This Christmas was the cherry on top of the whipped cream and sprinkles of the 2016 shit show. Delicious in powdered sugar and pain.
December found me in transition staying in my 99-year-old grandma’s basement. Nana likes the “Hollywood chocolate” I brought her from the Ghirardelli store on Hollywood Boulevard when I left Los Angeles forever. She likes bacon. Pears. Lawrence Welk. The mail.
On the morning of the third Friday in December I put my face right in front of grandma’s to communicate with her. Say, “Your son’s coming over. We’re making ravioli today.” I was up the night previous compulsively journaling. On no sleep I feel duty bound to save Christmas in a manic cooking frenzy as per usual.
“I don’t think that’s happening,” grandma says. “I don’t want to make ravioli today.” Never in the two months I’ve been in Reno have I heard her express such a strong opinion about anything.
I text anxiously with uncle Jim. I’m game to save Christmas. Studied in hierarchy and primogeniture I know my place. Gladly defer to Jim’s higher authority. He decides the two of us will make the ravioli with what help my cousin in the back house can give when he isn’t distracted by his little kid. I make the pasta dough alone from a faded handwritten recipe.
Jim shows up midmorning with a Tupperware of veal and sausage filling. Rolls out the dough. Smoothly spreads the meat. Folds the dough over. Great-grandma Nonni’s traditional recipe calls for cow brain filling. The Garaventa’s made cow brain ravioli for the last time in 2010. With an intricately carved piece of wood Jim rolls the folded dough into a lattice. Cuts down each line with a serrated round tool to make perfect little envelopes. I pile a staggering amount of raw ravioli on the dining room table cleared of cards and bills my uncle has to handle. The entire table is soon full of pasty pillows arrayed meticulously on white dishcloths.
“What are you doing?” asks my cousin’s son Edwin. His father tries to restrain the toddler from running amok.
“We’re making ravioli because we’re Italian.” I tell the child. One day we will teach him how.
At the age of two and three quarters Edwin lights up each room he enters. I am as guilty of spoiling him as his extended family despite his parent’s best efforts at discipline. At forty my own innocence and sense of the world as a good place is thoroughly destroyed. I am determined not to burst Edwin’s bubble of innocent joy at the benevolent world of friendly abundance he still gets to live in. For now. His bubble will inexorably burst in relentless time.
My parents arrive a week later. Care-taking of the matriarch is so appreciated my mother tells me some family wishes I would stay. The plan is February l move into a house nearby alone with cat. Every night since there were fifty-one days I count down the days until I move into my “House of the Rising Sun.” I am counting in the low thirties by now. Over dinner my father lets drop he could sell the house as I am tending grandma so well. He lifts his shirt to show purple scars from the lobectomy that cured his lung cancer. First Xanax of my parent’s visit popped two hours after they show up seems about right.
Christmas Eve morning my mother gets the phone call. Beloved uncle Danny died of rapidly metastasizing cancer. Auntie Ruthie’s intrepid bachelor brother was always at Christmas. Uncle Stinky tried and failed to teach me how to gamble one year at the Peppermill casino. We used to drink together back when I drank. I sent him Christmas cards. We debated anarchy on Facebook. Now he is dead.
We are having ourselves a death-y little Christmas amid splendor that seems a cruel joke. I am at a loss for the appropriate least offensive way of handling it. Blunder through with redemptive cooking and desperate writing. Out of the frivolous hobbies that occupy me on SSDI baking is the only one I see of any use to anyone else. I’m not sure at this point if my writing does anyone else any good. I am driven to produce text as therapy. Gladly I become my family’s on call on point pie person to be at least somewhat useful. Not just decorative as I fear. Grey roots at bang-length. Lines carve my cheekbones. I fade fast at decorative after abdicating my second and last chance to be a trophy wife.
Christmas Eve I make a pecan pie from The Joy of Cooking app on my iPhone. My dearly departed wife termed it The Joy. Cockroaches infest the white volume she left behind. Each Nevada night the temperature dips below the 32 degrees at which water freezes. I pray for the roaches that drove me out of Hollywood to freeze to death in that storage unit. I refused thus far to throw The Joy out with the rest of our cookbooks. I know when I empty that storage unit into the house I must. This app is recipe salvation. Corn syrup, brown sugar, eggs and pecans caramelize then burn together in a Paleo almond flour crust.
