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A Holiday Toast

Excerpt from the book The Brass Bed and Other Stories by Pearl Cleage [Copyright] 1991 by Pearl Cleage. COPYRIGHT 1996 Essence Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

When you come from a family as high-strung as mine, holidays take on a life of their own. With all the excitement brought on by what my grandmother used to call the high quantity of salt in the air, there was always the potential for major disasters resulting in towering rages, disappointments of mythical proportions, joy teetering perilously close to complete hysteria and egos so exposed and inevitably battered that it took until the next Christmas for things to settle down so that they could begin all over again.

It made for exciting times around the holiday table. But madness takes its toll, and by the time we gathered for a toast of New Year's eggnog, I was wary and exhausted, not sure if my Uncle Louis was still speaking to my father or if Aunt Gladys was still mad at Aunt Barbara. I remembered vowing as a child that if I ever got out into the world, I would never allow holidays to dominate my life.

And I was as good as my word. When I got out on my own, I gave holidays a wide berth. I stayed home as much as I could. Better safe than sorry. I didn't even have a tree for the first three years I lived alone. I refused to cook turkey on Thanksgiving and gave presents only to my daughter and the few of my close friends who took it personally when I seemed to forget that this was a time to exchange gifts.

But one year I found myself wanting to acknowledge Christmas. I wanted to decorate something, string a few lights, drink eggnog in front of a fireplace. But I refused--for a moment. Then I remembered that this wasn't a principled stand; it was a relief-of-stress stand, and I figured I should go with the flow. I got a Christmas tree and I liked it. A lot. So far, so good. The next year, when a bunch of us found ourselves without plans for Christmas dinner, I decided to have friends over. They all came and we lit candles and set a place for Nelson Mandela and held hands and said thank you. And it was the nicest Christmas dinner I've ever had.

I had managed to wrestle my childhood memories into submission and I had Christmas back. Then I got cocky. I started looking forward to it. I wanted Thanksgiving to hurry up and come so I could buy my tree and set it up. I wanted to buy presents and cook turkey and dressing and giggle in the light from the Christmas tree. I was ready! I was getting impatient, which is, of course, the best way to bring on stress--exactly what I was trying to avoid in the first place. I thought I had blown it and been banished back to square one.

Until this morning. I was cruising through the morning rush-hour traffic, and all of a sudden Otis Redding was on the radio singing "Merry Christmas, Baby," and his voice filled the car with such happy holiday Black-mannishness that I started grinning in spite of myself. "This is the anniversary of Otis Redding's death," the deejay had told me a minute before, and it made me just a little sad. But listening to him singing in the kind of sweet-man voice makes you know he's going to be that way all the way till New Year's, and he'll hold you close and light a candle and put his arm around your shoulder when you cry just a little because you're there together. This year, I think, we'll set a place for Sweet Otis, and all of a sudden it feels like Christmas!

So I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn't spoiled my Christmas before it even got started good. And I sent a silent thank you and Merry Christmas to Otis, and asked him to give my best to the Bar-Kays, wherever they might be.

From The Brass Bed and Other Stories by Pearl Cleage [Copyright] 1991 by Pearl Cleage. COPYRIGHT 1996 Essence Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group


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