Chicago, IL

“Oh Christmas, How I Dread Ye”

Sherry McGuinn

Or, perhaps it’s something else

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Lights! Camera! Action! We’re heading into the holiday season and for many of us, that means scrambling like roaches in an abandoned building to make things as “perfect” as they can be.

Once Thanksgiving is over and the arguments and the massive hangovers have been left behind, that’s when the real work begins. That’s when we gird our loins and hunker down in a futile attempt to pretend we enjoy hunting for the perfect tree, or the perfect recipe for green bean casserole, or the perfect gift for that perfect someone who’s already “got it all.”

I can’t pinpoint the exact year I became a Grinch. Perhaps my dislike for the holidays was cemented six years ago when my parents were both diagnosed with stage four lung cancer right before Thanksgiving. And then, as Christmas approached, I received my own diagnosis of breast cancer.

Bring on the joy!!

Or maybe, it’s the constant “noise.” The incessant “Holly Jolly” shit as we careen through the malls snatching up gifts like squirrels gathering nuts.

(No disrespect to Burl Ives.)

And lest we forget, there is “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” and all the other manufactured days that inspire us to do precious little other than to go into hock.

In spite of that somber beginning, there was a time when the holidays were joyful. When I did look forward to them. Here is what I recollect about Christmases' past that I hope will inspire you to share your own memories.

The Early Years

When I was a kid growing up in Skokie, Illinois with my folks and two siblings, we had a set “pattern” for celebrating the holiday, that we followed for years. Because my Italian mother and my Jewish father were not religious, Christmas was more of a PAR-TAY, than a glorification of the birth of Christ.

And we threw down.

Both Christmas Eve and Day were celebrated with my mother’s extended Italian family.

Chicago’s south side, where my Aunt Helen, Uncle Fred, and four cousins lived was the setting for the night before Christmas. We ate, drank, and made very merry indeed until they headed off for Midnight Mass and we returned to our predominantly Jewish suburb.

Of course, we kids didn’t drink alcohol, but our folks were world-class imbibers. There was plenty of food, though, to staunch the booze before the long drive home.

Typically, in an Italian household, the Christmas Eve feast is all about seafood and pasta. No meat. What a glorious, glorious repast! Fried calamari, done to a golden turn. Baccala, or cod baked in a savory tomato sauce. My mother’s signature baked clams. And, two or three pasta dishes, including lasagne. As I write this, I can practically smell the garlic and basil wafting from my mom’s mouth-watering sauce which she slaved over all day.

We kids always got into trouble and my Uncle Fred’s signature move was to make us stand in a corner until we’d figured out what we’d done wrong. It was more of a tradition than punishment and everyone, including my uncle, laughed until we nearly peed ourselves.

While the adults talked and the younger kids speculated on what Santa would bring, my cousin Joey and I, who was just three months older than me, repaired to his room to plow through his huge collection of 45 rpm records.

A babe magnet, Joey went through girlfriends like underwear and was so much fun to be around.

Aunt Helen is gone, now, as are my parents and all my aunts and uncles, save for two, including Uncle Fred who’s still kickin’ at ninety and lives with Joey, who, having never shed his love for the ladies, shattered his marriage and was divorced years ago.

He and I spoke just last week about his younger sister, who is fighting multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer.

She has been in and out of the hospital, underwent a stem cell procedure that didn’t take, and just had a tumor removed from her spine, all while undergoing multiple forms of chemotherapy.

Cancer. The scourge of my family and so many others. And so it goes.

The Middle Years

After Aunt Helen and Uncle Fred moved to the north side, there were no more southside bacchanals. That said, my folks carried on like the stalwarts they were, and Christmas Eves in Skokie were raucous, boozy affairs where Dad often dressed up as Nick the Beard and Mom served up all our old favorites.

My sister was in charge of the decorations and made sure that each of us had our own stocking hanging over the fireplace mantle.

Dad was so proud of his fire-building prowess. I see him in my mind’s eye stoking and poking, his face rosy from a potent mix of vodka and the fire’s heat.

During this time, I was living in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago where the man who was to become my husband brought me my first real Christmas tree.

There was a knock at my apartment door. I opened it and there he was, hoisting a fragrant Balsam, fresh from the lot.

After that, we always had a tree. In fact, my husband turned out to be a master of Christmas decor.

Our apartment, and then our home, was like a Christmas wonderland after he did his thing. There were turn-of-the-century, ceramic homes with lights, garlands everywhere, candles in decorative holders, and of course, that beautiful tree.

It was so welcoming and cozy. The perfect hideaway for the blustery holiday season.

I did my best to help but was never really good at it. My expertise lay in stashing everything away after the New Year. And I never lagged as I couldn’t understand those people who left their decorations up well into February. Just the notion of it depressed me.

