One Christmas was like another in those years in Arizona. Some were chilly, but none was ever really cold.
I may not remember which year my brother and I found ourselves the astonished recipients of a slot-car racetrack, or the Christmas when my mother’s parents came through with the board game we wanted — “King Oil.” Here’s how BoardGameGeek.com describes that long-lost entertainment: “You buy properties, drill for oil, link properties with pipelines so as to collect royalties and try to be the richest player.” It is as if Milton Bradley designed the game specifically to make Greta Thunberg’s head explode. I wish I still had it.
I remember regaling my mother one Christmas Eve with the many reasons an honest-to-goodness Atari video game system was superior to the knockoffs and imitators. I scoffed at the second-rate sets that had a fixed number of clumsy games, unlike the Atari, with its cartridge console, which promised endless variety and amusement. The next morning, I peeled back the wrapping of a present to find I had received a non-Atari knockoff. I was filled with shame for having made her feel her gift was unwanted. I learned the hard way that gift-getting can be just as tricky and fraught as gift-giving.
We celebrated Christmas not with one Christmas dinner, but two. The noontime feast was always at my father’s parents’ house. A few hours later, we would eat at my mother’s parents’ place, where we would pretend that, the afternoon’s eating notwithstanding, we had an appetite. The daytime menu would be turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberries — the jellied sort straight out of the can, a rubbery ruby cylinder ribbed with ridges.
After we were all done eating, my grandfather would go to the console stereo and sort through the LPs looking for records featuring his favorite trombonists. It may not be Christmas music, but Billy Rausch of Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra reaching for the high note at the end of “Smoke Rings” and Jack Jenny’s impossibly perfect sliphorn solo on “Stardust” with the Artie Shaw band put me in a holiday mood.
The music was less carefully curated at my mother’s parents’. I remember they had a record of music inspired by fast cars. I was captivated by “Hot Rod Lincoln.” After listening to it a few times, Grandma would come in to announce the dining room was ready. Ham was usually the main course; Grandpa disliked anything that had ever had feathers. He loved cornbread, though. He would put a square of it in a bowl, top it with sugar, drown it in milk, and mush it with a fork. Then it was suitable for eating.
One Christmas, probably when I was 5 or 6, I asked to help clear the table. Grandma said no. The plates and platters, the glasses and goblets were all wedding presents and were precious to her. Christmas was the one time each year that she brought the wedding china out. She was sure I was too young to carry any of it into the kitchen. I was sure to break something. But I was persistent, and she relented.
Looking back at it — as I have at every Christmas for decades — I think the mistake was carrying a heavy full-sized dinner plate rather than a little dessert or salad plate. I made it to the kitchen without incident. I didn’t turn and chip a rim on the door frame or the refrigerator handle. I didn’t stumble over that moveable tripping hazard, my grandparents’ free-range box turtle Snappy.
I can’t remember how it happened, just that it did. Somewhere between the kitchen threshold and the sink, the plate slipped from my hands. It must have broken into 20 or 30 pieces. And yet it wasn’t my Grandma who erupted in tears. It was me. She gave me a hug and dabbed my burning cheeks with her apron.
Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink?