It was to be the first Christmas of our adopted daughter Maya. For so many reasons we wanted to make it right. And for one reason we could not do it. But that gets a little ahead of the story. When the one whose name cannot be spoken and I became engaged it was believed that the call up to go to China was at least six months away. It turned out to be one week away. So we rushed to get everything ready for the child who would become part of the family that had not been made yet.
And before I could turn around we were in Nanchang China in line to be registered in the hotel where we would meet our new child and finish the adoption process. I stood at the hotel registry after having discovered that my clothes had not finished the trip across the ocean and would not be here for a few days. The clothes on my back were all I had. The nameless one had prepared everything and had ensured me that I would not have to worry about the cost because she had been saving for this for years. I believed her. Until she turned to me and exclaimed I have messed up and do you have a credit card we can use to pay for the hotel. I began to calculate how much room I had on my card and looked around at the five star hotel the adoption agency had arranged for us to stay at. It was with a wing and a prayer I gave her my card. She did arrange for a money transfer from her credit union the next day. But this was not before I was thinking no clothes and I may have to skip a few meals. And the weather outside was cold.
In fact it was so cold that the babies could not make it on time. We had been waiting on pins and needles for their arrival but at last found out they were temporarily delayed because of the ice and snow on the road. After an hour more of waiting we decided we would not skip a meal. So with my fast becoming rubber credit card we went down to the hotel restaurant to eat. I was hungry because we had skipped lunch waiting for the babies and the breakfast buffet provided by the hotel had little vegetarian options. So I ordered and was glad to have some real Chinese food. My first real meal in China. I looked into my beloved eyes for a second before I forked my first bite. The smell was filling my nostrils and the fork was two inches from providing me Nirvana. Then the shouts were heard, “The babies are here. The babies are here.” She jumped up and immediately ran to the room where we were to meet the babies. I looked with melancholy at my meal and knew I would never be able to eat it. I left, choosing baby over food.
When we finally received our daughter she looked like a Chinese version of the Pillsbury Doughboy. But we soon found once we took off the many layers of clothing there was a very skinny baby underneath. The thinness surprised us, although we knew she had be living in an orphanage in a rural village. But this put my partner on alert and when the first poo came out she declared it diarrhea and was afraid she was sick. So in the middle of the night she called the nurse. The nurse ever so kind came and observed the poo and looked at new mother and with a big smile in her sweetest late evening Chinese accent said, “Normal baby poo.” In other words nothing to see here move along.
The next trauma was our first trip outside the hotel with her. Being new parents we had clothed her, we thought, very well for the cold. But we had not traveled a block from the hotel when The Chinese Grandmother Mafia informed us she was not wrapped in warm enough clothes. And everywhere we went the sight of a baby girl in a country with a one child policy was a rare sight so the Grandmothers always came to see and reprimand. Our poor daughter must have been shaking her head at what incompetent American parents have I received.
So the trials and tribulations continued until it was time to fly out of Nanchang to Guangzhou to complete the adoption process. When we finally, on the coldest day this southern boy has ever experienced, arrived at the airport there was a whiteout across China and flights would be delayed. When it was apparent that no flights were leaving soon they offered to put us up in an airport hotel. The hotel they took us to was straight out of a Kafka novel. White tiles floor, walls, ceiling with nothing hanging on the walls. The lights did not come on until we entered the room. No one but our fellow adoptees were in the lobby. One lonely desk with no one behind it. But worse of all: no heat. It was freezing. No concierge or desk staff greeted us but someone who looked like a maintenance worker led us to our room. Long halls of white with white doors which I noticed had no numbers on them. A door was opened and we were led into an igloo with twin beds. They handed us a KFC size bucket of ramen noodles for supper. There was only three thin blankets. We looked around to see how we could make hot water for the ramen noodles but there was no coffeemaker. We tried the water: no hot water. We ate our bucketful of ramen noodles mixed with cold water and one plastic spoon. We ‘ate’. And then my partner and I looked at each other as if to say, this is a little bit more adventurous than we had planned. She got in one bed with the baby with the blankets and I, wearing every stick of clothing I owned, laid in the other bed. We both wondered if we would survive the night. Three hours later they came for us; there was a break in the weather and it was now or ever. Even though we loved our accommodations we chose now.
We arrived in Guangzhou to warm weather and the famous White Swan hotel. Our daughter must have been very concerned by now about these parents and their precarious ways. But Guangzhou was a refuge from the cold and barren city we had come. We finally received the papers from China and our government that made Maya a part of our family. That night we ate at a vegetarian restaurant. I had the best mushroom dish I have ever consumed. We were the only people there and the staff, mesmerized by the baby girl, watched us eat every bite.
