Like Christmas on the Fourth of July

Siblings, Mexican mole and holiday guilt.

Posted Jan 22, 2018

An explosion shakes the small cinderblock house and shocks me out of my sleep. Having gone to bed before midnight after Christmas dinner in Oaxaca City, my brothers and I now discover that our Airbnb is ground zero for holiday pyrotechnics. Another explosion booms and I hear my brother Mike swear as he jolts awake.

We love what we’ve seen of Oaxaca so far—a beautiful Spanish colonial city sitting a mile high at the feet of four mountain ranges—though the rental house had been the source of some comedy. Mystifyingly, the 4.5-star guest reviews had failed to mention a toe-stubber’s minefield of broken tile floor, icy showers, a general blanket of termite dust renewed each morning and two small beds instead of the four advertised.

We don’t have terribly high standards, but my brothers and I are far too old to sleep on the floor or in hammock-like mattresses as we had been. Described as a “peaceful oasis,” the house resembled a forgotten garage sale—broken furniture, old sunscreen bottles and an abandoned suitcase in the middle of the living room that made us think there was a mystery guest. We stayed because we’d paid in advance and thought looking for a hotel on Christmas would be difficult. We left the morning I found too-large-to-be-a-mouse feces at eye level on the screen door. The proverbial straw.

We laugh about it all later sitting in the courtyard of the sweet little hotel we checked into around the corner. We shake our heads over the fireworks too. They weren’t the whimsical, choreographed light show we are accustomed to at Fourth of July celebrations back home. They sounded like war. Someone told us later these fireworks were gunpowder wrapped in newspaper, so that made sense.

With hot water, clean towels and great mattresses, Oaxaca seems even lovelier. We wander the cobblestones streets like we travel together all the time, though this is our first adult trip. We walk in the manicured botanical gardens of the sixteenth-century Templo de Santo Domingo at twilight between bus-sized prickly pear cactus and towering corridors of cordons. We spill from our dinner table into the street to applaud the sudden appearance of a brass band ferrying a statue of the Blessed Virgin followed by three generations of faithful merrymakers. We savor carefully prepared enchiladas de flor de calabaza and mole amarillo at Casa Crespo as much as the barbecued meat by the kilo from the fiery stalls at the chaotic Mercado 20 de Noviembre.  We explore the ruins of ancient Monte Albán and hike up into piney forests of the indigenous villages high in the mountains.

One night on the way back to our hotel we notice an evening mass at a pretty little church called Iglesia del Carmen Alto. We look in at the candlelit stone walls and the bowed heads of the parishioners. It makes me think about our childhood parish church and how none of us will be there for Christmas Mass. I think of our parents and our older sister, Margaret, who will be there and has not missed a single Christmas Mass at Sacred Heart Church since any of us was old enough to remember.

We talk about Margaret, for how could we not? Margaret and her severe autism had defined our childhood and her impact endured in adulthood. Margaret and her unpredictable antics—like running up on the altar at church singing “I Been Working on the Railroad,” or, more recently, noticing the visiting bishop had taken her favorite pew and giving him a little shove. She created a culture in our household that looked bizarre from the outside but helped keep the peace—playing the same verses of the same songs on the same records over and over again. Obsessing over the location of the Mom’s purse, the family’s one hairbrush, Larry’s record collection, or, one summer, a strange black bee she had seen crawling on the picture window. Flinging a slice of bread down the length of the table at whoever had asked her to pass the plate.

Our conversation inevitably circles back to what’s most memorable and not funny at all—her inconsolable anxiety and the hours, the days, the years of screaming. Though none of us can forget that, what else can we say that we haven't already said about it? Whether she had us laughing or crying, Margaret defined the family. We accepted that long ago. When we were older we understood how she had exhausted our parents’ attention for the rest of us. We accepted that too, though it doesn’t always come easy.

On Christmas morning, we sit at a café drinking Mexican hot chocolate and looking out onto the quiet street near the plaza. I do not miss the idea of a Christmas tree or a blanket of snow. I do not have children with whom I would be opening gifts and neither do my brothers. It feels so extravagant that we three have the liberty to gather and enjoy each other’s company. Out of habit, my mind begins to creep down a familiar blind alley: Margaret can’t share this experience. Margaret. She can’t, she never, she won’t. Margaret who can’t drive, who can’t take the bus alone. Margaret, whose anxiety won’t allow her to board a plane. Margaret, who can’t handle conflicting noise or crowds or unfamiliar food or variance to her routine.

When I think of it in her terms, I realize how much she wouldn’t like anything about this kind of trip and my guilt won’t change that. Margaret, I know, wants to be where she is—at home with our parents in the house we grew up in. There Christmas never varies: Mass with Mom, opening presents, listening to her records, eating Harvard beets and then going back to her group home.

When we call to wish them all a Merry Christmas, Dad says Margaret is upset because the rest of us aren't there. I don’t really believe that, but it still smarts. I haven’t been home for Christmas in 20 years. The last time I went, flying 2,000 miles to join them, I spent the day alone. Margaret listened to her records, Mom immersed herself in making dinner and Dad watched TV. There were no gifts for me. That’s when I first understood that my parents just didn’t have the energy to think of the rest of us. However, understanding didn’t make me inclined to repeat the experience.

My brothers and I have a different kind of holiday. We meet a woman writing a book about Mexico’s sixteen-century relationship with Japan. We hike with a farmer-turned-forest guide who invites us to hug the trees. We drink mescal and learn to make rose petal ice cream and salsa with flying ants. We plan to visit the beach where the mama turtles will come in to lay their eggs under the new moon. We walk through the zocoló day after day—for the Night of the Radishes and Christmas Eve and Christmas and the day after—among other families.

How is it possible that we don’t run out of things to say to each other—my brothers, Larry and Mike, the Irish twins, with whom I have spent countless hours? Certainly, we tell each other the same stories over and over again. Like Margaret’s music, perhaps we need the repetition. Whatever the case, we keep listening to each other. It sustains me—the idea that I will have them, and our sister Ann, with me for the second half of our lives. In my mind’s eye, they are worry dolls dressed in the Catholic school uniforms of our youth. I slip them into my pocket and carry them with me wherever I go.

New Year’s Eve is celebrated like Christmas in Mexico—with the boom of newspaper and gunpowder. But now that we know what to expect, the noise is not as shocking. We sit on the beach on New Year’s Day drinking Cokes in glass bottles and looking out at the crashing waves. I think of our big sister and the holiday she loves the most—Fourth of July. The things Margaret truly enjoys are few but beautiful in their simplicity: a ride in the boat, listening to music at the kitchen table, and watching the fireworks display over the lake as we have done for more than 40 years.

This past year she sat with us on the porch of the lake house, serene and happy, as we watched the choreographed show. Streaks of red, white and blue hissed into the sky. They were the shapes of flowers and stars and the shapes of memories and dreams. She stayed up late with us and fell asleep with her head on Mike’s shoulder. He’s the one who suggested we make Fourth of July Margaret’s holiday. We’ll tailor it to suit her: few people, spaghetti dinner, fireworks on the front steps and a hot bath before bed. It’s some kind of gift from her—letting us know what we can give, what she can take. In this way, we do our best to be a family.

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