By Eric Kent Edstrom
It’s not so much that I was opposed to holiday consumerism or the fact that the decorations started going up at Wal-Mart before Halloween was over. The reason I hated Christmas was because I had to go back to Wisconsin, to visit my parents, and aunts, uncles, and twenty-seven cousins.
To say that I didn’t fit in would be akin to saying that a class K star is larger than a class M star. We’re talking degrees of magnitude here, folks.
Of the twenty-seven cousins, only two had gone to college. Only one—me—had gotten a Ph.D. To make matters worse, my field is the study of universe, the origins of everything. And my mother, bless her heart, never did understand the difference in meaning between cosmology and what she told everyone I did: cosmetology.
When I tell this to my colleagues, I have to wait while they wipe tears from their eyes. They calm down enough to make eye contact with me and then they burst into new peals of laughter. A Secret Santa at the University once gave me a nice pair of barber’s shears tied with a red bow.
On a Christmas not long ago, I dragged my heels all the way from Texas to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin. I confess, my heart sank when I pushed through the front door of my parent’s home and set off the jingle bells hanging from the inside door knob.
I stepped into an environment that would not dip below 79 degrees Fahrenheit for the duration of my stay. At Christmas time the furnace rarely needed to operate because there was always a roaring fire in the fireplace. And there were twenty-seven of my cousins, five pairs of aunts and uncles, a few single aunt and uncles, and of course Mom and Dad, the five dogs, the three cats, and the goldfish, although I don’t think the goldfish added any BTUs to the 1,852 square feet of their little ranch house in a nondescript subdivision somewhere in the greater Milwaukee area.
The smells of turkey, stuffing, coffee, and baking buns hung in the chewy air. In approximately three hours, all of those delectables would be churning through my stomach and on their way to my hips.
An instant sheen of preparation sprouted on my forehead as I stepped inside, and I hastily peeled off my outer layers and hung them on a peg near the door.
This was the house I had grown up in, and it had not changed in the years since I had left for my freshman year of college in Madison. The same fussy petunia wallpaper closed in from all sides in that coffin-sized entry foyer. The same woven twig wall pocket held the same plastic-stemmed tulip arrangement. Hanging next to it, the same painting of the disembodied hands posed in prayer. And next to the hands: The Lord, in all his bearded, Caucasian glory, hands extended as he floated in a halo of light.
Dad’s dingy Green Bay Packers knit cap with the yellow tassel lay on top of his grease-covered leather work boots with the toes worn away, exposing a rusty portion of the steel toe. The leather fingers of his work gloves poked from the quilted down jacket he had owned for twenty-five years. Jack’s Country Tap was embroidered in gold thread on the left breast .
A little girl no more than three-and-a-half years old toddled at me like the cutest zombie ever. Arms out, eyes beaming, she cried, “Auntie Rose, Auntie Rose!”
Technically, I’m her cousin. But at thirty-two, I fit the role of Auntie better. I didn’t mind. In my family such distinctions aren’t meaningful anyway.
I swept little Emily into a massive cuddle-hug and kissed her soft head, then picked my way into the living room where at least half of the twenty-seven cousins were lounging and watching a football game. It was on mute since Mom technically didn’t allow the television to be on during holiday gatherings. There was one exception, though. The exception: the Green Bay Packers playing the Chicago Bears. Upon seeing me, Dad heeled down the footrest on his easy chair, planted his Solo cup on one of the forty wildlife coasters (his is always the howling wolf), and hoisted himself to his feet.
If you’ve ever watched a show about how to dress to look your best, you’ve probably seen someone like my dad. His style is what is known as “before-the-makeover.” He wore no fewer than four different hunter’s camo patterns. His pants, undershirt, sweatshirt, and ball cap each had a different theme: fall leaves, marsh grasses, tree bark, evergreen needles with pinecone accents.
“I almost didn’t see you there, Dad,” I said, going for the cheap laugh with my old standby joke. He never got it, but everyone else thought it was hilarious.
He wrapped me in a bear hug, enveloping me in the not-unpleasant fumes of Budweiser and Old Spice. He rasped my cheek with his half-day whiskers and smeared the abrasion with a kiss. “There’s my baby.” He released me, but only to grab my shoulders and hold me so he could take a good look at my face.
He seemed satisfied. “You’re mother’s in the kitchen.”
The cousin closest to me in age, a lean, balding guy with a goatee curtaining his sternum, waved his hand. I waved back, but he bent sideways and looked past me.
