Klea’s Christmas

My grandmother was an intimidating woman. She was maybe only about 5 foot 8 or so, but to a nine year old, that was just terrible. I feel like I might not have known her very well, I’m sure a lot of other people would disagree with my assessment from a long way’s off, but she seemed to be one of those people you just don’t fuck with. She was incredibly smart, incredibly judgemental and incredibly strong, quick to call you on your own bullshit before you’ve even asked her to. She held the family together through sheer force of will despite several late starts in life, a big crowd of dependents and a crappy husband.

So, naturally, when she told us, every Christmas, that we would be acting out the Christmas story, it didn’t even occur to any of us to complain. Each one of her four kids had pumped out between four and eight of their own children, so there was something in the neighborhood of 25 kids forced into this pageant, and it definitely led to some awkward casting decisions. Naturally, whichever cousin was the closest in age to, y’know, newborn had to play the baby Jesus, and then the pecking order was established, with favored cousins getting juicier roles. There were always more girls than boys, which may have been the only thing that kept my long-haired brothers from having to play angels, but definitely the cousins that my grandmother liked were the ones announcing the visits from the wise men, or getting to be Joseph.

Which left me and my cousin Michelle to play the all-important roles of “Christmas Asses”. I know that one year I played a shepherd, but I think I laughed too much, and from then on, I was an ass. A donkey. I guess if there is a cast of 25, and verisimilitude is paramount, there’s no way to play out the Christmas story without at least two animals near the manger.

My cousin Michelle was born three weeks after I was. It didn’t take much math for either one of us to realize that she’d been named “Linda Michelle” after my mom, Linda, had the unfortunate circumstance of having her fourth boy at age 38, and therefore wouldn’t be able to use her favorite name “Michelle”. When the cousins would come visit, I would sit there just stunned at Michelle’s beauty. I was speechless, I could hardly look at her.

Look, I’m not gonna get creepy here, despite the horrible “kissing cousins” jokes her mom made to us, and despite the fact that my moral compass spun on a whim (thanks to growing up in a classical music family in the 1970s), I never had any feelings for Michelle other than sheer amazement at her beauty and her craziness. Shit just rolled off her when she was a kid. She was the classic middle child, cleaning up after the younger girls, dodging barbs from the older crowd, and just generally doing enough to get by.

We had that in common. We were surrounded by gigantic personalities, and, in her case, something even worse. For me, I had four brothers who commanded their own share of the spotlight, I was in line behind the poet-lizard king, the genius introvert and the screaming menace, and after I was born, almost immediately, there was Princess Diana. I love my siblings more than anything, but it was a big fucking mess growing up, and let’s just say, you yelled for what you needed, you ate fast or you didn’t eat at all, and nobody had much time for silent suffering.

My cousin Michelle had it one step worse. First of all, there are six girls in her family, all of them like shining jewels of beauty and neurosis, each accomplished in their own way. Second of all, whereas I had ADD, which is something that translates into failing grades by high SAT scores, she had profound dyslexia, which translates into a sense that you’re just stupid. On top of that, she and I shared a hardcore punk attitude, fewer inhibitions and more, shall we call it, experimentation than most of the people in our families, but her crowd were a bunch of right wing Christians. I had sex with my girlfriend when I was too young, and my mom told me it was a bad idea. Michelle did the same with her boyfriend, and she literally couldn’t talk about it to anyone.

And, of course, the worst thing. She had had an older brother, three years older, who was killed in a horrible car accident and, essentially, Michelle was born to replace him. The only son of an only son, died tragically in a way I don’t think I can bring myself to describe, and Michelle was born a year later. But Michelle was just a girl among five other girls. She was born and never knew that she would never be able to fill that void. The boy who died would always be there, just over her shoulder, as a comparison to what might have been, and Michelle wouldn’t ever be as perfect as the boy who wasn’t there.

So, while I was always the smartass, earning my Grandmother’s disapproval the old-fashioned way, Michelle was always disliked by my Grandmother for totally unfair reasons. And the two of us, we got to be Christmass asses. Generally, this meant wearing fur coats and standing off to the side mewling and creeping, which, of course, meant that we forgot about the Christmas story and started playing, like kids. Strange, that during a performance I wouldn’t recognize the fact that we had the grown-ups in rapt attention, staring at us.

But maybe not. My cousin Michelle broke up with her high school rock and roll boyfriend senior year, and within two years was married to a returned missionary. She’s three weeks younger than me, and she now has five kids, damn near teenagers. She lives in a track home in Utah and pounds anti-depressants, like so many of the other Mormon women I’ve known. She has chosen the life that was forced on her, imposed on her. Where once she had been the sexiest, freakiest girl in our high school, she quickly became just another Republican, switching medication every eight months, trying to keep up with her kids and her husband, and running a beauty salon out of her kitchen.

And I’m sure there was a moment, some moment in 1987 when she looked around and saw the look of betrayal in the family’s eyes, when she realized that if she kept her shirt open and her skirts short, she’d be writing checks that her parents religion couldn’t possibly stand cashing. There was probably that horrible movie moment, when the camera spins around the room and she sees every scowl, every shaking head, every disapproving look and she swallows hard and gathers her sweater around her open shirt and realizes she’s not wearing her temple garments underneath.

But before that moment, long before, when she and I both had the disapproving looks from all around, but for some reason didn’t quite care yet, when her beauty may have been unmatched. Her sky blue eyes and long features and crazy swept hair, it’s no wonder that my brother’s wife and my wife look very little like each other, but both look like her. There was a time, when we were both eight years old and wearing fur coats, standing to the side of our well-liked cousins that got to be shepherds, who were standing next to our very-well-liked cousins that got to be Mary and Joseph, who were standing on either side of a piece-meal manger that contained whoever’s baby was youngest, who was really just standing in for that little boy from year’s ago who died when he was still the Christ child, who will always be the kresh baby… there was a time when she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

So maybe it isn’t strange that I didn’t recognize this, my earliest public performance, as something that I would obsess over for the rest of my life. Because it was my first experience with a beautiful, crazy, mysterious woman. Art would become the thing I work at and commit to, the theater would become a sort of salvation for me, the answer to my neurosis and the balm for my screaming mind. But this, a girl who’s beauty is beyond explanation, who’s mind is beyond understanding and who’s affection is like a homecoming… even at eight years old, long before the complications of boy/girl relationships would mean a
nything to me, this was my first introduction to pure love.