Bundled in our winter coats my Grandfather, Mother, Father, Sister, and I ate our Christmas meal at a rickety card table, built for two, in the breezeway of the 1930s farmhouse. There was a lot of laughter as we learned more of my grandfather’s youthful indiscretions. Our laughter drowned out the the sounds of my Step-Grandmonster’s disgruntled family eating by the fire in the expansive living room. No one could ignore when Step-Grandmonster’s daughter Gretchen started shouting. While her family quickly tried to appease the latest fit of anger, my exiled family continued our Christmas celebrations. We knew the catalyst for the Gretchen’s anger-my mother.
Gretchen was the matriarch of her family from the tender age of three, it was a role she played her entire life, surpassing her older sister, and her own mother. The second of four girls she was a social climber. She married well and flaunted the wealth around her small town by driving expensive cars and wearing the latest fashions not found at the local Walmart or Goody’s. She was a middle-aged white woman with bleach blonde hair styled into an Afro. Oftentimes, there was a small bow (baby pink) tackily placed on the side of the ridiculous hairdo. Her constant bitter attitude began when her banker husband was convicted of fraud and served time.
Gretchen ruled a family of misfits. Her mother and father were cousins, her elder sister was legally blind, her daughter had not come out of the closet as a lesbian (we all knew) and her son was a rogue police officer. She had a more difficult time running the lives of her younger sisters and their children. Her two younger sisters were caring people that did not meet the mold of what Gretchen expected sisters to represent. The siblings were often ridiculed and excluded.
Not long after my Grandmother died of lung cancer, my Grandfather often returned to his hometown. He moved away eight years prior to live across the street and enjoy the youth of my sister and me. After my Grandmother’s death he was filled with guilt, because he was heavy smoker. He also suffered the grief of a widower married forty-nine years to the love of his life. During his hometown visits he reconnected with childhood friends. Together they reminisced fondly regarding the exploits of their youth. Meanwhile, my Grandfather’s visits to town were broadcast on the Widows Alert Network. Elderly widows know to not wait long after the body is in the ground before offering their food, home, and emotional comfort. A few months after my Grandmother died a local widow befriended my gregarious Grandfather.
My mother was a progressive in her time. To the dismay of my grandmother, my mother could be seen changing her own tires. Barefoot. 1955. With a cringing mother beside her, she would express her opinions even if they were contradictory to the man in charge.
I was there the day my Grandfather bravely told my mother he wanted to remarry. My mother wanted her father to be happy, so she immediately gave her blessing for him to wed a woman that my own Grandmother vehemently disliked her entire life. My sister quickly dubbed her; “Step-Grandmonster.”
At the marriage of my Grandfather to my Step-Grandmonster my mother was no longer an only child-she gained four adult sisters. New family traditions immediately were formed with the union of our small family to this large dysfunctional clan.
In order to mold the families my mother had to make deals with my father and sister. My sister, who is an excellent cook, would provide our share of the food for family events so my father would attend. Step-Grandmonster’s family believed salt was one of the four food groups and green beans should taste like Vick’s cough syrup. To gain my sister’s yearly participation we played Euchre.
We celebrated the holidays with pitchin meals and games that lasted all day. Laughter and sparring over card games were common themes for the fifteen years my family traveled, on Christmas Day, to rural Eastern Indiana. The laughter was sometimes tampered by Gretchen’s expression of how my Grandfather should spend the money she liked to flaunt as a gift to him. My grandfather’s plan was to always spend it on a night out with his grandchildren. This plan was always quite contradictory to Gretchen’s expected use of her gift.
One year Gretchen wanted to change the day of Christmas celebrations to fit her schedule–we were uninvited to be together on Christmas Day. My mother informed Gretchen that she would provide all the food and cook it. Actually, my sister would be the chef. Our family would be there on Christmas Day. Gretchen was livid. Fifteen-years of dealing with Gretchen’s dictatorship was enough for my mother and she decided to take charge.
We were excited to celebrate Christmas without Step-Grandmonster’s family. We were crestfallen when upon arriving with a car full of delicious food, we noticed the whole family did indeed decide to join us for a Christmas meal. Was it my sister’s cooking? Or could Gretchen not stand being in charge of a family event? Other than being informed our dining seats were in the breezeway, we were ignored. My family always has the tendency to make the best of any situation so we grabbed our food and raucously begin celebrating Christmas.
It was a memorable Christmas.
Grandpa shared new stories of his life.
We watched a middle-aged woman throw a temper tantrum.
Above all, it was proof of my mother’s love. She insured her family would spend every Christmas together even if it required a family war and eating in our winter coats.
Sadly, it was the last Christmas we shared with my beloved Grandfather.