We had our Christmas with my father's side of the family last night. It is an efficient Christmas, this occasion -- a brief and light-footed Christmas: a Christmas squeezed within an inch of its life by compression, squishy JPEG-like artifacts shimmering in the corners.
Alas, Snoopy did not dance.
My step-mother is tragically allergic to cats. Since my siblings and I all host cats in our households we cannot have her over, for even a brief visit might send her into some kind of anaphylactic hysteria. To avoid this we meet for Christmas at a restaurant and wash our clothes twice over before we go.
This year I arrived first. At the coat-check I handed over my green-not-blue-or-brown parka and received a token with a little number one on it. But then I remembered that I forgot all of the presents in the car so I had to run outside again, and when I got back I got token number four. So brief my reign.
The table was long and esconsed in a private corner of wainscotting and murky nineteenth century prints, surrounded by a flotilla of Greeks in tuxedos. As we took our seats I noticed that my father still wasn't wearing his hearing aid, and, as he hovered mid-table, I wondered which half of us would end up with his deaf side.
Mashed Potato Pop made his choice, and I saw that I had his ear but not his attention. He was scowling and saying very little, the remnants of some in-transit squabble to which we were not privy beetling his brow.
I considered that my perception of his mood may be a mistake based on the way the skin of his face now hangs loosely, a result of his remarkable self-transformation: ten months ago Mashed Potato Pop quit the fat man business forever, and had himself entered into a hospital programme for morbidly obese individuals who can demonstrate sufficient zeal to qualify them for assisted dieting at the taxpayers' expense, complete with nutrition classes and menu auditing and vaguely chocolate flavoured shakes.
His face is longer than it used to be, so, like I said, my ability to read his mood may have been distorted.
My step-mother, Noodles, was cheerful and chatty as usual. My half-sister, Spoil, was feeling affectionate so I gave her a hug and swung her around. My toddling daughter, Popsicle, was feeling shy so she squinched her eyes shut whenever anyone tried to talk to her, convinced that if she couldn't see them, they couldn't see her.
"I'm hiding!" she claimed.
When my brother Isosceles Cat and his wife Kitten arrived we were briskly moved along to drink orders and appetizers. Noodles told me about various frustrations she was enjoying while attempting to co-operate with our famously accountability-challenged Uncle Baxter on their restaurant joint venture. It turned out that after a life-long solid reputation of wildly irresponsible behavior the biker-cum-restaurateur had turned out to be a less than perfectly reliable business partner. Go figure.
While she explained this she glanced sideways at my father, to make sure the way she was framing things wasn't pissing him off. At one point, grokking some element of our subject, he leaned in to tell me Baxter was really pissing him off and that my way of putting it was just right. I hadn't remembered putting it any way at all so I just smiled uncertainly and my father withdrew as Noodles continued to talk.
Popsicle (almost three) and Spoil (almost thirteen) had a contest to see who could act more obnoxiously, after which Littlestar took Popsicle off to the corner to have a quiet moment in which to discuss what kind of behavior is appropriate in a restaurant. Spoil, meanwhile, came to sit on my lap and dictate which subjects I was allowed to speak about.
Mashed Potato Pop muttered something which only became clear as holiday themed when he held up his glass in toast. Those of us near the table who happened to have our drinks already raised our glasses, too. I had champagne with raspberry Schnaps.
He glanced at his watch and urged Noodles to decide on her order.
My sister Xena had noticeably nothing to say to Kitten, which Littlestar and Isosceles Cat tried to cover with good natured banter. Xena's boyfriend Flash Monk nodded and smiled amicably from his deserted isle of conversational solitude on the furthest end of the table. It did not seem to me that Mashed Potato Pop or Noodles attempted to interact with him beyond shaking his hand in greeting, and now he was on Mashed Potato Pop's deaf side so his only choice was to try to talk with Spoil, probably about videogames. Spoil loves her videogames, and Flash Monk makes games and interactive whirligigs and so on so there was fodder there, at any rate.