Next up I make Pomegranate Chicken. The Christmas Eve tradition my wife and I started when we drove up to Reno in 2010. The William-Sonoma New Flavors for Chicken is like The Joy destined for cockroach cookbook heaven. A Jpeg of the recipe was salvaged from the depths of my laptop’s hard drive. I reduce the pomegranate juice and brown sugar in a pan. My mother uncorks and measures the merlot. I won’t even touch alcohol in my hard-won sobriety.
We feast that Christmas Eve on succulent glazed roast chicken dazzled with pomegranate seeds. Green beans with slivered almonds. Mixed greens with canned black olives and balsamic vinaigrette. Grandma eats separately as she prefers in front of the KOLO 8 evening news. At the table we give each other permission to pick the legs up to suck meat from the bones.
Post dinner I rush to make the Key Lime Pie. Mom requested two pies. I draft her into juicing ten limes with an ingenious old gadget we find in a drawer.
“Ding dong the whisk is dead!” sings my mother. Grandma’s ancient whisk collapses into a pile of wires under the pressure of condensed milk, egg yolks, lime juice and zest.
It’s not Christmas Eve until someone has to go out and get more eggnog. My father puts on his down vest. Goes out into the night. Returns much later. Says the Am/Pm he went to on his fourth try was the only thing open. Two quarts of eggnog in a black plastic sack sit on the retro red chrome table. My father tells us a Christmas story. As he walked to his car on the fourteen degree street a homeless vet followed him. Asked for a buck.
“Because it’s Christmas Eve, here’s a $20 bill.” The vet stood outside of his car window and cried. Dad touched his hand. Drove back to the warm house. I force back tears at the story. Explain the male privilege that allowed this interaction. My parents pour brandy into their eggnog.
The editor of Queer Mental Health Facebook chats me late Christmas Eve. This Canadian website I write for has been on a long technical difficultly hiatus. After five years of the passion project the editor lost motivation amid the pressures of college. I agree in the bonhomie of Christmas Eve to be another editor as she asks for the second time. Solitary occasional online literary volunteer work I hope I am able to do within the confines of my disability.
My first task is editing the essay I submitted back in June 2016. Time-sensitive journalism on intersectional queer mental health issues brought out by the Orlando nightclub shooting. Two hours of attempted rewrites later my essay is outdated and unsalvageable. At two am I begin a different essay called “Subvocal Speech of a Schizoaffective on Christmas Morning.” I write the meta essay within an essay CalArts warned me about.
“Saved Queer Mental Health, saved Christmas, what else will your savior complex do?” the voice in my head that I write about says when I listen for it. “Would be nice if you could save yourself from all these other looming imminent disasters. At least you and your uncle made all those ravioli the other day when you didn’t sleep. It’s a Christmas miracle!”
I believe in miracles. Choked back tears at Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love on NBC. Saccharine schmaltz descends at 5 am Christmas morning. I anticipate blundering my way in burgundy velvet through the yawning day ahead. Awkwardly endearing family togetherness I feel totally up for. This should be interesting.
“Slow down,” says the voice in my head. “You’ve got to pace this so you submit your essay right at dawn. Well that’s fucking hilarious. Seriously. Didn’t you just have fun tonight saving something else. You saved yourself the humiliation of submitting that Orlando essay. That shit was terrible. So’s this but at least it’s more timely. Are you fucking seriously doing this? Aren’t we glad the aliens or nurse Ratchet haven’t taken the technology away yet? Try not to end up in the psych ward without your phone or the Internet any more.”
I’m working on it. Day by day. I hear the first thump upstairs that tells me the family I must celebrate the holidays with are rousing themselves for obligatory yet enjoyable rituals. At 6 am I hear a toilet flush. I take four pills because I must.
