Christmas in Dallas
Christmas at my parents house is always fun, and I was excited to have Kim join us this year, she wrote a really fun story with her some of her impressions, I’ve posted it below. We had a great time, and it was over far too quickly! Makes me wish my family lived closer.
Hope every one had a great Holiday!
Christmas With Geoff’s Family
By Kim Luu
‘Well, the rigidity of the surface will make it more susceptible to cracking from perpendicular forces, whereas something softer will have more flexural strength and be more resistant to cracking; that’s why you should use a loofah and moisturize.’ Geoff’s dad is explaining to him the importance of an exfoliated and well moisturized heel. I love the Jennings household. As I follow along the conversation, I feel like my degree in engineering is actually applicable and relevant, if even just at the breakfast table.
I am in Texas visiting Geoff’s family over the Christmas holidays. Although I’ve met his parents before, I’ve never met his entire family, and certainly not on their home turf. It is my first Christmas away from home, and although I am a little sad about it, Geoff has recounted enough tales of Christmas lore at his house that I am nothing if not utterly excited. To be honest, I am a little excited about his family’s tradition of ordering nearly 100 oysters for a small handful of people to devour on Christmas Eve. Okay, I am very excited about that tradition.
Four days before Christmas, my plane arrives a little later than expected at 3:30 in the morning. Geoff picks me up from the airport. I am tired, worn out, and fighting a cold bug that I must have caught over the weekend. When we drive down the red-brick home lined street of his parents’ Plano home, I am awake, and awed by the beautiful homes that surround us. They are variations of red brick, and even in the faint light of street lamps, they are gorgeous. I don’t see any semblance of the cookie cutter homes that I am accustomed to in southern California, and certainly, no two homes in the neighborhood appeared alike. The homes in their neighborhood were mostly two-story, with high windows above the doorway that peek into the foyer at commanding staircases decorated with green and red garlands.
As we enter the home, assorted snowmen figurines decked out in their Christmas bests stare at us from the staircase. Around nearly every corner, little Santas proudly stand in their declaration that Christmas has arrived. They are adorable. Geoff quickly leads me over to the formal sitting room, where an elaborately decorated Christmas tree hovers above an outpouring of Christmas gifts beneath its skirt. He shows me my own stocking hanging in the family lineup above the fireplace.
‘Look, I got you this stocking instead of the house loaner. Mom and I put your name on it.’ The stocking is very cute, and is decorated with the face of a jolly Santa. Geoff and his mom have personalized it with my name in embroidery.
‘Wow, and it doesn’t even say ‘Geoff’s Girlfriend’ or have Velcro lettering!’ I say, impressed. At Geoff’s house, everyone’s stocking is personalized, with some stockings nearly as old as the owner’s themselves. I am touched by Geoff and his mom’s efforts to make me feel welcome in their home.
Geoff’s mom is a school teacher, the kind of school teacher that you remember long after your school days have passed. The kind, I would imagine, that would want to give you hugs before sending you home for winter or summer break. She’s prone to giggling, and has laugh lines that spread generously when she laughs. She is British, has her tea with milk at 4 in the afternoon and occasionally still refers to her kids as ‘love.’ She’s great.
In the morning after a night’s rest, Geoff mom welcomes me with a hug and offers me a better lit tour of the house. The house is beautiful, and I nearly get lost from the garden sun-room to the formal sit-down living room. Being from southern California, I am not at all accustomed to open spaces, much less open spaces under your own roof.
Antiques are found throughout the house. Geoff’s mom points out ornate wooden chairs, simple wooden bookshelves with edges beveled from wear, well worn calligraphy pens and ink bottles, barely bound farm ledgers that document every penny and purchase, photo albums of family dressed in high stiff collars, and hand illustrated first edition books still full of color that have been passed down through generations.
The oldest living member of my family, my grandmother, has fled two countries to flee separate wars fought nearly three decades and two countries apart. My parents, with my brother and me in tow, have fled one. The artifacts of my family history are limited to a few old black and white photos of my grandmother in her prime and my mom in her youth, and an old gold chain-linked purse from my mom’s wedding reception that I still cling to. The relics of Geoff’s family, liberally sprinkled in each room are amazing. They are like treasured items in a museum. But framed in the warmth of his family’s home, where fingerprints on old photographs and scratches on old chairs can be traced to greatgrandparents, they feel even more delicate and precious.
Christmas is an event in Geoff’s family. Insomuch as Christmas is an event in my family, it is a much larger event in Geoff’s family. Geoff tells me that this is the biggest holiday they celebrate in the year, the one that has a permanent place on the family calendar never to be postponed even by a dive trip to exotic locales.
I tell Geoff that Christmas is one of three holidays a year that we subversively try to convince each other should be hosted at the other’s home, before someone finally relents at the last minute and offers to host. It is usually not long afterwards that a potluck is suggested, and we end up with a dinner of five or six boxes of Styrofoam takeout dishes (real Chinese restaurants don’t serve their takeout in cute little paper box containers). It’s still a lot of fun though.
