I was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, and I go home for Christmas every year. I never invite friends, lovers, or roommates to come with me, perhaps because bringing someone to Omaha in the dead of winter seems unfair, like introducing them to your mother when her hair is in curlers. From November to March the trees are bare and clawlike, the sky is a papered-over window, and the snow never melts but just stays, gathering filth. Or perhaps I come home alone because I don’t want anyone to meet my relatives.
Every December 24, my family goes to my paternal grandmother’s house in Lincoln, an hour away. Travel of any sort makes my father anxious, and during the winter months his anxiety is exponentially worse due to the constant threat of a blizzard or ice storm. To him each intersection and lane change between Omaha and Lincoln is an impending tragedy. In the days leading up to Christmas Eve, he keeps the Weather Channel on constantly. The night before we leave, he issues his annual edict about what time the car will pull out of the driveway. It is always the same: one o’clock sharp. But when one o’clock arrives, no one is ready. He paces the front hallway, muttering and sighing. At 1:10 my mother begins shuttling gifts and Tupperware to the car. At 1:15 my father starts screaming. “It’s simple goddamn math!” he says. “One o’clock!” he says. “You don’t give a goddamn about anyone but yourselves!” Around 1:20 a verbal fight breaks out between my father and one of his children (the honor rotates yearly), as if an explosion were necessary for us to reach escape velocity. By 1:30 the last of us walks through the billowing white exhaust and gets into the Chevy Suburban, which my father has idling in the driveway. He sits in the driver’s seat, gloved hands gripping the steering wheel, head shaking in disgust. The interior is suffocatingly hot because the car has been warming up for forty minutes. We all fasten our seat belts, sheepish and ashamed. Then, incredibly, my father gets out and goes back into the house.
My mother recently revealed to me that, once inside, he will check all the doors and then urinate, in that order. I wonder if he believes this secret ritual will keep us safe on our trip. This year I decide to try an experiment: I pull off my scarf and tuck it in my pocket. Then, when my father returns to the car, I say I’ve forgotten my scarf and have to go back inside.
In the front hall, I turn a slow circle, looking around at the living room, the stairs, the heavy front door with its leaded-glass window. The clock in the dining room ticks softly. After the appropriate time has elapsed, I put my scarf on and return to the car. Goose bumps rise on my arms as my father goes back into the house a second time. I imagine him rattling doorknobs and grunting out a single drop of urine, all so we won’t die in a fiery crash.
The drive to my grandmother’s is fifty-five minutes of dirty gray roads through brown fields. The Suburban, a massive vehicle my father purchased for its supposed indomitability, gets pushed around by the blustery wind. On the car stereo, like good Nebraskans, we listen to Mannheim Steamroller. The group’s first holiday record is tolerable — a classic, even, played in retail spaces nationwide. The second Christmas album, however, took a good thing too far, suffocating old English carols in bad synth tones and the sort of musical bombast usually reserved for financial-service infomercials — none of which stopped the group from making two more Christmas albums. In the car, my brother Peter and I play air keyboard (he prefers the “key-tar,” which is strapped across the body like a guitar), biting our lips and closing our eyes, while my youngest brother, Andrew, clutches his sides and wheezes hysterically.
By the time we reach the end of the tape, the Nebraska State Capitol building — aka the Penis of the Plains — has appeared on the flat horizon. The centerpiece of the building is a four-hundred-foot-tall domed tower topped by a statue, The Sower, who casts seeds from a basket on his hip. Designed by renowned New York architect Bertram Goodhue, it’s one of the first examples of usable “tower space” (what we now call “skyscrapers”) in American architecture, and every grade-school student in Nebraska gets taken on a tour of it. (In my mother’s era, the second-most-popular field-trip destination was the Beatrice State Home for the Mentally Retarded, which gave her persistent childhood nightmares about the hose-down area and the residents’ identical bowl-shaped haircuts.)
When we turn onto Grandma’s street, I always mistake several houses for hers. They all look the same: small, 1950s white cottages with metal railings leading up to postage-stamp-size concrete stoops. My father parks in front of the right one, and we step gingerly across the ice that’s coated the front walk for months. My father raps on the screen door, and my Aunt Rita peers out through the window, then opens the door, squealing, “Yay!” in a sarcastic-sounding falsetto. Aunt Rita never speaks in a serious tone, and as a result I know almost nothing about her other than what can be ascertained visually: she lives with her mother, and she loves science fiction.
