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.
At the risk of betraying a certain sameness among the three of us writers, I should say that my children have the same general heritage-mix as Theodore and Matt's kids put together: part-Christian, part-Buddhist, part-Jewish. But I remain the only one of us three who isn't a full Jew (I'm only half, and my maternal grandparents were Christian ministers), and so I should probably teach my fellow DadWagoners something about Christmas.