The family doesn’t know what to do with me.
I’m old. I get it. And I’m not a little old either—I didn’t just celebrate my elder birthday. I’m over the hill, older than dirt, came over on the Mayflower old. Sometimes I’m grumpy, and sometimes I don’t remember things, and sometimes I say all the wrong things—this is a new time.
The family doesn’t know what to do with me.
Well, sometimes I don’t know what to do with them either, so we’re square.
“You’ve got to be more careful,” Cousin Gary tells me. He’s just celebrated his elder birthday, so I want to tell him that he can shove his notions of careful up his butt—he doesn’t know what I’m capable of (read: that I am still fully capable).
Instead, I smile and nod. I may not know what to do with my family, but I know what not to do, especially on Christmas Eve.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, my niece Nikki wears whatever the fuck she wants, because dress codes apparently don’t matter anymore.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Michaela stares out the window like an imbecile because she is one.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Gary and Jordan chat about their fourth and fifth (respectively) ex-wives over, at least, classy tuxedos and grilled fruit kebabs. There was some semblance of civilization to be found.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Grandma Nina wasn’t stirring. Nothing could make me rise to the bait of my rebellious, stubborn family.
“Nice evening, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Oh yes, Nina, what a lovely party. Thank you for hosting, Nina,” they replied.
Even my daughter, usual sweetheart that she was, wasn’t bearing by my rules this Christmas. We live in the desert. I get it, it’s hot. And it never snows, so during the day, Christmas feels like every other day of spring, summer, and fall. Everyone has a pool; why not make use of it, right?
But it’s Christmas. And the rest of the family, save my ne’er-do-well brother and my noncompliant daughter, were strutting around in bathing suits.
It’s not like me to be this frustrated. Usually, my family’s faults entertain me. I love them to pieces, I do, and their rebellious, stubborn, unclassy tendencies make me giggle and laugh and be glad that they live in a different time than I did, when these sorts of things are praised instead of demeaned.
But I’m old. Old enough, even, that who knows how many Christmases I’ll have? Left to spend with them, left to make memories with them. I wanted to make this one really last, really stick out, you know? That’s why I hosted, why I had my brother help me with all the decorations, had my daughter invite every member of them family that she knew (I knew them all of course, but my memory for them comes and goes—better not to forget anybody). I sent paper invitations, I provided a dress code, I gave meal choices (ham or turkey).
I hired a caterer and a bar tender and a pianist.
What a beautiful Christmas party, the family would say. What a gorgeous home and a gorgeous tree and a lovely, amazing Grandma Nina.
Maybe we should visit her more, they might say.
Maybe we should hug her to say thanks, they might say.
Instead, I’ve got two people in swim trunks, two people already drunk and talking about their ex-wives, three people gobbling down more food than I’ve ever seen eaten in one sitting.
And though I’m there through it all, smiling and nodding along to the conversation, I know it’s not the kind of evening that I wanted. It’s not the kind of evening that people remember years later, that they talk about in kind tones and loving memory. It’s just… an evening. That just so happens to be Christmas Eve.
“Creator, Aunt Cathy,” Annie says. “How could you say something like that?”
“I thought the millennials were meant to be the hyper-sensitive ones, Annie. Stop acting like your children.”
Well, maybe it’d be remembered, but not for the music and the food and the laughter and the good company.
Christmas Eve in the desert didn’t seem to mean anything anymore. I remember Christmas Eve, back before Annie had me move in with her and Bryant. I lived in Monte Vista, and there, it snowed and rained and when it was Christmas Eve, it looked like Christmas Eve, and you could sit around the roaring fire—it was cold enough to need it—and laugh and sing carols about “white Christmases” and feel like you were actually singing about you. Here in the desert, it felt like every carol was a gimmick, every Christmas tree was out of place and half dead, every string of lights too stark against the beige of everything else around you.
Everything was different now.
Why was a nice Christmas Eve party too much to ask for?
When the bartender slipped away to use the restroom, I took over. Everyone was hovering by the diving board, preparing to dive into the pool, so no one noticed the drinks I was swigging.
If no one else would remember Christmas Eve—maybe their last with me—then why should I?
“Nina, get over here!” they called.
Through the beginnings of a tipsy haze, I saw my family gathered around the fire pit. Some in black tie, some in swimwear, some in the same party clothes they wore to Annie’s wedding.
“Thanks for a great party,” they said to me. “You’ve been a great hostess. It’s time for you to sit and relax.”
“Do you remember,” Cousin Gary began, “that Christmas when Annie was two? She was so tiny. She got the most presents of anyone that year, and spent hours bashing a cardboard box on the ground instead of playing with her toys. But just look at her now, a grown up! A mom! Practically old and gray like the rest of us.”
“That wasn’t when she was two, she was at least four by then,” I said. “Two year olds are innocent, but that was intentional spite!”
“I don’t think that was even Annie! Wasn’t that Michelle?” Bryan added.
“We’re talking about people all grown up,” Michelle said, “but you’re past grown up, Gary! You ever feel old when you look around at us youngsters?”
We warmed our hands on the completely unnecessary fire.
“Wanna sing some carols?” Bryan asked.
“Nah,” they said. “They’re such gimmicks. Who even has a white Christmas anymore?”
But I smiled, and we told stories, and we remembered Christmases and Christmas Eves past, and I figured that this Christmas Eve probably wouldn’t be remembered, but others clearly were, and that was okay. I could be okay with that, maybe.
We sat down to dinner that night, over macaroni that I had made (and burnt—I clearly wasn’t up to par with the stove anymore). Annie sat across from me, and Bryan down the table, in a room decked with red and green.
“That was a good party,” Annie said. “It was good to see the family.”
“You seemed a little bummed though, Mom.”
“I just don’t know how many of those I’ve got left to see.”
Annie looked sad, and I regretted the words. Don’t let her maybe-last Christmas with you be a sad one, Nina, in addition to unmemorable.
“Nina, you hush. You’re barely older than me,” Bryan said. “And I’ve got a bunch more good years left.”
My brother was fifteen years younger. But I chose to believe him.
Christmas, especially in the desert, has never truly been a time for miracles.
But it is a time to believe in them.
“Maybe you’re right,” I told him, and turned back to eat my burnt macaroni.
At least I’ll remember this Christmas, I thought. And maybe Annie will, a little. And maybe Bryan will, a little differently. That’s the best an old woman can hope for, I think. To be remembered a little by everyone, and maybe later be built back whole by them all.