The Mother of All Holidays 

A rocker remembers tantrums, tattoos, and what makes Christmas go

It must’ve been the week before Christmas when I lost control of Ron’s Dodge Diplomat. We were on a mission to test our chemical resolve in Seattle, but having blown our bread on a stash of what turned out to be harmless brown incense, all I had to show for our efforts was an appalling lack of sleep. And more immediately, I was at the helm of an old police cruiser that seemed to be opening doors of perception all by itself. I pumped the brakes and cranked the wheel into the skid, to no effect. The Diplomat continued to spin on the ice like the beginning of the Tilt-a-Whirl, and in that extended moment, I dully gazed over at my best friend, who dozed peacefully in the passenger seat.

A week or so later, over Christmas nog, my uncle asked me if I’d been “staying out of trouble.” He asked the way uncles do, with the knowing nod that invites a knowing lie, but the damnedest thing happened: everybody in the room, aunts and grandma, cousins and siblings, were caught in a sudden silence. The question hung in the air like a rank fart as they all seemed to suspend their conversations for my answer.

The only person who might’ve saved me, the one who was most noticeably absent, was my mother, who’d died the spring before. I’d never felt so alone in the company of family.

I mumbled something to my silenced family, but my pained grimace betrayed me. Everybody knew it when I arrived with a patchy beard that only an addled 19-year-old would attempt, but as I squirmed at what was once a harmless avuncular inquiry, they were certain. Hell no, I wasn’t staying out of trouble! In fact, the week prior I was slumming Pike Street Market, pretending to be Hunter S. Thompson! Of course, it later occurred to me that it would’ve been my mother who would’ve harassed me to no end about what happened on that stretch of highway between Seattle and Spokane.

A couple of years later, I was in Charlie B’s on Christmas Eve. It was a great night at the bar. Filled with a wonderful mix of some who had nowhere to go and others who had nowhere else they wanted to be, it was gloriously desperate. The place was warm and alive with feeling, the image of hundreds of songs about bars and drinking.

I remember getting completely plowed with a handful of elves, the bar a blur of brown and gold and tan. I remember nearly laughing off of my stool when Santa yelled, “Drinking! the Cause of, and the Solution to, all of life’s problems!” I remember howling with, and nearly weeping to, the Jayhawks and Johnny Cash. I remember valiantly holding down a shot and chaser despite the opening strains of Zep’s “When the Levee Breaks.” And I remember telling a mother to get her ass home to her kids.

She had ambled over, snared me in a hug that turned into a headlock, and swept up in the reckless camaraderie of the joint, laid her life out on the bar like an animal pelt. She told me about her husband beating her, about her chronic fatigue syndrome, about leaving her kids with her mother, because she couldn’t take care of even herself.

When she started talking about her kids, on Christmas Eve, in a bar, well, it was too hard to maintain a buzz in the face of that much reality. I cut her off. “Go home,” I said over the din that had all but consumed us. “Just go home.”

Naturally, she just wandered off to some other drunk chimpanzee and scored another round of shots. I sat there, suddenly pissed off. All I could think is that mothers have to be with their children on Christmas. Mothers make Christmas go.

Two years ago, at approximately 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, in the sweet and warm smells of his mother’s kitchen, my brother-in-law decided to tell her that he’d had lightning bolts tattooed on his penis. I saw her face go white and I immediately exited the room, before the details could circle her like wolves, before anyone could use the word “fluffer.”

Later that night, scandalized beyond all reason, she returned with composure, and concerned that my beer was almost empty, asked if I needed anything to snack on. Even though the tension in the kitchen had shrunk my stomach to the size of a holiday chestnut, she needed to mother. “I’m ravenous,” I said. She pulled out a honey-glazed ham, a half-breast of turkey, three kinds of cheeses, and a full complement of condiments.

As she went to work on my sandwich, I looked around the house. She had put up all the decorations the day after Thanksgiving, the mechanical waving Santas, the little wooden reindeer, the garlands and lights, and both of the fully decorated trees. She’d found the resolve to keep up with what she’d set out to do; lightning bolts or not, she was committed that we all had a good Christmas. I was stunned into a reverential silence for this woman.

She handed me a sandwich the size of my face. And even though I was silently wondering if I could handle the pain of getting flames done on myself, I didn’t say a word, because not even Santa gives more at Christmas than mothers. Because moms will forever make Christmas go.

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