My eight-year-old mind knew there was something wrong with the way my grandfather’s hand rested on my aunt’s ass at the Christmas table.
I walked out of the dining room and into the kitchen. The dining room was where the party was. All my dad’s family had shown up. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents had all shoved their way into the house to sing and laugh and ridicule each other, but I wandered into the kitchen where Grandma worked.
She spent all her Christmases here, cooking and baking while the rest of the house opened presents and ate her offerings. She turned around and smiled. It was a warm smile, not the sinister smile of a depraved woman. This was something different on this day.
She held out a tiny cookie for me and I opened my mouth. I smiled when it crumbled and disappeared in my mouth. Grandma was the greatest cook anyone had ever known. It didn’t matter who was talking, when the topic of cooks came up, they said her name.
“What is that?” I said, pointing to a relish tray on the counter. It was small, green glass and filled with strange looking food the likes of which I had never seen before.
“This is my special Christmas food.” She picked up a cube of white meat and tossed it in her mouth. “No one likes my treats.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I don’t put it out there because they all hate it and won’t eat it. But to me, this is Christmas. So, I put it out for myself and eat while I cook. Would you like to try some?”
She handed the tray to my level and smiled at me. I took a cube of white meat. I put it in my mouth. It was more dense than any meat I had ever had before. It was sharp and delicious.
“I like it. What is it?”
“That was shark.”
I pulled back, scared of the rest of the meat on the tray. She laughed and pointed to a different food. “What is that?” I asked. It looked like the tentacle of some octopus.
“That is the tentacle of some octopus. No one in this family has ever even tasted it before.” She looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”
I picked it up and it shuddered in my hand. Before I could think about it, I tossed it in my mouth. I froze, knowing I was in too deep now. It sat on my tongue awaiting my bravery. I wanted to pull it out of my mouth and throw it on the floor, but I had promised myself I would be braver when I was around my father. I bit into it.
It didn’t bite me back.
It was going as well as I could expect. It was rubbery and felt like an old piece of bubble gum in my mouth. The flavor was subtle, but good, and I smiled at her.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“I do,” I told her. They were yelling my name in the living room. I kissed her apron and ran away. And that is the only memory I have of my grandma.
I got a toy train for Christmas. This was the last Christmas I would ever have with my father’s people. My train had the Toys R Us giraffe on it. I played with it one time, because I had to leave it at my dad’s, and I would only go to his house one more time.
When we got to my dad’s house, my uncle came with us. He was Uncle Greg, and he was smart. That was all we knew about him; dad’s older brother was a genius. He talked about why he was going to Colorado in the morning. He was going out there because it was the best place to see a comet that was not going to be coming around again in his lifetime. He told me Halley’s Comet was a great big ball of flame that ran through the solar system and passed Earth every 75 years.
When he left, my sister complained because he didn’t have a present for us, but I went to bed that night thinking of great balls of fire rushing through space coming past Earth to say hi.
That is the only memory I have of my Uncle Greg.
He took us in his room and my father opened the safe by his bed. He reached in like a scientist pulling a radioactive core out of a nuclear generator, and I gasped when I saw it in his hand. He held his breath until it was on the tree: one small silver owl, the only Christmas ornament he had, the only ornament to go on the sad, dark Christmas tree in his living room.
For this was Christmas Eve, and the tree had not been decorated yet. He placed it on the branches and stepped back. It was high out of reach, glimmering perfect and bright, the most beautiful Christmas tree ornament I have ever seen. That was the last time I would ever see it.
We settled into a bed in the tiny room on the way to the attic. It had a couch in it with a pull out bed and we were placed there just as carefully as that owl had been placed on the tree. Blankets were brought up high from the foot of the bed as my father tucked us in.
“Will you wake us, Daddy?” I asked.
“As soon as he leaves.” He kissed my cheek with his scratchy face and left us there to sleep.
We heard him yell out loud from the living room. “Bye, Santa!” We heard jingle bells flying out and away from the house. “Thanks for everything!”
We woke up, but dare not move an inch. We lay in bed, quivering under the covers. He stuck his head in. “He came,” Daddy said, and we could not stand it. We rushed past him. I ran with my eyes clenched closed until I was in the living room. I panted in anticipation and listened to my sister cry out in joy.
I waited. Somehow, I knew this was the last time I would ever see this. I knew everything was falling apart, and we would never have a Christmas with Daddy again.
When I opened my eyes, I wept. I had never seen anything so beautiful before.
Santa had decorated the tree while he was here. The branches were littered with bright ornaments, the needles covered with tinsel. It looked as if the entire tree, so sad and dead hours before, had been dipped in silver and crystal.
My sister dropped to her knees and started at the presents. I could not pry my eyes away from the tree. It was the most magical thing I had ever seen. It would remain on top of that list until I looked upon my wife on our wedding day.
I got a Knight Rider car with a removable David Hasselhoff. I don’t ever remember playing with it.
That was the most magical Christmas of my life, until I had kids of my own and I would see their faces when Santa came.
It was my favorite Christmas. It was the last one I would ever spend with my daddy.