By Paul McGuire © 2008
Gertrude sat down at the head of the long table. A dozen of her family members slowly sat in the other seats. It was her eighty-fifth Christmas and the twelfth Christmas without her husband Harold. He used to sit at the head of the table in their old Victorian house in San Francisco. For almost a decade she left the seat vacant until one Easter Sunday lunch when she finally achieved a sense of closure and was ready to move on.
Gertrude's sight was impeccable for someone her age, however she was slowed down by a minor stroke and her hearing had deteriorated. She needed the assistance of a hearing aid. Most of her family bickered on holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas and she always had to sit through it. She coped by turning off her hearing aid to tune everyone out.
When Gertrude was younger and in her seventies, she would drink steadily throughout the day and evening in order to block out the dissonance of a dozen people that barely liked each other but somehow all shared the same blood. She stashed small airplane bottles of vodka around the house and would pour them into her orange juice when her relatives were not looking. After her second stroke, the doctor gave her a blood thinning medication that prevented her from drinking. She really didn't miss the booze as much as she desperately wanted to escape from her own family.
Turning off the hearing aid gave Gertrude the rare opportunity to carefully observe her family. They say that 90% of communication is non-verbal. Even though she was the mother of five children, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, she never really got to know them until she tuned everything out and watched every single one of them. Gertrude sat and stared for hours and hours over many family gatherings such as July 4th in Lake Tahoe or her grandson's college graduation or her great-granddaughter's second birthday party.
Gertrude's oldest daughter Beatrice tapped her on the arm. Gertrude slid in her hearing aid.
"I'm going to say grace now, Mother."
It took almost a minute for everyone to settle down. Beatrice closed her eyes and began a prayer. It lasted longer than Gertrude would have preferred and she slammed her hand down on the table. Beatrice was the most startled and Gertrude's grandson Dylan burst out laughing.
"This is my house. This is my table. This is my last Christmas. We will not be saying grace this year."
"Mother! We're not setting a good example for th--"
"Not another word from you, Beatrice. This is my last Christmas and I have a few things to say before I die."
"Mother, please, that's not the kind of thing we want to discuss around the children," pleaded her youngest daughter Iris.
"They are old enough. It's time that they learned the truth about life and this cruel world. Like that their Grandmother will die, just like their mother and father will someday as well each of each of them."
Gertrude stood up and pointed at her twin granddaughters. They were ten years old and adored their grandmother. They burst into tears when Gertrude told them she was going to die.
"Mother, look what you're doing!" screamed Iris as she rushed to her twins and quickly consoled them. "You're disturbing the children."
"That's what's wrong with the next generation in this country. They're too soft. You're all bad parents for protecting them too much. For hiding the truth from them. They won't respect you. They will seek out the truth elsewhere. From the TV or from newspapers or from the computer."
Gertrude turned to her granddaughter Ali. She had recently ended an Emo phase and was now heavily into Goth. Ali's purple hair and black lipstick amused Gertrude because she knew it pissed off Beatrice.
"How old are you Ali?"
"I turned twenty in September. Don't you remember? We went to the Japanese Tea Garden."
"Yes, I do remember and that was one of the best days I had this year. It seems that the older I get, I have less and less good days. This year? I had ten or twelve at the most. Last year, I had twenty. And the year before? Forty. I counted them. At the end of the day I walk over to the calendar in the kitchen and draw a circle around the date if it was a good day. I draw an X if it was a bad day. The older I get, the more Xs there are. I can't wait to die. You're twenty? It's hard to believe that I was your age in 1943. And do you know what I did on Christmas in 1943? I was crying my eyes out and tried to kill myself."
"Sounds just like Ali!" sniped Dylan. "Trying to slit her wrists while listening to Death Cab."
"Fuck you, tool!" screamed Ali.
"My first husband died in the Pacific. We got pregnant shortly before he shipped out, but I had a miscarriage. We were going to try again as soon as he returned but that never happened because the Japs killed him. Then we lost Sammy in 1968."
