Ghosts of Christmas Past

Here’s an excerpt from a short story I wrote about the bygone era of the family Christmas party, hosted by my grandmother every  year at her house for half a century:

Caroling, Caroling

by Jane Arie Baldwin

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My Grandfather, the alcoholic, stopped drinking before I was born.  Years later, alcohol still was not officially allowed at the family Christmas party, even after his death. To Granny anyone that drank alcohol was either already an alcoholic or carving their own path to AA.

“You know, one in three of y’all’s gonna end up an alcoholic,” she said when her sister walked in with a box of chablis and a few cousins trailing behind.

“Oh Imogene!” Bettye balked at her older sister.

Granny turned a blind eye as many of the cousins well beyond drinking age hung out in the kitchen claiming dish duty.  There they spent the entire party with their hands in soapy water secretly stealing swigs from the box next to the sink.

“We knew we could count on you to bring the goods and Aunt Bettye,” the cousins would say with a wink.

Convinced she’d have to drive half the family to rehab at the end of the party she turned her focus to my mother who was at the stove fretting over the giblet gravy.

“Carole?  Carole?”  Granny yelled, “Aren’t those giblets done yet?  Everybody’s ready to eat!”

“I’m gettin’ to it mamma!” she yelled, turning back to her Aunt Janie, “See? This is what I’m talking about.  She drives me crazy, this non-stop badgering.  All the time telling me what I need to do, what I’ve done wrong.  That’s why I can’t stand to come up here at Christmas.”

“I know, Carole.  But that’s just how she is.  She has always been like that, as long as I’ve known her.  Carole, you can’t let her get to you so,” Aunt Janie said.

“And she’s never been nice to you.” Mom said to Aunt Janie,  “She’s always treated you like a second-class citizen.  How do you put up with it?”

“Oh, I don’t pay any attention to that, you know.  Now listen, go make that gravy, honey.  You’ll feel a lot better when you do.”

“Carole!”  Granny called to Mom.

“I know, mamma!”

“Go!” Aunt Janie commanded in the genuine soft tones of her speech.

Mom rushed to the stove like a servant girl and stare down into the sauce pan filled with giblets – a turkey neck, liver and gizzards – forgotten organ meat that had been simmering on the stove for hours.  The she would began to fret over how to turn the oozing bulbous mass into delicious brown gravy.  She seemed to forget that every year Granny put the turkey parts in a pan to simmer and then promptly forgot about them.

Dad sat in the den watching the Cowboy game with the part of the family that stayed out of such conversations.  When Mom and Granny began banter back and forth about the gravy Dad got up from the TV to help Mom.

“Aw, jus getta couple a cans of chicken stock outta the cabinet an’ throw that stuff in the trash,” he said staring at the pan of organ meats, “I’ll make the gravy.”

Granny yelled at the television as the Cowboys fumbled the ball.  “Git ‘em! Git ‘em damnnit!  Stop that ball, you idiots!  I could just pull my hair out.  That damn Jerry Jones drives me crazy.  Is he really that stupid!” she screamed.

At the commercial Granny announced, “Okay, let’s eat everybody.  That gravy oughtta be done by now.”

I brought Granny a plate piled with turkey, cornbread dressing, canned cranberries, and fruit salad floating in Cool Whip.

“Janie, can you get me some Tums out of my purse?  I’ve already got horrible indigestion!”

I looked around her chair and did not see it.  My stomach dropped as I sensed impending calamity.  Granny lived in fear of loosing her purse and car keys and as a result often hid them from herself.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“What do you mean, where is it?”

“Did you take it to your room when you went before the guests arrived because I don’t see it here.”

“Oh, God, we’ve got to find it.  My purse! My purse,” she yells, “has anyone seen my purse?”

“What does it look like?” a cousin called from the kitchen.

“It’s my purse goddamit. A purse.  It’s got my money, my keys, everything. Oh, God!”  Granny pulled her hair.

“It’s made of tapestry and it’s big,” I replied, “you can’t miss it.”

“Well don’t just stand there, go find it.  Find it dammnit!”  She glared at me through bloodshot eyes, her irises like blue saucers floating in a sea of red koolaide.

My brothers and my dad had put down their dinner plates and had begun to look through the house.  Mom was looking in Granny’s bedroom and checking her bathroom.

“Somebody go check my car,” yelled Granny.

I followed after Mom who had gone to check Granny’s room.

“It’s not here, Jane,” Mom said, “I don’t see it in any of her normal hiding spots.”  She threw a pillow across the bed, “You see why I don’t like to come up here at Christmas?  It’s chaos.  I have enough chaos in my life.  I don’t need my mother’s too.”

“Did you look here in the closet?”  I said ignoring her comments.

“Well, I didn’t get down on my hands and knees.”

I crouched down underneath the hanging clothes and shoved the shoes out of the way.  I found Granny’s purse in a dark corner on the floor of the closet behind a stack of vintage wing-tipped pumps.

“Found it!” I yelled.

“Oh, thank God!” I heard Granny yell from the den.

Many of the family members used the distraction of the missing purse to make their escape from the party.  The remaining family members watched as I brought the purse back to Granny.

“Oh, Janie, thank you!  I don’t know what I’d do without my purse.”

She took out her bank bag and counted the money, then ran her fingers over a small pearl-handled pistol floating within. She then popped two Tums in her mouth and let out a large belch.

“Brack!” she exclaimed as a bellowing burp escaped her mouth.  Granny used the term ‘brack’ to acknowledge her anti-social manners while at the same time excusing herself from having them.

Within ten minutes the room was empty of everyone but Granny and me.  Even my brothers and my parents had created diversions that would keep them out of Granny’s house for the rest of the day.

I watched Granny alone with her purse and the TV remote.  I sensed a relief from her that the day’s duties were complete. I could feel the feebleness and isolation of old age setting in.

Just as I had begun to empathize with her she looked up at me and said,

“Jane, what are you going to do when I die?”

“Granny! Why would you say a thing like that?”

“I don’t know if you realize just how much I do for this family and when I leave it’s going to be your job.  Your mother’s not going to do all this.

I had thought many times about having a life without Granny’s overbearing grip.  Yet I could not imagine these family gatherings without Granny.  She was the glue that kept our family together.  Like an iron-fisted dictator that held together a country, I feared that our clan would faction without her insistence on the contrary.

“Oh Granny,” I said, giving her a hug.

“Janie, you know you’ll be moving here soon, the love of your life is here, for God sakes!”

I felt exposed with her words, as if she had uncovered a sacred truth that had not yet been revealed.    My home was in New Mexico where I could control the amount of family drama I experienced.  Twice a year was about all I could take.  The thought of living in Dallas sent a shiver down my spine.  Then I thought of Jimmy.  I did love him and want to be with him, though we had not ever discussed living together, much less me moving to Dallas.

I made no assumptions yet Granny persisted, “Your life is here in Dallas now, where you belong, thank God.  It’s where your family is, Jane, and keeping the family together is the most important thing.”