This time of year, even if you don't want to, you're doomed to think about family.
(Note the vat of boiling oil below, poised over the front door)
My parents are deeply suspicious of fun. They can't prove that the Bible forbids it, but as a precaution, they always make sure that any attempt to enjoy life is heavily counterbalanced by guilt and disapproval. That isn't to say that they aren't decent people. But if you're ever worried that your party may spin out of control as too many guests have too much unbridled fun, invite Pops over. Within an hour, everyone will be sitting quietly on the couch, clutching their hands together, and desperately eyeing the door.
Christmas morning was when their aversion to joy was really driven home. Five years in a row, the sole thing on my Christmas list was a chemistry set. My parents probably believed, quite rightly, that I'd blow up the house, but that was beside the point. It was the ONLY thing I asked for. Score? Brown and rust argyle socks- 5 for 5. Chemistry sets- 0.
Once, Mom bought a toboggan. It was the "big" gift that Christmas, meaning that we got stocking stuffers and nothing else but the toboggan, because it was something that we could all share. How very Brady Family Christmas of us. (Okay, so we were typical spoiled American brats. But come on, even desperately poor parents try to get one thing their kid wants.)
We packed into the car bright and early Christmas morning, because no one was ever allowed to sleep past 7AM, even on weekends, in Pops' army, er, house. My siblings and I sat in the back of the car in the complete stunned silence of kids who knew they'd been screwed over, and yet were condemned to fake gratitude.
The car tires crunched over snow as we pulled out of the driveway in our gold Plymouth stationwagon. We drove past a steep, icy hill half a block from our house. Other early risers slid down it on rubber tubes and flattened cardboard boxes. Their shrieks of laughter cut through the chilly air, mocking us.
As soon as we pulled onto the interstate headed for the mountains, my siblings groaned and schooched as far from me as they could. Put me on a winding mountain road, and I could puke up last week's lunch. I also showed a promising talent for respiratory ailments and hives. (I used to think I was allergic to the entire world. I have since narrowed the source of the irritation down to the old gold vinyl back seat of a station wagon coupled with the fourth rendition of the song *Black Socks* from Hee-Haw while the family dog's toenails dug into the meat of my upper thigh.)
Miraculously, I didn't get sick on that drive, but just to be safe, even before the car came to a complete stop, both sibs vaulted out of the car.
Pops got out and slapped his mittened hands together. "This is it."
You would have thought he'd brought us to the Olympic bobsled run. Instead, it as a pathetic wanna-be hill with a gentle slope that was covered in four feet of pristine Rocky Mountain powder.
Our dog crouched in the back corner of the car, barring her teeth, but Pops dragged her out into the snow anyway. She gave him a baleful 'what did I ever do to you' look and shivered.
Pops took the toboggan off the luggage rack plopped it down into the snow. "Take it on up."
My sibs and I grabbed part of the cord and began our uphill trudge through waist-high (on me) powder. A quarter of the way up, we stopped to pant. Even though we lived at altitude, the air at ten thousand feet was thin. I got woozy. As we gasped, puffs like dragon's breath curled out of our mouths. My big sister pretended to put a cigarette to her mouth.
"None of that! None of that!" Mom screeched.
Smoking, along with drinking, gambling, card playing, rock and roll, and make-up were contraband in my parent's house.
Daring, my sister rolled her eyes, getting a snicker from the rest of us, but she was wise enough to turn away from the parents before she did it.
My nose ran and my fingers were already stiff from the cold by the time we reached the top of the hill. Our parents followed us up. We got on the toboggan. The snow sounded like rubbing balloons under the sled.
I don't know who set the rules for packing a toboggan, but I, being the youngest, was up front. That's right- hurl a child face-first down a hill with the weight of her entire family plummeting behind her on a sled with no brakes. Even at seven years old, looking down the hill at a clump of trees, car, and a boulder covered in snow waiting at the bottom of the hill, I knew it was a bad, bad, bad idea. I struggled to rise as Pops shouted out, "Here we go!" He gave us a mighty push.
Thank goodness a four foot base of unpacked powder has all the surface friction of a cobblestone street. We moved maybe an inch. Soon Pops was huffing and struggling to get us moving. He suggested that we get start off in a downhill slant.
Right. As if. I might have packed a mogul under the front of the toboggan with the toe of my boot while no one was looking. Possibly. It hardly mattered though, because as we piled on, the toboggan sank lower into the powder. It wasn't going anywhere.
Never ones to give up easily, my parents kept us at it for several hours. They made us tamp down a route, then climb back up the hill to try, try again. They sent the sled down with just the kids, just the adults, and finally one by one. As darkness fell, we were finally allowed to admit defeat. Not once had one of us traveled from the top of the hill to the bottom on the sled. Cold, wet, and miserable, we packed back in to the car. The snow acumulated on the dog's fur melted. All that excitement and wet dog smell? Yep. I puked.
We had one more "fun" outing with that toboggan before it mercifully got put up in the rafters in the garage. We moved almost every summer, so we'd hold our collective breaths as the movers carried that thing past Mom and she'd get that certain gleam in her eye, but thankfully by Christmas she'd be on another family togetherness kick, usually involving matching sweaters.
Last time I visited the parents, I caught a glimpse of the toboggan in their garage. Mom saw me shivering and said, "Remember the good times we had out sledding? WE should do that again."
Frankly, Mom, I'd rather have another pair of brown and rust argyle socks.