Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Dinner

As I suppose with any gathering of kinsmen (especially for a Christmas dinner), it is possible to be as tearfully sentimental or as bitterly resentful as one wishes. On the maudlin side of the equation, the nine of us at table (with the exception of the absent Nicholas, Barbara's boy friend, who was at home in Toronto with his family) represented everyone who matters in our immediate family; viz., the heads of the family (mother and dad), the first generation of children (my sister Nancy and I), Nancy's husband Tom, my partner Tracy, the second generation grandchildren Jill and Barbara, and Jill's partner Rosser. It made for an interesting (though somewhat quirky) collection of people, all of whom (as I later commented to Tracy when we were rolling home after our six-hour visit to my parents' house for the occasion) were essentially doing well, healthy as one's age customarily permits, either happily retired or meaningfully engaged in gainful travail or ardent study, and pointedly nobody suffering any great loss of companionship (a balance which alone is difficult to maintain in most families). Indeed it was undoubtedly the fleeting thought of everyone that this may have represented the last Christmas that we are all together, largely a reference to my father's advanced age of 90 and his added symptoms of declining health.

On the jaundiced side of the equation, the proximity of so many people for such condensed time and concentrated purpose has the same effect as being in a crowded bus caught in traffic on a hot day, while at the same time standing without a seat. Not exactly a comfortable state, and certainly one which can be both stressful and exhausting, forcing one to acquaint oneself with the flavour of one's neighbour more poignantly than one might otherwise prefer. When you think of it, except for the accidents of birth and association, there is often not a great deal which binds those of the same family, some of whom may hardly have seen one another for months on end. More often than not it is obligation which compels the union, not curiosity, interest or desire, and certainly not choice. In circumstances such as these, it is always manners which preserve the humanity and sublimate the beast. Yet given enough delay in feeding the beast, or having watered it too sufficiently with alcohol, the edges of the festive carpet begin to fray fairly readily. It is only for so long that one can maintain what amounts to a clinical interest in others, even your relatives. Eventually we all lapse into our private hemisphere once again, repeating and regurgitating what is most pressing for us at the time, nurtured in our pursuits by the tiring madness and exhaustion which so often accompanies the travel and general hysteria of Christmas. At least this year there were no violent outbursts by my over-taxed mother against someone who was trespassing upon her culinary territory. In fact Tracy reported that she even admitted that she didn't think she could do all this another year.

Tracy and I were the first to arrive. Yesterday when I called my mother to enquire what time we were to foregather, she had said that she wanted us to be there around 3:30 p.m. so that Tracy could help her with the cheese plate, adding that my sister was always late. In fact, when we arrived, the cheese plate was already prepared, as I imagined it would be. Tracy and my mother (both being committed cooks) busied themselves in the kitchen with a general review of the upcoming meal, peeking at the twenty-pound turkey browning in the convection oven, lifting the lids off the various pots on the stove top to examine the contents, sniffing and complimenting. Meanwhile, my father, having discovered that he had in me the first of a captive audience, produced for my review a letter he had recently received from a gentleman in New Brunswick offering to purchase one of the properties my father owns there, properties which have actually been in our family for at least two generations and which were at one time destined to come to me eventually. When my father asked me what I thought of the offer, my response was that I had the same advice for him as I would have for any Client of mine; namely, get the property professionally appraised by a local agent to determine the appropriateness of the offer. This observation didn't seem to satisfy my father at all, who preferred rather to confuse the matter by engaging in a more abstract discussion of the value of a cash offer in what for him (and many others) has recently been a bleak economic environment, where he stressed it was compelling to have anyone offer anything for anything he owned. Oddly, my only thought at that juncture was how difficult it might be for me to sell my Steinway if I should wish to do so, as valuable as it may be, and as good a deal as it may be as a used instrument in comparison to the cost of a new one. Anyway, as I say, I was a captive audience, and my private mental ramblings did nothing to divert my father's attention and paramount goal. When I hadn't given a satisfactory response to his question (whatever it may have been in truth), he marshalled his forces and attacked from another flank, specifically asking how relevant anything I might think of value was at all if I had no vested interest in the asset in question. I didn't take his point immediately, but then realized that he was alluding to the fact that my mother is (as a result of some estate planning advice I had given him years ago) a joint owner of the New Brunswick properties with him, and she had apparently dismissed the recent offer out-of-hand as being too low. This twist on what had otherwise been sound planning advice at the time was now being touted as an example of how he had lost control of his own assets, and that, barred by my mother's resistence, it was irrelevant what the property was worth. At this point, my mother had drifted into the small room where my father and I were chatting, and I asked her what in fact she had said about the matter, which turned out to be as my father reported. When I suggested to her as well that they get an appraisal of the property by an agent, her response was that the offer had come from an agent, which I tried to explain was not the same thing as having an appraisal by an independent agent, a point I am not certain she grasped. Anyway, in this matter as with just about everything else in her life at this time of the year, the contemplation of the dilemma was dismissively deferred to the more immediate concerns of the upcoming dinner and the agenda for opening gifts, having cocktails, etc.

