This year, for Christmas, I want to share a piece that has grown very dear to me in the past couple of years. It is the piece with which I gained acceptance to the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman in Summer 2020. Since then, I have continued working with it and revising it, entering it into various contests and submitting it for publication to several magazines and journals. In 2020, a version of it received 2nd place in the Golden Nib Award with a writing group in Abingdon, VA. In 2021, it won First Place in the Tennessee Mountain Writers, Inc., Humor Award category. It placed second in the Wytheville Chautauqua Festival’s Nonfiction Award. And most recently, it was selected for the Women of Appalachia Project’s Anthology and Performance series, “Women Speak.” I’m immensely proud of this piece, and it is proof-positive of what can happen with a piece that you believe in and continue crafting, even after you feel like it is “finished.” I’m thrilled that it has found publication now, especially with the Women of Appalachia Project. The version that I am offering you as my Christmas gift to you this holiday season, is true. All of these things happened – in the same Christmas – at my Mamaw & Papaw Little’s home in Baptist Valley, in North Tazewell, Virginia. This reflects a type of family gathering that I’ll never see again, as both of my grandparents, and my Mom and step-father have all passed now, and our family has no family gatherings now. I miss those chaotic, fun- and frustration-fueled holiday gatherings. I took them largely for granted at the time. And so, in celebrating the memories of one Dysfunctional Family Christmas, I offer you my family – and myself – at our best and at our worst, and hope that this piece sparks memories within you, as well, of your own family gatherings, dysfunctional or not. Dedicated to “The Glue, the Scotch Tape, and the Paper Clip,” all of whom I miss immensely this holiday season…
"Our People" read by Chrissie Anderson Peters
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: A Dysfunctional Family Christmas
Seeing as how I lived only 90 minutes away, I had to go home for Christmas every year. Which was typically on Christmas Eve because Jared, my husband (whom I had imported from Chicago), was an RN and usually ended up working Christmas Day. This was actually fine, though, as it kept with our tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Eve.
This particular year, the weather was clear, but bitterly cold. I had hoped for snow, but none had fallen at home. Typically colder where my family lived, I still held out hope. Alas, we arrived to cold-blowing wind, but not a single snowflake in sight. We got out of the SUV, our food in hand, and started into Grandma and Grandpa’s house. There was a full-size plastic nativity scene outside in the yard, just beside the porch, but something was different. “Jared, is it me, or do all of the nativity figures have ropes around them?”
Jared, remaining absolutely deadpan, said, “Yep, right down to the Baby Jesus.”
I went inside, while Jared took a smoke break before entering. I was met with loud greetings, hugs, people happily taking our food to the kitchen, asking where Jared was (when everyone knew the answer), asking how we had been…
But I mostly ignored all of that and walked up to my grandmother, a look of concern on my face. “Grandma, why are there ropes around your nativity scene figures?”
“Oh, Daphne! We had some awful winds this week and they just about blew away!”
“Did you think about trying to maybe anchor them to the ground? Something other than baler twine around their necks tied to the stable?”
“Oh, your Uncle Bob said this would be easier. [Uncle Bob being the one who did all the handy work around the house and farm, of course.] It doesn’t show from the road.” Which was true, I guess, but it sure as shooting showed if you pulled into the driveway.
Grandpa piped up from his chair in the corner, “Daphne, I told her that it looked downright blasphemous!”
I excused myself and joined Jared back out on the front porch. “They almost blew away in the wind,” I informed him, regarding the nativity figures. “It still seems awfully cruel to have them tied up like that.”
“Cruel? They get to stay out here, and we have to be in there for the next few hours,” he looked sideways at the front door.
“Jared! That’s not nice!” I scolded.
We went inside, together this time, and all the commotion ensued again, this time for Jared’s benefit, as though he hadn’t heard it the first time around. A man of few words, Jared said his hellos, then took a seat opposite Grandpa’s chair in the living room, shouting back and forth with him for a couple of minutes before both men tired of pretending to be interested in the art of conversation among all the other noise around them.
Grandma had to show off all her Christmas cards to me. She always hung every Christmas card that she received in the doorways. She had done this for as long as I could remember. It was an act of pride, a contest of sorts, to see how many she would receive each year, from how far they would come. By the time she got to be in her 70’s, lots of people sent her Christmas cards. I opened a few to see who had sent them. I recognized most as church friends and family. A few were unfamiliar, so I asked. “Who’s Agnes?”
She walked over to look at it. “Andy!” She called to my grandpa. “Is Agnes your half-sister’s daughter-in-law’s cousin?”
Grandpa shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know, Deborah, maybe.”
My mom chimed in, “I thought it was Dad’s sister’s husband’s niece?”
We went through four or five more like that. Jared tried hard not to laugh, as he caught my attention and shook his finger indicating that I should leave her alone and just let her be proud of her cards.
I turned to the Christmas tree, which actually looked spectacular, and told Grandma that it looked really nice. There was new tinsel, new LED lights, several new ornaments, but also many of my old favorite, cherished ornaments from childhood. It really looked just about perfect! “Your Aunt Sandy and your mom decorated that for me on Thanksgiving. You wouldn’t know that, though, because you were in Chicago with Jared’s family!” Ah, there we go, the guilt trip.
Jared came over to admire it with me and put his arm around me, as though to protect me from the rest of the barbs that would surely fly about us visiting his family once a year. Being the tall man that he was, though, he reached over to lean the angel back, as it looked like she was leaning forward. That’s when it happened.
Her hair came off! He didn’t realize that it was just kinda taped on there with Scotch tape and it came right off when he accidentally touched it. Grandma screamed that he’d torn up her “antique” angel, and everyone came rushing into the living room to try to fix things back, so Grandma would calm down and not have a holiday heart attack, which she was prone to do sometimes.
Poor Jared just stood there open-mouthed. I pulled him over to the piano bench. “It’s okay, honey. She’s had that angel since the first Christmas I can remember,” I laughed. “You didn’t know that she was wearing the equivalent of a Dolly Parton wig!”
Things started to settle down a bit from there, even if they didn’t necessarily quiet down, and finally Grandpa yelled out above the deafening din, “Is it time to eat yet, or not?”
Jared quickly jumped to his feet. “Grandpa, I think that’s a good idea. I’ll go get the turkey out of the oven. Do you want to carve it?”
Grandpa waved his hand and said quietly under the roar from the other side of the room, “It’ll just fall off the bone, anyway, so you go on, Jared. I’m getting too old to hold that electric knife too steady, anyway,” he winked at me.
My Aunt Sandy, the baby of the family, and only twelve years older than I was, had escaped to the kitchen to remove her trademark homemade rolls from the oven, as I was working on pulling desserts out of the fridge and coolers.
Uncle Cory turned thanks and Jared started carving the bird with the same expression of horror his eyes always held when it came to Grandma’s turkey. As a teenager, we bought pizza for me the day before because I hated turkey. It turned out that I didn’t hate turkey, per se, just Grandma’s turkey. It was the driest, nastiest stuff I’d ever tasted. It was like chewing paper! As an adult, she started buying a ham, especially for me, as if the pizza were an abomination at the holiday table. No one else complained. I guess they had never had anything different, so they didn’t know any better. As for me, I’d had Jared’s Thanksgiving turkey cooked on a Weber grill and it was most succulent bird in the universe! I watched Jared finish off the remaining damage to the turkey carcass, my Aunt Pam grabbing a drumstick, and reached for a couple of pieces of ham to go with my myriad of sides.
After lunch, Grandpa kicked back in his recliner and was snoring away, sleeping with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, a la Michael Jordan. Uncle Bob had gone home as soon as he ate, not being overly social. My stepfather, and sister, too, had gone home, and would pick up my mother later. Uncle Cory had either gone up on the hilltop to hunt or commune with God, depending on the temperatures. Jared was flipping through channels, not really looking for anything in particular. That left all of us women to find something to do. And it was always the same thing. Rummy.
Rummy was something of a family tradition among the women. There was only one problem. Grandma cheated. Everyone let her by with it. Except me. I was just too competitive to have her win by laying down all of her cards after her turn had passed and someone had “gone out,” because, she “forgot to lay them down” on her last turn. Especially when this happened nearly every hand. I politely called her out on it a few times, and she refused to pay me any mind. When it finally came down to me beating her, beating my mother, or losing, I finally told her no. “No, Grandma! You cannot lay down those cards! It’s not your turn, anymore. If Mom beats me this game, she will beat me honestly, but I’m not sitting here and having you cheat me out of a win!”
Well, I had said the magic word. “Cheat?!? You think I’m cheating??? I’m just a poor, helpless old woman and I can’t help that I forget…”
And thus began a litany of wrongs I had committed against her during rummy games for years, being mean and cruel, when none of her other grandchildren would have dared to do or say such awful things to her. Her other grandchildren loved her, she declared. “Yes, I noticed that none of them sent Christmas cards or called,” I said aloud, thinking initially that I’d only said it inside my head.
Her gasp was more than audible. It was damned near palpable, as she clutched her heart, and exclaimed, “Well, I never!”
Jared, overhearing the raucous from the living room, called out, asking if it was about time to head home so he could get some rest before he had to get up and be at work at 5:00 a.m. the next morning.
“No,” Grandma insisted, “you keep playing. Since I’m the cheater, I’ll just go put things away.”
Well, that was the end of rummy. Everyone went to put things away, even though everything had been put away before rummy ever started. I got my casserole dish and went to wake up Grandpa to give him a hug.
“I guess cheaters don’t get hugs,” Grandma exclaimed with a huff.
“Yes, you get a hug,” I answered, exasperated. “I was getting Grandpa first, so I can come over to the door and put my shoes on after I hug you, and not have to walk all the way back across the living room. I know that I’m not allowed to track up your floors, walking through with my shoes on.”
I’d lost track of the number of guilt trips this was, but I sure wished that I was racking up some sort of frequent flyer miles for them all!
Grandma went to the kitchen and got her purse. “Here, now, Daphne, you and Jared take your Christmas checks.”
“Grandma, it really isn’t necessary,” I started.
“I sent one to all the grandkids,” she informed me, making me feel oh-so-very special. “Remember, now, they’re postdated, so don’t try to cash them until after the third of the month. You have a Merry Christmas!”
I took a deep breath, hugged her neck, and kissed her cheek. Defeated, I muttered, “You have a Merry Christmas, too, Grandma.”
Then everyone started calling out Merry Christmas, like it had been a perfect day. And, maybe in our own little bizarre world, it had come pretty close, I thought, realizing that I was probably about as weird and had almost as many idiosyncrasies and neuroses as the rest of them, just in different ways.
As we walked down the sidewalk towards the car, I looked over at the nativity scene, now lit up in the dark of the evening. “Poor Baby Jesus,” I lamented, shaking my head.
“Lucky Wise Men,” Jared insisted.