It’s 6:30 on Christmas night. Red hot chili lights frame the dining room window—a leftover from the thirty years my mother spent in Tucson before moving north again to live in the town where my sister now lives. In the living room, Jimmy Carter speaks from the tv screen to my husband––the husband who has spoken no more than a dozen sentences in the past week. In the bedroom, my mother eats Russel Stover Christmas chocolates that we have given her and watches her bedside TV.
I am on my fifth game of solitaire and stumped.
All day long, I’ve been pulling Christmas after me like a ball and chain, trying to think of a topic of conversation that everyone might respond to. Today, it is just my sister, her husband, my mother, my husband and myself alone together. We celebrate at my mother’s house, where we are staying. My sister and brother-in-law come late and leave early. In between, we try not to leave too many long pauses in the conversation. I fondly remember Christmases of the past with crumpled paper and tangled colorful ribbon piled knee-high on the floor, but as we open gifts, my brother-in-law takes each scrap of paper and ribbon and stuffs it into a garbage bag. The minute the last gift is opened, he ties the paper and ribbon-filled bag neatly and carries it out to the trash.
My sister and I have earlier decided that we have each cooked one too many turkeys in our lifetime and so we have instituted a new Christmas tradition. That is why, later, we sit around the table eating lasagna. My mother picks at her food. Later, she admits that lasagna makes her sick—too much tomato sauce.
There are many lapses in the conversation. Over the last dozen years, my family has come to need strangers like drugs to infuse our conversations with life. For the rest of our two-week stay, there will usually be one old friend or another adding life to the house as we give each other massages, drink bourbon and Cokes, play cards, gossip about college or tell sadder stories of the present. But for this long morning and afternoon, it is just the five of us—family.
When did this happen? When did our lives with each other cease to be spontaneous and become work? For Christmas, my oldest sister has sent me a daily calendar of lists––a list to make each day. The subject of the January 1 list is, “list all the habits you simply can’t break.” Out of boredom, I decide to complete the assignment early. I find a pencil, pull the chair up to the table and begin to list:
2. wanting every minute to be worthwhile and finding that the only way that happens around my family is when I make it happen.
Then, instead of listing it, I am back to my favorite habit of playing solitaire. But soon I feel an urge to make a list of my own choosing, so I shove the cards aside, pick up the pencil again and write:
“What I have to do”
l. I have to be nice
2. I have to be on time
3. I have to pay taxes
4. I have to love my family
5. I have to be cool
6. I have to lose weight
7. I have to make things look good
8. I have to keep my house clean
9. I have to care more about other people
The phone rings.
“Are you going crazy yet?” It is my friend Patty, who is visiting her own mother in the same town we are visiting.
I exhale a very long breath. I’d forgotten that there is someone in the world who really knows me.
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