“Hello to you, too, Simon,” I said as I got out of his way. Obstructing the Packers game was much worse manners in that house than, say, not greeting a cousin you hadn’t seen for an entire year. The others pretty much ignored me, except Jimmy Two, a boy of about twelve who seemed to want a hug but didn’t want to be seen angling for one. I gave him a one-armer and tousled his hair.
“Did I hear someone come in?” a high-pitched voice called from the kitchen.
No one answered. A glance at the TV told me it was third down and two on the Packers’ thirty-five. Down by three. Fourth quarter. There would be no answer to Mom’s irrelevant questions.
I slipped into the oven that was the kitchen and into Mom’s domain. Nine more cousins crowded around various bowls and plates, all doing cookingly things.
Mom ran at me, taking tiny little tiptoe steps that made her bounce up and down. “Oooooh! Rosie!” Another hug, this one in a cloud of Aquanet and White Shoulders. “You’re just in time to cross the buns.”
“It’s destiny,” I said.
She shrieked in laughter and tottered to the pantry cabinet, yanked out a spare apron, and tossed it to me over an island counter so covered with serving platters not one square millimeter of Formica showed through. I tied on the apron (decorated with a cartoon bikini body and Ft. Lauderdale emblazoned on the breast), and shouldered my way through the loving gauntlet of aunts and cousins who squeezed me and offered generally approving assessments of my waist circumference and comeliness.
I set about drawing sugary crosses atop all the buns and submerged myself in the flow of conversation. At some point, a glass of spiced wine slipped down my throat, and the sauna-like heat worked loose the knots in my shoulders.
Roars of glee poured in from the living room. “Go, go, go!” My dad’s voice boomed the loudest, like a thundergod commanding the Packers’ running back to score. A crescendo of cheers told me the player had obeyed.
I absorbed the gossip. Kelly was pregnant with twins. A blessing. But she didn’t know what they were going to do. Jimmy One had gotten laid off on Friday. Right before the holidays. Benji got a bad report from the dentist. He just refuses to floss no matter what his mother threatened him with. Dex won “two hunnert dollers” in a scratch-off and didn’t tell Carrie, but she found out from Kyle who she saw at Walgreens when she was picking up Grandma’s arthritis pills, so she told Dex he’d better return that video game machine or he’ll be sleeping on the sofa until the Fourth of July. And Mom saw on the CNN about how people are losing their identities to computer hackers so she tells Dad to always turn it off but he doesn’t listen and she’s always going in to shut the damn machine off. Aunt Rita says she saw an article that people are sometimes bankrupted by hackers. That reminded cousin Ginny to call her step-brother in Eau Claire and tell him not to tell Mom about the thing they talked about on Wednesday.
I deflected questions about why I was still single. I declined to be set up with Gerry Tutts, even though he was totally legal because he’s a third cousin and he’s got a good job in real estate and has a Lexus and everything. I lied about the guy I’d been dating and didn’t say how he’d gotten a job in Seattle and chose his career over me and how I’d cried for three days straight and ate nothing but Ben and Jerry’s. I insisted I didn’t want kids just now and that someday I would, but I’d chosen the career I’d chosen and it’s very demanding.
I felt their eyes paint me with sadness. Poor Rosie couldn’t get a man to commit, those eyes said.
I mentioned an episode of a sitcom I’d seen a commercial about, and they started off on a new line of conversation that didn’t involve “what to do about Rosie.” And I could go back to crossing buns and sipping wine and letting my cheeks flush only from the heat and the alcohol and not mortification. I could relax then, because I didn’t have to dwell on hating Christmas anymore because I was no longer the subject of conversation.
* * *
Later, in the somnolent afterglow of utter gluttony, I listened to my sixteen-year-old cousin Ashli complain about boys. Then, shyly, she scooted closer to me. “I need to ask you something really important. You know, since you’re a professional in the field?”
“Of course.” I was always ready to discuss the origins of the universe.
Ashli’s eyes glistened, and I realized she was struggling to hold back tears. “This girl at school. She said I do my eyeliner wrong and it makes me look like a startled hamster.”
I closed my eyes. Took a long breath. Then, with a smile, I stood and extended my hand. Ashli took it and I dragged her into my old bedroom. I plopped her in front of my vanity.
For the next fifteen minutes, I taught Ashli everything I knew about cosmetology.