“A Dysfunctional Holiday Tale”


“Up on the housetop reindeer pause” — for fear of entering my childhood home in all of its yuletide glory, that is. Santa ditched the sleigh and is having a drink at our neighborhood bar (where, astoundingly, you can also get a haircut). I think it was at that same bar that my mother learned to cut bangs…and I have the photos to back up this assumption — but I digress.

Here it was, another chock full ‘o fun holiday at my familial abode and our clan was in full celebratory mode. Mom had already threatened to cancel Christmas if we kids didn’t stop killing each other…and then she would simply “run away from home” (again). Translated: she would hunker down at the Conway’s house across the street to drink wine. I am happy to report that these days she has taken another more passive-aggressive approach to our back-biting with the retort, “Well, I hope I don’t die soon because you kids would be beating the crap out of each other right over my cold dead corpse in my casket”. She missed her calling writing for Hallmark.

We were no slouches in the Christmas splendor department as our tree was jovially bedecked in our own special form of regalia. First, there was the tree, in and of itself. Can you say “Charlie Brown Christmas”? I know you can. Pitiful, would sum it up. And what the freak was the deal with the baby playpen for a tree stand? To the casual voyeur (and there were MANY in our neighborhood), it would leave one scratching their head. But to my mother and father, it made perfect sense. There was always a crawlin’ baby about (some actually legally belonged to us) due to my mother’s supreme fertility. So I guess the thought process was — heaven forbid that this superhuman genetic spawn should try to heave itself up on the tree and cause a catastrophic Christmas cave-in. Or perhaps there was the very real possibility that a toddler might be impaled on one of its moldy, bald branches…and that would REALLY suck! So, my dad, an engineer by trade, fashioned this infant proof barrier of sorts. Heck, if a playpen could keep a baby inside (sometimes for days on end, but that’s another story), well, it could keep them OUT and not ruin a perfectly good holiday. Didn’t quite understand the yellow and black “Do Not Cross” tape, especially with my brother’s problem with authority (ask his PO), but Dad thrived on being authoritative…apple/tree.

And then there was that whole ornament situation. Back in days of old, there weren’t any Hobby Lobby stores, just taverns. As we kids were not ones to be deterred from artsy forms of self-expression, we fashioned our own likenesses out of Styrofoam balls. As a side note, there wasn’t much money in our household, and while creativity was both encouraged and promoted, sometimes, supplies were lacking. So in this same spirit, one day I noticed these cardboard tube thingies in our bathroom trash basket. Of course, I retrieved them and had a nice little stockpile built up for future art projects…hours of fun there! Mom didn’t share in my joy nor did she understand the pride I felt for my carefully cultivated collection when she confiscated her tampon applicators and told me to wash my hands, buzz kill that she was. What was I talking about again?  Oh yeah, ornaments.

So anyhoo…we made the innovative decision to DIY our ornaments. Hair was created out of felt and yarn and expressions were applied with Magic Marker and various “found” items which were shoved into place with pins. In reality, these were our very first voodoo dolls and being the devil’s spawn that we were, we secretly cursed each other’s likenesses. Throughout the years, these self-renderings deteriorated from their storage next to the hot water heater (along with our moldy tree)…or perhaps this was a result of the repeated stabbing of pins while reciting incantations? The end result is that each year, these Styrofoam bobbles became more misshapen and morphed into foam balls sportin’ huge gaping chunks with missing eyes and sprouting tangled yarn toupees. Yet, with each holiday, we claimed our own particular orb and fought to the death for prominent placement (aka, dominance) — sort of like some footage from a National Geographic special on the survival of the fittest where, if allowed, the species would consume one another.

Our brood did emphatically embrace family traditions and considered ourselves active proponents of our own special endearing pastimes. Never was it more evident than when one of my younger brothers developed this form of angst early in his development, a psychosis of sorts? He would grieve the death of celebrities, launching into a downward spiral of depression and paranoia. Oh, how we would point and laugh at this tragic 4-year-old as he would gnash his little baby teeth when the evening news announced another Hollywood tragedy! So it would only stand to reason that every year, all his gifts would be from the celebs that had succumbed during the past year. A good time was definitely had by all — except for my brother, that is, and the therapist that treated him in his later years. But Mother loves us all the same…even the “special” ones. And this was how the family tradition of “gifts from the dead” was established and sardonically perpetuated.

