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When I was little, it was different. Ten years before Brokeback became the favorite euphemism of actual homophobes, I saved Christmas. I also saved the lives of two grandparents, three uncles, three aunts, six cousins, two parents and two cats. Christmases then were more about the promise of presents than anything else (which I now believe is not such a bad thing). It was also when my mom’s family gathered at the home of my mom’s mother, whom I called Emmie, and her husband George, whom I called Pa. They lived in a single-story house in Commack, Long Island, where the topography is mellow and gives way to the ocean.
About that time, I began to dread gathering with my mom’s family. I was a chubby kid who wore sweat pants to school and once poured a bottle of hydrogen peroxide into my hair to make it blonder. I was sensitive and sucked at math and soccer, and had recently stopped taking karate lessons after wetting my pants on the mat of the dojo. At this time my cousin, Kaitlyn, was becoming the sort of girl who expected all roads to be paved for her. It’s a quality that these days is sort of endearing, but as a 7-year-old she brandished it like a flame thrower, from which I was too slow to escape. She used to leave me out of games and call me fat. I recall a family reunion in the Poconos when Kaitlyn wouldn’t let me in a hot tub with the other cousins. I was probably 10, she was 8. I cried until I was hysterical, hyperventilating and wailing. My uncle recommended someone call an ambulance.
From inside the front door of Emmie and Pa’s house, the living room was to the right. There was a couch and armchairs, a coffee table with Swedish meatballs and mushrooms stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs and a Christmas tree, wrapped presents piled underneath. Straight ahead a doorway led to the dining room, where the grown-ups ate, then a kitchen and a den, where Pa liked to sit in a La-Z-Boy sipping gin and nibbling the corners from a Hershey bar. To the left of the front door was a room with a tiled floor, a skylight and a hot tub. It was there the kids were kept out of the way while the grown-ups ate—and where Kaitlyn could torment me.
I wanted to eat with my parents, but both of my uncles were former college lacrosse and football players who lifted weights and talked about it, and I didn’t want them to know I was scared of a little girl. So I just sort of avoided sitting down, got up for more turkey or went to the bathroom. Things were going well that Christmas. I don’t remember any run-ins with Kaitlyn. My strategy of avoidance was working. At some point I walked through the dining room, past the table where the adults laughed and shouted over dinner, through the kitchen and into the den, where a muted TV showed sports.
The den was lowly lit. The faux leather of Pa’s recliner was cracked and worn soft in the seat and on the arm rests. My mom’s real father battled alcoholism and killed himself sometime after being divorced from my grandmother, when my mom was a teenager. Long before I was born, Emmie married George, a pharmacist from Port Jefferson, Long Island, who loved her children as if they were his own. He also loved the Yankees and crossword puzzles and enjoying both from his recliner. When his stepchildren had children, he loved them too and became known as Pa.
The den was empty. Next to the TV, lit candles stood on a mantle. Above that, a wreath hung on the wall. I don’t remember if I smelled it or if I just saw what was happening, but the wreath was fully on fire, a spire of black smoke crawling up the wall and pluming at the ceiling. I walked out of the den, through the kitchen and into the dining room. “There’s a fire in there,” I said.
The grown-ups pushed away from the table and ran to the den. Someone called 911, and the kids were shooed out the front door. When the fire truck arrived, my uncle took charge. He was a volunteer fire fighter in New Jersey and offered advice to his colleagues from Commack as they put on their helmets and grabbed axes. The entire family was out in the street, washed in the red flashes of the fire truck. I don’t remember how long we stood there before someone said, “Jamie’s a hero!”
A few years after the fire, the family began to disperse. Pa was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He and Emmie moved into an assisted living facility on Long Island before moving into a golf course condo on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Physically, Pa couldn’t play golf, but also I think he hated the game. He was a baseball guy.
Two years ago, Pa died in Florida. Emmie has since remarried, and I’ve heard her new husband is very nice. For many people, the ideal of Christmas is cobbled together from a bank of childhood memories when the holiday exhilarated and buzzed with anticipation: treats and presents and time off from school. As we age, we attach ourselves to those memories—to the phantom tingling we felt as young people on Christmas Eve—and they become an abstraction we call Christmas spirit. If I have Christmas spirit, it is sourced by the memory of Pa on two feet, and the lot of us standing out in the cold, as the fire fighters tore apart the wall where the wreath hung. In the end, most of the damage to the den was caused to make sure no embers remained—to put out completely the chance of the fire re-igniting. Huddled in the front yard, all of us facing the house and the lit Christmas tree through a bay window, I remember my uncles, aunts, my mom and my dad laughing absurdly.