"Dad, why are Grandma and Grandpa wasted?"

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, December 27, 2006 |

I remember believing as a kid that the absolute worst evening of the year came on Christmas day. Seeing my parents sitting on the couch at the end of the holiday, so silent and still next to the Christmas tree amid neat piles of clothing boxes and tins of planter's nuts, scraps of uncollected wrapping paper, and molded plastic from the inside of toy boxes, that was always one of the lowest moments of my year. Christmas gifts always made me feel too guilty to truly enjoy them, even when I was very young. The pleasure of receiving gifts was always tempered by the stories my mother told about the families she encountered through her work, parents so poor the only gifts they could afford were hand towels with the names of their children hand-embroidered neatly along the bottom. There were families who exchanged single pieces of fruit; families whose only holiday pleasure was a charity ham; homeless kids who were happy just to get their own toothbrush. Occasionally my family would forgo exchanging gifts altogether, and instead collect boxes of canned goods to deliver to the gospel mission. That was always a lot of fun. I'd like to say doing good deeds made me feel like a better person, but spending Christmas morning watching a bunch of schlumps dressed like lepers get excited about baked beans just made me feel like more of a privileged little shit when I went home to my own bed where there was a minimal chance of being ass raped by a syphilitic hobo with fleas.

The pleasures of Christmas as a kid for me were all in the anticipation, the pageantry of decoration; the strange magniloquence of the carols, sitting in the car at night on the way to grandma's watching the way the snow looked while it fell through the beam of streetlights, or, on the way home, hurtling into the headlights like galaxies. On Christmas night, all that magic was unplugged along with the strings of lights. Christmas night was always heavy with the knowledge that there was no day further away from the next Christmas than that one. And then there was the guilt of all the gifts, the strange dissatisfaction of having all that longfelt desire finally satisfied.

I've been doing my damnedest to instill some of my own holiday neuroses in Juniper to fuck her up as much as me. You know, like only giving her gifts hand made by squeaky-voiced hipsters wearing cat-eye glasses and silk scarves while listening to The Hold Steady in their Ukrainian Village apartments. And hiding half the gifts her grandparents bought her in the basement until July. And for years I have taken it upon myself to give my family "deeply-meaningful gifts" even if that only means it's a helluva lot more work for me and they would have been much happier with a Target gift card anyways.

This year, at Thanksgiving, we visited my parents and during the meal my mother told me her doctor had ordered her to drink a glass of red wine every night, for her heart. This was intriguing, because I had never known my parents to consume any alcohol, except for the one time my dad disappeared after we had driven to Colorado when I was ten (my sister and I had been complaining about everything for two hours before we reached Estes Park, and when we rented a hotel room and complained about it he stormed out and returned smelling like a lite lager and smiling like he didn't give a fuck about anything; it was equally scary and awesome at once). On Thanksgiving Day this year, my father actually gave a delayed encore: he'd thrown his back out the day before Thanksgiving and before we ate dinner he tried a couple Vicodin for the first time in his life. I have never hung out with my dad while high, but after seeing him loopy on codeine I imagine it could actually be kind of fun. My normally-sober father spent Thanksgiving talking like an enthusiastic frat pledge pumped full of elephant tranquilizers. It was weird. Then, that night, true to her word, my mother had her glass of red wine. I caught her pouring about six ounces of cold Franzia merlot from a box in the fridge into one of those red plastic cups you pay five bucks for at college keg parties.

So for Christmas I bought my mom a case of different red wines that came in bottles (bottles with corks). And a wine key. And stem ware. For my dad I bought an eight ball from some guy on the corner of Livernois and Burlingame. Who says you can't go Christmas shopping in Detroit?* Unfortunately, we chose to exchange gifts while my grandmother was there. My grandmother is a wonderful old Dutchwoman who says "catsup" rather than "ketchup" and "crick" rather than "creek" and hangs out with her friends at the retirement village all day discussing what they think heaven is going to be like. Seriously.

When my grandmother saw that I had given my mother alcohol as a Christmas present, the look on her face was the same as if I'd told her that Jesus Christ was nothing more than a new name for the pagan Attis or Mithras, and that elements of the Christ myth could be traced to Dionysus, Zoroaster, and even Osiris. In other words, she looked deeply confused, as though my simple yuletide gesture shook the very core of her beliefs. My mother tried to explain the health benefits of daily red wine consumption, but my grandmother just shook her head and said, "I've never tasted wine." I think Wood did a perfect spit take when she said that. When you go to her Irish-Catholic family gatherings, you can just walk around for 30 seconds with a pint glass and by the time everyone is done happily pouring you a shot of whatever's in the 750-ml bottle they're drinking from you've got yourself a pretty decent long island ice tea.

I'd like to say this story ends with me getting my 80-year-old grandmother drunk on her first glass of wine ever, but unfortunately that didn't happen. At one point she glanced over at the basket of wine I'd brought and told my mother, "now you be careful with that" as though the basket contained twelve slithering vipers with bumblebees in their mouths and scorpions riding their backs. "Remember Grandma," I said: "Jesus turned water into wine; and he drank wine himself at the last supper." This only seems to further her confusion. I think the Dutch Christian Reformed Church censored those parts of her Bible with a black permanent marker, and just ripped out the whole Song of Solomon. On Christmas night after Grandma left, my mom chucked her box of cold merlot and popped off the cork of a bottle of Charles Shaw shiraz. "Wow," she said, sipping some from an actual wine glass. "This is good. It comes from California, huh?" I didn't tell her that in California they call it two-buck Chuck. She drank four ounces, giggled a little and fell asleep on the couch next to the Christmas tree.

Wood and I shuttled back and forth between our parents during the holidays, emptying our tiny car of the gifts we'd bought and then filling it back up again with the gifts we were given. Our Christmas Eve and day were so fragmented by shredding paper and travel and naps and hugs. We felt lucky to have this much family, to have this much stuff. On Christmas evening Wood, Juniper, and I drove home to Detroit, opened a few small gifts we'd saved for each other and sat down together in the glow of the Christmas tree, and I felt so wonderfully loved and at peace with the world, and only a little bit guilty. But the most glorious feeling of all came from the knowledge that it would be 364 days before Christmas came again.

*I didn't really buy my dad an eight ball. I bought him about twenty different kinds of mixed nuts. He just called to tell me that he mixed them up together in a giant 5-gallon tub in his shop. He was super excited about it.