Friday, December 24, 2010

Nixon Christmas

Many years ago, a friend of my sister's who had a rare molecular-genetic disorder died on Christmas morning.

One of their classmates phoned on our unlisted home phone number, and the call was intercepted around 6:00 a.m. by our father. Determined to not let it "ruin Christmas", our parents elected to conceal the information from her- but not from me. I was told. I disagreed with their decision; I knew she would implode like the aftermath of a supernova when they did tell her.

Our paternal grandmother was still alive then. Dad, a still photography buff, had never taken to videotaping, although the many foibles of our childhood are more than adequately recorded on old 8mm film from his little handheld movie camera. Since there was no video, Dad decided to make audiotapes to mail to his mother in Phoenix. This led to weird running commentary on the gifts, the dogs' behavior, and general activities. He also taped the conversation during the meal, from the blessing of the food until the tape ran out.

For a couple of hours, we gritted our teeth and opened gifts; I gave an Oscar-worthy performance of 'happy family Christmas' until the last scrap of torn giftwrap went into the trash bag. Dad shut off the tape recorder and in his best physician-informing-the-family voice, announced, "Matt died this morning."

They probably heard my sister's screams in the next county over. She burst into tears, and still screaming, bolted for our shared bathroom upstairs. I heard the lock click firmly into place as I returned the kitchen phone to its receiver- Mom and Dad had taken it and my father's office line off their hooks so no one could call until they were ready to tell her the news themselves.

We didn't see her again until it was time for dinner. Understandably, everybody was pretty subdued. Dad noted Matt's death as the audiotaping resumed, and we had to fight to come up with any conversation around the table. Until the dog fight started, that is...

At the time, our parents had our first Papillon, Didi; Ethel, Didi's half-Cocker Spaniel daughter, and Sunny, my ancient, belligerent, blind and deaf Fox Terrier. Sunny hated everyone and everything in the world except her people. At some point, she perceived that Ethel was jockeying for prime begging rights under the table, and WHAM!

For an old, sick, obese dog, she moved remarkably fast. Dad jumped out of his chair and tried to separate the dogs, and Sunny mistook his hand for something other than what it was- she clamped down on his right palm and refused to let go. Dad was a.) a Navy brat, and b.) in NROTC for three years, so yes, he can curse like a sailor, a talent which he suddenly invoked at the top of his lungs. He stomped out of the dining room trailing blood from a laceration that was probably about three inches long- Dad is right-handed and doctors do a lot with their hands. It was NOT good.

In the ensuing silence, I realized there was a faint whirring sound, and looked down in horror. The tape was still running. In my best Republican National Committee fashion, I shut off the recorder, rewound the tape several minutes, and didn't restart it until Daddy returned a little more composed.

It was the perfect capstone to the Worst Christmas in Living Memory at Our House.

The denouement is as follows: my sister's friends, who normally would never have been let into the house on Christmas, were allowed to come sit with her until after midnight. They were still in their late teens, most of them sophomores in college at the time, so it was an especially hard blow. Matt was the first of their classmates to die. His obituary is in the side table in the guest room, where my sister stays whenever she's visiting.

My grandmother also inquired about the gap in the tape in her next letter to me. I gave her some disingenuous reply, although when asked later by one of my aunts, to whom she had also mentioned it, I told the entire story. Nobody wants their mother to know how fluently they can swear, especially on Christmas.

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