I knew I’d really let the team down when Mum opened her present. She gazed into the shoebox, confounded, and then looked at me.
“It’s — it’s… what is it?”
I was about to declare it was a handmade clay gnome that bore an uncanny resemblance to Bert Newton when I peered over her shoulder. I’d given my mother a box of dirt for Christmas. For 14 years she had fed me and driven me around and paid for things that I wasn’t even aware of, and I had given her a box of dirt in return.
I whipped around the lounge room, horrified as person after person opened shoeboxes full of dirt. My father, mother, grandmother and grandfathers exchanged glances.
“That was a dragon! Nanny, yours was a teapot, and Pappy yours was an ashtray in the shape of a hand.”
I sank into the carpet. I’d obviously not fired the clay right. I’d stuffed something up with the kiln.
I expected Mum to get up from the couch and give me a kiss on the forehead, saying something soothing like, “It was a lovely thought”. Instead she clucked her tongue and said “Jesus, Charlotte. I thought we hit rock bottom last year with the crappy picture frames.”
Dad snorted, then handed out his gifts with great ceremony and we all gasped at what we received. Mum said he was of “that generation” — the one who learned to express love by buying things we clearly can’t afford. He’d say nothing year-round about how he feels, and then at Christmas you’d unearth an utterly extravagant but slightly weird gift that leaves you speechless.
Mum unwrapped a soup maker that looked like the world’s biggest dildo. “The best of the best,” Dad said, nodding solemnly as I inspected my expensive epilator. Later Mum and I were whispering about our respective presents. “I mean,” I said, “what does he care if I have hairy legs?”
This was, of course, Christmas morning. We always used to open presents in the morning, like most people I know. It was a routine: Christmas night I would put out a mince pie and carrots for Rudolph (which Dad swiftly fed to our canine disposal unit after I went to bed), then Mum would insist we sit around and watch three agonising hours of Christmas carols, interspersed with adverts for trifle dishes and oven mitts. I would go to bed early, mostly to escape the disappointing crescendo of Little Drummer Boy, and place a sack on the end of my mattress. During the night, Dad would wake up from napping on the couch, curse, and extract the “sack gifts” Mum had hastily wrapped that afternoon. Sack gifts were always shit. Sack gifts were face wipes from Kmart. Sack gifts were floss wrapped in the receipt. They always seemed to be toiletries for some reason.
After sack gifts, one grandparent would emerge from their room, and the others would arrive from their house up the street. That was Christmas at its fullest — sacks, presents, tree, food, naps. A wholesome expat Christmas eating hot roast in 40-degree heat. (Everyone except me is from England, and, despite 30 years in this country, they have never quite adjusted to a hot December).
Then the first grandparent died. The healthiest one, the one who was meant to die last, or not die at all.
He was back home, in the UK, and instead of raising his golf club high for his next crowd-pleasing stroke, he went one further and actually had a stroke. We decided to rewrite Christmas around his absence. If we didn’t, his loss would be too keenly felt — his usual chair so flagrantly empty.
We began opening presents in the afternoon. Mum decided to start going to church and drag me and dad along with her. Dad would try to make me laugh loudly during the service so as to get me in trouble with Mum and the rest of the congregation. He would sing alternative words to the hymns, and make fart noises when the choir sat down.
“Why are you only religious on public holidays?” I asked Mum one year.
“Catholic guilt,” Dad offered.
“We’re Anglican,” Mum insisted, exasperated.
Churchgoing was written out of later drafts of Christmas on account of Dad and I being an embarrassment and Mum being a hypocrite.
When the second grandparent died we took Christmas outside.
My parents and my Alzheimer’s-addled grandmother would trudge to the beach in the searing heat and pretend to like ice cream. We’d eat withered prawns arranged artfully on a bed of iceberg lettuce.
One year, Dad presented us with an expensive bottle of champagne he’d lovingly stored since 2010 on his drinks trolley, in the sun. He figured it was time to crack the ol’ biddy. We all cheered when the cork loosened, filled our glasses, took a sip, and fell silent. Someone had to say it. Someone had to say it. Mum ventured a tentative yet brave second mouthful. Then Nan, in a radiant moment of lucidity, barked, “Taste’s like piss!”
It wasn’t long after that she died. I mean, Nan had left us years and years ago. We lived for her moments of comic genius, but for a long time she hadn’t said anything. Couldn’t.
The next Christmas was almost a relief. We were contemplative, a bit circumspect; a bit skeptical of the whole routine. We decided to part ways and went on separate holidays. Mum and dad went away in their tiny caravan called “Destiny”, and I went to Vietnam. I sat in the town square in Sapa and bawled my eyes out. You cannot escape the idea of family at Christmas — blood or built.
This year we’ve rejigged it once more. We’re down to three. We’ve been down to three for a while and every year it feels like a new configuration. A fresh loss. Now we’re trying to write Christmas out of Christmas. “Let’s just have lunch,” I said, “no presents”.
“You hear that?” Mum calls out, “No goddamn presents.” But we both know he can’t help himself.
“What do you think it will be this time?” Mum asks.
“A very expensive pair of phallic earrings for you,” I say, “and a voucher to Victoria’s best facial hair removal clinic for me”.