We squeeze into the tiny living room, where my grandmother gives us her version of a pleasant smile: corners of her mouth upturned, expression both shy and tired. She is frail and astoundingly slight at four-foot-eleven and eighty-five pounds, but still attractive and tastefully dressed in charcoal wool pants and a red lamb’s-wool sweater. An acquaintance has told me she was once widely considered the most beautiful woman in all of Lincoln. The house is no more than seven hundred square feet, the living room kitchen-size, the kitchen bathroom-size, the bathroom closet-size. A three-foot-tall fake Christmas tree sits on a side table, decorated with Hallmark Star Trek ornaments collected by Aunt Rita. Every few minutes Andrew pushes the button on a spaceship ornament, causing it to light up and squawk, “Resistance is futile.”
The house has a finished basement, but I have been down there only once, because it is Aunt Rita’s lair. She has lived in the basement, a labyrinth of paper and comics and art supplies, for thirty-three years, ever since she hit puberty. For a while we all hoped she might find fame and fortune as an illustrator — she really is good — but she no longer goes to the Star Trek and anime conventions, where she once enjoyed widespread admiration. She no longer goes much of anywhere.
Why Aunt Rita has never moved out of her mother’s house is not an OK topic to discuss. If pressed, my dad will only shake his head. My mother has hypothesized that Aunt Rita is in fact a lesbian whose homophobia prevents her from socializing. Once, she invited Aunt Rita to a concert at the Nebraska State Fairgrounds, a double bill of singer-songwriters Holly Near and Cris Williamson, who make the lesbian duo Indigo Girls look like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. Halfway through, Aunt Rita tugged at my mom’s sleeve, pale and trembling, and said, “Have you seen the kind of people who are here?” meaning all the women holding hands. Rita asked to be taken home, where she skulked back to the basement without saying goodbye.
Usually within a few minutes of our arrival at Grandma’s, a second car will rattle into the driveway, and Grandma will mutter, “Christ almighty. Here comes trouble.” Then Aunt Trudy and Uncle Charles will come through the door, followed by the twins and their big sister Stacy. Charles is Trudy’s second husband. When they first met he was a hippie goat farmer, and Trudy was grieving her first husband, a heroin dealer who’d mysteriously disappeared off his boat in the Caribbean. It’s hard to imagine Charles as a stoned young goat herder or Trudy as a drug dealer’s moll, just as it’s hard to imagine my father, who has become so rigid and fearful in his old age, moving to Helsinki, Finland, as a young man with only fifty bucks and the address of a friend of a friend. But all of them were once these other people. The twins were born with herniated belly buttons, ruddy, golf-ball-size mounds of flesh that throbbed when they cried. Now they sport eyeliner and ghetto accents, even though they are blond and live in Colorado. Stacy, three years older, is forgoing college for a career in the Colorado modeling industry.
This year, though, Charles and Trudy are late. When I ask about them, Rita just rolls her eyes and shrugs. Later Grandma mentions that the twins got jobs as Santa’s elves in the mall this year, so none of them are coming. I’ll miss the chaos and levity of the smirking, giggling girls. It’s too quiet without them.
We all cram onto the couch, thighs pressed together, to eat Chex Mix and try to make small talk, but every time a conversation gets going, Aunt Rita breaks into earsplitting song, her own special strain of Tourette’s syndrome. All her songs are themes from science-fiction TV programs, particularly Doctor Who, which I’ve never seen, though I tell her I have. Most of the themes have no words, so she just mimics the music: “Dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo, DONG-DONG!”
Every Christmas when I was a child, Grandma would make turkey and mashed potatoes for twenty-five people. That was when she lived in a larger house across town. Her grandchildren would swarm the place, pounding the piano and orchestrating puppet shows, while her children and their spouses drank wine and laughed. My Aunt Elizabeth would bring an elaborate array of home-baked cookies, and my father would hoard the ones filled with mincemeat. Uncle Richard, my favorite uncle, a former juvenile delinquent who became a police captain, would raid the relish tray for black olives, sticking them on the tips of our fingers. But one day, while in a meeting with the mayor, he failed to take a phone call from Grandma, who’d been in a fender bender. Fifteen years have passed since then, and she’s still not speaking to him. Another of her sons, Bruce, was banished long before that. No one knows why. As with many subjects, Grandma refuses to discuss it.
Now she is down to three children on Christmas Eve, and instead of turkey and mashed potatoes, we order pizza. This tradition arose when Grandma grew overwhelmed by the logistics of cooking but refused my mother’s offer to take over. Soon Grandma found even the dishes burdensome, so we switched to paper plates. More recently she has developed an aversion to dirty glasses, so we’ve started using plastic cups.
Grandma has been widowed twice: once by my grandfather and once by his alcoholic accountant. While we gather in the living room, she always sits in the kitchen, perched on a wooden stool, smoking Kools and drinking percolated coffee, the wooden shutter drawn across the doorway so we can see only her Hush Puppies swinging petulantly. Once in a while a quip will sail from her quarter, usually alluding to the terminal illness she’s hinted at for years. (Even before her mysterious illness, she had a morbid streak. Once, she sent me a letter at college that read, “I broke a jar of spaghetti sauce the other day, and it went all over the drapes. Looked like someone blew their brains out.”) Her constant references to her impending death add gravity to the holiday: this could be the Last Christmas. You would think the approaching doom might make us pull out all the stops, but instead Grandma keeps drawing in tighter, and to challenge her would be tantamount to denying her last request. We have no choice but to go along.
