“Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah! I can’t keep them straight!”
“Hanukkah comes first, then Christmas, then Kwanzaa,” my know-it-all college age grandson Stefan says.
“Don’t forget Soya,” says Drew, his anthropologist father.
“What the devil is that?” I ask.
“The Hopi celebration of midwinter.”
“What about Saint Lucia’s Day?” Drew’s Swedish wife Krissten says. “Or the Roman celebration of Saturnalia.”
“Enough!” I say. “I’m too old for this!”
“Eighty is the new 60, Pops,” Drew says.
“I’m only 78!” I watch my unmarried, overweight, youngest son Doug grab another fistful of Cheetos.
“You’ve eaten almost the whole bag,” my bratty 9-year-old granddaughter Phoebe says to him.
“I brought them, didn’t I?”
Everybody brings something to Chriswanzukah. This year Doug brought a giant bag of Cheetos and a 12-pack of Grain Belt.
“Let’s talk politics and get that out of the way,” I say.
“No!” everyone cries in unison.
“Remember what happened at Thanksgiving?” Drew says.
“Exactly. That’s probably why the comrades haven’t shown up,” my Swedish daughter-in-law says, referring to my angry socialist daughter and her communist Jewish boyfriend.
“Oh, they’ll be here,” I say. “Probably bringing gefilte fish.”
“They always bring something nobody else will eat,” says my unmarried son through a mouthful of Cheetos.
“And you bring something nobody gets a chance to eat,” I say.
He looks at his orange-stained fingers, and picks up the half-empty bag. “Anybody want some?”
Phoebe takes a handful. “Where’s the tree?” she asks me.
“Couldn’t be bothered,” I say. “But I picked that up at Lunds.” I point at the poinsettia on the mantelpiece.
“Very festive,” Drew says. “You’ve outdone yourself, Pops.”
“It’s a gift.” I lever myself out of my recliner and make my way to the kitchen to see what the Ethiopian and his boyfriend are up to. Carrie and I adopted Charles back when we thought we couldn’t have kids on our own. He was 3. Now he’s 45. Naturally, as soon as we got comfortable being parents, Carrie starts popping out kids like a vending machine: Drew, Rita, Doug — one every two years. Doug was born when she was 42.
My Ethiopian son is watching Blong stir something in an enormous pot. He looks up and says, “Hey, Pops.”
“Charlie,” I say. “Your boyfriend making one of his Oriental concoctions?”
“Pops, my name is Chinua now, not Charlie. And this concoction, as you call it, is Asian, not ‘Oriental,’ and Blong is not my ‘boyfriend,’ he’s my husband. You were at our wedding!”
Blong looks at me and winks. “Hmong secret recipe,” he says. I almost crack a smile. Blong is all right. His teenage daughter — my granddaughter now, I guess — is standing with her skinny butt propped against the counter, looking at her cellphone. Her black bangs are so long I don’t know how she can see the screen.
“Merry Christmas, Chee,” I say. “I bet you’d be a pretty girl if I could see your face.”
“Thanks a lot, Grumps.”
“Gramps!” I say.
“Sorry,” she says, eyes on her phone. “It’s just my accent.”
Chee was born and raised in St. Paul. She only has an accent when it pleases her.
Blong hands me the serving spoon. “Taste.”
It looks like chicken soup, but who knows? I take the spoon and give it a sniff.
“Too spicy,” I say.
“Too spicy?” Charles, aka Chinua, gapes at me. “Pops, there’s no pepper in it at all!”
“Not yet,” Blong says. “Peppers go in last.”
I taste the Oriental concoction. “Not bad for Mexican.”
Blong laughs; Charles scowls. I head back to the living room just as Rita and her Jewish husband arrive. Aaron is carrying a casserole covered with tin foil.
“Gefilte fish? Or matzo balls?” I ask.
Aaron smiles and just manages to not roll his eyes. “Kugel,” he says.
“That’ll go great with the Hmong stew,” Doug says, wiping Cheetos dust on his jeans.
“You’re such a tool,” Rita says, frowning at the Cheetos bag in Doug’s lap. “Do you even know what’s in those things?”
“Delicious crunchy cheese-like goodness, Sis,” says Doug. He is not wrong, and he’s always known how to get a rise out of Rita.
“Are we about to talk politics?” I ask.
“No!” from every direction. Aaron flees to the kitchen with his kugel.
Drew and Krissten set 11 places around the big table Carrie and I bought after Rita was born. It seats 12. Maybe by next year the comrades will have a kid. Rita’s still young enough. And I suppose Doug might get married — anything’s possible. He and Phoebe are off in the corner next to the fireplace eating Cheetos and playing some sort of game on her computer tablet thing.
Blong’s pot of Hmong Mystery Dish goes in the middle of the table, where the roast turkey is supposed to go. He points out a bowl of chopped chili peppers and says, “Spicy optional, Gramps.”
Still feels odd, him calling me Gramps.
It’s a weird spread, even for Chriswanzukah. Hmong stew, kugel, tofurky from Krissten for her vegetarian son, along with mashed potatoes with two gravies: one turkey and one veggie. Charles brings out his signature dish, what he calls “greens.” He never had collard greens growing up, but now he insists they be a part of every holiday meal. For luck.
