December 12, 2009
Two thousand nine pressed down on all of us. Grandpa Jim received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in February, and medical bills worried Grandma Lolly, and raised her blood pressure. Uncle Bradley’s final divorce decree came in April, and my twin cousins, Esther and Eli, refused to speak to anyone about it.
Dad watched his investments all take a sharp turn downward, and Mom took up crocheting baby booties to sell on eBay.
My sister Tillie, and her husband Reggie, caught wind of layoff rumors at the plant where they both worked. Since that day in July, they each took second jobs to support their blended family of nine.
My husband and I worked hard to make ends meet, but with everything else looking so bleak, we celebrated simply surviving one more year with our kids, and prayed for better times.
As we pulled up into the steep drive to Lolly and Jim’s, the boys counted all the cars parked at the side of the low-pitched ranch.
“Looks like everyone else is here, Mom,” Greg said, his fourteen-year-old voice cracking with spiked hormones.
“Whose car is that?” Jack asked, pointing feverishly to the polished orange Chevy Camaro sitting exclusively to one side. Jack noticed everything about cars since he first earned his learner’s permit in August.
Rob’s eyes glazed as he looked over the dash of our six-year-old Buick and into the headlights of his dream car.
“Honey, watch where you’re going,” I warned him as the front right tire dipped off the concrete drive. Rob corrected the car and parked next to the Camaro.
My husband lusted after it like it was Heidi Klum, Nicole Kidman, and Kate Beckinsale all rolled into one. His eyes barely left its hood as he scanned the other vehicles to deduce the beauty’s owner.
“I think it must be Uncle Bradley’s car,” he announced, nearly drooling.
“Get your stuff, guys, and go in and kiss Grandma Lolly and Grandpa Jim and then you can come back out and look at the car,” I urged.
“Yes, ma’am,” my sons said, grabbing only their respective DS games from the backseat and running inside.
I popped the trunk and began unloading our gifts as Rob drifted slightly above the muscle car haze and joined me.
“Did you see he got the black racing stripes? I love that,” he added. Rob nudged my arm and pointed to the sports car. “I can’t believe he got the stripes.”
Before our car was emptied, the boys joined the other men in the family around the Camaro in anticipation. I think my husband actually hiccupped when Bradley turned the engine over.
With the men in the driveway—all except Grandpa Jim who sat on a barstool in the kitchen, the women of the Parker clan began to chatter above the Christmas music. The football game disappeared, and the children gathered in the floor of the family room.
Tillie’s youngest, seven-year-old Missy Claire, volunteered to fetch the men inside, so the present-opening could begin.
Tillie arranged her kids around herself and Reggie, so she could make sure that only wrapping paper would be thrown away, and then bows, bags, and tissue paper could be collected and folded for reuse.
Uncle Bradley plopped down proudly between his twins next to the Christmas tree. Eli grimaced when Bradley suggested that it was his turn to be Santa this year.
I helped Mom and Lolly bring Grandpa Jim to his recliner. Mom gave Dad the camera, with strict instructions not to cut off anyone’s head this time. Dad insisted that he never did that, but years of photos provided evidence against him.
Rob maneuvered through the maze of children to the piano bench behind Jack and Greg. He smiled at me and patted the end of the bench next to him. I nodded and waded through the sea of arms and legs as well, until I was at his side.
A full month’s worth of planning and organizing went into this moment. Eli gathered as many gifts as his lanky thirteen-year-old arms could hold. Esther flew to his aid and read the gift tags and directed him to the intended recipient. Within a few minutes, everyone in the room held a ten dollar gift in their hands. All eyes focused sharply on Grandma Lolly, eagerly awaiting her next breath.
As if conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, she raised her arms and cheered, “Merry Christmas to you all!”
Time stood still and paper filled the air. Colored bows perched on the heads of children and oohs and ahhs floated throughout the chaos.
As the shredded paper filled the huge black trash bag, Tillie carefully gathered all salvageable trimmings. Dad aimed the camera every which way he could manage, muttering Christmas-themed curses as he remembered the anti-red-eye pulse of light that preceded the actual flashes.
