I’m in what I consider my hometown, Carmel. With my grades turned in and a respite from other projects scheduled, I’m enjoying a holiday break. My wife and daughter will come up north on Thursday, so for now I’m alone with my mama in the house I grew up in. While Los Angeles is getting historic rainfall, it’s dry and cool here on California’s central coast.
My mother held her Christmas party last night, the same party she’s thrown 36 out of the last 37 years. From 1973-2003, she had 31 straight parties; she spent Xmas 2004 in England, and resumed the tradition in 2005. I missed that ’05 party as Eira and I were in South Africa, but I’ve been at each and every other party mama has had.
The Party has rules.
It is never held earlier than December 18, nor later than December 21. It is not to be held on a Sunday, as one of my mother’s dear friends also has a Christmas Party that has been on the third Sunday in December every year since the Kennedy Administration. Since my mother’s gathering only dates to the final year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, she defers. The Party is always scheduled from 4:00-6:00PM. Guests start trickling in at about 4:15, and invariably, some family members will linger until 7:00 or beyond. We are lenient with departure times! Peak attendance tends to be around 5:00, when my mother’s little cottage nearly bursts with people.
For most of the past 37 years, we’ve served the same menu: cold cuts and cheeses, assorted cookies and brownies, lots of chips and dips. In my childhood, we made and decorated Christmas cookies; with her sons grown, my mother buys them now at the store. (She still makes her famously unkosher clam quiches and her “midnight meringues”.) We serve mulled wine, made according to a recipe that requires lots of cinnamon sticks, sugar, and huge gallon jugs of cheap Gallo red. I helped make the wine when I was a child too young to drink; now I make it as a sober alcoholic who no longer drinks. (There were only a handful of parties where I was both old enough to drink the wine and not already trying to get sober!) We serve a non-alcoholic punch, which is made of cran-rasbperry drink mixed with diet 7-Up. Sounds dreadful, but it’s served in a lovely ancient punch bowl. The store-bought cookies and cheeses taste all the better on 19th century silver, too.
Growing up WASP (OKOP) means having lots of store-bought things served on heirloom china and family silver. (I came to learn, as I went out into the world, that others cared more about the taste than the presentation, preferring home-cooked delicacies served on paper or plastic. Diff’rent strokes.)
Some fashions have changed. In the 1970s, one of my jobs was to help lay out the cigarettes. We had Vantage and Merit and Camel on offer, cunningly arranged in little silver trays. My christening cup was useful for holding cigarettes, and we had lighters placed handily about. Ashtrays were ubiquitous, and emptying them during the party was nearly as important as passing hors’ d’oeuvres. We began to phase out cigarettes around the time that disco lost its appeal, and by the time I had graduated high school, smoking was only done outside. The christening cup now holds candy canes, but no one ever takes one. It is not as useful and needed as once it was.
I’ve also become much more helpful. In 1973, I was six, and my main job was to police my three year-old brother during the party, something I did with excessive vigor and a grave sense of responsibility. As we grew up, my brother and I evolved into indispensable co-hosts. Mama is 73 now, and can’t do what she used to do with the same ease. I watch her now to make sure she doesn’t get over-tired during the party, just as she once watched me to make sure I wasn’t eating too many meringues.
And of course, the guests are so much older. I, who so often am the oldest person in the room when working with young people, was the youngest by two decades at last night’s gathering. My mother was in her mid-thirties when she started her Christmas parties, and most of her friends were her peers, young parents and fellow professors; friends from her poetry club, the League of Women Voters, and various local boards and commissions. There were older guests as well, but not many. And there were children for my brother and me to play with. We often needed to whip up an emergency extra batch of mulled wine. Some who left the party ought not to have been driving.
But no more. So many of those who came in the past have gone on to the brighter party from which none need take their leave. Those who do still come grow frailer each year, something I notice keenly as I only see most of these guests for an hour each December. There are canes and wheelchairs to be managed. They eat and drink half what they did in their younger years, but from their faces, with no less pleasure. Those who in my childhood were towering and vigorous, younger than I am now, are gray and stooped. Their fingers shake when I hand them a cup of wine, and they take my arm when I lead them up and down the garden path to and from the party and their cars.
Last night, I walked one of my mother’s recently widowed friends out to her car, carefully made sure she was situated safely behind the wheel, and watched her drive off. Carmel has no street lamps, and the street was pitch black at 6 in the evening. But as I looked back at our house, I saw the tree aglow in the window, saw the light radiating out, smelled the wood smoke from the fireplace. It might have been blasphemous, but as I stood on the cold dark street and stared at the glow from the house in which I was raised, the words of John 1:5 came to my lips. I felt the pinpricks of tears in my eyes, as I realized that these parties won’t keep going forever. My mother finds them a bit more tiring every year; each year less and less is eaten; each year the guest list shrinks inexorably.
But mother is not quite done.
As a sentimentalist to my core, I like my Tennyson, and as I stood on the roadway, I remembered something else, a line from his most loved poem: death closes all: but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done. In the grand scheme of things, a Christmas party is not a great work of noble note. But when we gather around the tree and the fire once again, with rain and chill outside, and catch a scene or two from the last act of a play we’ve been watching all our lives, we are bearing witness to the light. And the darkness will not overcome it.