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December 7, 2014

I performed this at the Storyzilla show last week. Names have been changed for privacy. The show was “Holiday Edition: The Ties That Bind.” My story was a series of vignettes that contrasted the family I had at Christmas with the family I had the rest of the year. Much of the comedy doesn’t come through the written version, so you’ll just have to trust me: Some of this was funny.

It’s Christmastime and my two sisters, my eldest brother Dyvan, and my mom and I are putting up the tree. My dad always says, “Why buy a live tree when you can buy a perfectly good artificial tree for much cheaper??” So we have this ancient, discombobulated thing that is so warped my mother has to tie it to the curtain rod over our bay window in the front room to keep it from falling over.

John Denver is on the stereo: “See the sunlight through the pines / Taste the warmth of winter wine.”

Christmas was a time of truce in my family.

Dyvan, his hair black and his face covered in beard and mustache, wearing a big plaid flannel shirt, takes the glass-blown spire and places it at the top of the tree, where there is always a white light shining.


Summer, 1986. Dyvan and I are having a titanic fight in my parents’ bedroom. He’s had enough, he’s heading for the door, but I get there first, I stand in his way. He grabs me by the throat and throws me into a bureau. But I’m not done, I run after him down the hall, screaming, “You’re shit! You’re shit! You know you’re shit! You look down inside yourself and all you see is shit!”


It’s Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa’s. This could be any Christmas Eve from infancy to age 14 but perhaps this is the year I’m wearing the white polyester dress my mother made for me with the gold brocade waistband, my white tights, and my shiny white vinyl shoes.

We have about eight million relatives and they are all crammed into this tiny two-bedroom house. All of us kids are just squeeeezing through the adults’ legs in a bid to get to the food table. We are all sweating from the heat.

When we’ve had enough we go gallopingcharging up the Very Steep Stairs into the attic. The attic is finished off but there’s no heat, so we go from 90 degrees downstairs to 20 degrees upstairs. The change in temperature is like a slap in the face. We can see our breath.

But we don’t care because we are jumping on the beds and pulling out games to play and, most importantly, raiding the pantry for Grandma’s Marshmallow Fluff. When we’re done we go gallopingcharging down the Very Steep Stairs in search of the red, white, and green chewy mint candies that Grandma keeps in a clear glass Christmas tree-shaped jar on top of the 1956 stereo console.


It’s summertime. Again, this could be anytime from infancy to age 14. Every year my dad gets three weeks paid vacation and for some reason decides to take the whole family—all eight of us—on a camping trip somewhere across the country. This is a mystery to me because [leaning into the mike] he hates us.

So we’re setting in some generic campground at some generic picnic table eating some generic food and he is yelling like he always does. I don’t know what he’s saying, I mostly tune it out, it’s always the same thing, “Why can’t you” “If only you” “You are all” “In my day” blah BLAH but the piece de resistance is when he looks around and yells, “Start having fun or you’re all grounded!”


It’s Christmas morning. Like always, my five siblings and I go crashing into the living room to find an explosion of white packages under the tree. I pick up a box and, like always, it says, “To Carol From Santa” in red magic marker. I am holding out for a drum set but instead I get a record album recounting the story of the Prodigal Son from the Bible. Maybe next year. [Puppy dog eyes]

But I don’t care because it’s time for Egg McMillses! Egg McMillses were born after McDonald’s came out with Egg McMuffins. My dad said, “Why buy them when we can make them for much cheaper??”

So we’re all crammed into the kitchen, all eight of us, and each of us has a job to do. It starts with a toasted English muffin, slathered with butter, then grape jelly, then four whole slices of bacon, then a piece of American cheese, then a fried egg, then the top and oh my Gods I am slavering just thinking about it. Cholesterol BOMB and one of the best things you’ll ever eat.

But the thing I love about it is that we’re all in there together, everyone helping out, everyone with something to do.


Three hundred sixty-four days of the year, my mother slips deeper into the bottle as she makes 13 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—alone. As she fixes three square meals a day—alone. As she does at least three loads of laundry a day—alone. As she does all the sewing and darning and child-rearing—alone.


It’s Christmas Eve. We are all gathered around the Nativity which is placed on a shelf in the bookcase which my dad made for my mom. There’s the white quilt batting that represents snow, and the little Baby Jesus, and all the familiar characters in plastic. There’s a beautiful warm glow coming from the multi-colored lights on the Christmas tree behind us and there are candles all around.