Mashed Potato Pop and Noodles didn't make it out for the wedding of Isosceles Cat and Kitten, so I suppose I shouldn't be shocked at their apathy toward their future son-in-law. He is, after all, soft spoken which presents an insurmoutable challenge to my father without the hearing aid he is too proud or cool to wear.
"Did you get a chance to check out The Trimester Reports book?" I asked Mashed Potato Pop.
"Your grandmother bought a copy of Goodbye to Kitty," he told me.
He started conducting the dispersal of gift bags, but this was interrupted when our food arrived. (I had an entirely satisfying twelve ounce filet mignon with peppercorn bacon, served rare, tender like ruby butter.) When the plates were cleared he declared gift time on again and had everyone open their presents simultaneously. I thought this was a bit odd since it meant every opening was more or less private in the chaos, but his reasoning became plain as it turned out that identical gift-units had been replicated in two lines: girl-flavour and boy-flavour. It was necessary to open our gifts simultaneously because we had all received the same prizes.
The girls each got a shrink-wrapped basket of frufrooey toiletries, and the boys got blue striped shirts and maroon pullovers. Each couple also received a cheque in a sealed envelope and a portable DVD player with integrated 7" TFT display.
The toddler got two stuffed toys and some clothes she will fit into when she's eight.
What everyone got for Mashed Potato Pop, Noodles or Spoil remained a mystery camouflaged by the frenzy of the concert unwrapping. Whether or not they liked or needed or were tickled by their gifts is open to speculation, but there wasn't much time for that because before I knew it we were being prompted to decide on desserts. (I had ice cream, French Vanilla, and a cup of tea.)
"I wanna go now," whined Spoil, interrupting my conversation with Noodles. My father had already withdrawn his credit card, and was casting about to catch the eye of a tuxedoed Greek.
And then we were at the door, and I was handing over token number four and accepting my green-not-blue-or-brown parka in return. I hugged and kissed Noodles and Spoil and wished them well, and then crouched down to help Popsicle into her winter things. When I looked up again my father's party had departed, escaping swiftly into the cold night.
"Well, that was...brief," I said.
"Indeed," agreed Littlestar.
On the way home I did not say much. I was annoyed. Mashed Potato Pop couldn't have made it any more clear that Christmas with his children was a chore and, for reasons not confined to Christmas, this makes a poor impression on me.
I stand at the cusp of life at which my father bailed out of his marriage. I am near the age he was, expecting my second child as he was, coming to terms with the demands both economic and emotional of family life. I am taking a desk job at somebody else's company, as he did when being a rockstar proved incompatible with child-rearing. As he was obliged to do, I am putting some of my own pursuits on hold while I do what is right for my brood.
I look for inspiration to know I will not crack under the strain, and I cannot find it in him. He failed this level. No bonus points were awarded.
This is not something I found bitter until recently, as I approach that cusp myself. I find myself less forgiving, and his responses to the circumstances seem more voluntary than coerced, as painted in familiar recountings. He made choices which I now view with some amount of contempt, especially when compared to my step-father Beurre d'Arachide, who faced circumstances similar in many ways but responded quite differently.
(Beurre d'Arachide doesn't make doing the right thing seem onerous. He makes it seem normal. If Beurre d'Arachide felt like he had better things to do than spend Christmas with us he never let it show.)
At any rate, I guess I just find myself without too much compassion this year for fathers too wrapped up in themselves to rise to the occasion of Christmas.
Meanwhile Old Oak, Littlestar's father, has excused himself from Christmas Day dinner at my mother's house on the grounds that "people think things" about him. Later he recanted and decided he would come, but that he wouldn't attend Christmas Eve dinner with us at home unless he is specifically invited (to an occasion to which the entire family is invited), on the grounds that since we asked him to leave our house when he was acting like a jackass last summer, he now "doesn't feel right" enjoying our hospitality without a specific invitation, notwithstanding the fact that he drops by frequently anyway.
Poor Mashed Potato Pop! Poor Old Oak! Too busy feeling sorry to play Papa when it counts.
Praise be for better role models, and an especially merry Christmas to them.
Posted by Cheeseburger Brown at 17:11