They fell from the trees like over-ripe fruit, sodden with the juices of life. The wind did not fell them, or the rain. Instead, they let go their lofty lookouts at the report of a fine .410 gauge Winchester Model 37— and as they dropped, so did the barometer of pent-up tensions I‘d smuggled with me into the leafless woods that Christmas Eve day. I knew a doctor once, a friend of a friend really, who I overheard saying that after a long day of life-saving, it felt good to kill something. I’m sure he didn’t mean it to sound that sadistic. Still… there’s nothing I quite look forward to like my annual pilgrimage to the in-laws house each Christmas, to bask in the glow of extended family and— to launch expeditions in search of the venerable California Greyback.
I’ve recently discovered that to find the best sermon illustrations, all one has to do is get a large family together for at least two days. After that, the stories take care of themselves. I can prove this. One of my sisters-in-law, Debbie, while running up to surprise my wife from behind in a Walmart parking lot, inexplicably ran straight into a parked car. I could tell she hoped no one had noticed. I tried to convey a look that said ‘keep dreaming.’ Later that weekend, I watched again in my plaid bathrobe from the living room gliding rocker as she almost fell backwards off the couch. She was apparently trying to sit on the arm to get a better view into the kitchen. Getting up, she turned around to see me smiling at her. She sighed in despair.
There was a time at the Payne home (my in-laws) when the children woke before the sun did Christmas mornings. Those were the days I slept alone in a sleeping bag on the floor, still a guest of the family, an outsider on probational status. In those days, the kids (all 9 of them) would hover and perch around the mouth of the staircase like ticklish angelic vultures, waiting for word to float up that the feast of fun was made ready. Their parents, in turn, initiated this welcome only when it was certain enough caffeine had been consumed downstairs to sustain them through the coming ordeal. I call this state ‘the fullness of time.’
It was fun to compare how different this Christmas morning was from those gone by. Most of the ‘kids’ are married now, with children of their own. The human multiplication in our clan is such that we now divvy ourselves up between houses for the nights. In the morning, while my own children made sure I continued to observe the pre-dawn traditions of Christmas past, most other family members didn’t shuffle into the living room until about nine-ish. Even then, the boarding situation made it necessary to wait on the arrival of other households for the festivities to began. The flip side of this small delay was an increased opportunity for the development of that charming kind of chaos.
Like not knowing where to expect the next wrapping paper snowball to come from, craziness at the Payne house can originate in any number of unlikely sources. In this case, one of several nameless housecats came streaking out from under the Christmas tree, dragging a slashed baggie of homemade venison jerky in its wake. Clearly convinced it’s pursuer was actually a very good smelling, though cat-eating monster, freaked-out kitty stumbled over a coffee table, dashed around a jumble of boxes and finally was tackled after emerging, nerves raw, from under a string of mismatched chairs. If sports fans in football stadiums attempted to execute ‘the wave’ with their feet, it would closely mimic the spontaneous calisthenics I observed in those moments. Cheering may also have been involved.
Later that morning, in a conversation I’ll treasure forever, the talk turned especially deep.
ESTHER (My wife): “I couldn’t buy new wrapping paper this year because I had to use up what I got last year.”
RUTH (Esther’s sister): “Ooh, I LOVE buying wrapping paper!”
JOSH (with unveiled disgust): “Loving to buy wrapping paper is like loving to buy socks.”
MARGIE (Mother-in-law, from the kitchen): “What are you guys talking about?”
ESTHER: “That loving wrapping paper is like loving socks.”
MARGIE (Still in kitchen): “Ooh, I LOVE socks!” [much laughter from the living room.]
POST SCRIPT: Later that Christmas morning, yet another sister-in-law opened a beautifully wrapped box to find in it a pair of brand new socks. They were, of course, from Margie. You can’t make this stuff up.
The fun did not end with the socks. Like dutiful members of a survivalist commune, our family displays a knack for homemade goods. Mother-in-law Margie makes soap that smells like strawberries. This is essential for personal hygiene. Sister-in-law Ruth makes jam from the fruit of trees in her back yard. This is essential for having tasty toast. My wife Esther makes rice-filled bean bags. These are essential as heat pads, to treat the aches and pains derived from working the land on our hypothetical commune. Brother-in-law Will makes beer. This is essential in cases, err… in case of a return to the bartering system for procuring basic goods (due again to the hypothetical inflation of the national currency). And I, of course, make knives. Which, lets face it, as mankind’s oldest tools, are basically essential for everything. There were probably other homemade gifts exchanged as well but, as it was my turn to stand watch in our hpothetical commune lookout tower, I couldn’t document them.
I remember one Christmas with this special family when I pitched in to buy my brother-in-law Cody his first bb-gun. We shot old soda cans in the backyard with his brothers and showed him how to hold it properly, safely. I remember not too many Christmases later, supervising as he brought down his first California Greyback with an old, single-shot .22. He was so proud of himself. I was pretty darn proud too. This Christmas I listen with amazement as that same little boy now tells his brothers all the weapons he’s qualified to use when he deploys this August. Suddenly it’s his turn to open a present, and he lifts up and out a folded American flag. Jim, his dad, explains that this flag used to belong to his own father, Cody’s grandfather; he was a soldier too. Jim goes on to say the flag was given to Cody’s grandfather by President Reagan. I find myself listening, trying not to show how moved I am when Jim explains that they will fly this flag from the day he deploys until the day he comes home. Cody, who’s been jaunty and distracted all morning, pauses for a moment, and I think he gets it, the significance of all this. Then the moment is gone, the camera that takes moving pictures engages, and it’s time to see what’s in the next box.
That afternoon I knelt in the cold grass of my in-laws front yard and taught my 5-year old son Nathan how to hold and aim his new rubber-band gun properly, safely. It was his favorite present this Christmas, and it’s a gift from his uncle Cody. I carefully loaded the rubber bands for him, one at a time, smiling as he eagerly took the gun from me, laughing and clapping him on the back for the first of many times as his rubber bullets knocked over our thin plastic targets, a handful of stained dominoes, falling on Christmas morning.