OK, first two small disclaimers:
1. Content warning for violence (domestic and other), child sexual abuse, alcoholism, and general family dysfunctionality. I don’t go into any graphic details, but the elements are touched upon.
2. The featured image for this one has been left uncropped; I’m not sure how that will display in the Twitter feed or on a mobile, my apologies if it goes wonky but it didn’t seem right to crop it.
It’s Christmas morning and I am still in my pajamas, enjoying a second cup of coffee and eating an eggnog cookie. My partner and I opened our gifts from each other before she had to leave for work; she adored the mug I’d gotten her, made specifically for her by a really talented local potter, and I loved my black hoodie from Thinkgeek. On one side on the front it simply says “No.” in white text.
Unfortunately, the hoodie is a really snug style so we’re having to exchange it for a size larger, but it was really cool that she thought to get it for me and I’m looking forward to the larger one arriving. I love hoodies, and sarcasm, and black, so it’s a win all around. 😉 I also got a black T-shirt from a friend that says “I’m here because you broke something” which I am tempted to wear the next time I have to go in to work after-hours.
The title of this post is something I’ve said more than once when trying to explain how it was in my family… I would joke that some day I was going to write a story called “It’s not Christmas until someone calls the police” and now I actually have… but anonymously, to spare my mom’s feelings.
This is a bittersweet kind of blog post, more downer than uplifting, so keep that in mind and maybe save it for later rather than reading it on Christmas.
Christmas was a big holiday in our family, at least for my mom’s side. I have no idea if/how my father’s Scottish family celebrated it, since he was pretty much out of the picture for most of my childhood, but I have a lot of fond memories from Christmas with my German grandparents… And just as many not-so fond ones.
Christmas day was celebrated at home with opening the presents under the tree, and later, dinner with the ingredients from whatever charity box my mom had gotten. The local newspaper also ran a Christmas charity program called the ‘Star Box’ which was a largish-shoebox shaped box covered in Christmas paper print that contained a small toy, some candy canes, as well as (usually) socks, a hat, and some mittens. Whenever parents signed up for the box, they were asked the name and age of the child and whether they were a boy or girl, so unfortunately the toy in the box was usually something disappointingly girly like a cheap doll, which I had no interest in, but sometimes there was a book. It was always nice to have the warm mittens, especially since I tended to lose mittens constantly.
Fun fact: because I grew up poor in public housing (what would be called ‘the projects’ here in the U.S.) there were a lot of Star Boxes delivered to my neighborhood. The first week of the new year, after Christmas break was over, those of us kids who were not socially savvy enough to avoid the danger would all show up for school wearing identical hats and mittens, to be teased mercilessly by other kids who would chant “Star Box! Welfare case!” at us. We were all poor, but showing it opened you up for ridicule and taunting.
Anyway, we had our small Christmas at home on the 25th, but Christmas eve was when the whole family got together, usually at my grandparents’ house.
One of the end tables in the living room would be temporarily removed, as that’s where the tree would be. When I was very young, the tree still had actual candles that were lit briefly on Christmas eve, and beautiful ornaments from Germany including a delicate hollow star made of crystallized sugar (it had a little windowpane on the front, and you could look inside and see a winter scene) and fliegenpilz ornaments – little red and white mushrooms wired onto the branches.
Underneath the tree would be all of the presents, and around the room would be various other decorations only brought out at Weihnachten – things like Weihnachtsmann figures, reindeer, and snowmen.
Each of us kids would have a Christmas platter – they were big cardboard plates with Christmas themed print, brought out every year for this purpose. There would be some nuts (Brazil nuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts still in shells, but also a small bag of cashews) as well as a tangerine or two, and some marzipan. I usually got a marzipan pig with a fliegenpilz and cloverleaf in its mouth – I think that’s supposed to be for luck. There was always drama over this, because I really wanted to eat my marzipan but didn’t want to ‘hurt’ the pig. Similar drama played out at Easter over my chocolate bunnies.
Since all of my grandparents’ extended family were back in Germany, it was a small gathering with just my mom, my aunt, us kids, my uncle (really my aunt’s long term boyfriend, but they were together for so many years that I still think of him as my uncle) and sometimes whatever boyfriend my mother had at the time. It always started off civilly enough; some socializing and maybe a drink (for the adults) before dinner, then a big dinner at the table (usually a turkey) then back to the living room for the opening of the presents.
My uncle would always receive a heavy gift-wrapped box with a handle sticking out the top that looked suspiciously like a twelve-pack of beer – and was. I remember this because it was always a big joke, he’d hold it up and say “gee, I wonder what this could be?” I don’t really recall what my mom and aunt would usually get, as by then I’d be busy diving into my own pile of presents. My grandparents spoiled me, and I was fortunate to usually get some very cool presents, like the year I got a Fisher-Price safari set.
