How does this happen every year? I’m standing on a suburban street with the Christmas stars burning overhead as my parents hurtle towards each other in their cars, going 88 miles per hour as if they want to go back in time and fix the whole big mess they’ve gotten themselves into. And I’m standing between them, like I’m the Hulk or something, hoping they’ll come to their senses and not kill me and each other.
Where to begin? Part of it is the eggnog. Mom makes it virgin but then Dad adds a nip of brandy to it; Grandma Helen splashes in some bourbon and Uncle Murray ends up dumping in some vodka, ‘cuz he’s got no sense. And then of course, you get the years when the dog or the baby drool in it, but you can’t blame them because Uncle Bert keeps putting the bowl on the floor. Anyway, it ends up one potent, disgusting mix, but we all drink it anyway ‘cuz it’s tradition.
Then there’s the board game tournament. I don’t know who came up with this particular tradition (that apparently God Himself couldn’t set aside for one measly year) but they were no friend of our family, it seems. Monopoly, Scrabble and Spades are the staples but sometimes they throw in a kid version too for the littler ones. By this time, all the adults have had a couple glasses of eggnog or a few slices of my cousin Jewel’s rum cake, which is more rum than cake. We argue for fifteen minutes about house rules, and keep arguing as we play. Uncle Murray always cheats, Aunt Pat always yells at him for it, and Mom yells at everyone to be civil. Dad keeps quiet but as the stress mounts, I can see his hands twitching for the smoke he hasn’t had in six years.
By the time the games are over, it’s about 8pm on Christmas Day and everyone is just about sick of each other. That would be a great time to call it quits or watch a movie or something, but tradition is the rule of law in our house, and what comes next is Christmas carols. You’d think this would calm everyone down but nope. Mom wants to only sing religious songs and Jewel wants to sing Rudolph. No one else cares, but soon we’re all shouting at each other to calm down.
Mom blows up when she’s stressed but not Dad. He’s like a sponge and I can see it all working on him, twitching him up good. I swear this is the only day of the year he regrets quitting smoking. I see him working up and every year, I try to think how to stop what’s coming and every year, I just can’t.
The next tradition is dancing, although it never lasts long. The problem is that after all the stress, my mom really wants my dad to dance with her and calm her down. Stress makes her lonely. Dad’s the opposite and although he’s a good dancer, stress makes him want to go away and be alone. She yells at him for ruining the holiday, accuses him of not liking her, stuff like that, and I wonder if I’m the only one who sees what’s going to happen—maybe they all can too, but no one can stop it either.
At a certain point, my dad snaps, just starts yelling. He storms outside and gets in his car. Mom bursts into tears, then gets real angry and follows him.
And here’s the part no one really understands, at least I don’t. Dad takes off in one direction, Mom in the other. They go up to the stoplights at each end of our road, then turn around, like they’ve reconsidered and are going to make up. But they come at each other and just floor it, like all the stress of the day is going into the gas pedal.
Every year, I consider letting them just have at it. They would swerve at the last minute. They wouldn’t crash into each other. Except there’s that tiny spark of fear in me that this year, the stress and eggnog will be too much and they just won’t and I’ll be an orphan. So I run out in the road, pleading for them to stop.
Sometimes they stop in plenty of time. Sometimes they swerve, lose control and hit a snowbank. Mom got a slight concussion one year, but that’s been the worst of it.
So now I’m watching the headlights of Mom’s Sonata and Dad’s RAV4 bearing down on me but I don’t see my loving parents behind the wheel; I see all the stress of trying to make everything perfect and keep every tradition to the letter all come down on me and I hope it won’t kill me this year. But then I hear the screech of brakes and both cars come to a stop. A little closer than I’d like, but still in the safe zone. They get out, Mom crying and even Dad looking a bit misty-eyed. We all hug and everyone apologizes and we all go inside.
Playing chicken on Christmas is a tradition in our family, even if it’s not one people talk about. It’s one I’d kind of like to change, but maybe it’s got its place as a safety valve for the stress. And as long as it doesn’t kill anyone, I guess that’s okay.