Whenever my family traveled anywhere, my parents tended to pack our Chevy station wagon as if it were a Conestoga and as if we were about to set off with the last wagon train to California.
My father had left no space unaccounted for, except for a clearing in the back of the station wagon for Charlie, the dachshund.He had tightly packed all the presents like pretty bricks. He had calculated everything and everything had to be placed in balance, A few things over the axle, not too much on either side. The strategic packing and rearranging had taken my father hours and now, all for nothing. The back tire, my father explained, must have a puncture. Although I couldn't see anything wrong, he assured both my mother and I that it was slowly but steadily losing air. Everything would have to be unpacked, the spare tire (buried under suitcases) removed and the sagging tire changed.
Looking back now, the trip did seem ill-fated. Besides the deflating tire, the forecast predicted a mix of sleet and snow, "possibly heavy at times." A dream come true perhaps for other families. My mother could only envision our car, sliding down an ivory ravine, buried under snow for weeks, and later recovered with frozen bodies clinging to one another in search of the vanishing warmth. Gruesome photographs of our remains would be tastelessly exhibited in every newspaper in the country.
For any sensible person, all this would have been enough to put Christmas travel plans on hold. Cancel everything and move on to Plan B. But Christmas is not really a thing you can cancel.
In any case, by this time, a dreadful kind of momentum compelled us in only one direction. With angels giving omens, other invisible hands seem to be pushing us on.
Excluding the supernatural, the main reason for this feeling was my grandmother. My mother's mother was an exceedingly fussy "contrary" woman. And, anything could be seen as a slight, an attack or insult. One day she might stop talking to a life-long friend without any explanation, leaving behind confusion and dismay. And nobody could hold a grudge like her. Sometimes she would harbor a grudge against somebody for so long that even she had forgotten the original reason.
My mother had always hinted privately that my grandmother's difficult nature- that moodiness and bitterness, ran in her mother's side of the family, like diabetes or asthma. "All her people were like that. Rather spit in your eye than give you the time of day."
"She just can't stand seeing somebody have something she can't have." My father would say in agreement.
"Or somebody happy." My mother added, with a knowing look to my father.
Missing Christmas, especially at this late a date, would have guaranteed weeks of unspoken acrimony. A suitable period of punishment would be followed by exaggerated displays of sadness and staged self-pity.( No, don't think twice about it. I understand. don't you worry about me.. ) followed by a month or more of acidic letters in which every minor disagreement from the last twenty years would support some bitter theory of neglect and indifference. (You have never..not once...You've made it clear time and time again that..) In short, my grandmother was the inventor of "passive-aggressive behavior." So, there could be no question of turning back now.
My older brother had announced a week before that, for the first time, he would not be accompanying us but, would be meeting us there in Arkansas, driving his 1956 International pickup.
Additionally he informed us that he would be bringing his new girlfriend, Brenda. My brother fancied himself a regular Lothario and there was always an entertaining parade of varied types to meet-but usually only once or twice before they disappeared without another mention. We eventually stopped trying to remember their names. Brenda was it? Or Brandi? We all exchanged glances when we first heard of this one. It didn't ring any bells.
Upon our arrival, my mother and grandmother began their ritual "catching up" which was little more than a lengthy exchange of local gossip. The same names I had heard so many times. Although I had heard these names all my life, I was never quite able to identify any of these people by sight. Stories heard on good authority at the post office or over the fence, at the Piggly-Wiggly.
Not long after that, Brenda, my brother, my sister and I, out of sheer boredom, began playing cards at the dining table in the other room. It was at that moment that I saw something quite extraordinary. In fact, I wasn't sure if I had actually seen it or if, in my feverish hormonal adolescent mind, I had imagined what I was seeing. Brenda was playfully making obscene hand motions with the banana-our Christmas fruit! My mind seized upon this act like a monkey with a piece of candy. In fact, as an introverted but relatively well-informed 12-year-old male, it fairly threw me into a catatonic state for a full minute, staring so hard and so long my eyes began to water. Clearly, I had not met the women from her planet before. My sister was embarrassed into silence. My brother nervously laughed it off. I, for one, wanted her to do it again.
It is important to note that, for a long time, I thought-seriously thought- I had invented "that sort of thing." Accidentally. Like some lab experiment gone amiss. Secondly, I was quite startled that a woman- any woman- should know anything on the subject.
After the card game was over, we joined the adults in the over-furnished living room. My brother and I sat crossed legged on the floor. During this time my brother had been having trouble deciding which direction he would pursue in life. He had been talking about majoring in Political Science and my father, being a practical man, could make no sense of it. Typical of my parents, they chose this time and that place to bring the subject up.
"And what is that going to get you? What is political science anyway?"
