I arrived home last night long after dark, and without having remembered to stop by the store to buy more Hanukkah candles. The bodega across the street, open all hours and offering necessaries that range from serious plumbing equipment to high-end beer, had only the birthday, votive, and Virgin-Mary-in-a-highball varieties. I went with birthdays, although they were too narrow for my menorah, and I was able to anchor them by dripping wax into the holders. We skipped the prayers and ordered Chinese.
We opened gifts for the children from my mother—expensive dresses that my daughters, Ellie (two) and Mena (three months), will rarely if ever have occasion to wear, and that they will undoubtedly destroy if ever they do; and a stack of books for my son, JP (six), that included The Wind in the Willows, a kid-version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and some sort of Stars Wars comic book that may have a Hooked on Phonics tie-in; all in all, a step forward in her purchasing history for the boy, as the books are age-appropriate and have nothing to do with an e-reader or video games, which we ban and that she has attempted to addict him to during her regular visits from Mississippi.
My wife, Tomoko, also brought out the packages sent by her father in Japan (Her mother has passed away.): durable winter clothes for my son and the baby; a scarf for Tomoko to wear if she decides to stop being an advertising-executive-who-surfs-and-does-yoga and transforms into a suburban housewife who needs something to warm her neck on the golf course; a set of miniature wooden milk bottles for my two-year-old—presumably not made in China, and potentially safe to put in one's mouth—and a set of traditional raw-silk Japanese pajamas, which Tomoko says are unisex, but I claimed as my own because, as I told her, they made me feel like a Shogun defending the honor of our clan. Tomoko made her father a calendar with photos of the children on each month's page, which I was supposed to send to Kobe last week. It is sitting in my bag next to my desk as I write this, un-mailed. Tomoko also has a sister who lives in San Francisco, but they are estranged, so she won't be getting anything. If she reads this, her nieces await.
The previous evening was one of "my nights" with my son. I borrowed candles from my upstairs neighbors (they didn't fit either—I had to saw off the bottoms) and looked up a phonetic transliteration of the Hebrew prayers, which I blundered my way through and then cooked cheeseburgers—using kosher beef. Over dinner, JP, who has dedicated himself to pointing out the differences between him and his sister, Ellie, announced that unlike her, he is half-Christian and half-Jewish, while she is "just Jewish." I corrected him: Ellie, and Mena, are half-Jewish and half-Buddhist, Tomoko's religion, which she practices not at all. This prompted an attempt to explain Buddhism to a six-year-old ("It's a religion"), followed by my insistence that despite his living in two households, we are one family. Then Ellie launched into a version of "Jingle Bells," which she must have learned at daycare, because I certainly didn't teach her.
We held off giving the children their "big" gifts until the last night of Hanukkah, when my father and his wife, Lucie (They married when I was in my 30s, so I'm reluctant to refer to her as my step-mother—that's his second wife, who I haven't spoken to in nearly a decade) returned from a cruise. We did give him a Chinese checkers set and more books--a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia, which apparently has a prequel, The Magician's Nephew, which if my son is interested in he can read himself, as I'm starting with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe); Ellie got a canister of Tinker Toys, which she sprayed joyfully across the room. For reasons I can't quite understand, Tomoko bought JP a Star Wars advent calendar, which he loves and which I haven't linked with Christmas in his mind.
My brother, Jason, has two daughters, for whom we have purchased a small selection of American Girl paraphernalia. Our father and Lucie sent the girls party dresses, which Jason dressed them up in and photographed. His wife, Julie, emailed the photos to Lucie. Yesterday, Jason called me to complain that Lucie, on receipt of the photos, replied with a request for a reshoot, with the girls' hair done in a particular way that she had taught them. He said that if a man had made this request, he would be responding with fear rather than irritation.
I give Jason the same gift each year: the gift of not getting him a gift and not expecting him to get me one. I offered that gift to Tomoko as well, and she accepted it initially without reservation. Then a couple of days ago she handed me a copy of the calendar she made for her father, personalized for me, and told me not to feel obligated to get her anything in return. I'm shopping for earrings and will decide presently which pair to get.
I know we bought something for my father and Lucie, but I can't remember what it is. We sent my mother ornaments for her Christmas tree. To understand the surrealism of that choice, know that the first sentence of my book, Am I a Jew?, reads as follows: "I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity."
The ornaments have a gauzy seasonal charm, and my mother loves her tree as only a Jew from Queens who became an Episcopalian can. For my stepfather I picked out a fancy coffee rig and a stainless steel filter, which, a knowledgeable friend tells me, mitigates tannic flavors in the brew—pretentious and thoughtful, all at once.
I love the disorderly, contentious, inappropriate, seriocomic, fragile mess that is my family. I would crumble without my wife, and nothing will ever be as important to me as my children. But the holidays empty me, they burden me, they signify the many ways in which all is not as it should be. And then they end.