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The Dreaded Christmas Letter

When I was younger I eagerly awaited Christmas card season every year. It wasn't for those dreary religious scenes, nondenominational holly, fluffed-up family portraits or hokey animals in a snowy woodland. I wanted the soft chewy center: The Christmas Letter.

Every year my mother and I would remove the mimeographed (yes, I'm that old!) papers from inside the cards and set aside time to hoot over them. Over the years since then, Christmas letters have become fodder for many parodies, but, as Ashford & Simpson would tell you, ain't nothing like the real thing, baby.

There's a special joy in analyzing twisted truths and translating their hidden reality. For a real holiday treat, cook up some Swiss Miss and settle in while you develop the psychological profiles that explain the underlying insecurity, narcissism and lack of humility behind the blatant bragging and truth-stretching.

"Our beloved son is exploring his professional options, and lately has been considering the legal field." Translation: He's trying to get his felony conviction stricken from the public records so he doesn't have to keep putting it on his fast food job applications.

"Currently I'm involved in a new nonprofit organization to try and make meaningful changes in the status quo in my area. It's an uphill battle but as those who know me can attest, nothing can stop me in my quest for justice." Translation: As the lone voice of opposition to a project everyone around me favors, I've become a neighborhood pariah and have taken to sleeping with a gun under my pillow.

Also amusing is poking fun at the letters with gimmicks, such as those written by the family dog. ("The big one I call Master was congratulating the little one I call Tail Puller the other day. Something about 'good grades,' whatever that means. They walk on two legs, so their voices are somewhere up around the ceiling and I can't always tell exactly what's going on.") Parodies of Martha Stewart and Santa Claus making out his list never fail to fail to amuse.

Then there are the ones that are unintentionally hilarious by nature of their somber tone: "We've calculated that 67.4% of our extended family suffers from 'Morgenstern Toe,' a painful condition where the fourth toe bends over to scratch the third. We're voluntarily participating in DNA testing to identify the gene that causes this and are hoping our dedication can help others who have similar 'crosses to bear.' So we can't say 'at least we have our health,' but we can say 'we're working on it.' "

Travel, marriages/births and family achievements are popular Christmas letter topics, offset by the perennial death, divorce and public humiliation. Where did you go this year and how exotic can you make Cleveland sound? Who got married and had a kid, not necessarily in that order? Who was named a Rhodes scholar but never comes to visit any more? Who died and from what? Who was cheated on, abandoned, or otherwise left by the side of the marital road? Who was indicted, prosecuted, deposed, exposed, run out of town on a rail or picked up in a men's room in Minneapolis--and how can you make it sound like a good thing?

The letters I loved the most were from my mother's high school and college friends I had never met and she hadn't seen in decades. Their entire relationship had devolved into that of Christmas Correspondents, a special category of former friends about whom you know nothing current except what you can glean from their Christmas Letters. When I read about obscure Little League games in which some kid I would never meet hit the winning home run, or the cum laude graduation of a stranger I could despise sans guilt, I felt a special bond with my mother. There was a reason she wasn't in touch with these people the other 11 months of the year, and she enjoyed my company enough to share with me the reasons why.

Thanksgiving Letter

Some people like to get a jump on sending out Christmas letters by sending out Thanksgiving letters instead. Here's one passed along to us recently.

Dear All,

Chef Gordon Ramsay would be proud. Todd, Ted, Daniela and I managed to create a delicious Thanksgiving meal despite our horrifying lack of experience, equipment, and the confounding uber-organic Turkey, which we discovered upon unwrapping still had it's [sic] feathers on! A quick call to Jen and Judy reassured us that the feathers, while annoying, would not ruin the meal.

We ate 2 hours late because when they say 20 minutes per pound, they lie! But, it was scrumptious and we had a great time.

Annie has become a very smiley baby especially in the last week. She smiles after being fed, after producing a particularly stinky diaper (as if to say..."Ha! Now change THAT!") and Molly and Daddy are completely hilarious.