We are doing a ritual which the Catholic church has made for families. On Christmas Eve we gather and tell the story of the Nativity, sing carols, and recite prayers. One of those is the Nicene Creed, which always trips us up. We know the Apostle’s Creed because we say that every Sunday in Mass but the Nicene Creed sounds something like, “I believe in God….Uh, Jesus something? Ummmmm….He descended into Hell (that’s always easy to remember). Shmer shmer shmer, Amen!”

I look across the semi-circle to my brother Seamus. Seamus is the clown in our alcoholic family, all red hair and freckles and funny as hell but with a cruel streak where he’s always making fun of someone and inviting everyone else to make fun too and he never gets in trouble because he can talk like Donald Duck. And Seamus is loud and garrulous and angry and larger than life and there he is gently singing, “O come, o come, Emmanuel.”

Now it’s time for the family photo. Dad used to be a photographer in the Navy during the Korean War so he knows how to arrange us in two tiers and with the dog on the floor. He sets up the camera, hits the timer, and slides smoothly into place next to my mom. And there it is—click—the photo of the family we’re supposed to be.


It’s August, 1986. I am standing in the doorway of my bedroom. My father’s hands are around my throat. And his thumbs are just twitching, twitching with the mad desire to snap down. I stare deep into his hazel eyes with only one thought in my mind: “Do it.


It’s Christmas Eve. We are driving home from Grandma and Grandpa’s. We are warm because all eight of us are stuffed into the station wagon. We are coming down off our sugar high so we are sleepy. We are peaceful and happy because we’ve had such a good time.

We’ve asked Mom and Dad to please get home by midnight because someone somewhere has told us that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals can talk. And we are eager to get home and hear what Shannon, our shetland sheep dog, has to say.

I am so sleepy. I slowly lower my head to my sister’s shoulder—this head which she has slammed in the bedroom door—and I drift off to sleep because I am warm, and I’m happy, and I’m safe, safe, safe.

The family photo

April 19, 2009

Another entry inspired by Nell’s IMT workshop.

We sit at the dinner table, the three boys on one side, the three girls on the other, pater at the head and mater at the foot. We sit up straight to avoid the shame of having a yardstick put down the back of our shirts. We keep our elbows off the table lest we receive a sharp jab with a fork.

Shannon trots happily around the table. A Shetland Sheepdog, she is convinced we are her flock. Her nails click-click-click on the floor as she goes around and around. To break the monotony, one of us will quickly reach down and shove a hand in front of her muzzle as she comes around. She pauses a moment, puzzled, then turns and immediately resumes her click-click-click in the opposite direction.

The table is long and heavy. The walls are patterned with huge blue flowers. The tablecloth is noisy and patterned with blue. Macramé plant holders hang from the ceiling. The polished china cabinet, almost the length of the table, holds the special spot where today’s mail is deposited, next to the chair where pater sets his briefcase. 

Everything in its place.

Above it all presides the family photo. It is renewed every year like a promise to ourselves. We are dressed in our polyester best—the boys with wide collars and loud stripes, the girls in mater’s fine home-stitched double-knit hand-me-downs. Boys, girls, mater, pater. Positioned against the Olan Mills mottled blue-grey background, Sears smiles on our faces. A happy family.

One year I break tradition and appear with a Han Solo half-smile on my face, looking slightly deranged. But in the next year, and the next and the next, the old smile is firmly fixed in place. 

The photo is our idol, our talisman. It protects us against consequences. Consequences of arguments that turn into fights that turn into something twisted and toxic. Consequences of threatened abuse, of terror, of Terrible Secrets that we all ignore. Our mantras give the talisman power: “Well, at least he doesn’t beat me.” “At least none of our kids are on drugs.” “At least no one’s divorced in our family.” Like blood sacrifices to a thirsty god, we recite the “At Least” prayer to give the talisman power. Power to protect us against consequences.

I’m fourteen and the photo is nagging me. Someone’s missing from the family photo. I count the inhabitants of the frame. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. I must be wrong. I count again. Someone is missing. I can’t figure out who it is. Someone is missing—and I suddenly realize that someone is me.

No matter how many times I count the members of the happy family, I cannot find myself in the photo.

At least.

There are lesser photos, of course, like saints that intercede between us and the talisman god. Every festive occasion has candid and posed portraits. But these images allow some cracks to show: sullen teenage faces, cotton blouses with long sleeves, eyes filled with steely boredom. We call these “bad pictures” but we hold onto them nonetheless.

We no longer take family photos. Of course, there are the holiday pictures of grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, but there is no photo of the boys, the girls, mater, and pater. That talisman broke long ago. I can no longer recall if it shattered in one devastating blow or crumbled through neglect. I suspect it broke into pieces each time I spoke The Truth.