Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Feasts and Family Values

Double, double, toil and trouble.

Christmas approaches, and I’m on the heath with the witches. Watching the cauldrons roil.

To be specific: minding a pot of bubbling apricot fudge and another of date-nut roll. The fruitcakes are in the oven, the fig candy (figs we dried from our tree in summer, cooked down with honey, water, orange rind, and pecans) is rolled into balls covered in shredded coconut and sitting to dry on waxed paper. Yesterday’s thumbprint cookies, filled with blackberry jam, are safe on the sideboard, to be joined by Mamaw Schonert cookies and whatever else the larder decides to yield.

And I’m on the heath with the witches. And I think the setting has everything to do with family. Which is never quite what the religious right wants us to believe it really is. Not in my experience, at least. And there has to be room for the experience of those of us who never feast on roast beef, potatoes, and overcooked vegetables with Ozzie and Harriet in their claustrophobic dining room.

Doesn’t there?

Not that there’s anything wrong with roast beef and potatoes. It’s just that life for some of us also comprised pinto beans and cornbread, as we grew up. Or tuna casserole. With big tumblers of oversweetened iced tea. And platters of fried eggplant, fried summer squash, tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, cantaloupe wedges, leathery pole beans cooked to a delicious dark savor with bacon, turnip greens, mustard, collards, cooked down to the essence of pot liquor with more bacon.

Life comprises diversity. And that diversity goes far beyond the American middle-class experience. With its idolatrous model of “family”—mom, pop, Dick, Jane, Ozzie, Harriet, and Spot. Nothing wrong with that model—nothing, that is, that a bit of diversity, education, and enlarging of the heart wouldn’t accomplish.

But there are many other ways of being family both in the land of family values and in the world at large. Steve and I still marvel at something a priest-friend of his parents once said in our presence. Father W. had spent time as a missionary in Latin America.

Where, he said, he had found that the model of family was incorrect. It wasn’t like his German-American middle-class farm family experience. To be specific, it gave far too much room to mama—as in the mama of the pater familias, the mother of the father of the family. Who, in Father W.’s estimation, ruled the roost. And who should not rule the roost.

His mission—a self-appointed one—as an American Catholic missionary in Latin America was to teach the natives what family should be all about. A man should leave his mother and cleave unto his wife. Who should then forever be the sole woman in his life, bossing him if he permitted, but scorning the control of her mother-in-law with all her illegitimate claims on her son.

Father W. said all this with a straight face. It never occurred to him that what he was doing as a missionary was bringing his “values” to the people he missionized—his American values. His middle-class values.

Nor did it seem to strike him that the people to whom he was bringing the American middle-class gospel of family values already had a model of family—a very ancient one, one far more venerable than the American middle-class model of nuclear family. One more humane in many respects than that of the American model. Because it recognizes the claims of in-laws and aunts and uncles and cousins to the last degree on the rest of us. And, above all, it recognizes the claims of the elderly. And the sick. And the tiny and dispossessed.

I thought of all this again recently when Steve and I passed by a Mormon center as that LDS group offered a family day for Hispanics. The square in front of the building was chock full of families. All arranged just so—just as American middle-class values ordain, sorted out into “the” family. Mama, papa, and children. Papa holding mama’s hand. All smiling. No family circle touching another family circle. Indoctrination of a culture with an ancient, honorable ethos of family, imposition of American middle-class family values on that culture, dissolution of the venerable patterns of the culture itself. In the name of religion, and of God.

Christmas makes me think such thoughts, I believe, because I cannot escape family at Christmas time. As I cook, as I listen to carols, as I fill out Christmas cards, as I decorate, I am surrounded by family. I am surrounded, in particular, by the ghosts of those who have gone before: hence “Macbeth” and the heath.

Cooking brings to mind, in particular, my dearly beloved aunt Kat, who bore the brunt of one family Christmas preparation after another. For all of us. While she taught school during the week—a job she took very seriously, and hated as a result, since children will sometimes not learn. And while she provided loving care, sometimes interspersed with sighs and glances that might kill, if they were knives, for both an aged, imperious, never hale mother and a withdrawn, dependent, often slightly tipsy brother and his daughter by a failed marriage.

That’s what family is. That’s what family was for me, as I grew up. It was never mama, papa, and the children around the claustrophobic dining table. It was “the” literal Mama of the family, my grandmother. It was her house, filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, and strays one or the other of us had invited to Christmas dinner, because they did not have a table at which to sit that day.

It was, as I wrote at Thanksgiving time, whiskey flowing like a river through the house, and producing all sorts of calamity and misery and occasional merriment. It was Kat’s punch, which one admired from afar, because God knew what she might have put in it this year.

Her byword for punch—“I like it tarty, don’t you?”—was a byword to be heard with no little fear. I always wanted but never dared to say, “No, ma’am. I don’t. Not like you. You who cut a lemon in half, douse the halves with salt and then consume them. No, can’t say as I do. Like it tarty, that is.”

Or her candy, which might very well be last year’s candy stored in the freezer and cooked up for this year’s feast. Redolent of cigar smoke. Date nut roll with the aroma of Uncle Bill’s cigar smoke: a delicacy I’m not sure Ozzie and Harriet ever tasted, let alone imagined.

Those are the Christmases I remember. Those the happy family feasts of yore, in my household.

And I do all I can to keep the tradition alive, though whiskey does not flow like water at my family feasts. Because I remember and value family for what it really was, as I grew up: an insane feast of madcap fools; the best and worst of times; fisticuffs and frivolity. And love. Love abounding, even when it was shouted and stomped.

Because that’s what love is. And what family is. In the real world that does not conform to the idolatrous misrepresentation of family by the religious right. To people who have not begun to imagine family in all its bewildering, enriching variety in the real world—which includes gay and lesbian people as well as straight ones.