American Consequences - December 2017


Bunyan-esque Yuletide fury he took out a hack saw and cut the tree, and he kept cutting until only a half a tree was left. Now deep into mid-tree, where branches proliferate, the tree fit its stand even worse than before. So he threw the tree to the floor, kicked it and cursed, “We’re not having a tree this year!” His children looked on, wailing. Fortunately, his cooler-headed sister implored him to go buy the kids a decent tree, even though by now it was late Christmas Eve. Sizing up the last of the lot – the bound-for- the-wood-chipper trees – he picked whatever orphan he could find, sawed off the bottom, and tie-wired it to the top half of the old one. And therein lies what we in the life-tidying trade call, “the moral of the story.” Christmas with family isn’t always about heralding angels and jingling bells, Jack-nuts roasting over an open nose, and eating perfectly cooked reindeer loin with sugar-plum chutney. Sometimes, Christmas with family is just about making things work, brutishly and gracelessly. That’s what families do when they work right: They are what we count on, when we’re unable to count on anything else. Besides, once you surrender to the madness, families tend to be fun as hell. The weirder, the better. Some of the happiest days of my life have occurred around Christmas, courtesy of the strange birds I’m related to by blood or marriage. ________ T here’s my 80-year-old father-in-law, Vic. His favorite Christmas hobby is protesting Christmas. When he buys presents (if he buys them) he throws them under the tree in an unadorned paper bag. Years ago,

we went to an ornate local-lights display, requiring us to spend half an hour idling in our car in a line of onlookers. When Vic didn’t feel like waiting, he commanded us from the backseat to get out of the line and head home. Caught up in the Christmas spirit, we refused. “You were warned,” he shrugged. Then he lifted his loafered barges over the front seat, made a clicking sound like a gun turret, and let a terrible ripper, fumigating the whole car like a flatulent Orkin man. We returned home with the windows down, lights unseen, and everybody coughing. Then there’s Uncle Bill (my mom’s other brother). Once upon a time, he was a Reagan Republican. But somewhere along the way, the George W. Bush presidency radicalized him in the opposite direction. He started keeping what he called his “Fox News Notebook,” a holstered Steno pad he kept handy with facts and arguments to refute claims from Sean Hannity and company. He now occasionally breaks it out for discussion at family gatherings if he can find it. We’re not above hiding it under a chair. As more Christmases accumulate behind than lay ahead, you do start thinking of your family life as a stage production, one in which all the great character actors are dropping off, with no hope of replacement. On my Christmas in-memoriam honor roll are Uncles Phil and Dean, and Aunt Natalie. Phil was a slightly dangerous uncle... always the best kind. When I was a tyke, he’d pour me a third of his Pabst Blue Ribbon beer when no one was looking. When he built a bathroom in his garage, he wallpapered

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