One Christmas Eve it is so cold, the pond is frozen and though it is dark, we are sliding on the ice in our dress-up shoes. When we are sick of being outside, we tear through our grandparents’ apartment. Go down the scary stairs to the basement. I have nightmares for years about turning the corner. It is dark and shape-shifting and there are things there, people, hiding in the pantry or the spare room. But with Emilion we can go anywhere. We hide in the storage room and we might show each other what the other doesn’t have, quickly pulling pants down then up, choking on our own giggles. Then the adults call us. “Kids! Kids! You just missed Santa!” What? It’s already midnight and we missed Santa? Again? Again? Quickly, we run up the stairs through the entrance down the hallway into the grand salon. The maid has cleaned up the twenty-five place settings with the help of cousins. The extended table we’d been playing under while grownups overate smoked salmon and boudin blanc and goose is back to its normal size and we can see, at the foot of the big tree, a mountain of gifts. Forget Santa! Let’s open the gifts! Oh no—first, Maman is going to sing “Minuit Chrétiens” while aunt Bathilde accompanies her.
We sit under the piano. I love her voice. I can feel her voice and the piano strings vibrating through my little rib cage. Peuple . . . à genoux! She says, imperative, “People . . . kneel! Expect your deliverance! Here comes your Redemptor!” I can feel her heart. Everybody else says Jesus is bullshit but the way she sings that, I know he is not.
The family claps, Bon-Papa criticizes his daughters for too much use of the pedal and not bridging those two notes quite right, and then it’s a mad dash to the tree. Kids who can read distributing presents as fast as they can, wrapping paper flying, oohs and aahs and laughter and thank-yous and kids sorting the good gifts (a Barbie doll!) from the disappointing ones (a book).
An uncle puts a record on, something American, rock ’n’ roll, and the cousins swing barefoot on the Aubusson rug.
Patrick is bored. He is in a chair in the hallway reading Time magazine. The family thinks he’s rude because he doesn’t partake. But already I can see why—it’s the same conversations every year. Every gathering. Same thing. There is love. But there is something broken too. There are hushed things. We don’t talk about Bathilde’s grief (cousin Yannick, her fourth child, her only boy, was two when he drowned—it’s only been five, six, seven, ten years). I think I caught a whisper about my mom. “Doctor so and so said . . .” Frowns, sighs.
But kids at these gatherings get a super treat: we can sit in Bon-Papa’s office downstairs, leather couch and custom bookshelves filled with classic volumes, with a space in the middle for the TV and VCR, and watch the one VHS tape of two hours of Tex Avery cartoons. “Much better than Walt Disney,” say the grownups with knowing nods. We love Droopy and Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker and, especially, the unpronounceable Screwy Squirrel. Some of their lines are used year round in our house.
It’s two a.m.—things are quieting in the living room. Bon-Papa wheels in his crêpe cart—he’s making crêpes suzette, thinly sliced oranges and Grand Marnier for flambé. Blue flames, right in the living room. We’re not hungry but they taste so good. Tomorrow—or today, actually—we will sleep in and lounge around our own house up the street, recovering.
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