-filled side-dishes.
Wednesday night I was doing relatively the same thing as Saturday night: standing in front of a door on a cold night waiting for someone to let me in, hands full of some dessert Shanna had made. The whole family was with me this time. Shanna was fiddling with her parents' garage door automatic opener, and the dishes I was handed were getting heavy. Finally, the old wooden doors crept open and we walked into the mothballs and seventies-style home and decor. The house wreaked of all things elderly and antique. Even their recently bought widescreen television sits on an old end-table from the fifties. Let the records show, the high-definition purchase was purely for lack of proper eye-wear, and not their greedy want to see the sweat drop from some football coach's brow during the height of the Superbowl. The only thing really offensive to me is the china hanging above the kitchen table upstairs. I have always been forced to entertain the other cousins or squeeze myself at a smaller table, even at twenty-years old. And when we visit Shanna's parents' house, I am always at the chair under the china. I am waiting for something to knock those plates onto my head in a comical fashion--a comical fashion of which I know I will never laugh at later.
We came in late compared to the usual. Shanna's brother and sister and their families had already arrived and my little cousin Bethany ran up to me and squeezed my legs. At almost 6-years old she only stands as tall as halfway up my thighs, and has perfect blonde hair I have only read about in fairy tales. This one will be a heart-breaker, God help her parents. She giggled and jumped around in her Christmas outfit excited to tell me about everything that has happened since I saw her the night before at dinner.
Twenty-four hours previous, I was sitting at a table with the same family and mine, and Bethany was crying clamping her small hands over her even smaller ears. She had surgery Friday to get tubes permanently placed in her ears to reduce her risk for ear infections; simple enough, but painful for the small child. I remember her crying and saying, "It feels like the tubes are fighting my ears and my ears are fighting the tubes!" She, like the rest of the family, is already better at verbalizing than I am. After taking some children's pain medication, the relief was almost immediate. Bethany sat down between Shanna and me, reading her new book we bought her as a "get well" gift. It was taken from the movie, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and has buttons which make sounds from the patented Charles Schulz creation, including a button with Charlie Brown's face that sighs "Good grief!" when pressed. When she got to the end of the book, my heart melted. There, she, having some literacy on her belt, recognized the lyrics to "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" and pressed the corresponding button to hear the chorus of characters sing. Bethany, likewise, sang along. Music is powerful--hymns and carols masterpieces irreplaceable by the small chart-toppers of the year, and especially touching at Christmas. When I hear the small child sing the words, "Hark the herald angel sing/Glory to the newborn King/Peace on earth and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled," and understand each one, it is enough to bring tears to my eyes. She pressed the button over and over again and sang along, keeping her small index finger to the page to make sure she did not miss a word. I miss the days of care and precision--the days where I still felt as if I had much to learn. I may be willing to admit I am ignorant, but I am not always willing to change it.
To see Bethany full of joy and pain-free Wednesday night made my heart skip a beat. It was our family's Christmas: for her it meant gifts and running around driving the family crazy with her giggling and weird faces. She pranced through the house and made sure to consistently babble about what she expected Santa to bring her Saturday night. The rest of the family--the adults--was tired and only obliging to the smaller children. There was still room to laugh and enjoy the food and fellowship together, but adults are never excited about Christmas for the same reasons or in the same ways someone Bethany's age is excited for the holiday. Even I can write poetically about Christmas and even get excited when the lights and trees go up around town, but I remember getting goosebumps every second of December, and now I have to be wowed to feel much of anything. I suppose I just need faith like a child.
The room was loud and full of life as we all sat around the Christmas tree, waiting for the story of the birth of Jesus and Papa Bill's usual prayer. We let the man have his traditions. In fact, we do not even really mind them. It is the small things that make up Christmas. It is the small things that bring us together. Of course, when always bent at the waist even when while standing straight-up, suffering from Parkinson's Disease and cannot speak above a normal whisper, calming down 19 people, is not an easy task. It was easily ten minutes before everyone stopped talking long enough for the evening to really start. Too much conversation cramped into a small living space. Daniel, the cousin most likely to get shoved into an oven if it meant not sitting next to him at the dinner table, was sporting one of his favorite outfits as of late. Reasons unbeknownst to me, he has taken a liking to skinny jeans and v-neck t-shirts. Next to that and my brother who, until a haircut a day later, was voted most likely to get whiplash from continuously whipping his head in order to move his hair out of his face, I always find it funny to see how much style has in fact not changed, just within a decade.
"I like your skinny jeans," Kayla, Jacob's girlfriend, said.
"Thanks," Daniel replied, expecting an actual compliment, unfortunately.
"Yeah, I have a couple of pairs just like them in my closet."
I laughed harder than I probably should have.
When everyone was calmed down, Papa Bill read the events preceding Jesus' birth. It was nice to hear the story; I will admit, I do not read the Bible as much as I should. When the presents were passed around and everyone was enjoying their new gifts, I could not believe how much not only style has yet to change, but the gifts kids get are still the same. Kian got a Razor scooter and I remember when those commercials were released while I was in elementary school. I did not even know they still made them, but I know kids were just as excited about them then as my cousin was now. Bethany was given a large-headed, long-haired Rapunzel doll from the newest movie "Tangled." It was half her size and had frightening eyes. The worst part was, every time Bethany combed Rapunzel's hair, her head lit up. I suppose it is always better she be given a doll with an abnormal-sized head than the sluts Barbie puts out these days. I remember when Barbie was sold with sun-dresses and sixties-style chic clothing. I have an entire bucket full of them hidden somewhere in our garage still. If anything has changed in the past ten years, it should not have been that. As for the older additions to the family, we were simply handed some cash and gift cards. And I would never turn away money, of course.
Overall, there were lots of pictures taken and lots of love. It is more than most could hope for at this time of year. While some prepare for Santa--a cheap ruse to get children in bed before nine--others cuddle by a fire with their significant other, some prepare themselves for the worst hangover of their life, and others just prepare for a new day masked in lights and cheer, Christmas comes just as our calendars and television programs predict. The air is bitterly cold, and I am sitting in the warm indoors, enjoying the bit of time I have with my family.