Our 4 Most Dysfunctional Family Christmas Fails
Before half of my relatives died slow, agonizing deaths, Christmas was a blissful time of presents and egg nog and gratuitous piles of food. I would spend every Christmas eve with my father’s side of the family, who were all very Italian. Each place at the table would be decorated with scratch-off lottery tickets. We rarely ever won, but scratching them off together while stuffed clams baked in the oven and Dominic the Donkey played on the radio was more of a prize than anything else.
I was about 13. Everyone helped themselves to mounds of pasta and freshly-baked bread while we made conversation about this or that. My father’s stepfather glanced in my direction during a moment of silence.
“So, uh, Drew. I see you got ya some little lemon drops starting to grow in, there.”
I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about until I noticed him gesturing at my little tween titties. I was pretty stoked on my almost nonexistent boobs and was about to say so when my father dropped his fork and stared in his stepfather’s direction, slowly shaking his head “no” with what can only be described as The Glare of Death on his face. The table reverted into an awkward silence for the next few minutes, and the family Christmas fail was complete
Don’t Tell Your Mother
Years later, my father was driving us home from another Christmas Eve at his parents’ house. I was asking him about his wild history as a rock and roll connoisseur of the 1970s; he had owned an alternative clothing store with my mom, called Jumping Jack Flash, which sold gigantic platforms and huge bellbottoms to bands like The Rolling Stones and KISS. Why had it closed?
A kindhearted, immensely talented man who had mastered a number of skills from carpentry to acting as a flawlessly accurate human calculator, I was both surprised and intrigued when he offhandedly mentioned going to prison in the early 80s.
“For how long?”
“No you didn’t.”
“If I ask mom, she’ll say you did?”
He then proceeded to freak the fuck out about the idea of my mother finding out he had slipped up and told me about his prison stint. He must have said “I was only joking” about fifty times, but there was no getting out of it at that point.
I was also unable to get any more information out of him that night, and I could see that he was pretty worried about my mom giving him a verbal reaming for his confession. However, his secret was safe with me and I didn’t ask her about it until he couldn’t answer my questions anymore. At that point, she was able to tell me I had been old enough to know when I did find out, but it’s a pretty awkward point of discussion between a parent and a child regardless. I guess. Not really a family Christmas fail but I learned about it on Christmas Eve so it’s part of the giant family Christmas fail lump I get in my throat every year.
Not a Very Merry Christmas
Then I was 16. My grandfather had died of cancer. My aunt (my father’s sister) was dying of cancer. My great aunt had Alzheimer’s but was still doing okay, comparatively. My grandmother had moved closer to where my mother and I were living, and my uncle had moved from Texas to Brooklyn to help care for her in her old age.
So I’m at my grandmother’s house with my uncle and my aunt and my mom and my grandmother. Tensions were high. My mother and my uncle always had a strange distance between them, an unspoken rivalry or some sort of disconnect or both. My grandmother, forever playing favorites with my uncle to the point of thanking him for any favors done or gifts given by my mother, was beaming about some sport he used to play. And some books he used to read. And how great he was when he did this, and how great he was when he did that. My mom was drinking.
“He used to be a great ice skater,” she said. “I remember when he won that competition.”
“Where was I?” My mom slurred. I already feel guilty writing this. She was having a hard time. We all have a hard time, sometimes.
“I don’t know,” my grandmother said.
“No one knows! No one ever knew!” Now my mom was really getting upset. She was starting to cry. My uncle backed away and preoccupied himself in the kitchen. I waited for him to come over and comfort her, but it just didn’t happen. The awkward bickering went on for a few more seconds until I stood up in anger.
“You all disgust me!” I yelled. And to my uncle, “I hate you! You can’t even say anything nice. What kind of a brother are you?!”
Boy, was I angsty. I stormed out of the room and ran downstairs, sulking. My mom followed me down and asked me what happened. That’s how drunk she was. I told her what happened, and then she asked me what happened. That’s how drunk she was. I told her what happened, and then she asked me what happened.
“I just fucking told you!” I said.
But she wanted to know, so I told her again.
My father, dying of emphysema and especially suffering in the cold weather, had to come and pick us up despite my mother’s protests and claims of being “fine to drive.” When he showed up, I stood outside with him as we waited for my mom to gather her stuff up and come downstairs. It was quiet. “This is not a very merry Christmas,” he said.
Things Really Do Fall Apart
There was no next Christmas eve at my father’s family’s house. My aunt had died. The next Christmas passed with my father in the hospital, dying in a coma. His side of the family had gotten into a dispute with my mother over something absurd and I severed ties with them, angry and convinced that not doing so would be an insult to her despite my non-involvement in whatever issues they had had.
So it was Christmas and my mother had dragged my grandmother to my uncle’s apartment. It was my aunt and uncle and me and my grandmother and three of my cousins. It was probably 630PM. Though my mother was understandably depressed about my father’s death, I was too numb to admit that I cared about anything. She wound up getting drunk really early and telling me I wasn’t her daughter every time everyone else left the room, which was true in a sense since I was pretty much a Xanax zombie on the run from real life at that point. It was pretty awkward. I left around 8 and drove to my boyfriend’s family’s house in the Hamptons where I could forget about my own crap and pay attention to someone else’s depressing bullshit instead.
This was supposed to be a darkly funny article but I think it came out sounding a lot more bleak than I meant it to. Everyone’s family has problems; every family is dysfunctional. For over a decade, until “shit hit the fan,” as my dad would say, I had wonderful holidays full of happiness and joy and laughter and the genuine enjoyment of a few people who love each other just hanging out together. We were the perfect American family, some awfully cheesy, quirky group of oddball characters you would see on television and hate for how unrealistically happy they all seemed. So none of this was meant to seem like I don’t appreciate what I was given or what I still have. My mom’s doing better and so am I. She complains endearingly about the “stupid yuppies” posing for Christmas photographs in front of the giant inflatable Santa in our neighborhood, but we’ll spend Christmas eve dining with my aunt and uncle, with whom we have buried our differences, and having a genuinely nice time. It will feel nice to have a nice time again.
Things get better. If your dad’s dying and your mom’s drunkenly insulting you and your grandmother is missing an eye and talking about the relief death will bring, hang in there and don’t take it too personally. Everything can turn around again. Maybe they just need your help. Try and cheer them up. It’ll at least distract you from your own misery. And even though Christmas has mutated into a sickly corporate holiday meant to pilfer the pockets of those who can’t afford even their own living expenses, at the core there’s really nothing wrong with anything that was first meant to make you appreciate what you have. Even if it’s a cocktail and a Valium.Speak Your MindTell us what you're thinking... and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!