After dinner on Christmas Eve, I was sent to the living room to enjoy my bourbon, my belly full of burritos, my ears full of accolades. Family tradition: the chef is not allowed to clear dishes.
Bernard and his daughter Julia commandeered that task. He was stationed at the sink as she shuttled dishes from the table. Meanwhile, Lucy commandeered Julia’s husband Aaron and headed to the attic.
The kids were told to stay downstairs for a while. As long as a few pipe hits, at least.
I was soon joined by “the boys,” Richard and Paul. Jason sat with his uncle Richard, who dropped an arm on the boy’s shoulder. Bucky pulled up chairs for herself and her girlfriend Linda, who had joined us for dinner. Linda is a sweet lady, and an artist. Bucky tended the fire as we talked.
Everyone knew to gravitate to the living room for the next traditions of Christmas Eve.
Ever since Jason was a toddler, we’ve gathered to sing “Twelve Nights of Christmas” and to read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Richard took the lead in establishing this tradition, singing loudly and reading Clement Clarke Moore until Jason was old enough to take over that duty.
Every year, we make some of the same jokes. For example, we sing “Twelve Nights” from an illustrated book. Richard always points out that one of the Eight Maids a-Milkin’ bears a resemblance to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
He always embellishes his extension of Five Gold Rings.
We enjoy these corny touches.
The dishes rinsed and in the dishwasher, Bernard pulled up a chair. Julia headed upstairs to join her husband and sister for a “break.”
It was about nine thirty.
Collie sat between his brother and uncle Paul. “Do we have to sing this year?” Collie groused, crossing his arms in mock complaint.
“Yes sir, we do,” I said. “And you have to sing loud and like it.”
“No way, not me.”
“It’s a tradition, and you better love it, mister.”
Paul tickled his shoulder. Collie giggled.
“Dad?” Lillie whispered. “Where’s Mom?”
Bucky overheard. “Yes, where is she? Are we waiting for her?”
“She’s upstairs, Mother,” Richard said, with an air of admonishment. “She’ll be down.”
“Oh, upstairs, huh.” Bucky knows the score. “Well, we don’t want to wait all night. We have”—she dropped her voice to a loud whisper—“things to do.”
“We know. Mother. So Linda, what are you working on?”
We talked. Paul put another log on the fire. Ten o’clock came and went. Lillie counted her gifts again. Collie’s eyes drooped.
“Now, where is Lucy?” Bucky said, interrupting conversation. “Should I go get her?”
Not a good idea. Lucy would not respond well to entreaties from her mother or ex husband. I appointed a messenger. “Lillie, would you go to the steps of the attic and tell your mom that everyone is waiting on them?” She ran off. I heard her laugh upstairs. She came back to the banister.
“Mom said ‘get a grip,” she laughed.
Julia came down to join us.“What are they doing?” Bucky asked. “Can’t you make your sister and husband come downstairs?”
“I can only control my husband,” Julia said, looking at the fire. “He’s on his way.”
Collie looked up. “If Mom skips the singing, can I skip it?”
I took a breath. “I don’t think she will skip it.”
“Well, this is boring, just waiting,” Jason sighed.
Aaron came downstairs. “Any word from Lucy?” Richard asked.
“She says we should get started without her. She’s putting on lipstick.”
Bucky looked at her watch. “God, it’s almost eleven.”
“Well, we’re not waiting any longer,” Richard said, flipping through “Twelve Days.” “Look,” he said, holding up the book. “It’s Sandra Day O’Connor.”
Bernard and I laughed on cue.
I was annoyed; I guess we all were.
“Mom’s not here, so I don’t have to stay.” Collie leapt up and went to the study.
“Me too!” Lillie followed.
“Kids, where are you going?” Paul called. “We’re getting started.”
“Let’s just go ahead.” I said, handing Jason his copy of Clement Clarke Moore. “Do us proud, son.”
He began to read. Lucy came downstairs as Jason threw open the sash to see what was the matter. She sat, avoiding eye contact with everyone. She crossed her legs, tucking her hands between her thighs, extending her arms so that her shoulders nearly covered her ears. Her freshly painted lips were pursed into a tense smile as her son read.
“ . . . But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.’” We applauded his rendition. I heard Collie and Lillie giggle at the door behind me. They were spying.
We sang our way through twelve nights of gift giving.
Afterward, I explained the Epiphany to Julia, who never understood why there were twelve days. Richard noted that adding up all the gifts given during the course of the song numbers three hundred and sixty four.
“That’s a year, minus one day.” Jason added.
“Right?” Richard said. “Coincidence? Or conspiracy?”
Lucy stood. “Okay kids, time for bed.” The kids kissed us all good night, and followed their mother upstairs.
