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Holiday Remembrances

By Derik Cowan
January 1996


Every year on the first weekend in December, we put up the Christmas tree. When I was small, my dad would put up the tree, lights, and garlands, and then my mom and I would add all the ornaments. But as I got older, gradually everything became my responsibility. We had an artificial tree, because I was allergic to live trees, and every year it seemed to get a bit smaller and hold fewer ornaments. The left over ornaments were hung on lampshades, or garlands hung around the room.

My parents gave up on the idea of Santa when I was very young. One of their favorite stories was how I, at the age of 5, told one of our neighbors who was twice my age that there was no Santa -- thereby "ruining her Christmas" according to her parents. This meant that as presents came in, they were placed under the tree until the corner of the room where the tree was located was so littered with gifts that trying to replace a burnt out Christmas light was damn near impossible. All this was terribly exciting to the young boy who even at 17 couldn't help but find every Christmas present with his name on it and squeeze or shake it in an attempt to discover what was inside.

I think I was probably around 13 when I inherited the burden of wrapping every Christmas present that wasn't for me. This happened because my mother discovered I tied much more interesting bows than my dad, and on top of everything, I enjoyed it. The worst part, of course, is that once the present that you just spent wrapping and decorating is put in the package it's being sent off in, the ribbon gets crushed.

After all the presents were wrapped and sent off and the tree was set up, it was time to bake. There were the sugar cookies to be cut out and decorated with cinnamon drops, chocolate chips, rainbow sprinkles, and food coloring; no bake chocolate oatmeal cookies that were made on yards of wax paper and distributed to all the local friends; and angel food candy to be dipped in melted Hershey's chocolate. The only thing I never could make was fudge. I always burnt the butter, or it wouldn't firm up, or something would go wrong. My mom would make the fudge, and sometimes chocolate covered cherries.

Every other Christmas, we would drive out from Connecticut to Wisconsin to visit the relatives. We would stay at my grandmother's house, and I would sleep with two decrepit old stuffed animals that were once my mom's -- a lamb and a dog that had lost one of its button eyes. Sometimes there would be a tree, and sometimes only a wreath, because my grandmother lived in a trailer home and had a dog and a cat to worry over. My aunts and uncles would gather, and I would get to pass out the presents, making sure that my presents were given out at exactly the proper moment for the grandest effect.. And at some point over that week, my dad's family would have a gathering where we would eat a cold luncheon and the kids would play computer games while the adults talked about football and watched movies.

The last time we went to stay with my grandmother was during my freshman year in college. Everyone was eager to know how I liked living on my own, how dorm life was, and why I looked so thin. The day before I left, I had come out to my best friend at school. We had stayed up until 2 AM, and when I said good-bye to him the next day, I was deathly afraid that he might say the wrong thing while my parents were around. My cousins and I had a party one night, and while I don't remember it that well, I think I must've come out to them then, because somehow they knew. They knew enough that when two months before my parents disowned me, when my father while visiting mentioned the three things he wouldn't accept from me would be to learn I was an alcoholic, a drug addict, or gay. They tried to talk him out of thinking that way.

It's funny to see what my parents are willing to tell their families. My mom's side of the family knows all about the fact that my parents and I aren't on speaking terms, but they don't know why. My dad's family knows I'm gay, but not that my parents have disowned me.

Last year was my first Christmas on my own. There was no tree. I got a few small presents from friends at school, and lots of random food stuffs from my mom's family that appeared to think that since I was no longer speaking to my parents I must be dying. I grew to hate Christmas music, the mall Santas, and all the damn decorations. I spent Christmas day with my housemate's family -- not feeling unwelcome, but dejected and rather out of place in what by all rights should've been a proper family gathering that didn't include random strangers. I was enraged at the gall my parents showed in sending me a canister of chocolate oatmeal cookies, which were always my specialty, and I delighted in thinking to myself about how ugly their tree must be this year without me to decorate it. But that was last year.

This year, the holidays seem to hold a kind of promise for me. Not because anything has changed between my parents and I, but because I've changed. I gave out presents to a number of my friends in Amherst, and I plan on spending the holidays with friends in Chicago instead of with a family that I don't know. Perhaps I'll even rent a car and drop in on my relatives on Christmas. I have a copy of Prayers for Bobby to give to my parents if they happen to be there or to send later if they aren't. But more than that, I think the perfect way for me to celebrate this season is to set the record straight (so to speak) with my relatives. They need to know what's happened between me and my parents and why. And I need them to know so that I know if I can turn to them when I need them or not in spite of my relationship with my parents.

People say that the holidays can produce miracles. Here's hoping one will come my way.


Derik K. Cowan, 20, is a full-time student at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is studying Theater, Dance, and English. He can be reached online at dkcowan@amhux4.amherst.edu.
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