In the seven years that I had been with much younger Summer, I had come to appreciate her parents, who were my age. At the wedding, standing between my best man (colleague and poet Jerry Bradley), who was also my age, and Summer’s father; I whispered, “I bet they’re asking, ‘Who’s the Daddy?’” So I had this tilted sort of relation with Brenda and Lanny. I was peripheral to the family but not truly outside of it, and we had developed our own conversations and rituals, so though their interests were not always my interests, I enjoyed their company. And at Christmas time, mostly Christmas Eve, they were what I had for family. But on Dec. 3, with her aging Yorkie, Dixie, my young wife Summer left me. A week later, my former best man, Jerry, and his new lady, Barrie, out of sympathy or pity, had a birthday dinner for me.
But this Christmas, my in-laws and I obviously had to cut the tether that kept me peripherally connected to the family. So I spent Christmas Eve looking for in-laws who were my age in several bars. I didn’t find any. So I got on to the mission that I always pursue when a woman dumps me, I drive through Texas looking for me. But I had a second goal too. I would find, create, or recreate my own Christmases. Further, I had a third goal. Summer said that she left because I was oblivious to her needs. She even made a list as to the proof of my oblivion. So I wanted to see if she was right.
Christmas Day I drove to see my family in San Antonio, but I knew that I had missed the real San Antonio Christmas. In San Antonio, for me and most natives, Christmas was Christmas Eve. Since the 19th century, the Germans and Mexicans who resided in the town celebrated on Christmas Eve and sobered up on Christmas Day. In my time, gifts were exchanged on Christmas Eve. Santa Claus often came on Christmas Eve. Mass was at midnight. People ate tamales and drank keg beer, a San Antonio tradition. No tamales, no Christmas. Tamale factories took orders in advance and lines formed around them on Christmas Eve morning. You had to wash them down with something. Policemen stayed busy on Christmas Eve. And from those San Antonio Christmas Eves, I remember the local news report, Lone Star Final, filled with that station’s specialty: car wrecks, liquor store robberies, and family shootings, all in the glorious gray of black and white TV. My grandfather, while in his late seventies, after coming to our Christmas Eve party with a jet-black-haired lady friend, drove off a road, with his lady friend, and broke his back. “What the hell was he doing out on that old road?” my father asked. As young as I was, I had my suspicions.
My mother would spend Christmas Eve day making pimento cheese and chicken salad sandwiches for Christmas Eve. She also bought pounds of chips and every type of dip that she could find. Later, my mother found a butcher at the local Albertson who would sell her boiled shrimp at half price on Christmas Eve. This was at a time when shrimp was still considered an expensive luxury. So my family added shrimp, sandwiches, chips, and dips to the tamales and beer, making our own Christmas tradition. The neighbors and friends brought the cookies, pastries, and candies. I brought liquor.
While my sister and I were in high school and college, word of our democratic and open Christmas Eve parties spread to mine and my sister’s friends. One Christmas Eve, after a local bar closed for the night, the entire crowd came to our party. My father broke up a rolling crap game that had moved to our back porch. On one Christmas morning, we woke to find my friend Randy curled up in used wrapping paper under the Christmas tree. We spent another Christmas morning picking up the tamales shucks, paper plates, and empty plastic glasses that were spread down the block.
Of course before these times, when my sister and I were trying not to believe in Santa Claus, that marvelous duping of children, Santa would come just at dark on Christmas Eve. Since my sister and I were usually the only two children in this small family, the adults would have drunk their beer and eaten their tamales. And then while we cowered in the kitchen, both of us scared of Santa Claus and scared that, if we caught him (or a relative or friend pretending to be Santa Claus), he’d leave no presents. And as a warning, Santa would stomp his feet while he was in the living room. Then, a brave adult would venture into the living room and turn on the light, and then my sister and I would see something like a gleaming used bicycle (which my mother found through visiting a variety of those used goods stores that used to be in poorer neighborhoods). I always thought that this was such a better tradition than opening presents on Christmas day. The children could exhaust themselves with the toys, and the adults could sleep late on Christmas day and recover from their hangovers.
And in those days, Christmas Eve was for infants, dogs, and cats. After the gifts were opened and shredded paper was lying all over the floor, my family always needed someone’s infant or our pets to run through, slap at, and play in all that paper.
But this was all in the past. I told Summer about past Christmases, but even though she met my parents and San Antonio, she wasn’t even born when most of my Christmas memories took place.
This Christmas, the one after Summer left, my parents were in their eighties and spry but slowed. My sister had just reconstructed her life, complete with a new man, after a disastrous, mostly common-law marriage. She, like I, was childless. Christmas was small, just five of us, so we unpacked the nostalgia of what Christmas used to be like while my future brother-in-law listened. He was on a pleasant periphery, as I had been until recently.
Christmas at my parents’ house proved one undeniable fact. We had all grown old. Because of their medications, my parents kept the temperature in the house at around eighty degrees. And when I talked to him alone, my father reported that my mother was getting worthless. She could no longer remember things. He had to tell her things over and over. And she was getting even more stubborn. And my mother, when alone with me, told me that my father was getting worthless. He couldn’t even hold the ladder steady for her when she climbed up it to trim the tree or to clean the gutters on the roof. And once again this year, he fussed at her when she crawled under the house to light the furnace. Two years before, my mother had hurt her back. She tried to scoot a three hundred pound pot plant to a new location. A neighbor warned her not to move it. He said that he and his son would move it. But when he saw her scooting it, he knew