The last few years, I have grown increasingly frustrated with Christmas. My relationship with my family has been better and better other than that, but somehow Christmas brings out all my latent neuroses at once, something that seems to be true for my sister as well.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Christmas turned out to be an actual pleasant experience this year. The differences were brought about by necessity — my grandparents have finally decided that they are too old for the long-standing tradition of everyone spending the night at my aunt’s on Christmas Eve, and economic circumstances seriously curtailed the gift exchange. The result was that the whole proceeding reflected the reality that we are all basically adults (even my young cousins are now old enough to drive), and I saw more clearly than before that the “traditional” Christmas brought out my childhood neuroses because it made me feel like a child. I didn’t want to bring it up gratuitously, but I’m going to be campaigning strongly for a similar approach in all future years. (My mom says that we’re going back to spending the night as soon as grandchildren are in the picture, but the way things are going, my teenage cousins will wind up being the first to reproduce.) I was also proud that my plan of buying my cousins a board game (Blokus, which turns out to be great) that we could subsequently play worked out brilliantly — we even got the nice bonus that everyone who played won at least once.
One thing that turned out quite differently from how I expected was seeing my grandpa, who has Alzheimer’s, for the first time in a year. Obviously the situation is tragic and it’s been very difficult for my grandma to deal with, but on Christmas Day, he was simply hilarious — it was as though a side of my grandpa that he’d willfully repressed all these years was finally getting to show. Before Alzheimer’s, he was the very model of humility and uncomplaining service, always very quiet and self-effacing. Now he is much more talkative and less tactful. During the gift exchange, he opened up a copy of my book, which my mom had gotten for everyone. As he looked at the cover, he said, “Philosophy and theology [the series name, which is at the top]…. What is this?!” Someone pointed to my name on the cover — whether he recognized it or not (he appeared not to recognize me, which was surprisingly non-upsetting), he played along. A bit later, we did a “random” gift exchange that my aunt had devised, where everyone bought a generic and inexpensive gift and they were distributed based on a complex algorithm. Somehow my grandpa wound up with a fondue set, which is perhaps the least suitable possible gift, and the look on his face said what the fuck?! He could hardly talk, he was so furious that someone would give him such a thing. So after everyone had opened all their presents, someone suggested we go around and say what our favorite gifts were. My dad said “sleeping in” (since we hadn’t spent the night and didn’t get to my aunt’s until 11). My grandpa was right next to him in the circle and, clearly still disgusted about the fondue set, said, “When I took a crap!”
Now my grandpa was “officially” quiet and self-effacing, but he did complain about my grandma’s demandingness and other things like that periodically — always off the record, explicitly asking his hearers never to repeat it. So even though it may sound terrible to say, the silver lining of his condition is that he finally gets to be a little selfish and straightforward. No one I know has so thoroughly earned that privilege.
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