After the kids got married, the Staffords started the tradition of having their holiday dinner on the day after Christmas. In Britain this is known as Boxing Day, and was traditionally the day the servants (who, of course, had to work on Christmas) were sent back to their families with boxes of gifts and leftovers. At the Stafford’s, who lived in Connecticut, it became known as Command Performance Day. The move away from the actual holiday gave no one any excuse about needing to be with in-laws. After a long holiday season, one more big dinner and long day with family was excruciating. The aging children told each other they hated it, but they showed up.
The funny part is that even when the old folks died (Pop Stafford five years ago, spinster Aunt Peggy two years ago, and Nana last spring), the oldest daughter Holly, who had moved into the house with her meek husband, announced that she was continuing the tradition. Everyone groaned in their own houses to their own spouses (some of whom were not meek), but everyone eventually acquiesced.
As in the old days, the older folks sat at the dining room table, which was inconveniently located a good distance from the kitchen at the far end of the sunken living room. At this point, the older generation included the four children and their spouses. The dining area was windowless and dark, enlivened only by three red candles in the centerpiece. The food and coffee were set up on the buffet table on the far wall. The hard booze, ice, and mixers filled the coffee table in the living room.
The adult children and a couple of their spouses (some were between marriages) sat in the kitchen, where the trestle table stood beside a large window. On this bright cold December day, the room was sunny and warm. There was a sightline across the intervening parlor between the two tables, but they were far enough apart to make it impossible to follow whole conversations, although laughter drifted the distance – usually from the children’s table to that of the old folks.
There were some real children, great-grandchildren to the deceased Staffords and grandchildren to the bunch in the dining room, but many of the adult children were divorced and their kids were with the other parents. The four youngsters who had come for dinner had eaten at a card table in the foyer for the ten minutes it took them to pick at their food and were now in the basement watching videos and eating chocolate and popcorn.
Thus, for much of the day there were just the two tables. There was some back and forth, as the food was in the dining room, so those younger adults in search of more turkey or another piece of pie would have to make the trip into their own future. The old people drank from the liquor selection on the coffee table; the young folks tended to just get beer and wine out of the refrigerator in the kitchen. There was a fire in the living room that reflected its flames on the bottles of bourbon and scotch, but no one sat in front of it.
Don’t try to keep the characters straight; it doesn’t matter. It is a family like yours or mine, and you will recognize the players.
The Adults’ Table in the Dining Room
“Let’s not forget to take everyone’s picture while we have them together,” Emma said, as she did every year.
“We never remember,” said Ken (an in-law). “Besides not all the grandchildren are here.”
Phyllis took affront as none of her grandchildren were in attendance this year. Mostly because Phyllis had no control over them. “You can’t expect everyone to make it every year. It’s not like the old days when tradition was important, and all the aunts and uncles and cousins would show up.”
“Speaking of which, where is Alex?” This query came from Holly. Holly and Phyllis were the two eldest children and picked at each other incessantly.
“Alex and Anne are giving each other some space,” replied Phyllis and got up to turn her back as she poured herself some coffee, making it clear that this line of questioning was not to be pursued.
Ted was working on this third scotch and was festering a little that. even though he knew she could afford decent liquor, his sister served the cheap Johnnie Walker rather than the Dalwhinnie he preferred. Of course, it beat the selection when his parents were alive, when one could have boxed white wine or cream sherry and that was it. “I thought things would change much more once the folks were gone,” he said and that got everyone’s attention.
Bill put down his Manhattan – newly orphaned, he had felt free to bring his own beverage ingredients. “Well, one thing that has changed is that we can talk about them rather than just give each other looks and rolling our eyes when they weren’t looking.” This brought eager nods. Everyone had just been waiting to talk about the dear departed.
“Do you remember how awful dinner used to be? Instant mashed potatoes and gravy out of a jar? And who puts root beer on a ham? Frozen pies? Store brand ice cream?” This came from Holly. If she was fishing for a compliment on how good this year’s turkey dinner was (all from scratch), no one took her up on it.
“The funny part is that the grandkids loved it. Henny still asks me what brand of potatoes her Nana used, and Albert is quite sure that his grandmother was a great cook just because she would make pancakes on a moment’s notice and poured root beer on the ham.”
