I was sick for Christmas this year.
I don’t know if I ate something foul in the left-over cheese salad, or didn’t rinse the tomatoes well enough to remove some kind of murderous bacteria from them before putting them on the pizza, or if that last shopping trip brought me into contact with some other poor soul who passed his wretched virus on to me by way of the shopping cart or grocery items. But whatever it was, it was really bad. And just in time for Christmas.
Christmas Eve is a special time at our house. The most magical night of the year. Susan and I always have as many of our kids and grandkids over as can make it, and my mom. Some people, many people, prefer to try to do that on Christmas, but we love the anticipatory day of Christmas Eve to gather them together. We start in the afternoon, have dinner, and exchange presents. Then, after everyone has left, Susan and I usually sit up for a while in the living room beside our tree, recapping the day — the meal, the presents, how everyone was and everything went — and looking at our Christmas ornaments and retelling the stories of where they came from and their significance. Then we put our the rice pudding for the Tomtes (Tonttu, Nisse) out in the shop and in the office, and for the old man and woman upstairs just in case they come around, and downstairs for Max where he lives behind the furnace. Then we have our own Christmas Eve rituals to attend to.
The Tomte, Max, and the rest were all here when we moved in. I imagine that the Tomte came with the Norwegian immigrant who built our home back in 1913. He might be the old man with a Norwegian severity. I sometimes wonder if the old woman is Mrs. Supronowski’s (the second owner; we are the third) mother, another full-blooded Norsk, who died here. And Max? Who knows where some things come from? We named him Max because he feels like something out of Where the Wild Things Are. He used to give us the willies every time we went downstairs; everytime you went up the stairs from the basement if felt as if something were about to leap on your back. It was creepy.
Back in a former day, I would have tried to “cast” Max “out” of the house. But I’ve come to respect, and even appreciate, some things that lie just beyond our ken and the rituals that we make to accommodate, rather than repudiate, them. So the second year we were here I suggested that we make rice pudding and leave it out on Christmas Eve, just like the Scandinavian tradition calls for, for the lot of them. Since then things have been a lot better. Max, in fact, has been positively angelic, which is good, since Susan’s closet room is downstairs now and since she’s been feeling better she’s been doing the laundry.
Anyway, this year I came down with my wretched form of gastroenteritis just as we were ready to put on our Christmas feast. We had the table set with my grandmother’s china, and I had printed off a menus. We were doing a dinner in courses this year to avoid throwing everything on the table at once. The grandkids are getting old enough to do that now without falling apart. I love to cook for my family, but there’s something not quite satisfying about piling on so much food together that people can’t really appreciate it. It’s like too many presents at one time. And you spend hours cooking and minutes eating.
But all that had to be called off at the last minute. Fortunately, everyone was able to come up with a Plan B. My mom was able go over the Brian and Janele’s early (instead of after coming here), Nils is in Denmark, Erika and Nathaniel were up on the island with his folks, and Jody and Robert were able to make other plans and had (from Facebook) what looks like a very cheery Christmas Eve by taking the kids out to Candy Cane Lane in Seattle. Susan got the rice pudding out and a shot of bourbon up for the ancestors (my and Susan’s dads, and her brother Jim) should they come around, we lit Prilly’s candle, and I was able to get out of bed long enough to wrap and put away the meat. But that was about it. I couldn’t eat anything all day, and Susan had to eat out of the room because practically any smell would make me puke. I was able to sit up for a spell and we could give each other our cards.
It was the first Christmas Eve that Susan hadn’t been with Jody in 31 years. I’ve had to get used — although you never really get used — to not having Erika and Nils around on some holidays, but this was also the first Christmas for us in which none of the kids were here.
Christmas day wasn’t much better. We typically have a Christmas morning here are home with whichever of the kids is staying over, and then go up to Jody’s for Christmas dinner. I tried — I really did — to give it my best shot. But by the time I finished taking a shower (which nearly finished me) I knew it was over. We had to call off that too. I had to do presents in courses — open a present, go back to bed for a while, then get up and open a present, then back to bed, until we were done. But by late afternoon, though, things were improving. I could keep some broth down. By evening, I could eat some rice and we could sit out by the tree a bit. It was a different, and quiet, Christmas. I saw more of the bathroom, and lot more of my pillow, than I did of the tree.
So, you might think that gastroenteritis would be the worst Christmas present ever. But you would be wrong.
