December 9, 2008
“Oh no, is this my Christmas card moment?”
My family knows exactly when they have made their faux pas of the year, the one that will be captured for eternity in ink, on a homemade Christmas card. Each of them receive one, it’s highly expected, and the presents fall to the wayside. My mother laughs until near-peeing-herself as the cards get circulated back and forth. They hate my elephant memory, and spend the months leading up to Christmas wondering what will be heralded as their 2008 Christmas cartoon. And this year was no exception. In the heat of August, in my BC backyard I was snickering as I cartooned the images.
Sitting in Uganda, the festive feeling is a bit diminished in the 28 degree heat. I am in cargo shorts, a tee shirt, and a bit sticky from the heat. Aura, or Mother General as she is somewhat kindly referred to, just arrived from Australia, bearing garish tinsel and artificial trees and the like. She also unpacked three fruit cakes from her suitcase that could kill five horses with the brandy wafting out of her luggage.
To get into the spirit I have been cooking. Egg nog. Twelve egg yolks and three cups of rum (a recipe from my friend Jann who rattled it off the top of her head). That’s another five horses down. It is sitting in the fridge, permeating everyone’s loaves of bread and veggies. I felt the need to share a little of the Canadian holiday culture with my loved ones here. Hopefully I don’t give them all rum-soaked salmonella instead. There are no refrigerated eggs here, but I figure the booze would kill off any free-range creepy crawlies.
Normally I would have already laboured over a gingerbread house, bitching about the poor holding quality of the icing. Inevitably, the plastic icing bag splits and I have icing snaking up my arm, and into the dog’s mouth and everywhere it should be but on the gumdrop that has also rolled onto the floor. Oh, how Bently loved when I opened the bag of jellybeans for the gingerbread rooftop last year–they sprayed in all directions, like rapid-fire bullets, scattering over the hardwood. He was on them like Pac Man. Mila, due to her age, wasn’t aware that something good was going on until Bently had successfully cleaned up the game board and advanced to the next level. Eighteen jellybeans, high score.
Despite my general global perspective of saving the forests of the world, I am a sucker for a live tree. Except for the year when my sister flew home early from Banff and wanted to do the authentic tree ”hunting” experience. Dax and I piled into his Jeep with my girlfriend Kelly, and we left our urban oasis and Toronto comforts with grande Starbucks gingerbread and egg nog lattes, whip and all. We were dressed like responsible Torontonians, all of us in Puma footwear despite the snowbanks. Who owns boots in the city? We met my dad and Kiley, who rolled her eyes at our poor clothing choices. No Gore-tex, no proper layering of cottons and wools to allow for wicking… we were doomed. Flo (dad) had on his eskimo-style Sorels which he has had for thirty years, and the jacket that he has also had for just about as long (that my mother keeps threatening to stuff in a Sally Ann bag when he’s not looking). We drove to a very whimsical tree farm on the outskirts of marshmallowy Brantford and began our Torti family tree search. Dax and I were already teeth-chattering, and too cool for toques. My jeans felt like they might crack in the cold. About 15 minutes into it, the wonderful magical thought of cutting down a tree sucked. My Pumas were frozen to my feet, Kelly’s teeth hurt, and Dax, due to his gayness had little resistance to the cold either. It’s just hard to look good in winter, and we weren’t about to sacrifice our vain ways for toques and boots. We headed to the truck. Kiley and my dad didn’t really care, it gave them time to bond without us making fun of them. We raced back to my mom’s tracker (she was apparently working, but probably just at home drinking in her work uniform ) and cranked the heat up to Florida temperatures. That’s right, save the forest, but if I’m cold, let the thing idle. Well, we thought we were going to have to call in the SWAT team or a helicopter task force. Where the hell were they? Waiting for a sapling to grow? Christ, night was falling upon us. Hell, I liked the pre-cut one sitting beside where we were parked. Soon we were rooting around my mom’s glove compartment and we all found sunglasses to wear. Most were tilted on one side, compressing our eyelashes and cheek when we smiled. Then the lipstick came out. Dax was dolled up, and Kelly had great fun doing us up Sandra style. We had music blasting, our jackets off and we were actually sweating with lipstick on our teeth. Flo, looking like Old Man Winter hammered on the window on the driver’s side–I think Kelly and Dax both screamed. He looked like he had just climbed Everest, and Kiley had cheeks pinker than maraschino cherries despite her layering and clothing with wicking ability. They had a tree, finally. My dad shook his head to see us all wearing my mom’s sunglasses and make-up. We thought nothing of it.
