Belly of the Whale: Color Me Christmas Dec17

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Belly of the Whale: Color Me Christmas


A blogumn by Howard Leder

Christmas with the family coming up, the first time in several years.  My mother is crazy for Christmas in a way I’ve always found both charming and a little scary.  She goes at it with an elaborate, over-the-top sense of show, filling the house with as many as three Christmas trees and enough wreaths and garlands to wrap a small Bloomingdale’s.  She gives gifts with a frenzy that most people reserve for Nascar races, and there isn’t a single winking, blinking or tinkling Christmas geegaw that hasn’t followed her home over the years.  If it lights up, spins & sings “Oh Holy Night,” chances are it has spent at least one holiday season on our mantle.

Now, in every family, it seems, one of the children has to pick up the Christmas torch and try to keep going the sense of tradition and belonging.  In my family, my younger brother and I have come to treat Christmas with a kind of grudging disdain.  Christmas has taken on a bizarre, almost surreal quality with my family of late, mostly because there aren’t any kids around.  None of my brothers and I have married, and none of us have children.  So it has this static, frozen-in-time quality, a dying ritual that in this season of joy gives little warmth.

But my older brother: he is the Ghost of Christmases Past, Present and Future, celebrating it with an abandon my little brother and I can only gawk at, like two acolytes smoking & snickering behind the church between services.  My older brother holds on to Christmas with both hands and all of his teeth, determined that we’ll celebrate it the old, right way.  It can feel a little dogged sometimes, and I’m never quite sure who he’s doing it for: Himself?  Us?  My mother?

[Editor’s note: Please, please, please make the jump. What ensues is one of the most terrible (and funniest!) Christmas stories that I have read in a rather long time.]

One year in particular–this must’ve been about four or five years ago–my older brother called me about two months before Christmas.  “I had a great idea for a gift we can all do for mom,” he cooed, his voice brimming with pride.

Now in my family, anything that passes for enthusiasm is immediate cause for suspicion. I knew that whatever this idea might be, I wasn’t going to like it, but I gamely bit.  “What is it?” I asked, half expecting him to suggest that they all fly out for the Rose Bowl Parade, a perennial idea that comes around with the regularity of a Swiss train and makes my bowels seize up in anxiety.

“Well, you know mom likes to collect plates,” he started. This was true on two counts: she likes to collect plates and I was vaguely aware of it.  “So I thought we could all go to Color Me Mine, you know that store where you can paint your own ceramics?  And then we’d each paint a picture of ourselves on a plate.  Then I’ll get some shadow boxes so we can hang them on the wall.”

Now I’m gay, so I don’t say this lightly, but this was the gayest shit I’d ever heard.  The whole thing must’ve stunned me into a distant, stupid silence, because the next thing I heard was, “Hello?  Still there?”

Mind you, this was my forty-year-old brother.  Suggesting, essentially, we do an elementary school craft project for Christmas presents.

When I mentioned it a few days later to my then therapist, her first question was, “What are you? Eight?”  She switched into a high-pitched, slightly scary little kid voice: “Look, mommy!  I made you a plate.”  My favorite thing about that therapist was she always had it in for my family in a particularly vicious way.

“So, what I think I hear you saying is, I don’t really have to do it.  Do I?” I asked.

The weird thing about all this (aside from the obvious) was that not one of us can really paint or draw, not in the least bit.  Even as children, we’d none of us taken any real great pleasure in art.  So it seemed a little arbitrary: like let’s think up the thing that would most please her and do that, even if the end results were completely ridiculous.

To be honest, I actually came up with several ideas & designs I thought might work — only one of which involved my scrotum dipped in a lime-green glaze.  But as that Holiest of Holy Days grew closer, I found myself procrastinating with a certain reckless glee, calculating the last possible minute I could actually do the plate and still leave time to fire it, cure it and get it safely to Minnesota.  Racing to the airport from the closest Color Me Mine, I would stride boldly toward the airplane, extolling, “The only thing I have to check is this precious plate I painted for my mother.”

But when I heard my little brother was deathly ill with the flu only four days before Christmas, I sensed I was off the hook.  I called him on the down-low one morning.  “Um.  Did you do your plate?”

“Are you kidding?  I’ve been in bed for the last week.”

Bingo.  I called my older brother.  “I’m just too slammed at work right now,” I lied, though it was probably true.  I felt like I was breaking some kind of contract.

“Well, I did mine,” he replied.

So it came to pass that Christmas morning I was all antsy, eager to see his finished plate. 

In my mind’s eye, I’d imagined that we would’ve painted our portraits as we are now, as adults.  On my brother’s plate, though, he had painted himself as a child…sitting on Santa’s lap.  I’m not making this shit up.

What’s more, there was another little figure standing just to the side of Santa.

“Who’s that?” I asked innocently, though already sensing the answer.

By way of an explanation, my brother handed me a small picture, one of those little, square 2×2 photo prints they used to make in the mid-seventies that were cute as hell. 

I took it from him and, sure enough, the figure lurking just to the side of Santa was me.

He’d painted me onto the plate.  But you couldn’t really tell it was me, because instead of a face or recognizable features, I was just this peach-colored fleshy blob in a striped shirt.

This, I knew, was his revenge.  The rest of you don’t care, it seemed to say, so I’ll just paint you out of this perfect Christmas memory.

My mother, to her credit, when she opened it had a look somewhere between confusion and alarm, giving one of those sidelong glances you see people give a camera crew: you didn’t really get that on film did you?  She didn’t immediately look like she knew what she was supposed to do with it:  Post it on the fridge?  When I’m home next week, I’ve resolved to look around for it, the ghost of one Christmas sweetly gone by.

Sugar Cookies Photo Credit: Rudy Jahchan