No that present was on my seventeenth Christmas. We were, as was our custom, at Grandma and Grandpa Johnson’s place out on the Suisse Creek homestead for Christmas dinner. Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s was always special, not just for the dinner, but for the presents. Grandma and Grandpa were pretty frugal. They bought everything with cash, including their cars. You saved. You paid. But they weren’t cheap. They bought good stuff, and they always bought us at least one really cool present to go with the “soft packages” of shirts and other less-than-enthusiastic “thank-you” producing gifts of clothes that helped my parents out with keeping growing boys in shirts and coats.
Anyway, I was seventeen, which meant that Brian was fourteen. Grandpa and Brian always got along well – they both were mechanically brilliant and bonded over that kind of thing. I was more bookish and, well, like I am, which my Grandma bonded more easily with. We had finished our Christmas supper, which was always at 2:00, if I recall, and were on to opening presents. Grandpa seemed particularly enthused. After the soft packages had passed, they brought out what was obviously going to be the good gift. Brian’s was first. It was big, and long. And pretty heavy.
Now, you never knew what they would get you. We didn’t make requests for presents directly to them. It was always a surprise. And so the electricity of anticipation, hightened by Grandpa’s obvious excitement, brought things to an even more feverish pitch as Brian tore open the paper, and carefully opened the plain cardboard case. Everyone gasped.
It was a 20-gauge shotgun.
Like I said in a previous post, my dad used to do a lot of bird hunting. Brian and I had accompanied Grandpa a couple of times when he went pheasant hunting on the homestead down my the creek. Casey, his spaniel, came along to flush out the pheasants. He almost got one once. We were of the age when hunters get their kids that kind of thing, and a shotgun — a real shotgun, mind you, with a box of shells — was like being catapulted into the hot seat of initiation. Brian squealed with delight. Mom squirmed. Dad tried to look aghast, but was probably already planning outings to eastern Washington. Grandpa beamed. Then it was my turn.
I couldn’t imagine what was possible after that. I mean, if Brian, my fourteen year-old brother, had just received this, what would I, a husky rough-and-tumble seventeen year-old, who came up during the summers to help with the haying, receive? A machine gun? No, no, those were illegal. But maybe a double-barrel or over-and-under 12 gauge shot gun, or a 30.06 deer gun. Those were certainly possible. Or maybe a car? One never knew.
I had been looking around the room searching for another big package, but there didn’t seem to be any. Even so, when they brought over the small wrapped box, about the size of a coffee can, I was confused. No shotgun or rifle in there. Maybe, I thought, those are the shells. That’s how they’re going to mix it up. Or maybe it’s a pistol. A magnum like Dirty Harry had. But no, my mom and dad had told us already that they never wanted a pistol in the house. Too dangerous. Not very accurate. Not really good for anything but trouble, they said. I couldn’t imagine Grandpa and Grandma doing something that went completely against what Mom and Dad wanted. But it was too light to be shells or a pistol, anyway. So I carefully unwrapped the package. Everyone peered. Even Brian stopped ogling his gun to see what was coming out. And then there was silence.
It was an electric razor.
The silence continued.
“It’s a Norelco,” someone finally said.
“It’s got three heads,” someone pointed out, “for a close shave.”
“You’ll be going off to college soon.” someone added, “I bet that will come in awfully handy.”
I was too stunned to respond at first, but I think that I managed to croak out something like, “Oh.”
“There’s more,” someone said.
Momentarily heartened, I looked back in the box.
Aftershave. Aqua Velva.
“Um,” someone said, “Why don’t you boys go try them out?”
Dad, and Grandpa bolted out the door with Brian (probably to escape what was coming from my mother) while I stumbled toward the bathroom. I locked the door behind me, sat down on the toilet, and stared at the razor. I clicked it on. I clicked it off. I went to the mirror, clicked it on, and ran it obligatorily over my neck and face. Then I came out.
“How’s it work?” someone asked hopefully.
“Great,” I think I replied, “Just great.“
Then I walked to the front door and out onto the porch. Over at the edge of the lawn, the guys were blissfully blowing cans off the fence posts while instructing Brian in gun safety. I just stood there holding my razor. “Aren’t you going to go out and shoot?” I think someone asked. “No, I don’t think so,” I replied.
There’s probably more. I probably didn’t react all that well, even though I tried — I really did — to give it my best shot.
I don’t remember another thing about that Christmas, but I know that my mom had something to say to Grandpa. I got a really, really nice present the next Christmas.