It’s Christmastime and I’m back in Philadelphia. It’s the first time the whole family has been together since we rented a place together in Umbria a couple of summers ago. Seven of us are staying in my parent’s little townhouse, two of whom are over 80 and two of whom are under 9. The circumstances lend themselves to sitcom levels of Christmas chaos and we have surely experienced that but not, surprisingly, on account of the widely diverging ages and interests of the temporary and permanent occupants of my parent’s condo. We’ve all been napping a lot and that seems to work.
About 10 days ago, some guy ran a stop sign and slammed into my father’s car. No one was hurt but the passenger side of Dad’s car was heavily squidged. The car still drives but the passenger door is apt to pop open without warning. For various reasons, we weren’t able to take it into the shop until today. Then, on Christmas Eve, Mom’s cat Mordie began to show worrying symptoms of gastric distress and needed to be hospitalized. While Mom and Dad were off delivering Mordie to the animal hospital in the broken car, Brother David took the other car out to buy almond milk and wheat grass cupcakes and whatever other bird seed nonsense people from California eat. That car broke down in the Whole Foods parking lot. Meanwhile, my sister-in-law Renee and I were due to leave for the church any moment to help out with the Christmas pageant my sister was directing. We were on makeup duty and, for a moment, it seemed as if the angels would be forced to go onstage without rouge and blue eye shadow and the prepubescent shepherd boys would have to forgo their eye-linered whiskers. Surrounded as we were by a couple of bored little girls and with no apparent way to get to our pageant gig, tensions ran high. Luckily, Other Brother Doug roared in to the rescue, carting Renee and I off to our make up duties. Mordie is going to be fine and the car stuff will get sorted out eventually. OK, well; it all seemed more dramatic at the time.
Like most families, mine has Christmas traditions. Some of these have been tossed by the wayside but others persist, like cheese fondue on Christmas Eve and hanging the stockings in birth order after Dad’s dramatic reading of The Night Before Christmas. Our Christmas commentary is highly predictable as well. Someone always claims that this year’s is “the best tree ever!”; we all shout out the last few lines of The Night Before Christmas together; everyone always complains that brother-in-law Joe’s stocking — knitted, as were all the others, by Mom– is waaaayyy bigger than anyone else’s (it is); David starts threatening us with painted rocks if our Christmas lists are late. I like the predictability. When family relationships are discontinuous because parents and siblings are scattered hither and yon — me in Rome, David in LA, the rest in Philly — and only see each other once a year or less, the traditions, the predictability, that familiar, remembered thing we always do and always have done, seems to make it easier to pick up without missing too many beats. Or at least that’s how it seems to me.