Christmas, as much as I love it, has in the last few years become shrouded in the dark, heavy, woolen garments of my childhood.
I live in San Diego today, but I grew up in dreary, damp London, a sickly child with a malformed leg. Consistent with the British Health Service of the day, I was given a crutch and expected to die quietly. My overly-enthusiastic parents pumped out six kids, of which I was the youngest, despite my dad’s inability to provide for us. Pop was a low-level clerk in a financial firm, and the guy who ran the place had it in for him; Dad meekly accepted this. We lived, frankly, in squalor.
In family lore, retold on Christmases today with tears in everyone’s eyes, we were poor but happy. I was little then and can’t really judge the veracity of this fable from their points of view, but I wasn’t happy. I was cold, hungry, and in pain. I also had a raging martyr complex, which my parents encouraged. Everyone called me Tiny and it never even occurred to me to be offended until a couple years ago when my therapist, Sandy, noted that I harbored a lot of hostility about my physical appearance, despite the fact that today I’m fit, tanned, and handsome.
When Sandy said that, it all clicked into place. That afternoon I was at the gym, looking out the windows at the bright glittering ocean, and I realized that I’d become a body-builder and a personal trainer, not out of a need to be healthy and help others, but to put a salve on the wounds of my childhood. Even my move to California began to take on a haunted cast. It bugged me at the time, but it really hit me when I traveled to London that Christmas. We gathered together, rosy-cheeked and merry on the surface, and I saw that all the old hurts had just been covered up by money.
When I was about eight, my father’s boss had a change of heart (at Christmastime no less), and Dad got a big raise. After that, according to the myth, all our problems disappeared. We moved to an anonymous suburban subdivision, into a grotesque faux Tudor that today looks to me like a failed Savings and Loan. At least I got proper medical treatment and did not die, and I’m grateful for that.
But when I returned home, the hurts were still there, clearly visible below the pale, vitamin-D-deprived faces of my family. Martha, who nurses my cast-off martyr complex, never married and gets more bitter by the year. Belinda lost five or so years to drugs and is still trying to gather up the pieces. And Peter, who went into finance with Dad, has grown into the kind of penny-pinching Tory my father used to hate. Of course, Dad never says anything; in his mind, stoic passivity made him the man he is today.
I sat there that Christmas a couple years ago, and for the first time, saw it all too clearly. And that makes it hard to go back. I don’t mean to suggest that my family is a bunch of fools or monsters, but neither do I want to revel in a sepia-toned delusion about our impoverished past. And the goose they always cook is sooo fatty. I can’t eat that crap anymore, knowing what I do about nutrition.
This year, I’m taking my girlfriend Candy up the coast for Christmas. There’s this little B& B in Morro Bay I like; they have a killer wine cellar, and I’d much rather spend my holiday staring at Candy’s tight sweater than a screeching flock of runny-nosed nephews and nieces. I know my family will miss me, and earnest tears will well up in their eyes. But this time of year it’s likely a damp, bone-chilling fog will roll in off the bay while Candy and I sit on the deck sipping Syrah, and it will almost be like home for me. Only much, much better.
Timothy Cratchit, sometimes known as Jim Miller, lives in Edgartown.