After the presents had all been opened, everyone sat around talking and drinking (except for my grandmother, who I never saw consume alcohol, ever) and this is where things started to go down hill.
You see, my grandfather was an alcoholic, and a mean drunk. Usually what would happen is that some divisive subject would come up, like politics, and the ‘discussion’ would get louder and louder until my grandfather, many beers past self control, would go off like a bomb, screaming and yelling.
Then the evening would end with my mom gathering up my presents hurriedly and getting me dressed in my snow suit and boots, and us rushing away to the bus stop, or sometimes taking off in a taxi.
Often the last thing I’d hear as we fled would be my grandfather still screaming and yelling. Sometimes we’d have my grandmother with us – if we could convince her to come – because we knew that once everyone else was gone, he’d turn on her.
On more than one occasion, the police would have been called, either by someone in the house because we could not get away safely, or by the neighbors, because of the loud disturbance.
Then there was the year that everything started off peacefully enough, with my grandfather companionably playing chess with my brother’s dad (who was Ojibwa) and ended with us having to escape the house because he’d gone down to the basement to find his gun, screaming that he was going to “shoot that goddamn Indian”.
The next year after that, we had Christmas eve at our apartment (I think in an attempt to circumvent the usual disaster) and my grandfather still managed to get drunk, started browbeating my grandmother, tried to hit my mom when she intervened, at which point she physically ejected him from the apartment. That time she had to call the police because he pounded on the apartment door roaring “my wife! give me my wife!” until the cops arrived and escorted him from the building. My grandmother stayed with us overnight.
After he was thrown out, he drove home drunk, then showed up again early the next morning (probably still not sobered up) and dumped several cardboard boxes with all my toys and clothes from my grandparents’ house. He buzzed up on the intercom and told my mom to come downstairs and get it all, and that we were no longer welcome in his house.
I was nine at the time, caught in the middle, and not really capable of fully understanding what was going on. I had spent almost every weekend at my grandparents; they had a garden and yard for me to play in, and it was (in between my grandfather’s violent episodes) a quiet refuge away from my mother’s often chaotic and constantly changing world, and I felt sad and hurt.
My grandfather was a tormented human being. He had a bad childhood – probably involving sexual as well as physical and emotional abuse – and was part of the generation in Germany that was swept up into the Hitler Youth. He wound up fighting on the front lines, having his leg blown apart towards the end of WWII.
He was in love with someone before he went into the war, but wound up marrying my grandmother, an army nurse, because they had a fling and she got pregnant; we didn’t find this out until they were both long dead, but it explains some of the bitterness between them. He was probably bipolar: he suffered from terrible depression and sometimes manic episodes – often one on the heels of the other like flipping a switch – and he self-medicated with alcohol.
My grandfather was a walking contradiction in some ways. He was both a terrible racist (literally brainwashed and indoctrinated to be that way from childhood) but also knew it was wrong, and when he wasn’t drunk he could see past it. He really did like my brother’s dad, for instance, and got along great with him when he was sober. He was genuinely horrified by what had gone on in the war; he was obsessed, in his final years, with holocaust books and would lock himself in his office, drinking and staring at the graphic pictures of the atrocities within, and sometimes crying.
He was a misogynist and a bully; he physically and emotionally abused his wife and children, but when I was little he never raised his voice to me, and never forced gender stereotypes on me – I grew up playing with train sets and die cast model airplanes. He had left his little girls at the mercy of their sexual predator grandfather and insane alcoholic grandmother back in Germany for over a year when they were little, while he and my grandmother came to Canada after the war to try and start a new life for the family, even though in all likelihood he had been abused himself and knew what his father was capable of. He had those same tendencies himself, and I was in turn left at his mercy by my mother, because it was not really understood back then how much this type of abuse is cyclic; the abused becomes the abuser. It was expressed to a much lesser degree, in his case, but the predilection was there.
In the early eighties, he died suddenly of such a massive heart attack that his heart basically exploded. Liver cirrhosis would have killed him if the heart attack had not. My grandmother sold the house and moved into a smaller house, and we continued to all spend Weihnachten every year at her house. Sometimes, my mother and aunt would get into a huge loud fight over something… I guess there had been so many years of Christmas being a battleground that they didn’t know how not to continue the cycle. After my grandmother died, everyone kind of scattered to the winds and we haven’t all been together in about thirty years.
I’m going to close this one with “So This Is Christmas” by John Lennon – one of the few Christmas songs I really like. I had never seen the footage in this video before, and I realized when watching it that I’d always misheard the lyrics: they are singing, “Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fears” rather than “without any beer” as I’d always thought they were singing.
Given my experience of Christmas when I was little, it sort of makes sense that I’d make that mistake, since alcohol ruined pretty much every Christmas of my childhood
Featured Image: The Christmas tree at my grandparents’ house when I was very young. Old faded photo un-enhanced with a plain white border added. Yes, those are real, lit candles!