Jim Sanderson

Two Christmases

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 better than to even try to stop her. I too had grown old and set in my ways. No wonder young Summer had left me.

So I indulged my own Christmas tradition. Ever since the big or artsy or “good” movies began to be released right around Christmas, I have had a movie orgy on Christmas. Before the movie starts, I sit in the dark with other people and hope to be thrilled or delighted in an Aristotelian sense: that old pity and fear. With the right audience and the right movie, it is like communion. Yes, as I have said in my movie review column, movie theaters are like churches for me. And Philistines and heretics, with their talking, munching, and texting, detract from my communion. Then the movie starts, and if the audience doesn’t distract me, I am alone with the movie. And if I get lucky, I am indeed delighted. I have a katharsis. It is nice to have someone to experience this with me.

Summer didn’t like the “art” movies that I liked. She could do comedy but not tragedy. She asked me why she should waste all the money and effort she put into making herself un-depressed with her happy pills (as I called her anti-depressant medication) just to feel sad again? She liked what I called “blow up movies.” She liked what I called “lobotomy” movies. I think that Summer was too drugged and too self-focused, yet not self-focused enough (you have to have the right mixture), to feel pity and fear and katharsis.

And I started walking on the Southside. For years I jogged, and when in San Antonio, I had several jogging trails. One was a nearly ten-mile jog through my Southside neighborhood, through a park, along a creek, across private property, through a field. This Christmas the city had built a walking/running trail along the trail that I had blazed twenty years before. I spent several mornings on very long walks remembering, and on one, I called Summer to see how I was dealing with the loss of her. She said she was happy that I found the walking trail. I wasn’t dealing well.

Back at home my two eighty-year-old parents buzzed around me, especially my mother, who insisted on showing me all the stuff in the house and telling me about all the new wonders on Southside, the long-dying side of town where I grew up. The TV blared as my father channel surfed, stopped on the Golf Channel, then went to sleep. The thermometer was set on 80 so that I had to go outside to cool down. I wondered how I had ever read or written or computed anything in this small, one-bathroom house. But I did. And I had done so by going to a private place where I wouldn’t be disturbed and I could imagine, kind of like going to the movies. When I was a kid, peopled called it playing. Later that playing became writing, and writing, for me, required the same imaginative withdrawal that I gave to playing.

Not meaning to seek those attributes or losses that make you into a writer, but finding them, or letting them find me while I grew up and then on into my adult years; I became a writer and keep becoming a writer. The writing cost me Summer. It always costs you something. But what it gives back to you is yourself, maybe slightly deranged, but you get the ability to push and shove life into something. If a writer can forget self or stretch self or re-imagine self, then he or she might just approach the misty periphery of the truth about the human consciousness and then must feel and grope blindly toward it. I’ve failed. Most do. But I felt something and learned something that is more than “smart,” “knowledge,” or even “wisdom.” Who would admit to such embarrassing activity? So I had met Summer, who was trying to deal with a pounding narcissism, and here I was—trying to lose self in the midst of self. So Summer was right. As she said, I was oblivious. I grew up oblivious. I couldn’t stop playing. I’m not sure if my obsession led to my oblivion, or if my oblivion . . . .

But I had to be off to my next Christmases: old school bar-hopping with friends in Odessa and a quiet New Year’s Eve in Alpine, two more variations of the two types of Christmas: the celebratory eve and the familial day. In Odessa I fell into the lives of several dear friends. Since they got together just as I left Odessa, Tracy and Truett had kept up with me. For over twenty years we met in Junction, Texas, a small town on the edge of the Hill Country, catering to the fall hunters. We ate, swam, and drank.

In Odessa, intruding into Truett and Tracy’s life together, in the mornings, left to myself; I would continue my walks, retracing the faster, harder steps that I had pounded out when I jogged all over Odessa during the seven years that I lived there. Memories came back. I’d eat lunch with Truett, and then at 5:30 we’d hit the bars, one “fancier” one, but mostly Mom and Pop places with gravel parking lots and a beer and wine license but not a liquor license. This bar-hopping was unique to Odessa. At Lena’s Bar all the friends that I’d had twenty years before showed up—because I was in town. One friend got a call from his girlfriend. He was a student when I had left and had started to hang out with us. “I can’t come now,” he said into his cell phone. “I’m with legends.” The beer mixed with the stories and the aging faces created a romance for me that was better than Christmas Eve. It was like pity and fear mixed with joy, a happy katharis, a pleasure that rivaled watching a movie, because I was surrounded by people whom I cared about and who had suffered. I planned a novel while I was there.

On New Year’s Eve in Alpine, I met two very dear friends, both women, both of whom had romantic woes of their own. Laura graciously allowed me to stay in her rambling ranch house, and both Jill and Laura graciously listened, and I in turn listened to them. But this wasn’t just a pity party. With Laura’s children coming and going, with two very good meals, with bourbon to sip next to a large fire in a cold house, with dogs, with a trip around the scenic loop from Alpine to Marfa to Fort Davis and then back to Alpine—where Jill and I looked out from mountains and breathed in cold winter air—with big Mexican breakfasts in a restored adobe hut, New Year’s was a good Christmas.

Then I drove back to San Antonio on U.S. 90, one of my favorite routes, right through desolation, with the Sierra Madres off in the distance in Mexico to my right, with a short walk through Sanderson, with a stop at Judge Roy Bean’s place and a drive along the cliffs above the Rio Grande in Langtry. This for me was romance.

Summer never liked West Texas. She was scared that she would be stranded in the remoteness without water. She once confessed that she was scared that I would eventually drag her to West Texas. On two separate trips, she had gone to Italy one year and Egypt and Greece the next with her girlfriends, as a way to dodge her depression or me or both. I didn’t know about Europe, and in a way it scared me. I understood West Texas.

