After a certain age, Christmas can arrive with a little darkness. I’m used to it by now, the way the ghosts of Christmas Past sneak up on me, but it’s still hard. I miss my parents. I lament broken friendships. I worry about getting older, about the fate of the earth, about the presidency of this terrible man.
So there I was, one morning last week, sitting by the fire in my house in Maine as the tears rolled down. Then my 13-year-old Labrador, Ranger, came over and put his grey muzzle on my lap. His tail thumped upon the floor. Hey you, the dog seemed to say. Remember the good things. Like this?
When I focus on the good things, I think, above all, of being around a table with my family.
I could tell you about our Christmas Eve dinner tradition, which (since we live in Maine, United States) is a platter of steamed lobsters, placed atop a bed of fresh green boughs clipped from the tree. I know it’s way too Martha Stewart, but we do it anyway, not least because my sister came up with this idea 20 years ago and it stuck.
That would be the sister with whom I had a falling out some years back. For a long time we didn’t speak. Now — gently, shyly, carefully — we have found our way back into each other’s lives again. Merry Christmas, sister mine. I love you.
Likewise, I could tell you about supper on Christmas Day — which with any luck will be steaks and twice-baked potatoes and a hearty French burgundy. It was my colourful grandmother, Gammie, who started that tradition. She and her constant companion, Hilda, have been gone now these last 28 years.
It was my grandmother who decided that when she died, she wanted to be a cadaver, donated to science. Because, she said, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” She talked Hilda into being a cadaver too. It was a thing they did together.
But when they were alive, their favourite holiday meal, like mine, was breakfast.
When the last present has been opened, I will sneak into the kitchen and don a ridiculous chef’s toque. There will be scrambled eggs. There will be hash browns; I like to make these from red potatoes, tossed with olive oil, kosher salt and chopped mint. And there will be a plate of smoked maple bacon, Smithfield Ham, hot Tuscan sausages.
Because I am from Pennsylvania, not so far from Amish country, there will also be scrapple.
If you don’t know what scrapple is, there is no reason for me to wreck your holidays by going into detail here. Let’s just say that certain meat “by-products” are combined to make a kind of cake, which I cut into slices, dredge with flour and fry in a cast-iron skillet. Oh, don’t make a face. You’d like it, if I made some for you.
There will be orange juice and apple cider and hot coffee.
Now that our son, Sean, and daughter, Zai, are in their 20s, my wife and I are likely to be the first ones up. Deedie will do a jigsaw puzzle by the fire. It’s a far cry from the 1990s, when children would wake us up at 5am, leaping into our bed.
I miss those days. But these are good days too.
When I was a teenager, I loathed sitting around the tree with my family. There they were, my parents talking about Gerald Ford as if he were St. John the Baptist; my grandmother, at just the precise moment, yanking out her latex breast prosthesis and waving it in everyone’s faces while cackling, “Look! It’s a miracle of science!”
Then Aunt Gertrude would tell — again — the story of Christmas in East Prussia, 1920: Her impoverished family barrelling through a blizzard in a horse-drawn sleigh, her grandfather clutching the reins. They were spending the holiday at his farm, outside Konigsberg. From the forest came the howling of wolves. The six children huddled beneath a blanket.
I would rush off to the kitchen to escape. There, alone, I listened to WXPN in Philly as I prepared the giant breakfast. The house filled with the smell of crackling bacon, slowly frying hash browns and onions.
I liked cooking for my family; I liked feeding them. I just couldn’t stand to be around them.
How I miss them all, these ridiculous people. How I loved them! What I would give to make them breakfast, just one more Christmas morning.
But maybe my grandmother was right: When you’re dead, you’re dead. I would be Scrooge-like indeed if I were so blinded by what’s been lost that I could not see what Is right in front of my face.
Christmas morning, my family will gather around the breakfast table: Sean, Deedie, Zai and me. We will have eggs and bacon and hash browns and scrapple. And by the grace of God, we will have one another.
Ranger will look at me with his grey dog face. What did I tell you? Remember the good things. Like this.
— New York Times News Service
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel Long Black Veil.