At home my dad chewed his lower molars into nothing as the tree was too big and required the use of man tools. My mom buys him tools every year, that generally sit in the boxes they come in, until I come home with a tool-savvy girlfriend who gives him a band saw demo or instructions on how to use the mitre saw. Kelly wasn’t one of them, and the rest of us weren’t exactly helpful (aside from Princess/Kiley who is always at Flo’s side). Instead we were all in the kitchen with my mother spoiling our dinner with spanokapita, hot kielbasa and whirling up afternoon drinks in the martini shaker. And of course, the daiquiri mix always comes out because “it’s Dax’s favourite,” but really it’s my mother’s favourite so we indulge her.
The actual Torti Christmas dinner usually happens around 9 p.m. By then Flo has eaten seven consecutive slices of toast to ward off hunger. We have all been merrily drinking and have forgotten about the intent of eating. My mother insists on proper thematic dinner music and we are suddenly transported to an Il Divo concert with our wine glasses sliding across the glass table with the vibrations. By the time we make our way through all that is buttery and laden with gravy, we sink into the couches in the livingroom to endure three hours of present-opening. Dax and his boyfriend bring all their presents down for each other to open in front of us which I think is slightly odd, especially when the kinky stuff gets unwrapped. Flo buys my mother 56 stocking stuffers that are wrapped like they are going to be tucked up the bum of a drug lord going through a Turkish airport. We eat my mother’s decadent pecan pie and shortbread that isn’t short on butter until we all want to throw up. By this point my dad is falling asleep and we are taking pictures of him as he does his head-bobbing. When he wakes up to the flash, we only have to wait another minute before he does it again. By midnight, my mother usually makes a dramatic exit, simply declaring, ”I’m going to bed,” whether all the presents have been opened or not.
Their cats, Chloe and Casper breathe a sigh of relief as all the humans leave and they can resume their unpestered existence, curled up under their new tree.
But wait, I skipped the integral part of our Christmas. The annual weep over Meryn Cadell’s The Cat Carol. The song makes us all stop in our tracks and a hush falls over the livingroom. The local radio usually plays it twice, so if need be, we stop and cry twice. The song is about a cat who has been locked out on Christmas eve, and it is oh so cold. The cat finds a mouse, who is initially frightened of the cat, but the cat says because it is Christmas eve, he is safe, they will be friends–“on this freezing night we both need a friend.”‘ The cat curls around the shivering mouse to keep him warm, and when Santa arrives, the reindeer start to cry. The cat has died. The mouse says ”dear cat, wake up, we are saved!” But Santa says, “the cat gave you her life, the greatest gift of them all.”And Santa lifts the cat up and into the night sky and lays her to rest among the stars. ”Dear mouse do not cry you are not alone you will see your friend every year, each Christmas a Cat Constellation will shine to remind us all her love’s still here.”
Tell me that isn’t tragic. What a heartbreaker song. None of us can speak after listening, and Kiley near sobs. I’m no better, trying to hide my heaving chest, and Dax and my mom have tears running down their neck. Sometimes Flo falls asleep listening, which at least gives us something to laugh about after the ache of the little cat dying to save her mouse friend.
And that is a Torti Christmas. Laughs, tears, beers, and Dax standing with the fridge door open after midnight eating cold turkey between bites of shortbread with a plate of olives and crumbled feta. Eventually my mom comes down to see what we’re all up too, and then she’s having milk and cookies with us. Then my dad somehow stirs and feels like he is missing out on something and clomps down the stairs in his velour robe and old slippers (despite the new pair he got under the tree).
We gather around the tree again and reminisce about the ornaments, and ”our friends from Christmas Past,” as my dad says. That would be all our pets who have passed on: Xanadu, Moker, Drakkar, Phantom and Whisper. There is an ornament for each of them. And it can be expected that one of the gifts that we open is from our friends of Christmas Past.
Oh, we are a sappy lot. Our partners can hardly stand it, but it is a truly golden time and I love that we have such precious family memories together. Because cutting down a tree was never so fun as the time we actually didn’t cut down the tree but had a make-up party in the truck instead.
Merry Christmas to my nearest and dearest, and furthest away.
And of course, my friends from Christmas Past.