Last weekend, I drove down to Houston to have Christmas dinner with my dad, stepmom and my aunt.
I know Christmas is this week, not last week, but family holidays in the Clark clan are a little, um … shall we say, complicated.
Childhood memories of Christmas for me are good ones. Helping dad put up lights around the outside of the house; decorating the tree inside with lights, ornaments, tinsel; going to see Santa at the department store.
Watching special television shows, like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Helping mama make fudge, divinity, and cut out and bake colorful cookies – snowmen, Santas, reindeer, candy canes – squeezing out ribbons of icing just so on top, and adding red hots and sprinkles.
My brother, sister and I always got one “big” present and then a few “little” ones. Christmas stockings were bulging with candy and various little trinkets.
Then there were the trips across town to see grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins we hardly knew and only saw once a year. More presents, cookies, candy, food, and my old man operating his movie camera with the giant light bar across the top, blasting beams of illumination so bright that all the people in those now-lost home movies were half-turned away, squinting their eyes, and waving.
As we kids got older, and even after I moved out on my own, Christmases remained a fun-filled family affair, and then things started to change.
Divorces started happening, grandparents started dying, simmering family feuds boiled over, and holidays started getting more … untraditional.
My mother – heart and soul of the family – has been gone for 15 years now. She was diagnosed with a nasty brain tumor, underwent surgery and the usual array of punishing follow-up treatments, but never really had a chance.
After my parents got divorced when I was 24 years old, it was always great fun going to mama’s house over near Bryan-College Station for the holidays. Grandma was always there, sitting in her easy chair with two cocker spaniels curled in her lap. One dog was named Martha, and I don’t remember the other one’s name.
There was an old pot-belly, wood-burning stove in the corner, and Christmas movies playing on the TV.
Mama loved to celebrate, and there were colorful, twinkling lights and decorations all over the place; a big, sparkly tree in front of the living room window; carefully wrapped gifts piled high; and lots and lots of delicious food. Big ol’ turkey, ham, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, giblet gravy, yams with melted marshmallows on top, cranberry sauce, sweet pickles, black olives, green olives, celery sticks stuffed with cream cheese, fresh rolls, fruit salad, an assortment of homemade pies. All the usual stuff.
My brother was there, and my sister with her kids. There was lots of laughing and story-telling and good times.
Fast-forward to today.
My sister and I haven’t shared a kind word since before my mother’s memorial service in June 2000. Grandma died a year later. I have neither seen nor spoken to my little brother in about five years. Mama’s father, Paw-Paw, committed suicide back when I was in college, and my aunt – mama’s sister – never came around much.
When mama died, the family basically detonated. Ka-boom. Blown apart. Nobody around anymore to hold it all together.
As for my father, our relationship has always been a little tricky.
Now that he’s nearing 80 years old, my dad has turned into a squishy, lovey-dovey, touchy-feely old dude, but in his prime, he was the complete opposite.
We don’t see a whole lot of each other, but we talk on the phone now and then, and he always tells me how proud he is, how much he loves me, and all that good stuff, but it took a long time for those words to come out of his mouth. I still remember the first time I ever heard him say anything like that.
I was 26 years old, and we were standing in an upstairs apartment I had on Bissonnet Street in southwest Houston. He had stopped by for a quick visit, and as he was leaving, he suddenly stepped forward, hugged me close and said, “I love you.”
I froze, with my arms down at my sides. What in the hell is this? Did it make me feel all warm and fuzzy, to finally, at long last, hear my old man say those words to me?
No, it did not.
What it did, in all honesty, was kind of p--- me off. All I could think about was, “Where was that when I was 10 years old, and wanted more than anything in the world to hear those words from my daddy?
I found out fairly recently that it was basically the same for him when he was growing up. In fact, he told me that he and his father never once said “I love you” to each other, even when my granddaddy was on his deathbed in a downtown Houston hospital in 1962.
But, he says it all the time now, and I say it back.
It’s strange to watch your dad go from a tall, strong, macho man to a frail, hunched over, shuffling old guy who sometimes needs help getting out of his overstuffed chair. For most of his life, he and I were the same height – 6-feet, 1 ¾ inches – although he always outweighed me by nearly 100 pounds. Now, he stands 5-9, and I imagine I’ve got him by 20 or 30 pounds.
And then there’s his sister, Aunt Nita, who touches my heart every time I walk in the room and see her eyes light up, and a big smile cross her face. Uncle Howard, a motorcycle-riding, Donald Duck-imitating toy collector who served as crew chief on a World War II bomber, died from a massive heart attack a few years ago at age 95. They were together for 50-something years, and Nita will never get over his death.
My stepmother, Deanna, an Oklahoma native who has been married to my dad for 20-something years and has three sons of her own, takes care of everybody.
She and I are not very close, but I admire and respect and appreciate her for being the kind of person willing to do the vast majority of all-day, every day caretaking for a couple of elderly folks who could not survive on their own. I told her so last weekend as we stood alone in the kitchen, surrounded by enough homemade holiday food to feed a platoon, and she said, “Well, we all kind of take care of each other.”
My niece and a nephew I haven’t seen in about 15 years showed up, which was nice. Emily, my sister’s middle child, is a college student and aspiring novel writer who has been through a lot with her mother. She asked me to take a look at a writing project she is working on, and it was really pretty good.
Apparently, my brother was also invited to the little shindig, but came down with a sudden illness, probably after finding out that brother John was going to be there.
It is a strange situation. Sort of a Brady Bunch-style family in which the kids are either virtual strangers, or can’t stand the sight of each other. Like I said, it makes for some complicated holidays and other occasions.
So, if your family is close, and everyone is able to peacefully spend time together on holidays, birthdays and such, consider yourself both fortunate and blessed.
Merry Christmas, y’all.