"Who's Sammy?" asked one of the twins.
"He was your uncle who, um..." Iris couldn't continue.
"Sammy was my son. He was your mother's brother. Your uncle. He was my favorite and he died in Vietnam. It took me the better part of two decades to find closure and accepting the fact that I lost the love of my life forever and he's never coming back. As soon as I made peace with my misery, then God took away one of my children. They way I see it, he still owes me. Twice. So I'll be dammed if we're going to sit and listen to Beatrice rambling on about his divine love."
"That's enough, Mother," muttered Phil.
"Finally, he speaks! My oldest son actually said something without first asking his wife."
Phil's wife Julia's jaw dropped.
"I'm sorry sweetie," said Gertrude as she frowned at her daughter-in-law. "I adore you like one of my own children. But Phil can't get out of bed in the morning without you telling him which way to go. He's been like that since he was a little boy. It's all my fault. I made him that way. And when I saw how he turned out, I vowed to raise the rest of my children differently. Are you happy Phil? I always wonder because you haven't lived a day in your life that you can call your own. That's not living, son. I wish I could say that I'm proud of what you've done, but I can't. Because you have created a life and a career that your wife wanted. I'm afraid that you'll never wake up and never escape the same trap that I fell into. My entire life was dictated by your father and when he died, I had not a clue how to live or what to live for."
Dylan dished out a couple of pieces of ham and started eating. Beatrice tried to stop him.
"Oh, let the boy eat! Look at him. He's skin and bones. You're not on drugs, are you Dylan? Is that why you are so skinny? Smoking the marijuana? Your Uncle Bradley was nothing but skin and bones. He starved himself when he was your age, but that was because he was gay."
"Mother!" screamed Beatrice and Iris in unison.
Bradley shrugged his shoulders. "She's right."
An eerie silence fell over the dining room as everyone turned to Bradley, who unleashed an elongated sigh of relief.
"But you were married," said Phil. "I was there. I was your best man."
"Twice! You were married twice!" added Beatrice.
"Yes. Two times too many. I have two ex-wives. I married the first one right after college because I felt pressure to be normal. It didn't work out and she left me. I knocked up the second one and that's why we got married. That one was doomed to fail. I never liked women. I barely like men."
"Wow, Uncle Bradley is gay? Way cool," said Dylan.
Ali pulled out her cell phone and twittered, "OMG. Just found out my uncle B iz gay! :o and my Grams is hella drunk!"
"But are you happy now, Bradley?" asked Gertrude as she sat down.
"Yes. Yes, I am Mother. For the first time in I can't remember," he said with a smile. Gertrude smiled back.
"I could tell. Just how you walk and talk. I'm proud of you. At least one of my children is happy. It took you forty or so years but you finally became a real man unlike your brother who can't scratch his ass without his wife's permission. I'm sorry, Julia. I adore you so much but you turned my oldest into a robot."
Gertrude took turns berating and chastising each of her children for their major character flaws and told them why their problems negatively affected her grandchildren.
"Beatrice, take a good look at your daughter. There's a reason she looks that way."
"You don't like how I look, Grams?"
"I adore the way you look. But your mother disapproves and it's a sad fact but society judges you on how you look. It's that black shoe polish you have on your lips. When I was your age, the only people who dressed like that were whores who stood on corners down in the Mission."
"I can't stand what she's done with herself. When are you going to act normal?" screamed Beatrice.
"Normal? Me? Have you looked in the mirror recently? You're a crazy Jesus freak! You go to church four times a week. Every other word is 'God this' and 'Jesus that'. There's a reason why Dad left you and you're madly in love with Father Fred. And I'm sorry, but he tried to touch my boobs a couple of times. He's a fuckin' pedophile!"
"See what you've done?" screamed Beatrice as she pointed at Gertrude.
