I'll say this: Jason's family sure knows how to throw a party.
I will also say that I am more than a little overwhelmed. There are just so many of them. I can't even tell you the name of the person whose house we're at right now. I know it's one of Kathie's sisters, but she has quite a few, and I can't keep them all straight.
"Just wait until someday when you go to a party with all the Wartmans," Jason says. "I can't even keep them straight."
Okay, first of all--he's making plans for me to be at future Christmas and family parties with him, and the thought makes my stomach drop. In a good way. The way you feel when you love someone very much and you know he loves you back and you realize that just might be the person you're going to marry someday.
Secondly, I secretly can't wait to meet Steve's family. I love Jason's mom; she's funny and warm and has made me feel like a member of the family. But Steve is one of the most interesting people I've ever met and I imagine his dozen-plus brothers and sisters (!) will be just as fun. Steve is like no one I've ever known; he works insanely hard as a neon artist (! again) but when he plays, he plays hard, too. I can't imagine being from a family as huge as his and want to see how that all works.
I can't imagine being from a family as big as Jason's mom's, either, but I am almost getting used to the noise and craziness and learning everyone's names.
"So, we're at which sister's house?"
"And who's that?" I asked, pointing out a woman who looks enough like Kathie that I know it has to be one of her sisters.
"Got it. Donna. Holly. Only a few more to learn."
It turns out Holly had my name in the big gift exchange, and she got me a bottle of Poison cologne. Well, not the real thing, but she sells cologne that is supposed to smell just like the big designer brands, just for less money. It's a pretty great gift to get from someone who is basically a complete stranger. Now I can smell just like one of the popular girls at school.
I know that I drew one of Jason's cousins, but I have no idea what I got her because I didn't actually get her anything. Kathie said she would take care of it, and before I know it this cousin (who, like so many of Jason's cousins, is tall and sexy and beautiful and makes me feel like a skinny shrimp) is gushing over my good taste and asking me how I knew to get that skirt and shirt for her in just the right size.
I look over at Kathie, who is really the one with the good taste.
Kathie looks gorgeous tonight, and it's clear that she and Steve love each other very much. From everything I've heard, Steve is a vast improvement over Jason's dad, who is (and I think I'm being generous here) a complete cad. Steve would have never walked off and left her with six kids to take care of and refuse to pay a dime in child support. Jason's told some stories, and from what I've heard, he's had some Christmases that make even my poorest Christmas look like a rich man's feast.
I look at Jason, this guy who has been in my world since I was in sixth grade but who now is my world, and it hits me: as long as I have him, no Christmas can ever be that bad again. Even if Dad drinks, even if we're poor, as long as I have him (and his crazy-fun family), I can get through it. My long streak of sitting at home alone on Christmas Eve thinking about how fundamentally sad Christmas is (our Savior was born in a barn, for crying out loud, and no matter how warm and blessed and holy it was that doesn't erase the fact that no one could be bothered to find better accomodations for a woman in labor) just might be over.
After the big party for all of Jason's extended family, we go to his house (decorated for Christmas with a pink neon star on the roof) for a smaller (but still big for me) party with just his siblings. He has six of them, so it's still bigger than any gathering I've ever had with my little family. I learn that they open all the non-Santa presents on Christmas Eve; this is what I've been trying to get my mom and dad to do for years now, ever since we started going to my sister's and brother-in-law's house on Christmas morning to watch my nephew open presents. My esteem for my new extended family goes up a notch for doing Christmas the way I've always wanted to.
Steve drinks Crown Royal while he watches Kathie open the beautiful gifts he got her (Jason tells me that his mom cries over at least one present every year, and this year she cries over a diamond ring Steve surprised her with) and it's nice to see someone drink on Christmas Eve without ruining the holiday for everybody. The younger kids squeal at all the toys their older siblings got for them, and the older kids get tremendous hauls of clothing and what-nots from Kathie. Jason says she goes overboard at Christmas; seeing how happy her family and their joy makes her, I say she's doing it exactly right.
I unwrap a beautiful watch from Jason. I know it took a lot of his Kroger bagging money to buy it for me, and the sweater I got him pales in comparison. Kathie spoils me, too, with a beautiful red silk blouse that looks exactly like me. I will wear it (with my new almost-Poison cologne) to my family Christmas tomorrow morning.
One of Jason's older brothers drives me home with Jason going along for the ride and he looks the other way while I kiss Jason goodnight.
I am so happy I could burst. But I am already dreading tomorrow.
"Did you have a good time?" Mom asks.
"Yes," I say, and I tell her all about Kathie's sisters and the food and the laughter and the presents.
"Is he..." I start after I've finished my stories.
"I don't know," Mom says. "I still can't tell. You know how he is; if I accuse him of drinking now, he'll use that as an excuse to pull a good one tomorrow and not show up at your sister's. Don't say anything to him and maybe we'll get through Christmas without a fight."
We've suspected that Dad has been drinking a little since Thanksgiving, but we don't know for sure. Sometimes he comes home from working second shift and his eyes are a little too bright and his walk a little too uncertain, but we know from experience to just let it go.
Tomorrow, I imagine, we'll find out for sure. It has happened before on various holidays; Mom and I go to Joanie's early and Dad says he'll join us after he's gotten some sleep from working the night before. We'll get "dinner" (hillbilly for lunch) just about on the table and when Mom tries to call Dad to find out where he is, he either won't answer or he'll answer with slurred words that he's not coming. We'll later find out, after hateful words are exchanged, that he spent Christmas morning watching planes land and take off out on Airport Drive while sipping from a bottle of Seagram's 7 that he always keeps under the seat of the car. When I was little, I thought those bottles came with every new car because the very first time Dad took me out for a drive in his new Ford Fairmont he kept sipping from that bottle and it was in every car we ever had after that.
No matter what, I am going to make the best of it. I start to feel some of my old familiar sadness creep in, but I've seen how Christmas should be and I am not going to let anyone ruin it for me. I am going to wear my new blouse to my sister's and watch my toddling nephew Kyle open his many Santa presents. When my brother-in-law takes me to go pick Jason up for dinner, I will put on a smile and act like everything at my house is normal even if it's not, even if Dad doesn't show up.
As I get ready for bed, I can see the red light on top of the radio tower at the police station, the one I used to pretend was Rudolph's nose on Christmas Eve. Even long after I knew better, I loved to think that that was Santa on his way to give me a good Christmas. I am sixteen years old now and way past such things, but I close my eyes and hope that Santa will bring me a peaceful Christmas morning, one where I don't wonder where Dad is and whether or not he's drinking.
I drift off to sleep with Mousie under my arm (I will never outgrow him) and smile; even if things are a mess tomorrow, I have a second family now who have made this Christmas one I'll remember for good things, not bad. As long as I have Jason, and his crazy, wonderful family, I can see many happy Christmases to come.