"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Birthday Party

When our church replaced the old crêche with a finer new one several years ago, the parishioners could choose which figures they wanted to give. The Chap and I donated a sheepdog and a small flock of sheep.

Now that the interiour renovations are finished, the congregation returned to the sanctuary, and the crêche was already set up. After the service I was shooting pictures for the parish website.

In my family, December 23rd was an extremely important day, the traditional start to the seasonal festivities. It was a double-birthday--my grandfather's, and my great-uncle's. No, they weren't twins, they were brothers-in-law. I'm not sure when my grandmother and her sister started throwing the joint Birthday Party for their husbands, I only know it was an annual event before I ever existed.

In my youth, my grandparents lived in Washington, D.C. where my grandfather "worked for the President" which sounds like a euphemism but was very true. They always came back "home" for the Birthday Party and to be around their daughters and grandchildren at Christmas and New Year's.

My great-aunt, because she lived locally, was always the Birthday Party hostess. As I recall, the big event took place on the Saturday or Sunday before Christmas, which sometimes--like this year--was actually the 23rd.

On the Chosen Day, my parents, my younger brother and I would dress up in our best and drive across town, across the river to the rather splendid home of my great-aunt and -uncle. The butler opened the door to us. We were always corrected when we referred to him as "the butler" amongst ourselves and were instructed to always use his first name, which I've unfortunately forgotten.

Inside, the house smelled wonderful and was beautifully decorated. Heedless of our finery, we would fling ourselves at our grandparents--often it was the first time we'd be seeing them since their arrival from D.C. We would gaze upon our glamourous cousin--my mother's first cousin--who was either home from her college or home from her New York life. Sometimes she was working as a model, or a stylist. Our great-uncle had a booming voice but was a very cheery and welcoming soul, who always noticed how much we'd grown since the last time we'd met. Our other great-uncle was there, too (brother to the wives of the birthday boys) with his wife and his two sons (my mother's first cousins, who were not much older than me.) My mother's sister was sometimes there, with her husband, typically without their three young sons who were even younger than my brother and me.

After making nice with all the relatives, we'd pop into the kitchen to say hello and Merry Christmas to the cook. She had a name, too, can't recall it. (I should've phoned my mother for some details before writing all this....)

Kids that we were, we hoped there would be presents under the tree with our names, and were never disappointed. Reassured, we started in on the hors d'oeuvres--cheese biscuits and spicy nuts and candies and other scrummy munchy stuff. We'd play with the white poodle (she was never much fun, and not terribly keen on children, especially as she aged.) We would beg our mother to let us go outside. "Not until after dinner," she would say. "You'll get dirty." She would occasionally caution us to settle down, and quite rightly--we were surrounded by antique furnishings and delicate porcelain adorned every shelf, Christmas cards propped up among them.

We opened presents around the tree. The birthday boys went first, then there was a mini-Christmas for us kids.

After what seemed like way too much eating and drinking and adult conviviality, the festive feast was served in the dining room. Many courses. Plenty of wine. Lots of fiddly gravy boats and jelly spoons. I lived in fear of spilling something on the pristine white damask tablecloth--in all likelihood a family heirloom. Usually it was my brother who made the mess, not me.

We obediently remained in our chairs--fidgeting. Eventually the birthday cake arrived on the scene. My great-aunt baked it herself and had applied the glistening white frosting with exquisite care. We sang "Happy Birthday" to my grandfather ("Archie" short for Archibald, his parents were so unabashedly Scottish) and my great-uncle ("Bill", although none of his names was William or anything remotely like). Candles were blown out, the cake was sliced--a protracted business. We ate as much of it as we had room for, and, if the weather permitted, were sent outdoors.

Behind our great-aunt's house were gardens, and within the gardens were stone-walled canals. With goldfish. They fascinated us as they glided through the cold water--we found out how cold when we reached in to try and catch an elusive shining fish.

There was also a little playhouse, a Wendy house--our glamourous cousin's--fitted up with everything a house required. Someone--either Uncle Bill or the butler--would unlock it for us.

We'd wander back into the house. My brother would play with the boy cousins and whatever toys had been bestowed. I would explore the house, playing princess in my glamourous cousin's elegant bedroom. The grown men were talking about politics and watching whatever football game my great-uncle couldn't miss. The women gossiped about friends and relatives and talked about recipes. As I grew weary, I would curl up near my mother and shamelessly eavesdrop on these conversations.

The party wound down by or before darkness fell. Our family climbed into the car, drove through the night across the river and through the city to our own house.

We'd settle in early, getting in a good night's rest before the next round of merriment on Christmas Eve. Which also had its traditional elements.

Uncle Bill was the first of his generation to pass away--several years after he and my great-aunt had moved into an apartment. Their rather splendid house had been handed over to my glamourous cousin who raised her two daughters there and resides there still. I daresay the goldfish are long gone.

My grandfather died in 2001, about six weeks before the December 23rd that would've been his 100th birthday. A few years later we lost my great-aunt, in her 93rd (I think) year. Her elder sister, my grandmother, died the following year at 96.

I do rejoice at their longevity, and can't help missing them on this memorable date. They live again for me when I reminisce about the Birthday Party, a favourite family tradition that vanished with them--the details of which, in retrospect, seem like something I made up for one of my novels.

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