"What I've done? That's your mess. Not mine. You're the one who ran to God in search of life's answers. You're hiding in the church instead of living in the real world. No wonder your daughter has rebelled. Just like Iris did."
"I'm sorry, Mother," said Iris.
"You don't have to apologize, Iris. After being exposed to all that flower power as a little girl, I knew it was inevitable that I'd lose you in the 1970s. But did you have to marry that loser?"
"Which one?" said Iris as the room erupted with laughter.
"The first, second, fourth, and fifth ones. I actually liked number three."
"Which one was that, Aunt Iris?" asked Ali.
"Yeah, I'm dying to know, Mom!" said Dylan.
"The bullfighter?" blurted out Bradley. "He was cute."
"Javier wasn't a bullfighter. He was from Spain and he tuned pianos. I dumped him after three weeks when I started dating the bass player from Cheap Trick."
Gertrude turned to the twins and said, "Your mother has the biggest heart in the world. But that's her problem. She loves too much. She shared her bed way too quickly with way too many men. Don't end up like your mother. It's my fault. We didn't give her enough love growing up. She had to seek validation in other ways through drugs and men. Too many men to count. She lost her power that way. Someday, you girls will learn that your power is between your legs."
One of the twins looked down and touched her crotch.
"Yes, darling. Your cookie. It's very important that you don't give it up right away to a man. It will be hard. But you have to make him earn it. You'll soon realize that you'll gain remarkable power over men by withholding your cookie. You'll get them to do whatever you want but when you give it up all the time, you'll lose all control. Take a few tips from your Aunt Julia. She has your Uncle Phil wrapped around her finger."
"Grams telling my twin cousins to not give up their cookies," twittered Ali.
"I don't like cookies," joked Bradley.
"And Dylan," said Gertrude as she shook her head. "You remind me of Sammy."
"The dead Uncle?"
"Dylan!" screamed Iris.
"What? He's dead. Right, Grams?"
"Yes, he is and you'll be dead too if you keep making mistakes like you've been doing. I never liked your name. Your mother was a hippie and she loved that Jew with the harmonica."
"Bob Dylan was Jewish?" asked Dylan.
Iris shrugged her shoulders.
"I know you got that girlfriend of yours pregnant," said Gertrude.
"Wait, um, how did you kn-," said Dylan.
"Let's stop right there," said Iris.
"I knew the second I met her. It was all over her face. Pregnant women glow. I'm happy that she had enough sense to get an abortion. The last thing you need right now is to have a child, because you are still a child yourself. Dylan, when your grandfather was your age, he was fighting Nazis in Europe. He was killing Germans with his bare hands in France. Before he died, your grandfather told me that when he was fighting in Holland, he bit off the nose of one Nazi and watched him bleed to death. Then your grandfather stole his watch which he later lost in a brothel in Paris. And God knows what sort of horrors my son Sammy endured when he was in Vietnam. He was your age when they dropped him off in the jungle. He never made it out alive. And you? Look at you. You need a haircut. You dress like one of the negroes from Oakland. Son, you're white. Your mother is too timid to tell you, so I will. It's time to grow up. You've had every possible advantage for a successful life. You had a life of privilege handed to you and what did you do? You impregnated the first girl who spread her legs for you. How stupid can you be, boy? Ask your mother. Ask your father. Ask your aunts and uncles and they will tell you the truth... that having children ruined their lives. It killed their passion."
Silence fell over the table for a couple of minutes.
"I brought Bradley, Philip, Iris, and Beatrice into this horrible world and destroyed any chance for me or for them to have a good and happy existence. By tainting their lives, I in turn tainted the lives of their offspring and so forth. I'm sorry that this curse has to continue. I'm the reason all of you are here today in this miserable world. Merry Christmas, everyone. If there is a just God, he'll make sure it's my last one."
Paul McGuire is a writer originally from New York City who sometimes lives in Los Angeles.