Perhaps that was a sign of the Grinch I was to become.

One year during this period my husband and I spent Christmas Eve in Skokie as we normally did and the evening resulted in our not speaking to my parents for at least a couple of years, after.

Until they moved to Wisconsin’s North Woods, Christmas Day was always spent with my husband’s family, where great food, lively conversation…and sanity…prevailed. Except for the food, this was the polar opposite of what went on with my gang. When my inlaws imbibed (except for my father-in-law, who’d quit alcohol), they were, well…jolly.

As I’ve shared in past stories my parents and booze made for a volatile mix, with my father being especially combustible. When he drank, he got mean. An old story and one that many people can relate to, sadly.

This particular Night Before Christmas, it was past ten and we were beat. It was time to leave and head back to our apartment in the city but my parents pressed us to stay. I’m still not sure why. I don’t recall if dessert had been brought out yet, or not, but, it was time to go.

Rather than respect our feelings, my folks took our wanting to leave as a personal affront, not the first time such an innocuous “state of being” turned disastrous.

As my mother quickly backed down (not really caring if we bounced) it was my father, so good at lighting fires, who set our relationship ablaze that night.

He made a nasty crack about our “having to get home to feed the cats,” which stoked that blaze and enraged both myself and my husband.

You don’t fuck with our cats.

Yet, he liked our cats. He was just being Dad. Drunk Dad. Mean Dad. Monster Dad.

That said, words were exchanged. He called me a particularly nasty expletive, my hubby let him have it and that, as they say, “was that.”

It wasn’t the first time I took a hiatus from my family and wouldn’t be the last.

And Now for Something Completely Different

I mentioned my cousin who is battling cancer. For several years, she has hosted Christmas Eve for our extended family. It’s the one time during the year that I see all my cousins and their families. And Uncle Fred, as well.

Now though, that’s off the table and it feels as if our world is shrinking. My parents are dead. My husband’s parents are dead and his two siblings live out of state. My brother might as well be dead as my sister and I haven’t talked to him in six years, and he’s also moved out of state. So, it’s my husband, myself and my sister, and her family.

After Thanksgiving is over, I will do my best to add some Christmas cheer to our home. I’ll put out a few decorations, haul out our small, fiber-optic tree and do my best to remain positive and upbeat.

My husband and I bemoan the fact that we haven’t had a “real” tree in years, but, neither one of us has the energy to deal with it. We have boxes upon boxes of decorations and just hauling them out from our crawl space and sifting through them is a good deal of work.

I know. I sound like a shit.

Either Christmas Eve or Day will be spent at my sister’s where I’ll probably drink too much, and think too much as I gaze at the portrait of our beautiful mother hanging on her family room wall.

I’ll think of both my parents, ravaged by lung cancer and gone six years now. I miss them, and my inlaws, who treated me like a daughter from the first day we met.

Isn’t it funny how, in the process of writing these stories, suddenly “stuff” that was murky before becomes crystal clear?

It’s not Christmas I dread, but death. Because I can’t help but wonder, how many holidays remain on my personal calendar?

As the end of another year approaches, and I still haven’t achieved my “goals,” I go to the dark side. I’m fighting that, but it’s difficult. Surely, many of you can relate.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? And what is a year, after all, but 365 days of triumphs and fuck-ups and love and loss?

Why should time carry such import?

Compared to so many others who are struggling right now through a pandemic that hangs on in spite of our masks and injections and sanitizers, with food and gas prices soaring and a world gone mad, my blessings are many.

For example, our three cats don’t give a damn about the holiday season. Rain or shine, holidays or not, they just want to love us and be loved in return. Like those that came before them.

My husband puts up with my foibles and my moods and all the other shit that I can dish out if I unleash “Bad Sherry.” I’m kind of like my dad that way. I’m working on it. I’m working on quite a lot, actually.

He also is incredibly supportive of my dreams. So what else can I ask for? What do I want for Christmas?

Not much. I want my cousin to pull through and beat cancer. I want us to stay healthy and keep abreast of our finances. I want to continue to engage with my friends here. I want Donald Trump to go away, forever.

And, I want to produce a script. I’m working on that, too.

I’ll try harder this season. I will. I’ll remember everything I have, and give thanks.

Yet, at the risk of appearing selfish, there’s one more Christmas gift I’m longing for.

I’d like time to slow down. Just a little.

Sherry McGuinn is a longtime Chicago-area writer and award-winning screenwriter. She is currently pitching her newest screenplay, “The Month We Fell Apart,” a drama with dark, comedic overtones and inspired by a true story, as well as “DEAD TIRED,” a female-driven, erotic thriller.

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Chicago, IL
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