Annie also has the special talent of doing a great imitation of Grampa Walsh. We think of him often when she gets a little Irish twinkle in her eye or when she gives us that "You're a half-wit." look. We pulled out a special Thanksgiving newsletter/gaelic lesson he sent to the grandchildren in 2001 and thought it might be fun to share in the spirit of the holiday. The text is in the post script below.

Love,

Ashley, Teddy, Molly and Annie

P.S. From Grampa Walsh - Thanksgiving 2001

Ciotach no Deisealach

You may have noticed your grandmother's shoes scattered around the house, on the porch and in her car. She has numerous dozen pairs and usually goes barefoot in the house and around the yard but does put them on to go downtown, etc. The other day she came home in the evening and announced that she had worn two left shoes all day long *(same color) and they were very comfortable. It was then that I noticed, for the first time, that the big toe on her right foot was on the outside and the little toe inside. No wonder her feet felt better with two left shoes. Now I understand at least part of the reason she has been in such a mean, miserable mood for the last sixty-eight years. (SORRY GRAMMIE)

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, you may express your gratitude for this epiphany by sending a tax free contribution to:

GRANDMOTHERS LEFT SHOE FUND
(address deleted)

(below that he drew check boxes ranging in amount from $1,000 to Other $)

Another true story:

I saw a little girl in the office the other day and asked her how she was. She said, "I'm fine, thank you."
I said, "Why don't you ask me how I am?"
She said, "Because I don't care."

Seanathair, Altu (Thanksgiving) 2001.

Hellish Customer Service

I'm home now and I don't want to go out again. I can't. It's too discouraging. I can't get anything done due to the incompetence of virtually everyone I come in contact with, so what's the point?

Unfortunately, staying home isn't the answer either because even online solutions aren't working for me. It's like changing lanes and having your new lane come to an instant stop: whatever you try to do to save time and make your life easier will come back to bite you on the ass. So happy holidays and bring on the excuses!

I'm having a dinner party Sunday to celebrate my upcoming birthday, one of those terrifying ones that end in a zero. My husband and I recently separated and I have spent the past week trying to put the house back together since he moved out. There are lots of empty spaces and disorganization, but I'm working on it, with the party as a motivation.

The problems started this morning with an email from the shoddy company from whom I ordered 48 wineglasses in mid-October. OK, I'll name names: it was wineglasses.com, (un)fulfilled by winestuff.com. They managed to get me champagne glasses right away, but not any of the other three kinds. On the site, when I ordered, there was nothing about them being out of stock but of course if they'd told me, I might have gone elsewhere and they didn't want that! Almost six weeks later and not a peep out of them, and I need the glasses by Sunday.

The phone number for winestuff.com on the October Visa bill (billing me in full for my order) was a nonworking number, which never builds confidence. So last night I emailed them for a second time, after no response to my first email two weeks ago, asking them when I could expect my glasses. I received an email this morning informing me that it would be next week at the earliest. So now I need to borrow or rent glasses for my dinner party.

That annoyed me enough, but there was plenty more to come. On to my first errand of the day, dropping off four items to be framed. When my husband moved out, he took the majority of the artwork. I called the framing store first, around 9:30, and was told they were open and to come on in. When I arrived, a few minutes later, I found a couple ahead of me with a major project spread out all over the counter and one worker, Randy, who informed me he would be with me shortly. I picked out four different frames and still the couple was obsessing over mat colors and frame styles. This was obviously going to take a while, but Randy assured me someone else was coming in at 10:00am, in just 10 minutes. He encouraged me to wait.

At 10:15 when no one else had shown up and the couple still hadn't made it halfway through their project, I gathered up my things and headed for the door. Randy rushed over to recommend I go to another branch of the store and mention his name, which he reminded me was Randy. Then he asked me for my name, which I refused to give him. He had taken more than a half hour of my life and that was enough.

I headed to Errand #2 (Errand #1 having been an utter failure), picking up a small table for the front hall. I girded myself for a problem, since I hadn't called ahead, but no, the table was there and pickup took just a few moments. Score one for Plummer's!