I returned to an empty house in San Antonio. My parents were off in a condo in Las Vegas, courtesy of my sister and her fiancée. When they returned, my mother told me that she didn’t like it much, too much romance, too exotic, too much money. That money could have been better spent. My parents would have understood my romance and Christmases in Odessa and Alpine and the road out and back—because they understood me. But before my parents got back, I had to return to my changed life in Beaumont, where I faced trying to sell a house in a depressed market, dealing with renters who couldn’t pay rent, getting a divorce, and seeing if Summer was right.

The renters left on good terms and with my understanding and sympathy. But the house wouldn’t sell. A house that won’t sell feels like guilt. And the divorce, which I initiated for our sakes, felt like I swallowed a dull serrated knife that got stuck in my bowels. Getting a divorce, no matter how uncontested, as mine was, takes a very painful and emotionally taxing situation and adds lawyers and a mostly indifferent legal system to make the matter worse.

My parents rode to the rescue. They lent me the money that Summer wanted so that neither Summer nor I would have to suffer because of money. My parents of course cussed Summer and offered advice. The cussing and the advising were practical or related to practical matters. So I greatly appreciated the money. Summer said that she left me because I just threw money at a problem instead of confronting it. I threw my parents’ money at the divorce.

During our marriage, I, with a considerable loan from parents, bought Summer a car. My parents gladly gave the loan because it helped Summer. It was cash well-spent because it cushioned Summer from some more difficult problems. I paid to add a room to the old house a year before I married Summer. I paid to convert a shed into a greenhouse for Summer. I paid off several of her loans and bills. Summer wanted to quit her job in order to finish graduate school sooner. She tentatively approached me about that plan. I told her that I thought it was a good idea and told her that I would give her so much a month of “walking around money.” I bought a new house because I felt that “our” house, the one I was trying to sell, was pushing in on me. I paid to redecorate the new house according to Summer’s tastes. My parents helped there, too.

To Summer, friends’ gatherings, family occasions, and Facebook postings should be filled with “I love you”s, with congratulations, with “we’re behind you”s, with clear expressions of emotions that may not really be there. People hug and kiss. My parents and I don’t hug and kiss.

Out in West Texas, jokes are to the point and short. Words are precious so you shouldn’t waste them. And acting not done by a professional looks silly. You appreciate someone, buy them a drink or tell them direct. Years ago, out in Odessa, Glenda held her foot in front of my buddies and me and said, “This guy really loves me. Look, he bought me these tennis shoes.” As many times as a kiss or a hug from the right person has lit up life, I’m more likely to trust tennis shoes.

The point is not that the money is a gift. As it turns out, my parents have given money to people up and down their street. Like their friends, like the neighbors who watch them and help them, I had a problem. If the problem could be taken care of, then my life would be better and happier. So with money, my parents made my life better and happier. I appreciated my parents’ money. Hugs and kisses are easy. Cash as help for a friend or loved one, given by someone who values money, like my parents and me, is far more dear. Summer was right, I throw money at problems.

I thought that, once the divorce was final, I’d feel a great relief and would be better. Divorce is the just the legal part of the separation. During the divorcing, as awful as that was, Summer and I had this strange connection that we were both suffering through. Afterwards, I didn’t feel relief. I felt no better. I just felt loss.

Days after the divorce, on Facebook, Summer posted hundreds of photos chronicling her time away from me. Included were happy photos in what was then our house with the guy whom she left me for or whom she used to leave me. She changed her status to “in a relationship” with him.

She wasn’t with him long afterwards. When she split with him and I read about it on, you guessed it, Facebook, I contacted her, and she came by to see the pool that she used to swim in. She brought her Yorkie with her. I cried when I saw Dixie. She cried when she saw the cats. Thank God, no children were involved. In our previous meeting, the one before the divorce, she told me that the guy she was with understood being on an emotional roller coaster. He understood the beauty in complete self-oblivion or annihilation. He was everything that I was not. Summer was a good actress and good with words that, for a moment, could hurt or explain. I liked to think about words and compare them to some other words. So in our discussions or arguments, I always felt bad and defeated. But at this meeting, she said that they had had trouble all along—because he was everything that I was not. Within weeks, she was electronically praising another “hunny” on Facebook and once again “in a relationship.” In time, he disappeared too—because he was more like me than I was.

Over time I lost jealousy and animosity toward Summer’s “hunnies.” After our split people nodded their heads sagely and said that they knew “it would never work.” Maybe the relationship was doomed, as were the rest of mine, but how could I have resisted it? Summer was beautiful, funny, intelligent, and charming. So whether because of sexism or shallowness, how could I not take a chance and then totally commit to Summer? For me, for a while, Summer was Christmas. Conversely, how could these other guys resist the promise that Summer offered? And Summer must have seen promise or comfort in them. I decided that she didn’t so much leave me for this other guy as take comfort in the other guy in order to leave me. We forget that no one can fully deliver on the promise that he or she first offers. And I fear that Summer was letting discovering them take the place of discovering her. Unlike Summer I wasn’t cursed with looks or charm but was cursed with writing, so I had to look at me. Summer complained that I was so not jealous. Summer was right.

And the people who sagely shook their heads and said that the relationship would never work were right, too. No relationship is “meant to be” or ever “works.” You have to do the work. Late that year, my buddy, neighbor, and best man (remember poet Jerry Bradley?) appeared with me as a double bill at a reading at a community college. The selections I read upset some people. Two young, newly hired Ph.D.s from Berkeley were upset at my doomed relationships and my use of stripping a