Oh, and there is a turkey. Not a regular turkey, but what Drew calls a ballotine, a fancy Frenchified fowl with all the bones removed and made into a sort of roll.
I try a bit of everything, partly to be polite, but mostly so I can gripe about it. It’s expected. If I don’t complain about a dish, one or another of them might take it personally. But I don’t have to do much grumbling. My socialist daughter, who takes after me, complains enough for all of us: Drew and Krissten’s car is a gas hog, Doug is lazy and irresponsible, Charlie — I mean Chinua — is too apolitical, Stefan shouldn’t be in business school, he should be studying political science, and all of us should give up factory-farmed meat. Aaron maintains his good-natured, tight-jawed smile, nodding along with her, waiting for the ordeal to end.
After dinner, Charlie, Blong and Aaron take over kitchen duty, and the rest of us head back to the living room. Stefan wedges himself into Carrie’s rocker and studies my copy of “Infinite Jest,” a book I could never finish. The little twerp just pulled out the fattest book on my shelves — what a showoff. Rita is indoctrinating Blong’s daughter on how to overthrow the patriarchy. Krissten and Chee are talking college — Krissten is going back for her master’s, and Chee is just starting to apply.
Nobody’s paying much attention to me, which is how I like it. It’s more peaceful that way.
Finally, we all gather to exchange presents. I can’t be bothered with shopping, so everybody gets an envelope. A regular #10 business envelope, as usual. I can’t stand those cutesy holiday cards. Besides, I’d probably get the wrong holiday — not that they’d care as long as there’s a check inside.
I receive a variety of geezer-themed items: a jar opener, some sort of high-tech no-slip shower mat, a six-pack of reading glasses because I lose them sometimes, and an electronic frame loaded with pictures of my grinning offspring, like a desktop slide show. Carrie would have liked it. My favorite present is from Chee, who gives me a T-shirt that says, I’M GRUMPY McGRUMPFACE. WHO THE DEVIL ARE YOU?
“I’ll wear it to my funeral,” I say. Chee grins.
Doug is the last to leave, because it takes his taxi forever to arrive. I stand in the doorway and watch the cab drive off through the snow, then go back inside and manage to lace up my Sorels. Gets harder every year. Bought them back in the ’80s. Carrie was always after me to buy a new pair, but they’ve still got tread. I put the poinsettia in a plastic garbage bag, pull on my coat and gloves, and find my good hat — the one the kids call my Elmer Fudd.
The snow is pretty. Big flakes, fluffy, about two inches on the ground already. They say it will last all night. I take it easy. Six blocks down, one block over, a route so familiar I could walk it in my sleep.
The gate is locked, of course. I dig out the key, bestowed upon me by a friendly groundskeeper after Carrie passed. I get the dang thing open after a few minutes — hands don’t work so good at my age — and shuffle down the path through the snow.
She’s still there. So am I. My name is, anyway, on the matching headstone next to hers. My end date is missing. It’ll be a while, I hope.
“Hey, babe.” I unbag the poinsettia, set it next to her, and prop myself on my stone.
The snow is soundless. Used to be, big clumpy flakes like this, I could hear it falling, but not anymore.
“Merry Christmas. Or, I guess, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, too. Midwinter. Solstice. Whatever.”
I listen to the silence.
“Had dinner with the kids. All of them. Grandkids, too. Three so far. Stefan, he’s in college. Phoebe’s a fourth-grader. Nine going on 19. Blong’s daughter is 16 and already looking at colleges. Beautiful girl, smart as a whip, with a sense of humor that could cut diamonds. Reminds me of you.
“Rita, she’s more like me. When she’s my age she’ll be one cranky grandma if she ever gets around to having a kid. I think she will. She and Aaron are good together. He’s got those peacemaker genes.
“Drew and Krissten are doing great. They’re really proud of their kids, and Krissten’s going back to school to get her English degree. The odd couple, Charlie — I mean Chinua — and Blong, are opening a new restaurant. French, if you can believe it. With Ethiopian and Hmong influences, I suppose. Since he got married, Charlie has never been happier. Blong is a great guy.
“Doug’s doing fine — I know you worry about him, but he’s OK, really. Just slow to grow up, but that was true of me, too. Single for now, but he seems happy. Has a good job — something with computers. Still loves Cheetos.
“As for me … I’m coming up on 80 now. I’m glad you don’t have to listen to me complain every day about my aches and pains, but I do wish we could have watched our kids grow up together. All the way up. You’d be proud. I know I am. But … well, I miss you.”
I wait for more words to come — I know I have more to say, but my mind has gone mute. The poinsettia leaves are frosted with glittering flakes of snow. It will be dead by morning, but right now it’s beautiful. I stand up — it takes a couple of tries — and brush off my thighs. Funny thing: I sat there for maybe 20 minutes, and I’m not at all cold. I shuffle off toward home with the snow falling soundlessly, beautifully, behind me and in front of me, on Carrie, on the poinsettia, on my Elmer Fudd cap, on my children, on my children’s children.