We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

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AMY MONTICELLO teaches at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. She received her MFA in nonfiction from The Ohio State University, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Iron Horse Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, Natural Bridge, Redivider, Upstreet, Waccamaw, Prick of the Spindle, Phoebe, Sweet, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction chapbook, Close Quarters, is available from Sweet Publications. She is married to an Alabamian Eagle Scout, and sometimes speaks with an accent that isn't hers. Read more at her blog, Ten Square Miles, or at her author site.

10 responses to “Christmas 1984”

  1. […] Here it is, and thanks for reading: “Christmas 1984″ […]

  2. This is very powerful. That’s the other facet of the less-than happy holidays we wish each other.

  3. I meant to say….we wish each other “Happy Holidays,” but there are many aspects that are less than happy. (Cold meds. Sorry about that).

    • I remember a status update last June from Sugar, my favorite advice columnist on The Rumpus. It was right around Father’s Day, and Facebook was alight with gratitude for awesome dads, and Sugar was coping with feelings of exclusion and anger because she didn’t have one of those awesome dads. And I thought about the way I crawl into some dark feelings around the holidays, and the outside-looking-in sensation I get when I see people I love all through November and December. Some people, understandably, find my holiday darkness tough to take, or strange, or pitiable (which I hate the most). I was so grateful when Sugar put it out there that Father’s Day was full of ache and confusion and separation for her, and I suspect plenty of people have a holiday that makes them ache, too, for reasons they’re too embarrassed to say aloud, blasphemous as it is to be somber when others are happy.

      What’s missing from this piece, though, is that my mom and dad DO spend the holidays together again, with Jason and me. Their divorce, which is remarkable for so many reasons, has evolved into a committed relationship that’s not quite marriage, but it’s…something. And very real. And I’m so incredibly lucky for their hard work and determination to remain close and honor the love between them. In fact, I get the sense lately that they don’t get together for my sake–they take advantage of Thanksgiving and Christmas to spend some time together, reminisce, and reaffirm that caring for each other can take many permanent forms.

      Thanks for reading, Hannah, as always. I hope that cold lets go soon, even though I remain awed that nothing stops The Storialist from posting her poems!

      And in all sincerity, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas with Marcus in Columbus!

  4. How strange and wonderful a thing to have! We nonfiction writers luck out sometimes, don’t we?

    What explanation does your mother have for the recording, I wonder (or, is it private)?

    • Marissa, yes! Coolest. Artifact. Ever. I’m a tiny alien screaming and jumping and singing, and all these familiar voices (over half of whom are gone now) behaving in such ruthless normalcy that I’m almost angry with them when I listen, want to reach in and say, “Just stop it. Stop pretending that all the things that have already happened are never going to happen. Freeze.”

      What’s especially weird about the tape is that my family isn’t particularly well-known for preserving memories–we have no videos, very few photo albums, nothing really like this. I asked my mother why she did it, and she says she really can’t remember any particular urgency about it. Sometimes I think we just get some sense that our world is about shift, so for a moment, we pay closer attention to where we are now. Whatever her instincts, I’m grateful she had them.

      Thanks for reading! I’m so super excited to see all the wonderful things you’re going to post here!

      • The fact that she can’t particularly remember makes it even better, I think. You’re absolutely right about those subconscious perceptions in advance of a shift — the reasons we take more photographs, or get into more fights, right before a relationship ends. Your mother must be a very intuitive person.

        I’m DYING to get my first essay up here. Damn end-of-semester grading crunch. This weekend, I hope…

    • Pete DeLorean says:

      “We nonfiction writers luck out sometimes, don’t we” Wow. I love that. I relate so much more to non-fiction stuff. When it’s good it is so riveting to me.

      Amy I enjoyed this. I’m the kind of person who never brings a camera to document an event and then, over time, regret it. It in only in my memory, unmoored, until I write about it.

      • Amy Monticello says:

        Thanks for reading, Pete! You know, I never placed much stock in photographs and the like until I began teaching a freshman writing course on “framing the family.” One of the essays we read was Annette Kuhn’s “Remembrance.” In it, Kuhn analyzes the rhetoric of a particular photo from her family album, the controversial caption her mother wrote, and the significance of the “absent presence,” which refers to the people, places, events, feelings, etc. that surround the photo, though not pictured, and the effect of photography on recasting our own memories within an culturally-accepted framework for a good life.

        After I read this essay, I began mining the family albums, and became especially interested in my parents’ engagement photos, taken in 1980. My father wears a yellow polo shirt designed to match my mother’s cream-colored blouse–a color he probably didn’t choose to wear himself, a color way too bright for his usual wardrobe of earth tones. His smile, too, has implications. A tentative smile when compared with my mother’s easy, proud one. I don’t get the sense, though, that he resented having the portraits taken; on the contrary, I think he very much wanted to have them. But not so much because he would treasure the hope of this moment before marriage. More that he wanted to cast himself within the role of doting husband, try it on, affirm that it suited him because, deep down, he feared all the ways he would fail my mother in marriage.

        Now, whenever I examine the relics of relationships, I see all I have infused them with–all the moments after the one captured, all the future and past contained in the present. As Kuhn says, “Family photographs may affect to show us our past, but what we do with them–how we use them–is really about about today, not yesterday. These traces of our former lives are pressed into service in a never-ending process of making, remaking, making sense of, our selves–now.”

        • amy, i read this way back when and didn’t comment, but re-read it today, and wanted to say it’s splendid. and isn’t kuhn wonderful? i read family secrets several times for a performance art workshop i took at LSU, and re-read her for my MFA thesis, novel. i’m completely absorbed by her work, and i have to say, the more i read of yours, absorbed by it, also. great writing.

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