Friday, December 17, 2010
OLD SCHOOL CHRISTMAS UNCLES
A couple drunk uncles at the holiday party. That's what it seems like when Frank and Der Bingle start hitting the egg nog and singing. The uncles used to gather at Grandma's house, a jolly old fashioned crew that commandeered the couch and drank whiskey and nibbled at tiny anti-pasta plates Grandma had prepared--cheese and salami and olives--and maybe a few tiny bowls of Planter's peanuts. We cousins--children of Sputnik and rock music and the post-war baby boom--played in the back rooms, wired on Christmas adrenaline--and to us the uncles seemed ancient as Old Growth trees. Lights from the Christmas trees sparkled in their watery eyes. They chortled at their own jokes and might shake your hand and ask how old you were, and make some joke and then send you on your way. They were from another era--older than our parents, who were part of a newer world, voted for JFK and owned a bookstore--no, the old timers were World War Two guys from the forties who wore big pants and had barely stopped wearing hats (some still did) and they had a backlog of holiday memories to ruminate about after a few drinks in front of Grandma's Christmas tree. Grandma was even older, if that was possible. She'd come from the Old Country and raised nine kids and weathered mining towns and countless hardships and prohibition (with Grandpa, who had gone from blackballed miner to restaurant owner to bootlegger), and she remained a tough old bird who spoke broken English and walked with a limp and didn't believe in sloth and unnecessary pleasures. Grandma refilled glasses and tiny peanut plates and served candies that were sour (the punishment and penance that must accompany pleasure) and gave us children a bracing shot of Creme de Menthe at midnight. To think about it now, Christmas probably meant something different to everyone in the room back then. Maybe it still does. Now the trees are decorated much in the same way, and there are candles and cotton snow and maybe a swag like olden times--and Mom has her tiny Victorian village atop the piano and her famous fruitcake from days of yore (and a newer version, closer to panforte)--but the new kids in town are text-messaging and surfing the web, and they never stray far from a computer or a television screen of some kind--and yes they're wonderful kids but they probably look at those of us sitting on the couch with our drinks in our hands much in the same way we looked at our old uncles--as Old Growth timbers from ancient times and a distant and faraway places. This time around there will still be several generations present, and a wonderful holiday spirit--and still the labyrinthine details of pulling off a successful holiday as people bustle about, drive in from out of town, cook meals and play music and refill drinks and present endless platters of food. I'll be one of those uncles this time, and after a couple egg nogs I'll think back at my Christmases over the years, as everyone must. And yes, once again Christmas will mean something different to everyone in the room but we will all be together.