This year Grandma has forgotten to order the pizza ahead of time. My mother suggests delivery, but my father objects to tipping some teenager, who will probably stop by his girlfriend’s house on the way while our pizza congeals. He’ll pick up the pizza himself. As he dials, he and Grandma argue over how many pizzas we need. “It’s not like I bother eating anymore,” she says.
Normally picking up the pizza is a chance for my father and Uncle Charles to get out of the house, but Charles and Trudy aren’t here this year, so my father goes alone while my mother unwraps the paper plates and plastic tumblers and sets out the two-liter bottles of RC Cola. She also assembles a special salad of butter lettuce and raspberries, which, aside from providing much-needed roughage, has the added benefit of being a festive red and green. Grandma allows her to import this dish from Omaha, with the stipulation that she “leave no trace” — neither an empty raspberry carton nor a stray leaf of lettuce. My dad returns with three large pizzas: one cheese, one pepperoni, and one hamburger and black olive. How many families have similar holiday meals? There was a time when I wouldn’t have believed you could order a pizza at six o’clock on Christmas Eve. The fact that you can is both comforting and devastating. It means we are not alone.
We decide to open presents while we eat. Why gift-giving persists when all other traditions have been discarded is inexplicable. There are very few presents under the tree. My brothers and I are handed identical tissue-paper-wrapped packages. We open them together, and inside each is a box of crayons and a small toy from Rita. My brothers’ toys are action figures. Mine is a child-size Barbie crown. I wonder if this is one of Rita’s jabs. She has always resented me, believing my birth robbed her of the attention of her heroic older brother (my father), who had always taken care of her. I turn the crown over and notice a stamp in the plastic: “Copyright McDonald’s Inc.” A Happy Meal toy. Grandma hands us each a greeting card. Inside is a ten-dollar bill, money I plan to spend drinking — perhaps later tonight. My dad gets a pair of driving gloves. “To keep you warm while you’re screaming at all the ‘dipshits,’ ” Grandma mutters, referring to my father’s incessant driving monologues. I wonder how she remembers; it must be twenty years since they were in a car together. For some reason my mother gets nothing from Grandma, but several lovely handmade cards from Rita. Finally my father hands Grandma her annual present: a check. When she opens the envelope, Grandma says nothing, just draws the corners of her mouth up, wincing.
A large oil painting of my grandfather stares at us from behind the Star Trek tree. He wears a dashing charcoal suit, his sideburns white in contrast to his black hair, his blue eyes eerily pale. Dead for many years, he is a man I never met, and the only person in my family I resemble. I look around the room at the two strange women sitting rigid in their chairs; at my father checking his watch every two minutes, making calculations; at my mother, her face an immobile mask, stripped of all its wryness and spontaneity. Andrew wears a nervous smile; Peter looks as if he’s getting a migraine. I wonder if my grandfather, had he lived, could have prevented the incremental slide that has brought us here to this tiny house with its basement full of paper, its unused plates and cutlery.
The pizza is cold, the mood funereal. In our silence we can hear a family departing from the identical house next door: cars honking in the driveway; voices calling, “Goodbye! Goodbye! Merry Christmas!” Grandma closes her eyes to listen, holding very still. Perhaps she is saying a silent prayer of gratitude, for each Christmas brings her closer to her wish to be alone. Or maybe, finally, as she has promised, she is dead. The rest of us exchange wide-eyed looks over our pizza crusts. Aunt Rita holds her plastic cup beside Grandma’s ear and rattles the ice. Grandma jerks, and her eyes snap open. She stares at her desiccated piece of pizza for a long time. Finally she curls her lip and says, “Jesus. You have to wonder what the homeless are eating tonight.”
My father stands abruptly and pats his wallet, as if it might have disappeared from his pocket, then slips into his wool coat and fishes out the car keys. Grandma watches him closely, as always, admiring and possessive. But there’s something a little wounded about her stare. After all, he’s not much good to her — not as good as a husband would be. Even her remarkable beauty couldn’t secure one forever. Maybe that’s why she’s banished her sons one by one: they’re just another broken promise.
Perhaps when Grandma does die, we’ll start cooking turkey dinners again, and Dad will quit watching the Weather Channel for Death’s whirling approach. Or maybe the same strangeness will overtake the next generation, make perpetrators of those who were once stunned witnesses. If my father is any indication, the progression is inevitable. Resistance is futile. Any day now, I am next.