“All things considered that’s a best-case scenario,” says the voice in my head. I rationalize scientifically in text that it is only the loudly articulated inner monologue of my vocal cords moving while my mouth does not. My faulty Schizoaffective synapses can’t differentiate both voices are generated by the same brain. All in my head. I wash down the morning’s Prozac, Klonopin and Trileptal.
I hear, ”Control your enthusiasm. If you weren’t so endlessly entertained by your own psychosis there might be some hope for you. Alright, wrap it up. Try not to fuck up your last chance. Or Christmas Day.” Like so many things the voices of Schizophrenics say that could be interpreted as a threat. I hope with the audacious hope of Obama or mistletoe that as RuPaul says, I “Don’t fuck it up.”
“Don’t we specialize in the ominous.” the voice taunts. I write until dawn then press ”Private Publish” onto the Queer Mental Health WordPress the editor gave me permissions for. Hope against hope to have done something right.
I break for meditation. Yoga. Shower. Pull on sparkly tights. An American Apparel long-sleeved ice skater dress. A black velvet jacket conceals my Under Armour sports bra crossing woven lattice across the velvet dress’s plunge back. In the kitchen upstairs I tell my mother why I left AA. Dad and grandma sleep in while the ladies make breakfast and chocolate chip cookies. It’s a Christmas of adults, clearly.
At forty I am the youngest. As Christmas elf I pass out the parcels. Grandma only realizes it is Christmas when we start to hand her gift bags. Her shock unnerves us all to the core. Right before I open my presents I realize with devastating clarity that grandma might not live until I move out.
I unwrap my gifts. From my aunt Carol: a Psychic Tarot Oracle Deck. Black fingerless lace trimmed gloves I wear constantly in the frigid months to follow. From my uncle Jim and auntie Ruthie: An Elf nail polish set as I ran out of the polish I brought from Los Angeles. Eos lip balm for my newly Sierra dry lips. A Target gift card I spend on coffee and cat food. From my parents: A vacuum cleaner. Makeup. A Birchbox Good as Gold gift box. Toe-in yoga socks with lotus flowers on the bottoms. I love the grey Merino snood. Can’t wear it outside as it looks exactly like a hijab when pulled over my head. I’m so afraid of hate crimes in Trump’s new Republican Nevada.
I tweet, “Embracing the true spirit of Christmas: family passive aggressive life passages pathos surrounded by abundance. We’re coping.” It seems offensive not to at least pretend to enjoy my gifts so I try. I polish my nails blood maroon to match my dress. Explain to my father at length how to read Tarot until he seems bored. I am determined to act cheerful. I offer my family eggnog to wash down the elephant of death.
“What do I do if grandma dies in the next month while I am still living here?” I begin the conversation with my father right before we leave for further gritted teeth revelry. Not even the Necessary Nudes of the MAC palette I swipe on my lips can assuage my terror at this yuletide revelation. My interim interment in my abuela’s world has numbed me to how gradually yet relentlessly she fades.
I tweet, “But when is it not an especially heavy Christmas?” Grandma slowly fills out cards and checks for her descendants. I put the cash from the envelope she gives me straight into my Apocalypse survival fund. No Peppermill this year. There’s an impending Trumpocalypse to endure. Mom is sick with impatience and concern when her mother is still not ready at six pm.
Finally we hustle into the minivan to drive to Christmas dinner. I hug my curly haired black clad aunt Ruthie first thing in the door.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I say.
“It’s your loss too,” my aunt says. Gives me permission to grieve the uncle-in-law I adopted.
Sixteen assorted family and the odd orphan assemble around a blessedly place carded table. Eat rare Prime Rib with red wine leek sauce. Overcooked ravioli welded together into savory bourguignon mash. Mixed greens with avocado, green onions and a Dijon vinaigrette. Kale, apples and onions fried in bacon fat by cousin Lauren and her fiancé.
After dinner I watch Lauren cry over her uncle as we talk about her upcoming wedding. By her wine glass a crystal platter of Nonni Cookies, Mexican Wedding Cakes and Chocolate Chip Cookies. I comfort myself with slices of Pecan and Key Lime Pie dappled with whipped cream.
I am so glutted with grief that pie is like a punch in the gut.