Traditionally, the adults remain together for a while, until the kids are asleep. There is the traditional passing of the peace pipe, as Lucy’s family gets stoned together. This is always fun to watch, as some are practiced stoners, and others smoke only on this occasion.
Last year, stoned, they sat speculating on the physics of shortwave radio.
Then Santa arrives. I am usually coached through the assembly of Hot Wheels and train sets. This year would be different.
“Well, I’m exhausted.” Bucky stood. “I’m going to bed.” Linda stood to leave. Bernard and the boys stood to follow.
“Not staying for Santa?” I asked.
“There’s not much to do,” Bucky said. “You can handle it, right?”
“Sure . . .” The truth is, I had no idea what Santa was bringing. In years past, Bucky would contact me in October, pressing for a list of the kids’ Christmas preferences. She knew to bypass Lucy, who hated being asked about Christmas before Halloween. We would put together a list, run it past Lucy, and Bucky would order everything, having it sent to her house to await the big night.
This year, Lucy took care of it.
Julia and Aaron helped her to bring up the loot as I tended the fire.
They made one trip.
“Need help with the rest?” I asked.
“No, that’s it,” Aaron said.
I looked at the assembled loot.
One football jersey each for Collie and Jason. A Batgirl action figure for Lillie. An alarm clock for Collie.
“That’s it?” I was, frankly, incredulous. “That is just lame! You can’t come downstairs Christmas morning and find an alarm clock waiting.”
“Is it bad?” Lucy looked worried. Oh, now she speaks.
“We can fix it,” I said, rummaging under the tree. “Just, please, go wrap the alarm clock.” She took the box and left. Julia followed. “Aaron, let’s move these piles to the center of the room,” I said.
“Okay, what, one pile for each kid?”
“Yes.” I unwrapped gifts that had been marked “From Dad.”
I had a secret weapon this Christmas. Bridget had taken me shopping.
For weeks in advance of our combined outing, she had shopped on her own. She was armed with the children’s sizes and quizzed me about favorite movies and books. Bridget can shop for bargains like no one I know. Without spending too much, she had delivered a carload of presents before the holidays.
That night, Bridget and I had wrapped for a couple of hours before deciding to have sex, leaving the rest for me to finish.
With Aaron’s help, I arranged the gifts. No professional window dresser could have done better. “Nice,” Aaron admired.
We stood looking at the bounty when Lucy and Julia returned with the wrapped clock.
“Wow,” Julia said.
“You want ‘wow,’” I smiled. “It’s Christmas!”
Lucy nodded, smiling. We turned out the lights. Aaron and Julia drove to their hotel. Lucy went upstairs.
I poured a bourbon and turned the tree back on. I sat among the gifts, watching the embers burn.
The next morning, I woke in the study to hear the kids whispering about the presents.
It was six thirty.
Lucy came down the stairs. “Look at all those gifts!” she said.
I pulled on a t-shirt adorned by the assembled Peanuts gang from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and joined them.
(Bridget had thrown the shirt at me as we shopped at a Target in New Jersey. “Nine ninety nine. You are wearing this on Christmas morning.”
I tossed it back. “I don’t wear logo t-shirts.”
She gave me a look and threw it in the cart. “Don’t think, just do what I tell you.”)
The kids shook boxes. The boys put on their jerseys. Lillie played with Batgirl.
Lucy made coffee.
We had to wait to open presents. Family tradition: we open gifts only when everyone is assembled.
The uncles and aunts were due at nine.
When Bucky came down, she put out a spread of bagels, cream cheese, capers and lox. The kids ate. They were very patient.
I made more coffee.
Aaron and Julia arrived. Finally, Richard and Paul joined us, just before nine. They joined the adults in the kitchen, preparing mugs and plates in advance of the imminent orgy of wrapping paper.
Lucy joined the kids in the living room. Lillie ran into the kitchen. “Dad, can we open presents now?”
“In a minute, baby, as soon as the grown ups are ready.”
“We’re almost ready now, Lillie,” Richard said, stirring his tea.
“Oh, you can get started,” Lucy called from the living room. “You’ve waited long enough. Come on!” Lillie ran to the living room, already awash in the sounds of tearing paper.
Bernard looked at me, quizzical. “Can you wait one minute, please?” I called. “It’s just a moment!”
“No, they don’t have to wait,” Lucy called. “You rushed me last night, so I can rush you this morning.”
Richard shook his head, his jaw dropped. He looked at me. “Did she really just say that?” he asked.
“Cool!” Collie shouted. “A new game! Thanks, Uncle Richard!”
“Uh, you’re welcome . . . ” Richard called back.
Collie didn’t hear.
He was already tearing into a new box.