Next, to Rug Warehouse to pick up the pad for a rug I bought last week. Naturally the rug was not in stock and had to be shipped from New York at a cost of $175 to make it in time for the party. The rug is 8x11' and I needed a pad the same size. They tried to sell me one about the thickness of a Band-Aid, but, I wanted one that might actually protect my wood floor. So I paid for the thicker one and George, the salesman, asked a worker to go in the back and cut it for me. The guy was back there for quite a while, during which time I played "Bejeweled" on my phone. Finally the pad was brought out. It was 7x12'. Hence my return visit today.

I had called George on my drive over from the frame store to make sure he would have the pad, since the rug is being delivered tomorrow. He assured me it would be ready. And it was: the Band-Aid thickness pad was all tied up in a tiny bundle, ready for me to take it. The salesperson (George was nowhere in sight) cheerfully told me that I was even due a refund because this pad was cheaper than the one I actually wanted.

I asked to see George who reluctantly came over. We went back and forth about the pad: really, this one would be fine. I asked him why he didn't have the thicker one and he said because the big roll had run out and a replacement had not yet arrived from the East Coast. The way he said it, I obviously was expected to say, "Oh, the East Coast! That's really far away! No wonder it's not here after eight days." He even pointed out that I had paid extra to order my rug as a "rush," the inference being that certainly he shouldn't be expected to do the same.

I told him that, as a rug store--a "Warehouse," even--he really should stock pads the sizes of his rugs. I said that when it looked like I was going to run out of paper towels, I made sure to get another roll ready so I wouldn't have to go eight days without any paper towels and have to use toilet paper instead. He offered to cut a strip off the 7x12 pad and tape it together to make 8x11. I told him that was an unacceptable compromise, and that if he really thought it an appropriate solution he could have done it last week and saved me a trip. He offered to let me take the skimpy one now and send someone over with the thicker one when it arrived. I started crying, much to my dismay, and through my tears I pointed out that instead of solving my problem this would create a new problem: I have to schedule a time for someone to come over. I have to move all the furniture off the rug, roll it up and then reverse the process after the new pad is in. I told him I was having a party and had been trying to get everything done before that. He got excited: Oh, a party! That will be fun! Yes, I'm getting divorced, getting old, and having a big wineglass-less and rug pad-less celebration. Hooray for me!

In the end, I left with the skimpy pad. What choice did I have?

I returned home and brought the pad and the table inside. When I opened the box with the table, one of its top corners was completely warped, curling up like a sultan's shoe. The table was also covered with white fingerprints. Someone had actually handled the table, putting it into a box and sealing it, figuring, "Ah, whoever gets this won't care that it's deformed." I cared. I called the store to tell them I would be bringing back the table. I got switched around to several people--"Picky bitch on line two!"--until the warehouse manager finally agreed to take back the table. Reverse Plummer's score of one. In fact, give them a negative one because now I have to drag myself back to return it. Now I have accomplished less than nothing on my to do list; I have actually extended the list, which was too long to begin with.

Another thing I needed to do was replace a TV. So last week I ordered a flatscreen from Amazon.com, along with mounting hardware. Yesterday I received an actual phone call from the company that will be delivering the TV tomorrow, scheduling an actual delivery time. How professional! How rare! I have my fingers crossed that they aren't just setting me up for disappointment. I have made arrangements with a friend to help install it.

Unfortunately, the mounting hardware was coming from another Amazon vendor. It arrived via FedEx this morning while I was driving all over town accomplishing nothing. It required a signature. So now I don't have it. I can take my chances and hope they bring it tomorrow somewhere around the time the TV arrives, or I can drive WAY downtown tonight between 6:30 and 8:00pm and hope they can find it so at least I know I'll have it. Add another item to the to do list, plus the bonus of rush hour driving in downtown Los Angeles.

And now the baking begins. Do I really need to point out that I'm not in the mood?

Going Public with My Hellish Holidays

It feels strange going public with the truth about my formative years. The inconsistencies and idiosyncracies that made me who I am today were sometimes painful to live through. Why share them with anyone other than close friends - or maybe a therapist?