The next day we flew back to the United States. The way the law is written, the adopted children did not officially become US citizens until they passed through the customs gate. Maya, who had been the perfect child, suddenly at the gate began to shriek and struggle with us like she had never done before. It was as if she knew Trump would one day become president and she wanted no part of that. Or maybe she was scared to be left in the hands of these very iffy “parents.” We dragged her across the line and she became an American citizen.
Weeks later it was Christmas time in the city. We were determined that Maya enjoy this holiday, so that she could know while China may have centuries of customs we have Santa Malls. We worked hard to make Christmas day be magic. The day came and two parents were stricken with what we would later refer to as Maya’s Malicious Maladies. These were viruses she brought home from daycare and which quickly brought physical ruin to her parents. But never before or after had both of us been struck with a MMM at the same time. We languished in bed moaning and groaning and visited our porcelain collection throughout the night on Christmas Eve. So at some point the barely walking new child on the block made her way into our bedroom to inform us it was Christmas Day.
She poked me with her index finger on the cheek, as if to say, if you are alive it is Christmas Day. You know that day you have been making such a fuss about. Let me see some of your American cheer. I rolled out of bed to check the porcelain collection. She followed watching me carefully. She decided this particular Christmas tradition would not be one she would follow.
A weak cry came from the area of the Christmas tree. Let’s open Christmas presents, said the pallid voice trying to show Christmas cheer. So Maya and I went toward the faint voice. She arrived hours before I did. I did not sit but laid before the Christmas tree and the one whose name cannot be spoken said I have to go back to bed.
Maya looked at us both. These incompetent parents have strange ways of expressing Christmas joy as we heard a retching in the background. I told her to open her Christmas presents, then fell asleep. Minutes later I awoke to find her playing with her new gifts. My partner entered the room and flopped on the floor with a comforter wrapped around her. I left to sleep for an hour. This was the morning. Maya playing with her toys, us sleeping or head deep in our porcelain collection.
It was way past lunch time. We had had no breakfast and the fancy meal we had told Maya that always occurs on Christmas day was non-existent. I looked at my partner and said, “We have to feed the child. There is frozen pizza in the freezer.” I trudged to the kitchen and made Maya Christmas dinner: frozen pizza. My partner and I had no desire to eat, so we only looked at this happy and contented child as she ate. We were lucky I thought as I traveled to the porcelain collection. The pizza smell had been too strong for my constitution.
Years later on reflection of that first Christmas with our oldest daughter something must have transpired that day inside of her. She developed into the most competent and capable person. She must have figured if these are my parents I have to raise my game very high just to survive. She also insists that she puts up the Christmas tree and decorations, wraps the presents and generally likes to take charge of Christmas. I guess she is unsure if these incompetent parents can ever pull off a Christmas.
Merry Christmas to Al! Which is my way of saying while your Christmas may not be perfect, may it be good.
Christmas always started with the gathering of family and friends. We came from our various homes to my parents. We no longer were those more than you can handle three sons. Okay we were still hard to take as grown men. But we gathered from our various places. We would once again unite and become one as we once were.
The food was busy being prepared and if you were not careful you would find yourself peeling potatoes or snapping beans. The children were being spoiled by a grandfather with his game of Oreo checkers. Where you played with Oreos and when you jumped and captured an Oreo you got to eat it. Never before have our children shown such concentration as they played a game of checkers. Games of cards would begin. Discussions of theology and politics would begin. Sometimes the conversations about politics would become as heated as the game playing.
We would read ‘The Night Before Christmas’ on the night before Christmas followed by the opening of one present. But on Christmas morning before the first present could be opened we all sat around the living room and the youngest child who could read would open the family Bible. They would read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. It was a solemn occasion followed by the joy of presents. One present at a time would be open. And then the obligatory hug was exchanged between the giver and receiver and the process repeated again and again. The grandparents would have many presents not necessarily to spoil us but to receive the hugs from the children. Even the macho grown men were obligated to hug each other and say thank-you. It was a love feast.
Afterwards it would have looked as though some thief had ransacked the house looking for diamonds as the wrappers and boxes were all over the place. It was abundance of presents but also of joy. One year one brother received a movie camera and from then on would film every transaction. He would even want us to watch it later that day. I never did. I said I had already lived it “this morning” I would say.
A few hours later we would have a meal fit for the gods themselves. Others would join us throughout the day. My parents would always have presents for them too. But before the feast we all gathered and circled the feast and held hands and usually the oldest would pray. Occasionally they would insist one of the two ministers pray. It was with dread when it was grandmother’s time to pray. We listened as grandmother prayed and prayed and prayed. Jesus was more than thanked for the food and the good years we were all having and would have. The smells of the food wafting into our noses and the would cause the grandchildren to shuffle their feet but we all endured and were never more thankful to Jesus than when we heard those words In Jesus Name. Although once or twice I think to show us who was in control grandma would continue even after those words. But whenever she ended it was as after the National Anthem at a sporting event an almost joyous shouts of not let’s play ball but let’s eat.