“How in the—North Pole am I supposed to take good pictures when this—frosted flash goes off three times before you can even…”
Lolly beamed an exhausted but joyful smile as she surveyed her family. “Thank you, everyone,” she began our family tradition. “I received a lovely picture frame from Reggie. Thank you.” She winked as she gestured to Grandpa Jim, and then her smile faded a tiny bit.
He only stared at the tie in his lap and nodded.
“Grandpa Jim wants to thank Greg for the nice neck tie,” she said weakly. We all swallowed hard for her. “And who is next?” she asked.
Esther continued the ‘thank you’ chain, and it went around the room as each family member held up their gift and gratefully acknowledged the giver.
Tillie asked everyone in October if we could each draw names this year, with a ten dollar limit, and since she had the largest family and the smallest budget, we all agreed.
The last in the chain was Mom. She held up three pair of fluffy chenille socks and began to laugh. “I want to thank Grandma Lolly for these precious socks. Two pair are Christmas socks—the pink ones have snowmen on them, and the green ones are covered with little candy canes. And the blue ones are my favorite; they are Hanukkah socks, with little stars of David and dreidels.”
“What?” Lolly gasped. “No, they’re not! Those are Christmas stars and packages and candles. They’re Christmas socks,” she insisted, leaning over for a closer look.
“No, Ma, look. That’s a menorah,” she giggled. Everyone laughed for a good long minute.
Afterwards we all took our gifts and put them with our things to take home. We gave overdue hugs and talked about current events as we formed a line to march through the kitchen. We filled our snowflake printed paper plates with sausage balls, little smokies, divinity, fudge, broccoli florets, ranch dip, Gouda squares, and bourbon balls. At the end of the bar, we had the choice of egg nog or wassail cups.
We spent the rest of the afternoon snacking and catching up and playing games.
Lolly and Mom intently worked on a five hundred piece puzzle of Cracker Jacks boxes. They scolded any passer-by who cavalierly fitted a long-sought piece into place.
With the big game back on, Bradley, Dad, Rob and Reggie took up every inch of the sofa and love-seat, while Tillie and I cleaned the kitchen and compared notes on kids.
The eleven children divided themselves along gender lines. The girls gathered around the piano and sang as many carols as they knew. Tillie’s oldest daughter, Celeste, pounded out “Sleigh Ride” proficiently as the other girls sang along.
The boys of the family joined Grandpa Jim at the dining room table to play M&M poker. “You know, boys, I learned to play poker when I was stationed as Pearl Harbor. Got there the second week in January in 1942,” Jim explained like it was yesterday.
I poked my head in from the kitchen to make sure everything was all right. “Do you guys need any more wassail or egg nog?” I asked.
Jack and Greg shook their heads and Eli ignored me. Reggie’s boys, Ben and Clark, answered, “No, ma’am,” politely. Grandpa Jim asked if I could bring him some rum punch without the punch.
“Grandpa Jim,” I began, “I don’t think you’re supposed to drink. Lolly says it interferes with your medicine.” I refilled his wassail and kissed him on the forehead.
He smiled and turned back to the table. “You know, she reminds me of your grandmother. Same red hair as Lolly had when we met. O’course, Lolly had more curves than your mother,” he said, elbowing Jack in the side.
I stood in the doorway to the kitchen and listened to Grandpa Jim talk to the boys as if they all were the same age, telling stories he remembered like the events happened last week.
All of the stress and pain of the year somehow faded while I watched the boys and their grandfather—their great grandfather, bond over cards.
“I saw that,” Jim said as he pointed a crooked finger at Ben. “If you eat all your M&Ms, what will you bet with?”
Ben raised his eyebrows and swallowed his candy. “I wasn’t eating my M&Ms. Those were Clark’s.”
We all laughed, even Clark.
“You know,” Jim began again as he dealt out five cards to each boy. “When Lolly and I first got married, we had nothing. Not even M&Ms to bet with. In those days, we had to play strip poker.”
At this, Tillie raced to my side in the door-way, just in time to hear Grandpa Jim say, “Yessirree, in those days, it wasn’t Christmas ‘til Grandma Lolly was naked.”