Roman Holiday

On Christmas eve, when I was a child, my mother used to sit on my bed and talk to me about Santa while my father would go out to my grandmother's cement patio with jingle bells and a hammer and pretend to be reindeer landing on the roof. What makes this scene particularly odd was that my father was Jewish and when my mother converted to judiasm he refused to allow her to go home on christmas. But that all changed when I almost died. My father suddenly decided that no child should live without christmas, and thus the bunni family tradition began.

Since I've been five, my father, mother and I would go up to my grandmother's house for christmas. I remember we would know we were close when the car went over the railroad tracks. My mother and I would sing carols in the car. My grandmother's kitchen had those cool "fake candle" lights and there was a long sweeping spiral staircase, favored by soaps for dramatic cocktail party entrances. Waking up for christmas day, I would slowly walk down the stairs, each step revealing more and more of the christmas tree and its booty.

Christmas Eve my extended family (my grandmother's sister's children) would all gather at my Aunt L's. Aunt L was next door to my grandmother and so we would walk through 15 feet of forest and snow between the two houses laden with gifts for my cousins. Often Santa would make an appearance handing out popcorn balls (my favorite) saving the really good gifts for the next day. Even Santa understood the deliciousness of anticipation. Occassionally a deer would wander in the backyard and we, the young children, would assume it was a reindeer.

Scottie was 15 then. He remembered me as a child running to see Santa. He wasn't yet married to a Jehovah's Witness, but he would be soon. Fighting it out with her about family holidays and tvs. The kitchen was dominated by older men, was like a jazz bar. The men smoked cigars and got steadily plastered " on the hard stuff" while playing poker. The food was relegated to the dining room and most of the women and children to the back room.

Over the years, smoking was banned from the house. The "old men" slowly died. Starting with Newtie the mailman and ending this year with Johnny Coffee. Johnny had been a serious boozer. He even stashed bottles of jack daniels all along Canandian fishing route. One night, in a dream, G-d told him to stop drinking or he would die in a year. Johnny stopped until his wife took ill and died. He was dead within the year.

The poker is gone now, replaced by trivial pursuit the 90s edition. The old men have been replaced by children. Dominick, my distant cousin, apparently know "everything about the presidents" at ten. His mother and friends ask him "Who was the 27th president? And the 32nd?" He waits a moment and then answers. My other cousin is practicing for a competition to play at Carnegie Hall. After listening to an improptu recital in the living room, my mother comes away saying "She has the technical aspect, but not the musicality." He plays with precision, but not passion.

Aunt L no longer has the party at her house. It has moved to the houses of her children. This year, Debbie and Danny. Debbie has lupus. She was a sweet women, thin as a slip. I always wondered at how Debbie raised three children with lupus. She has never complained or spoken of her illness. This year she comes out looking haggard. Her knuckles and swollen simply from wrapping gifts and her husband, asked five hours before to remove six packs of soda for the party from the trunk of her car, ignores her request to play pool. I offer to do it for her, but she gets one of her sister-in-law's husband to do it for her. Still she sits at the table saying we have to count our blessings.

The food is always plentiful and a hodgepodge of the "best" family recipes. Spinach dip, shrimp cocktail, my grandmother's famous baked beans, little cocktail franks, N.E. clam chowder, and chips and salsa. The liquor is also plentiful. I begin with wine. After a while my cousin Lisa gets out a "bucket" of margarita mix from the freezer. We shovel antifreeze colored slush into our glasses.

The key to dealing with my family is the correct blood alcohol level. Not so drunk as to be an ass, but not completely sober. A pleasant haze. Like a warm gel on a light. Rose colored. Sick of children and conversations about housekeeping, I always meander down to the men. The men always end up in the basement and the women upstairs in the kitchen. Downstairs Danny is playing pool. Doug, Lisa's husband, is playing bartender despite a cold. He pours me a Jack and coke, which is only gently kissed by the coke. His pupils are large as he tells me that he worries. "Every year I think you won't come. I won't see you." I wonder at his concern. He sees me for six hours once a year. How can he care so much? What would be missing if I wasn't there?

For a moment I am filled with sadness that I have no boyfriend to show my family to. Not for the usual reason. Not for someone to verify that indeed my family is insane, not for a comic sidekick to whom to make snarky intellectual jokes, but someone to show them off to. Someone to say "Look at them. Look at them. Aren't they wonderful?"

And at this moment, my grandmother decides it's time to go. And I wonder, like Doug, if this will be the last year I will be here.

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