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December 10, 2008

A holiday to remember

“A girl starts walkin’, guys start gawkin’, sits down next to you and starts talkin’!” I’m rapping into a microphone before an audience consisting of my parents and my 84-year-old grandmother. They’re all smiling politely and looking bewildered. Seeing this, I step up my game, throwing in a moonwalk and a few Eminem-style hand gestures for good measure.

“Says she wanna dance cuz she likes the groove, so come on, Fatso, and just bust a move!” The song finally ends and I take a bow. No one claps.

“Um, OK, what’s next?” I ask brightly, scrolling through the song choices on the TV screen. “Who wants to hear me do ‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child?” I take the ensuing silence as approval and click yes on the screen.

I never thought I’d be performing karaoke for my extended family, but it’s the holidays, I’ve had two glasses of chardonnay, and anything goes.

When I first became a wife and mother, I was determined to have the perfect family holiday experience. Dressed in a vintage hostess apron, I’d stand nonchalantly behind a polished mahogany table laden with gourmet delicacies and festive sugared treats. Dozens of family members would cross our cheery threshold wearing their Lands’ End best and carrying professionally wrapped gifts and bottles of wine. The whole scene would be bathed in the warm glow of candlelight, with twinkling lights and real pine garlands in the fuzzy background.

Eventually, though, I wised up. For one thing, I don’t have dozens of family members, and most of the ones I do have aren’t likely to travel to see me. Ever. For another, everyone knows family holidays are generally most memorable for what doesn’t go right, whether it’s a screaming match over who was responsible for burning the turkey or a highly contagious stomach virus that leaves everyone fighting for the bathroom on Christmas morning.

Besides, the three family members of mine who do show up at my door each holiday season will never see me as the consummate holiday hostess, no matter what I do; in my mom’s, dad’s and grandmother’s eyes, I will always be a scatterbrained little girl, made up to look like a woman but still desperately in need of their help and guidance.

At first, this drove me bonkers. I’d spend days polishing furniture, scrubbing baseboards, changing light bulbs and mopping floors, all in an effort to present my extended family with a spotless facade. But it was no good. Within minutes of arriving, my mom would have spied a cobweb in a dark corner of our dining room.

“Do you have a small broom I could get that down with?” she’d ask, without bothering even to remove her coat first.

Meanwhile, Grandmother would be busy moving our kitchen trashcan from one corner of the room to the other. “Closer to the food,” she’d say, wiping her hands grimly.

“Lindsay, do you have a large screwdriver?” my dad would ask from over my shoulder.

“Why, Dad?”

“I think I can fix that front door hinge, if you’ll let me.” I’d stand there quietly, hoping the grimace I was trying to pass off as a smile would take the attention away from my clenched fists.

Each year, I’d try even harder to achieve perfection. And each year, my guests would discover every last small detail I had overlooked. Finally, this year, with two small children underfoot, teenagers whose idea of “clean” involved piling everything in the closet and slamming the door, and a bunch of writing gigs that demanded my attention, I simply gave in. I straightened the place up as well as I could before my guests arrived and steeled myself for what promised to be the most embarrassing inspection yet.

What happened surprised me. When my grandmother began chipping away with a table knife at the crumbs lodged in my stove dials, I found myself smiling at her indulgently instead of stifling a shriek of frustration. After all, I couldn’t think of a single other person who would have done that for me. And when my dad buckled on his tool belt and started fixing all the things in the house that my handyman had broken during the last year, I realized for the first time that the repairs were his way of letting me know he loved me. And when my mom kept standing in front of the oven the whole time I was trying to cook? Well, that was annoying.

And so before they went home, I made sure to pop a karaoke disc into our Xbox so I could regale them with “Bust a Move.” Because if family holidays are most memorable for the things that go badly, I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure this one stays in our memories for as long as possible. 

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