It was at this point that Jill and Rosser arrived, and my father, having determined that I was to be unmoved in my resolve regarding the New Brunswick properties, dropped me from his line of attack and instead hooked onto the unsuspecting Rosser who, by his examination of him in the most obtuse terms about life in general, literally transfixed the poor fellow in the doorway as he entered the room. I watched for a moment as though watching some affair being conducted with a blunt instrument, until finally there was a breath taken in my father's monologue and I exhorted Rosser to go into the kitchen to see about getting some hors d'oeuvres, which by that point he knew enough to do directly. It wasn't long after that that I took the same opportunity to extricate myself from my father's perpetual volleys. For the rest of the evening, Tom allowed himself to become my father's sounding board, and as much as we all regretted Tom's predicament, none of us would do anything to alleviate it, for fear of becoming a replacement martyr. From the safe distance of another room, we marvelled at how my father was going on and on about the same subjects (political and economic) which he had at one time or another attempted to rehash with and impose upon any one of us. He hardly took a breath, and it was indisputable that there was no element of conversation in his one-way dissertation.

As a backdrop to this game of avoidance and trapping, the indulgence of appetite and thirst was by now well underway in the kitchen, where plates of cheese and crackers, terrine of cognac pâté, freshly shucked oysters, stuffed dates, sugar-coated nuts and smoked salmon were irresistibly displayed for consumption. There were alcoholic drinks of vodka, Dubonnet and wine, with various mixes. Mother forgot about the Champagne which she had left to cool in the garage. All of this was then moved to the fireplace room, where mother wished to initiate the ceremony of gift-giving, but not before she instructed my father to get the fire going. This instruction, however, precipitated what became the first collective friction of the evening, as my father insisted that the damper on the flue was malfunctioning, and either it wouldn't open, or, once opened, could not be later closed, so either we would smoke ourselves out, or all the heat in the house would eventually be lost up the chimney after the dying embers were no longer blazing forth. My mother was intransigent, however, with the result that my father (who can barely keep his balance at the best of times) ended by lying on his back, head inside the fireplace cavity, flashlight in one hand, the other fiddling with the damper control, soot falling (as he had said it would) upon his hands and face and red Christmas sweater, all to no apparent avail in the end. When I then took it upon myself to examine the workings, I couldn't but agree that the damper was not ideally functioning, so by corporate decision, and being worn down in our endeavours, we agreed to abandon the nicety of a fire. The fireplace has now officially joined the ranks of so many other features of my parents' house which are purely decorative and no longer provide any useful purpose, being objects or devices which my father refuses to repair, preferring instead to live with the inconvenience of malfunction. It was only moments later that a main light fixture in the kitchen failed to function, though my mother assured us that it would come back on in about a half-hour (but it never did).

After some exchange of gifts, things finally moved back into the kitchen in preparation for dinner. The large turkey was removed by Tom from the oven, then skilfully transported to an awaiting porcelain platter. The turkey was covered with aluminium foil and a towel to keep it warm, as mother set out the creamed onions, puréed squash, cranberry aspic, exotic flageolet beans and stuffing. Meanwhile Tracy mashed the potatoes and I stirred the gravy. Bottles of wine were opened. The remains of the hors d'oeuvres were covered and set aside. Special arrangements were completed to satisfy Jill's strictly vegetarian requirements. Jill never fails to speak as sharply against carnivores as the Two Fat Ladies do against vegans. At last my father was persuaded to attend to the carving of the bird (a tradition which my mother felt she could not forego in spite of his lack of balance), which he did, but not without complaining that the free-range organic fowl had lived a tough life as he alleged the meat was anything but tender, and he seemingly couldn't conveniently get at the white breast meat, which my mother insisted on having. Everyone then loaded up their plates and moved to the dining room, where the table had been beautifully laid with an abundance of fine linen, French crystal and sterling flatware. Mother asked that one of her granddaughter's give the Grace, but they refused, and as usual the matter was deferred to me, though I (without the benefit of Dutch courage) gave but a summary version of the Latin prayer, something which seemed not to disturb anyone. We then got down to the business of eating. It was by all accounts a delicious meal, in fact one of the best that I can recall.

Having completed that particular round, the prospect of three desserts (raspberry pie, pumpkin pie and a lemon soufflé) was thankfully deferred until after we had retired once again to the living room to open even more gifts. While unquestionably the magnanimity of my mother to us all (with those flat gifts containing a scrap of paper from the Royal Bank of Canada) was much appreciated, the highlights of the gifts were those from the younger members and which were distinctly personalized. Jill and Rosser, for example, combined their artistic strengths in photographic and graphic design respectively to produce exceedingly clever and professional Christmas cards for mother and dad and for Tracy and me. Barbara showed her care and thoughtfulness by giving my father some chocolate covered ginger-flavoured mints which she discovered when in Las Vegas. And Jill gave me a book which she said reminded her of my own writing, something I am eager to discover when I take the book with me to Florida in a week's time.

As the evening wore on, interspersed with now idle conversation, we eventually made our way back to the trough, where all (except Tracy and I) further indulged themselves in the desserts, which with one accord all exclaimed in the end to have been an explosive result. There was coffee for those who desired it (though I agreed with Rosser that decaffeinated coffee is a bastardization).

At last, it was time to go. We spent considerable time gathering up our gifts (which included Alpaca socks for everyone), embraced one and all, and headed home, back to our private universe for another year.

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