And I still get misty over the lighting of the Yuletide fire. Let me explain.

It was during the lighting of such a fire that I first learned about pornography. Do I have your attention? Thought so…

The family fireplace was a focal point of our existence. This was no more apparent than during the holidays. Who doesn’t enjoy a roaring fire — besides that guy in my 8th-grade class that used to torture squirrels? And the woodsy aroma of logs burning was also a favored scent to our clan. In fact, we almost liked it as much as the smell of the pesticides we inhaled while running behind the mosquito spray truck on warm summer nights, dancing in the carcinogenic fog while the fumes settled snugly in our young, developing lungs. And how we adored the smell of gasoline as we stopped to “fill ‘er up” on Sunday morns after church. Hell, the same bro that went into a tailspin over dead people even drank the stuff once and had to be rushed to the hospital. Red flag, methinks. One would imagine after the first swig of gasoline, that “chug-a-lugging” would NOT be the next reasonable action. Back to the prelude to porno…but first, the fire must be built!

I had previously alluded to Dad’s genius engineering mind, as demonstrated by his usage of the playpen as a tree barrier and child life-preserving (and tax deduction saving) device. However, as further evidence of all his fancy book learnin’, Dad’s construction of a proper fire was a sight to behold indeed. First, there was the stacking and angling of the kindling to consider. Once accomplished, various wads of newspaper were inserted as a filler and additional fire-building aids. After much scrutiny and proper analysis, measurements were taken, calculations made, and on occasion…a surveyor called in. Only then would an actual log make an appearance. But Dad was also a thrifty sort of fellow and as firewood was expensive (obviously money DID grow on trees), he came up with a grand idea…bowling pins as logs! So Dad trolled the area bowling alleys and collected used, chipped bowling pins for this purpose. Trust me, I’m getting to the pornography — stay with me, people.

In addition to the festive tradition-evoking yule log bowling pins, Dad continued his pioneering recycling fever with the introduction of “paper” logs to the holiday fire. He would spend hours rolling newspapers and magazines into “logs” that were wound so tight (not unlike the old man himself) with wire that they would remain intact during the pyrotechnics. I now realize that my Father was having WAY too much fun at this activity in all of its obsessive-compulsive glory. And it was at this time that I decided to be “Santa’s Little Helper” and join in the glee of this “quality time” father-daughter bonding activity.

Let me set the scene up properly: tree is lit (not on fire, regular tree lights — we weren’t freaks or anything), mangled ornaments are garishly a-danglin’, gifts are placed in a playpen with tags from dead people, Mom is “drying out” in her bedroom after another wine-soaked session at the Conways (cold compress in place mumbling about some failed birth control), and Dad is holding a blow torch. And I’m the little eager beaver ready to accept my father’s delegation in the next logical step towards Christmas bliss…the assimilation of paper logs and stacking of bowling pins in the fireplace.

My responsibility and lone duty was to hand the magazines and newspapers to my Dad and he would do the rollin’. I would be reminded of this assembly line later in life, but then it was “roll, puff, and pass”. Actually, it was not the same thing at all. Never mind. Back to our hero “Super Pyro Dad”…and what followed was what one would call a “moment frozen in time”.

Dr. Phil sometimes asks his guests to name the 5 pivotal points in their life. This event would stand up there with Kennedy getting shot, the moon landing, 9/11, and my ex-husband screwing the town lush (but I’m not bitter). For this was the moment I discovered that Dad read Playboy Magazine. I guess Dad told Mom that he only subscribed to Playboy for the paper logs it would provide to heat the home. He was ways thinking of the “fam”, he was. Stick with your story, playah.

“Two breasts a-flashin’…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree!” Enough said on that matter.

Oh, and lest I forget — I would be remiss if I didn’t provide an accounting of the “maiden voyage” of the bowling pins to the growing pyre. Well, this was a crowd-pleaser in our humble abode, stacking up there with the freakin’ Fourth of July (only more deadly). Dad didn’t quite think this particular aspect of “fun with fire” out either, apparently. Bowling pins are shellacked with acrylic paint, then varnished with a clear coat varnish finish. Soooooo…once introduced to the fire, besides the crackling sound and many mini explosions, there was a whole “light show” that followed, as noxious fumes were emitted into the room and a bluish “glow” highlighted our little rosy faces. How we “oohed” and “aahed” with hero worship at this particular showmanship by dear ole Dad! And of course, we jockeyed for position to be as close as possible to this spectacle…and inhaled deeply.

Perhaps more humiliating to me as a nubile young preteen was the most embarrassing gift ever…or, to be more clear, the forever-scarring incident that arose after the presentation of this particular gift. I refer to it as “Panty Gate”. Sit back as I unfold this adolescent tale of discovery and woe that is worthy of an episode of “The Wonder Years”.

It was at one of my parent’s mixed couple Card Club get-togethers that I experienced my all-time most embarrassing moment. You see, one particular Christmas, my aunt had sewed me a robe with matching underwear. This perplexed me greatly as I never wore a robe with only panties underneath, lest a strong breeze kick-up from the napalm build up from the erupting bowling pins in the fireplace — a very real and frightening possibility!

Let’s set the scene…Lil Smokies and beer nuts are proudly displayed — the specialty cocktail napkins are front and center (this particular soiree’s napkin bore a theme boasting of what a cartoon baby would say in the womb…fancy, indeed!). The men were dealing cards in the living room and womenfolk subserviently gathered in the kitchen. It was an unspoken practice that men and women could not partake in gambling in the same room in days of yore…except when the dancin’ began later or when one of the husbands had to toss his “better half” in the shower for a quick jolt of sobriety.  Anyhoo, it was in the midst of this frivolity that Mom decided that this was the perfect forum to pass my homemade underwear around the room and make comments like, “Look…it’s even got a cotton crotch…so breathable!” I died a thousand deaths that night as my undergarment was fondled. There had to be some childhood agency I could call – I felt violated. Forget “Stranger Danger”…my parents were condoning this little panty raid. My crotch was the source of conversation for a whole 5 minutes! Did I mention that this undergarment was made of corduroy? So I was already a smartin’ from some nasty chaffing. The internal pain ran much deeper…and that’s NOT a vagina joke either, gutter rats.

Finally, no holiday would ever be complete if the family pet wasn’t included in the warm family memories. How we would chuckle when, after returning from Midnight Mass, we would discover that the family underwear would be strewn across the living room floor with the crotches eaten away by our horn ball of a dog! We really missed that dog after he was hit by the mosquito sprayer truck…although we didn’t notice the carnage immediately as we were buzzed from huffing the fumes. Rest assured, we did appropriately grieve once we sobered up. But this dog was a real “team” player…not unlike the “mules” that drug lords have carrying cocaine in their body cavities over the border. And this brings us to THAT Christmas dinner and you’ll understand the analogy.

On this gathering, our paternal Croatian Grandmother brought over a particularly distasteful looking crock of rhubarb. Like every other family in America, food was a punishment at our table. We all stopped hitting each other as this disgusting reeking mess was placed in front of us. We simultaneously stared in disbelief at the inhumanity of it all — not unlike the Hindenburg event, both devastating and tragic in nature. And horror of horrors, we were not allowed to leave the table until we consumed a heaping portion of this slop that was sadistically deposited on our dinner plate and served with a sardonic grin from my father. We remained stoically in our seats while the adults retired to the living room to inhale bowling pins.

It was at this time that the family dog sprang into action and bum, bum, bah! — rescued us from the clutches of this evil nourishment. One by one, we fed rhubarb to the willing canine accomplice and smugly announced that we had consumed our Grandmother’s handiwork. We hadn’t even completely vacated the table when the traitor dog waddled into the living room and “vacated” his stomach contents…right at my Dad’s feet! WTF! Slacker dog was NO Lassie apparently. The stupid dog was tossed out into a snow bank (overhand, as Dad was a pitcher in his college years) as it continued to spew rhubarb creating a lovely Christmassy red vomitous pattern in the freshly fallen snow. We were then “redirected” back to the holiday table — and we took that long death row march to the scene of the crime reciting “Ye, though I walk through the valley of shadows…” — and then held our noses and ate that bit of nastiness as fast as we could, as presents from dead people awaited us and also, there was a sure “buzz” awaiting us in the living room from the bowling pin fumes.

Which would explain why the operator of the mosquito sprayer truck swears he saw six children hurling the family dog under his slow-moving vehicle. What did that guy know? Everyone knew he drove DUIP…Driving Under the Influence of Pesticides!




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