My mother joined in, "You need to sit down and think about what you are going to do with your life."
"Sammy, " my grandmother chirped,"You just can't go around half-addled all your life."
My brother looked up. "What? Half-addled?"
He looked at me with a broad smile and I giggled. It was an old-fashioned word I had never heard before. Then there was a moment of silence. We probably could have heard the snow falling outside if we had wanted to.
My grandmother stood and, in tears suddenly left the room. Less than a minute later, my mother followed. That was when the mother of all family fights began in earnest.
If you have never been in a family argument, I have to tell you it is as if somebody has thrown a moist packet of firecrackers into the room. After the initial blast, you may imagine the worst of the racket is over, that the last shock would be the very final one. But then, somebody makes some new demand, gives some new ultimatum, or throws another hissed remark and the situation begins exploding all over again. Groups form, attempting to separate the feuding pairs but this becomes "sides." Before long, if the house were. at that moment, to go up in flames it would only seem like a relief.
My mother tried to comfort my bawling grandmother and marched into the dining room. (Incidentally, my grandparents' house had wooden floors and an angry stomp gives the sensation of impending Doomsday. It felt quite like riding on the back of an hysterical elephant.)
"Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" my mother said to my brother, when she returned. My mother's classic pose, arms akimbo, head high.
"Don't you think you owe her an apology?"
She bristled. "For laughing in her face, that's what."
"I didn't do anything." My brother answered. "There is nothing to apologize for."
My mother told my brother that if he refused to apologize then he would have to leave her mother's home and "take that whore with him." The fact was that Brenda- "that whore"- had obviously had nothing to do with any of it. Everybody gulped on cue.
My brother gallantly attempted to defend his girlfriend's "honor" by demanding an immediate apology. Instead of an apology, however, there was a further exchange of artillery fire. A few minutes later, in the hushed aftermath, my brother and Brenda drove off, presumably back to St. Louis. I never saw Brenda again. Understandably perhaps. I think my brother also never saw her again.
After that horrific Christmas, the damage was never repaired. In fact, it was to be the last Christmas we would spend together as a family. My brother's relationship with our family slowly deteriorated . He decided not to look back. The events in his life became more and more second-hand and murky. Both my mother and my brother were too stubborn and certain of their own cause to admit mistakes. In their minds, rapprochement equaled backing down. It was beyond their capability to recant, to concede or to forgive. Being right was far more important than any type of negotiated settlement.
He completed his Political Science degree. He went on to law school out of state and all through his graduate education, my mother told anybody who would listen that he would never finish. "He just doesn't have the discipline."
But he did finish and they attended his graduation with undeserved pride and pretended life-long support. He then married into wealth and social standing, calling my parents from time to time, mostly to provide them details of the honors he was paying his adopted family or how successful he had become. Country clubs and skiing trips, European vacations and lucrative legal settlements for corporations. Missed birthday calls, and long delayed baby pictures.
My sister had always held with a bitter resentment and half-hidden jealousy toward my brother. all through her childhood, she witnessed an endless showering of attention on a little prince. Now, she must have told herself every night, the tide was turning. Comeuppance was at hand. Ever the opportunist, she quickly filled the vacuum in my parent's affection.
Her tactics were fairly basic but effective. For my mother, she would provide audience, a vent for her bitterness and if possible, my sister would occasionally drive the blade an inch deeper. Asking questions she knew the answers to, just to make the pain a bit more exquisite.
Through these methods, she managed to become, for all intents and purposes, an only child, late in life. I myself moved on, each year taking another step back from the family, watching this slow-motion war from the ever-increasing distance. Stopping in for a couple of weeks every year, I listened to my parent's retelling of my brother's latest outrage. The intentional and imagined insults and predictions of his fantasy divorce and career self-destruction.
On the contrary, my brother's legal career was in ascent and within a year, he was to be made a partner in a prominent law firm. He would go further than that, into politics. A Reagan Republican. Although I lived in the same city, we rarely saw each other; he was not impressed with my friends- weirdos, he called them with a snort- or my neighborhood- the working class side of town. In the end, every visit required an appointment well in advance and the time was filled with mocking jokes at my expense.
What was the point, I finally asked myself.
About seventeen years after that black Christmas, my grandmother's Parkinson's disease finally claimed what was left of her tiny bird-like body. It was not unexpected and it was, as it turned out, the beginning of the winnowing of my family line. A little more than a year later, my grandfather, grateful to be released, would follow his wife to the grave.
As we prepared for the grandmother's funereal that morning, the subject of that particular Christmas came up. It was the only time we ever talked about it, in fact.
"That whole thing. At Christmas," my brother told me, staring at himself in the mirror and tying his tie."That was your fault."
"Of course. That whole thing was your fault. Because you laughed."