Enter YouTube and blogging and everyone's personal lives suddenly public. I jumped in, but mostly as a voyeur. My partner and I launched HellishHolidays last year, focusing on other people's TMI videos and only occasionally posting a blog of my own. I was grappling with emotions the site raised within my family about taking a negative attitude toward holidays and telling personal tales.

The bottom line is that not everyone signs on to the new tell-all mentality. When I sent my mother a link to Hellish Holidays, she wrote back to tell me that "for some reason” she was unable to access the site. “To tell you the truth,” she said, “and it'll be hard for you to believe, I'm not big on reliving bad memories, of holidays or anything else. Haven't found it to be very productive and certainly never amusing. Once I can get it to open I'll check it out and try and think of anyone I know who might be a good candidate for terrible memories of past holidays. Actually I don't know anybody I talk to about such things. What are you selling?"

Well, I for one can find that amusing! She finally got broadband last month at her casita in Puerto Rico, and has been practically bathing in multimedia ever since. Yet somehow she can’t get her daughter’s site to load. I’m not complaining, though: if there’s some Freudian reason she can’t see what I’m up to, that’s one less conversation I’ll need to have about my blog.

I do worry that my family will be offended by my sharing embarrassing tales. This must be a huge issue in today's YouTube era, where posted personal moments can provide international humiliation for friends and family, where millions of blogs snipe at celebrities as well as those near and supposedly dear.

Opening up about traumatic childhoods is not new, nor confined to the web. In an attempt to put my own past in perspective, I became addicted to memoirs featuring dysfunctional families. Among my favorites: The Liar's Club, The Tender Bar, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Sweet and Low, This Boy's Life and the mother (and father) of them all, The Glass Castle and Angela's Ashes. It was hard to read these books and feel like I'd had it too rough. I was merely a lesser, unpublished member of the same club.

The authors of all these memoirs share a willingness to dig deep and get at the root of who they are today, and I respect that. What I am less able to understand is their willingness to alienate their parents, grandparents and/or siblings, even though those twisted family members had made their collective childhoods just the wrong side of crazy.

Dredging up and publicly presenting a hellish past is more than likely to offend the subjects of any interesting personal stories, who surely remember things differently. Even if they hurt you years ago, you may want to remain on good terms with them today, as shaky as the bonds may be. In my family, cutting off contact, whether between mother and child, siblings, or grandmother and grandchild, is just one well-timed comment away. So I figured as unique as my life had been, I wouldn't be able to write about it unless I outlived all my relatives. Last one standing gets to be the normal one!

Now, however, I've come around to the confessional life, at least within reason. I'd like to think I have a healthy attitude toward my peculiar background. My past informs my present but does not define it. Finally, like Nora Ephron, I have come to accept that "It's all copy."

"The Fruitcake Story"

Every family has its personal fables, oft-repeated chronicles of big achievements and, more commonly, painful humiliations starring siblings and grandparents, cousins and children. Like madeleines to Proust, sensory reminders call them back: Richard still has tine-marks on the back of his hand from the time he tried to take food off his brother's plate. Sue, who spilled the chicken soup in the backseat of the car on the way to Grandma's, gets mentioned every time a family member smells rotten food or buys a new car (the stink never came out of the broth-soaked Volvo and it had to be sold).

By the way, names have been changed. You don't see me airing family laundry. Do you?

In my family, every holiday season brought out "The Fruitcake Story," in which I was the star. Year after year, the world "fruitcake" could not even be spoken around the holiday table without knowing glances escalating into howls of laughter. And then someone would, redundantly and unnecessarily, repeat the saga. I would try to deflect: "Oh, everyone's heard that one! Let's talk about the time Paul..." But then Paul would jump in and continue the tale.

In "The Fruitcake Story" I am perpetually a toddler, optimistic, easily bamboozled and highly motivated by food, three traits I still have. That's the defining mark of a family saga: the main characters invariably show early signs of the adults they come to be. The best stories become shorthand for their subjects' most dependable qualities.

My father was usually the ringleader of "The Fruitcake Story," the one who brought it up and made sure the details were right. In fact, I sometimes suspected that my father only wanted to have more children after me so he could regale them with the story. Since he died 12 years ago, I'm not sure I've heard it brought up even once. I don't go back east for the holidays any more, so the word "fruitcake" generally doesn't come up. We're too busy talking about "The Amazon Wish List."

