Monday, December 7, 2009

The Christmas Nazi

Mom met Andrew in 1981 when he came to pick me up for our blind date. Her pronouncement on him later that night, after he'd delivered me to my door was, "What an arrogant son-of-a-bitch."

The first time he came to pick me up, when his kids were visiting for that first summer, she made a point of saying, "Good thing you've got girls. I can't stand little boys." Thank God, he'd left the girls in the car. We were utterly speechless, and simply left. The girls liked me, and after dinner and the movie, the girls invited me to come home with them and sleep over. I accepted. When I called Mom from Andrew's to tell her not to worry, I was sleeping over, she said, "I thought you were both very rude to me when you left. You didn't even say goodbye."
"I guess we didn't know what to say to your comment about little boys. Andrew does have a son. He lives with his mother, Andrew's first wife."
"That doesn't explain anything."
"Sorry. I'll see you sometime tomorrow."
"What time?"
"Don't worry about it. I have a key."

She complained as time went on and I spent more and more time living with Andrew and the girls, about our never giving her an invitation--like his family got. So next time we had a family get together she was included. She walked up to Andrew's youngest brother Curt and asked, "Have you ever had sex with an animal? I'm taking an informal survey, and want to know if it feels any different than sex with a human." Curt, who was an investment banker, newly married with a pregnant wife, stared expressionlessly at her face and then said, perfectly deadpan, "No, have you?" When Mom was out on the deck, feeding peanuts to the squirrels with the grandparents and the girls, Curt looked at Andrew and cocked one eyebrow. Then he raised his glass to Andrew and said, "Good luck. You're going to need it."

When I was invited to my first family Christmas Eve celebration hosted by Curt and his wife Amy, I was conflicted. It was my mother's family's tradition to celebrate Christmas very late on Christmas Eve. Sleeping in on Christmas day was the motivation for that ritual I'm sure. But I felt guilty about telling my mother I was choosing to spend the night with Andrew's family. I asked him if he thought Curt would mind inviting her.

"Do you think she can behave herself? There might be little boys there."
"I'll ask her to be nice."
"Won't that be like waving a cape in front of a bull? My father's a Republican and I'll bet she knows it."
"I'll tell her she can't talk politics."
"In your dreams."
"It's Christmas for Christ's sake. How can I abandon her? Please."
"Merry Christmas."

The Hoffman Christmas tradition was a crab-leg feast. The house was beautifully decorated. There was a big traditional tree, a fire in the fireplace, and one of the grandchildren (a boy) was banging out Silent Night on the piano. Andrew's older sister and her husband were there with their teenaged son. Helen, Curt's pregnant wife's family was in attendance. It was a big party. Their large dining room table was close quarters.

There were lots of plates and hot pots of melted butter, many wine glasses. Baskets of bread at both ends of the table, red sauce here and there, a huge salad bowl. But the thing that dominated the table were the two huge platters heaping with big steaming crab legs. I had never seen so many at one time. Chairs were crammed so tight around the table there would be no elbowroom.

Mom was seated between Andrew's mother, Marta, and his sister-in-law, Helen. We were across the table. Andrew's father was at one end and his brother, Curt, the host of the party, was at the other. Right there we had the possibility that Mom would start some sort of patriarchal diatribe concerning the archaic seating that placed men in those arbitrary positions. But Mom looked innocent and was behaving herself, so far. I began to breath again.

There was a lot of chatter as people began to pass platters and baskets. Wine bottles went the rounds and toasts were made. My mother raised her glass (I held my breath) but she only thanked everyone for inviting her. Again I could breathe. I was beginning to shiver and tried to concentrate on eating. I love sweet crabmeat dipped in melted butter.

Things went along pretty well and the meal was almost over. There was still dessert and coffee, but I was beginning to relax. I even left the room to help the older children clear dinner dishes from the table in preparation for dessert and exchange dirty wine glasses for coffee cups and brandy snifters. But by the time I got back to the table, Andrew's mother was leaning away from my mother and saying to Henry, her husband , "What is she talking about? Is this all right for the children to hear? I mean, isn't she talking about artificial insemination?" The last sentence is delivered in a loud stage whisper but I was just setting Harvey's coffee cup in front of him and I couldn't help overhearing. Oh shit. I'm in trouble now. She's off and running and there will be no stopping her.

I look down the table scanning for damage. Mom has her arm around Helen's brother's chair, leaning in front of Andrew's youngest daughter who is six. Mom is tugging on the sleeve of the the other brother-in-law sitting next to Andrew's oldest daughter who is nine. Helen's brother looks puzzled, but not horrified. But the man next to him is getting red in the face. I can hear Mom when she leans in front of Helen's brother to continue her conversation with the red-faced man. "You're a lawyer, you must at least have a legal opinion if you can't form an ethical or political opinion." Wap! The sound of the gauntlet being thrown.

"Mother, what are you talking about?"
"Artificial insemination. There was a very interesting article in Ms. Magazine this month. It's about the moral question concerning the rights of the children of sperm donors to know their genetic heritage versus the right to privacy of the donor."
"It's Christmas, and there are children at the table. Could we talk about something else, please?" "No one else is complaining. Who are you, the Christmas Nazi?" As I was about to respond, she turned back to the red-faced man and said, "Well?!"

Andrew's father, Harvey, stood and called for less conversation and said, "Could we please sing some carols? How about Deck the Halls?" Mom rolled her eyes and then pinned me with a withering look. I had spoiled her fun.

She never got another invitation to Curt's Christmas party.

When it came up the next year I told her why she hadn't been included. "You insisted on discussing a controversial topic that's inappropriate for children. We were eating dinner and artificial insemination seemed tasteless. Nobody wanted to talk about it. You were trying to start an argument. I don't understand why you'd want to do that, but it was embarrassing to me."

"Oh, so now I embarrass you. That's rich. They were so boring, so stuffy and dull. I was just trying to keep from dying of boredom. Well, if that's where you want to spend Christmas Eve, go. I'll have more fun alone. I won't have to spend the evening with the Christmas Nazi"