Plates were never large enough. Tables were never big enough. Pants were never large enough. The praise of the food would resound in my mothers’ and others ears for the fine dishes they had prepared. It would show the Greek Gods what a bacchanalia should look like. We were grateful and yet never completely realized these were moments we would never be able to create later. It was the magic of good things and family shared with each other and the world about us. But like all shows it must come to an end. Divorces, deaths, distances, drugs, drama, all would take its toll on these moments. We each have our family gatherings on Christmas now. Our memories now float in the clouds of unknowing. But somewhere deep inside of us live those moments of jubilation of an unclouded day. It is in the quiet of the night in the dark, I find myself looking into the stars of the heavens and am reassured that those Christmases can never be taken away. They exist in the eternal stardust of time. It is then I can smile in the dark and know life has good.
The book club has existed for over twenty years. People have come and gone. Divorces, marriages, adoptions, new homes, children leaving for college, new pets, and other major life events have occurred. But always there have been the books. We are a real book club, which means we actually discuss the book. We have had lawyers, librarians, professors, teachers, and me. I am allowed to stay because of nepotism. The one whose name shall not be said out loud started the group and thus I get a pass.
When we first started we were all on our best behavior. The homes were spotless, the hors d’oeurves were homemade, many and good, books were always read by everyone, and we were on our best behaviors. Now homes are hit a lick for cleaning, we have Oreos, we occasionally are rude and the book is not always read by everyone. In fact we almost proudly announce that we did not read the book because our lives have been out of control. It is as if we are saying “Give me some sympathy here.” We have grown comfortable with each other. We each over time have developed our roles.
I try to be the rebel without a cause, but do you know how hard it is to rebel against a book club? I will always struggle to find new and more profound meaning which leaves my fellow book clubbers often looking at me with that ‘are you for real look’. But thank God for nepotism.
But others have their roles too. We have the eccentric animal lover whose heart is as wide as the Grand Canyon. Who always reads the book and more importantly brings the Oreos. We have an archivist who can tell us every book we have read and when we read it. He also is the one most likely to ask how your life is going. We have our expert who has a PHD in English. We have the one who can always make references to other books and once or twice has entertained us with his piano playing. They are also most likely to nod off for a moment. We have the grand maker of good things to eat, who reminds us that she does not like books filled with violence.
In the beginning we had our book club hussies who had more than one book club to which they belonged. But in the end those were fleeting dalliances that could not stand the trials of time. Or they are still meeting them on the side in a southside hotel. One couple’s first meeting was when we were reading a book about dwarfs which was filled with unusual sex and violence and was a poor translation from French. Yet somehow they came back. There was also the other French translated book that we all read for a week and as one body decided none of us were going to finish it. It was a little beyond, beneath, behind, and disgusting for us. We later learned much to our chagrin it was considered a French classic. Those French and their silly little books. We even read one book about a Dangerous Husband whose wife killed him because he was annoying. This made the men very uneasy and they slept with one eye open for the next few weeks.
The choosing of the book to read is a simple but brutal process. The host presents three books as suggestions. We have an unwritten and sometimes broken rule that we cannot read a book that someone in the group has already read. Sometimes this rule can leave us with only one ‘choice’. So the little white lies begin. I read the book while I was young and in a coma and had a vocabulary of twenty words I do not remember a thing about it. But the archivist will shake his head and proclaim a rule is a rule. And the rest nod their heads in agreement. At least that is the way it happens most of the time. We always in choosing a book need to know the important information of how many pages and how big is the print. This can be the sole decider on occasion. Then comes the voting coalitions. As these are formed wives will betray husbands, friends will deny friends and then the vote will be taken. A gnashing of teeth for those who now realize they have to read a book they spoke so strongly against settles in.
After the book is chosen, the date is set. In the old days everyone broke out their paper daily planners but today except for one the smart phones come out. The dates are set only to be reset when someone returns home and remembers they will not be in town that day. Then the reading begins. There are shared emails that express love for the book, hate for the book, or oh shit I need to start reading. In a bow to modernity one member listens to the book on the way to work. Maybe one day we will become the book on tape club.
We have our traditions. Every holiday season we have a White Elephant book swap. Tipping Velvet a Victorian porn novel will make an appearance. No one wants it and everyone denies reading it, but somehow the pages have become frayed through the years. For some reason the holiday celebration is always at our house. One book club member said that makes sense since we host on a rotating basis. But my deductive skills have been refined through the fires of book club discussions: that only works if we met on a regular schedule. Maybe it is because when we met for Christmas at someone else’s house they entertained us with the house across the street catching fire. While this gave us all an adrenaline rush it is not something you want to repeat. So it is at our house this year.
The years have passed. The books keep getting read. And once again it is the holiday season. We need to buy books for the White Elephant book swap and I need to pull Tipping Velvet off my night stand next to the bed. I notice it is even more frayed than last year.