OK, by now you must be wondering: What's the story? Well, it really wasn't made to be told in the first person, since like most of these fables it's not something to brag about. However, in the interest of full blogging disclosure I will do my best.

I was probably two years old. It was December, and holiday preparations were in full swing. Fruitcake was already on display in the kitchen, and I was fascinated by it. Two of my favorite things, fruit and cake, in one package! What a brilliant concept! I could see cherries and raisins...I was enthralled.

My father decided to use the fruitcake as an incentive for me to make the final leap in my toilet-training. I had already achieved, shall we say, Goal #1, but was having some difficulty with Goal #2. My parents were looking for an answer, and since Everyone Poops had not yet been published, they had to come up with their own ideas. Fruitcake was held out as a reward. All I had to do was one little, well, poop in the toilet and fruitcake would be mine.

Who knows how long it took--the way the story dragged out it was days of disappointment and grunting as I kept my eye on the prize and my butt on the toilet. Finally, about 15 minutes into the storytelling, I made a raisin of my own and went running down the hall, training pants flapping, demanding my reward.

Of course the punchline was that I took one bite of that bourbon-soaked, nut-filled hockey puck, spit it right out and burst into tears. Whenever I wonder about any issues I have with food, I think of that story and it all makes perfect sense. Every year at the holidays I miss my dad, but I don't miss "The Fruitcake Story."

Together for the Holidays

This year, my family will be together for Thanksgiving. I don't mean my extended family, I mean my husband, son and I will eat together. That may not sound like a big deal, but considering that my husband and I separated recently, I think it is.

My parents divorced in the 1970s, the Dark Ages of splitting up. No one knew what the hell they were doing back then. Oh, there was some vague understanding that one parent shouldn't badmouth the other, but no collective wisdom beyond that. No Oprah. No Elizabeth Gilbert. We had Dr. Spock and Elizabeth Taylor and had to piece it together from there. If there was actually a divorcee in the neighborhood, which was unlikely, she was considered a dangerous hussy or a pathetic loser, possibly both.

Holidays were especially fraught, as embarrassed children had to explain to their friends about "Daddy's new apartment." Yes, at the time kids were ashamed when their parents got divorced. They didn't have the examples of scores of classmates, teachers, neighbors and celebrities to reassure them that they weren't "different."

For the first Thanksgiving after my parents divorced, my mother invited my dad to come for dinner. She felt intuitively that holidays should be spent as a family. Well-meaning, yes, but intuition-wise, not so impressive: dinner was a disaster. I've learned the hard way that holidays should be spent in a way that provides the least possible anxiety and the most possible calories and, if relevant, presents. But 30 years ago all we had to go on was our flawed gut, and that gut called for togetherness at all costs.

We all like to believe we're different from our parents, but I think we just make different mistakes. Certainly I know my divorce will be different from my parents'. My (still current) husband and I respect each other and our joint savings account too much to get into a long, drawn-out, bitter legal battle. We love our son too much to have a Thanksgiving dinner that is more about posturing than pumpkin pie.

So this year we will head over to the home of a close and understanding friend. I'm sure the day will be calmer than last year, when a blow-up in the car on the way to dinner almost killed Thanksgiving completely. Of course, my own intuition isn't always on target either. Let's just cross our fingers.

Hellish Holidays A to Z

Added Pressure
Blown Budgets
Custody Negotiations
Denial Meets Reality
Exactly What You Didn't Need
Family Drama
Great Expectations
Harping and Carping
Inevitable Letdowns
Jealous Posturing
Kodak Moments? Ha!
Longstanding Rivalries
Misguided Gifts
No Politics Please!
Oh, Don't Come Then!
Pine Needles Everywhere
Quirkiness Wears Thin
Regifting
Suicide Spikes
Turkey Again?!
Ugly Christmas Sweaters
Vicious Circles, Around and Around
Why? Because We Have To.
XO But Not Feeling It
Yet Another Long Drive Home
Zero Energy After It's Over
 
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