“Will you ever forget the old man drooling onto ham as he was carving it? It was the last year he was alive – but still.” Long silence assured Bill that no one would ever forget.
Ken broke the silence. “I still hear his voice. Not hers, but his. Every time I do something he didn’t like – and he didn’t like most things – I hear him tell me what a stupid schmuck I am and how it is going to turn out badly. I even hear his index finger tapping on the table as he talks – just like he used to do!”
“That finger!” Phyllis raised hers and pointed it at each of the others in turn. “If he wasn’t tapping with it, he was pointing at you.”
Another long silence fell as drinks were renewed and more slivers of pie were cut.
“You know,” said Bill. Everyone laughed. Bill, like his father before him, was known in the family for starting every absurd proposition with “you know.” “You know, no offense to you Holly, but we don’t really have to do this anymore.”
Holly looked up. “Well, I was going to say that we are going to do some major remodeling next year and don’t know if it will even be finished by Christmas. Going to move the dining room closer to the kitchen, put in bigger windows; you won’t recognize it. So we could try skipping next year. No problem.” She looked relieved. “Or we could give it up.”
The rest of them thought about how they would not recognize their childhood home once Holly was done. They didn’t blame her – they would have done the same. And they thought about what they might do on Boxing Day now that they had been granted a free day annually for the rest of their lives.
The Kids’ Table in the Kitchen
“Why are we here? Didn’t you think this would all stop when Nana and Pop were gone?” Bruce was waving his roll to indicate the whole house and all the people in it.
“I don’t mind. Better than being alone with Mom.” This was Anne, Phyllis’s daughter who was without her children and estranged husband.
“It’s not the same though. We used to love it when Nana and Pop were alive. Remember the potatoes? How about the ham with the root beer coating? I loved that – tried it a couple of times but it wasn’t the same. Remember Pop’s trains and how he used to take us on hikes and we each had to find something special to take home? I still have some of that stuff.” This was Billy, Ken’s son and the youngest of the grandchildren.
There were mixed responses to Billy’s comments – the women hated the hike, the men loved it.
“The old man wasn’t exactly politically correct, was he?” Christine’s comment brought laughter, but the laughter was tinged with the hurt Pop sometimes inflicted on the girls. Christine had been a chubby teenager and her grandfather thought that was well worth commenting on.
“If it wasn’t about you, he was funny. Remember when Uncle Ken got religion and Pop was all over him?” This was Doug, Holly’s son.
“Like I said, he could be funny if it wasn’t you.” Christine’s comment caused nodding by the women and smirks by the men
“Nana was great though. I loved coming here. She used to make special pancakes when we arrived – remember? She would let us help and we decorated them with sprinkles and chocolate chips. And it is the only time of the year we all get together. I think with having parents that are siblings, it is a good chance to compare notes.” This was the last and the oldest of the group – Frank. “And because it is on Boxing Day, it takes the pressure off Christmas. Don’t have to go to the parents or invite them over. I hope it goes on and on.”
Anne nodded. “It is interesting to compare notes with people whose parents were siblings. And with divorces and all, this is about the only permanent family we have.” Half of the adult children were divorced, and it looked like Anne might make it two-thirds. No one in the older generations had gotten divorced.
“Looking around helps me remember Nana and Pop, too. Every so often I can’t quite remember their voices or the way they did things. Then I come back here.”
“I’m glad Aunt Holly hasn’t changed the house much – but she’s probably too cheap.” This came from Christine, but Doug, Holly’s son, only grimaced.
They all shrugged in agreement. They then entered into a fairly catty discussion about how hard it was for any of their parents to part with money and how much drinking was going on in the dining room.
Later in the day, they did remember to take a picture in the living room. Eight older adults, six younger adults, and four whiney kids. They stood in front of the fireplace where Nana’s old Nativity scene was displayed on the mantle and behind the coffee table loaded with booze. They all smiled as they thought of getting into their cars in a few minutes and getting back to their pets and beds and tub of Ben and Jerry’s. No one stayed to help with the clean-up and Holly did not offer anyone leftovers to take home.