It just doesn’t feel like Christmas

December 25, 2005 | 11:44 p.m.

There are, I’m sure, a number of reasons today didn’t feel like Christmas. We’re in the middle of production for the January issue, which means we’ve been working like fiends all weekend (yes, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). Today, we were glued to our desks until 2 p.m., when we finally showered, got dressed, and headed to my uncle’s. He’s my mother’s brother, recently divorced after a lifetime of marriage. When she ended things, she caused a rift in the family: their three kids took sides. He’s got one, his oldest, my cousin Scott. So for the past couple of years, holidays have meant spending time with Uncle Austin, Scott, and my parents. This has become our makeshift family of sorts, a union of nowhere else to go more than anything else. (My sister and her family are in Denver; Jim’s family’s in upstate New York; we really don’t see them all that often.)

There’s also the inherent consumerism of Christmas. I am not a shopper and never have been. But this year, with the layoff and the trouble we’ve had finding any sort of financing for the magazine, things are especially tight. We couldn’t afford much in the way of gifts this year; I’d warned the family. But I still felt underprepared; I couldn’t help it.

The weather’s been balmy; maybe that was a contributing factor. My uncle’s trailer wasn’t decorated; perhaps that’s another. In any regard, I wasn’t feeling much of the Christmas spirit by the time we entered Uncle Austin’s trailer in Fenton, a full hour later than anticipated.

We’d brought the ferrets—two of them, anyway. Last year, Christmas had been at my cousin Scott’s, and we’d brought Elliot, knowing it would be his last Christmas. (It was.) This year, it was Lily and Toby’s turn. I love my ferrets dearly and—well, honestly, it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas without them. My uncle instructed us to put the cage in the back bedroom—the living room’s small—so we did; we also dropped our coats on his bed.

Back in the kitchen, Scott was sitting at the table, shoveling cheese and cocktail wieners into his mouth. He seemed quiet, unhappy. (Scott—along with most of my mom’s side of the family—is prone to moodiness.) I asked about it, only to be met with, I can’t stay long; I’m allergic to ferrets. This was news to me, and I told him so. (1) Last year, Elliot had been in his home for hours and he’d been just fine; tonight, all he’d done was glimpse the weasels two minutes ago from 12 feet away. (2) The actual number of people allergic to ferrets is quite small. In fact, people are exponentially more likely to be allergic to cats and dogs (both of which he has). (3) Hypochondria, exaggeration…well, I wasn’t discounting them.

I had trouble breathing after you left, he informed me curtly. I was in a quandary; guilt washed through me. What could I do? What had I done? I admonished myself; really, is there anything more worthless and costly than guilt?

Suddenly my mom was at my elbow, wanting to open presents. It seemed her cousin was coming, and bringing his mother and daughter; they’d be here any minute. She wanted to get the gift-giving out of the way before they arrived. Maybe the fact that I hadn’t much to give clouded my response, but honestly—I hadn’t had a full breath since we’d arrived. Could I have a few moments to settle in?

Scott began doling out the gift bags he’d brought. His dad, seated in his recliner and watching a football game on TV, flipped idly through his bag. Thanking his son, he passed the bag back and asked him to put it in his room.

Scott pushed a sparkling bag toward me; I was standing just inside the kitchen. My parents were at the sink, tending to the ham we’d brought (Honeybaked; thanks, Diana!). I wanted to wait until we were all seated together in the living room, until the mood was better suited for gift-giving and receiving. I couldn’t appreciate it here; wasn’t ready to receive; I told him so. Just pull it out, look at it, then put it back, he said. I challenged; can we just wait?

He muttered something to his dad about retrieving his chewing tobacco and was out the door. I think we all assumed he meant from the car and not from the store, but we heard his car start up and drive off. Ten minutes later, Austin’s phone rang. Scott wasn’t feeling well (“having trouble breathing”) and had decided to go home.

My uncle’s health isn’t good; no one’s sure how many Christmases he has left. And now, as a result of my actions, he had one less to share with his son. I felt terrible…

…and better. The mood in the house was noticeably lighter. But still, it just wasn’t Christmas—not what I’ve come to expect, now what I’ve known, not what I imagine.

When my mom’s cousin arrived with his mom and daughter, the rest of Scott’s gift bags were doled out. There were three for the cousin’s daughter—whom he’d never even met.

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