We arrived at Laurel's at the stroke of two. Jenn's sister was hosting the second of our two Christmas celebrations. Aside from her mother and half-sister, we would be supping with the exact same people we’d seen 60 minutes earlier at her father’s. I was already exhausted.
I walked to the kitchen where Jenn was gutting a pomegranate. "Need some help?"
"Sure. You could chop some onions."
Damn. "Love to," I lied. I knew if I didn't get some sleep before the festivities began, it would be an extremely un-Merry f-cking Christmas.
I chopped. I cried. I finished.
"Time for a nappy-poo."
“Upstairs,” Jenn said cheerfully. “First door on the right."
Guest bedrooms are uniformly grim affairs, designed for maximum discomfort. The beds are uncomfortable slabs, the blankets thin and scratchy, and the lights glare overhead as if for police questioning. I stood in the doorway weighing my options: Either find some respite in the harsh ecosystem of the Guest Room or submit to living with complete exhaustion. I zipped my coat up and pulled the cover over my head, giving myself the appearance of a body being held in cold storage.
What felt like seconds passed before I awoke and descended into the fray. The table had been dressed, platters of food covering its surface like archipelagos. Jenn's mother, Margaret, had arrived with her daughter, Emily. We greeted each other warmly—or, as warmly as people might who have met once before—and moved to the living room for some pre-dining, verbal aperitif.
Jenn had informed her mother that, my being Jewish, I had never experienced a Christmas gathering before. Margaret's tone became even more friendly and polite, a tad overly so, as if addressing a foreign exchange student unfamiliar with the cultural terrain.
"So," I asked subtly. "Are you going to form a circle ’round the tree later and sing Christmas carols?"
"Wellllll," Jenn said, glancing at her mother. "We aren't exactly—"
"Of course we will," Margaret said, patting my knee.
It came out more loudly than I'd intended, the words virtually exploding from my lips.
"Well, good," I grumped. "I was starting to think the spirit of Christmas had been throttled in its sleep. Why just this morning your daughter cut me off while I sang lighthearted—"
"You were making up the lyrics, and they were bad. Really bad."
"Stop changing the subject."
Margaret looked a little nonplussed, uncertain if I was being serious. I quieted down to allow for some mother/daughter interaction and slid into my own private world. The blinking lights, drifting, drifting ...
From out of the wilderness: "So Tom, do you like orange-cranberry sauce?”
I'd never been asked my opinion of cranberry sauce before, orange or otherwise. Innocuous though it seemed, I was caught off guard.
"Well, Margaret, to be honest, I’ve never quite understood the whole cranberry thing. I'm fairly neutral about fruity sauces when it comes right down to it."
"What about foods with orange flavoring?"
Aaaaahhhh. A follow-up to the cranberry question.
"Actually, I can't stand orange-flavored anything unless it's, you know, an orange ... or children’s aspirin.”
She looked grim as we migrated toward the table. Two bowls of homemade orange-cranberry sauce were resting at either end.
"On the other hand," I said nervously, scooping a dollop onto my plate. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
"Tom ...” Emily this time. "I have a question about Judaism. What does keeping kosher mean?"
I was surprised at the quality of the question, coming as it was from an ornery, hormonally laden 16-year-old. I explained to her how in Judaism there weren't just 10 commandments but 613, a goodish number of which focused on dietary laws. These laws were believed to have been handed down directly from God.
"For example, we're not supposed to eat shellfish or animals with cloven hooves that don't chew their cud. Don't ask me why."
"A cloven hoof?"
"Yeah, like, um ... pigs?" Suddenly I couldn't visualize a pig's foot. "I'm pretty sure they have cloven hooves. I know we don't eat them."
"Pigs have cloven hooves," Margaret said decisively.
"Why only animals that don’t chew their cud?" Emily persisted.
"I told you not to ask."
"Health reasons," offered Joe. "There was more risk of getting diseases from pigs."
"I once asked my rabbi friend this very question,” I said. “He answered that for some commandments, we do it because God says so. For example, we don't mix milk with meat."
"Thou shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk," said Margaret.
"Exactly! But I was vegetarian for 15 years and rarely eat cheese anyway, so I'm naturally kosher. Rabbi-
"Were you bar mitzvahed?" Emily asked.
"You bet. I don't mean to brag or anything, but we sacrificed two Christian babies at my bar mitzvah."
Take two: "Were you bar mitzvahed?"
"Yes, when I was 13."
"And what's Hanukkah?"
"Yeah, isn't it like Jewish Christmas?"
"Actually, no, it's considered a minor holiday. Good story, though. Years ago when the Romans ... "
(Forty-eight minutes later) " ... and that's the story of Hanukkah."
I looked up. Three of the party had fallen asleep and two had slit their wrists. Why was I telling the story of a holiday I hadn't celebrated in 35 years?
At last, the table took a breath.
"It seems like somebody should say a prayer," Margaret said. "Does anyone have something they’d like to say?"
"God bless us, everyone!"
It came out more loudly than I'd intended, the words virtually exploding from my lips. The entire table looked at me, stunned. Nobody was quite certain if I was pulling their legs, and to be honest, I wasn't entirely sure myself.
A person cannot live in this country and not be familiar with this classic Dickens line. In the lifetime of any American Jew, one would have been lucky to have seen A Christmas Carol only five or six times. I suppose somewhere deep in my psyche I had nursed a dream of uttering this famous line in the perfect situation, perfectly timed, for years.
I smiled as I took in the uncomfortable-