When I was little, my grandmother used to host all family get-togethers. Our Christmas dinners were a feast. The kitchen was her territory and she would wake up by 6 to soak dried tree fungus in water to make sure they were soft and ready to be stir fried with shitake mushrooms and sea cucumber. She’d make sure all the baby squid were well washed, with their spotted outer mucous-like skins peeled off their tentacles so that they were nothing but pearly whites; their little tentacles puckering into ringlets in the wok. She’d boil the body of the squids carefully, and drain them before they were overcooked. She’d stuff their barrel-like bodies with pureed fish and throw them into a pan where sizzling garlic and onions blended together in pungent opalescent bliss. Or, she’d stir fry ground pork with a special blend of chopped tree fungus and onions to make a dip for shrimp chips, which would swell from thick, hard, translucent flakes into delicate, opaque chips with a spongy surface. My grandmother is older now, and although I salivate at the thought of our old traditional Christmas meals, I wouldn’t dream of asking her to wake up at dawn to indulge me in my childhood memories. No one cooks as well as my grandmother though, and even though she has passed the hosting torch, we have all been hesitant to pick it up. So for now, our holiday meals consist of a mishmash of takeout flavors.
For the Christmas meals at the Jennings house though, Geoff’s mom runs a gallant show. Two days before Christmas Eve, Geoff and I accompany her to 2 different grocery stores, where we mull over the 12 varieties of olives at the olive bar. They are beautiful glistening droplets of assorted shades of green, black, and purple. We choose the pitted Sicilian-spiced green olives and the un-pitted tart Chilean purple olives. We dawdle around the cheese aisle, before selecting, semi-soft goat cheese, sheep’s milk cheese, and several cheeses from other families of milk. Outside, a light but rare Dallas snow event drapes the city, but inside the store with my Starbucks apple cider in hand, I salivate just walking down the aisles. We buy a ham, a 23 pound turkey, brussel sprouts, French cut green beans, crackers, and assorted ingredients that fill over the edge of the double-wide cart. When we come home and unload all the groceries, it looks like the pantry gave birth to twins.
The day before Christmas Eve, Geoff’s mom shoos us out of the kitchen soon after breakfast so that she can cook without us being underfoot. By the time we return from wandering the Dallas streets, taking in the historic sites of the Kennedy assassination and the brisk cold of a Dallas winter (Geoff assures me that it doesn’t always get this cold, but I’m not convinced), Geoff’s mom has finished cooking. Several hours worth of labor mixing, folding, baking, and cooking later, Tupperwares-full of assorted goodies beckon at us from the counter and fridge. There is five layer cheese dip with homemade pesto, seven layer dip with guacamole and green onions, mincemeat pies, and fresh cookies, all homemade. Oh yes, the torch is here, and judging from Geoff’s mom’s enthusiasm for the gastronomical details of Christmas, it will be here to stay for a while. I am thrilled. I can’t wait until Christmas.
For Christmas in my family, our extended clan of nearly 20 always gather at someone’s home on Christmas Eve. We celebrate with a big dinner, an informal ruckus of an affair, with conversations that spill out in three languages, simultaneously. It is loud, and highly reminiscent of a dim-sum restaurant, or an Asian market, which both actually sound the same. I love these affairs. My uncle, a skinny man, speaks with a voice that always booms over the entire room. The rustling of plastic silverware on styrafoam plates always plays in the background. Dinner entrees are divvied up onto two tables: one for the adults and one for the kids. Nearing 30, my brother and I eat like royalty at the kids’ table. Sure, we could sit at the adult’s table but food is always more plentiful at a table shared with a handful of waif-like pre-teen to post-teenage cousins than it is at a table where hungry adults who actually have to work for a living split food. The only time I’ve actually sat at the adult’s table was when I brought Geoff over for the first time for our July 4th dinner. I suppose the new introduction bred formality because we were seated at the adult’s table, while my brother and cousins happily ate around the kids’ table. The second time I brought Geoff over for Thanksgiving, we had open seating again, so I seated us at the kid’s table.
‘Was it something I said” Geoff asks.
‘What do you mean” I respond.
‘Well, did we get demoted from the adult’s table” he asks.
‘No, no, I explain, these are the best seats in the house,’ I try to explain. Poor Geoff, I think, talk about culture shock.
After dinner on Christmas Eve, we used to wait until midnight to open presents. When I was little, my brother and I would be sent off to bed, and be wakened at midnight to tear giddily into our presents. After presents and other midnight celebrations, we’d all spend the night, even staking out a corner of the living room if there wasn’t enough formal room for all 20 of us. Celebrations spill into Christmas morning with a traditional breakfast of sardines and onions on French bread, before we all sit around staring blankly at each other wondering what we can do other than watch a movie or get Chinese takeout. Recently though, we open our presents soon after dinner dies down, which is around 10 PM or so. Much more anti-climatic, I think. And instead of a mega slumber party, everyone packs up soon after to head home to their own beds.
Christmas in Geoff’s family is a monolith of an affair, with holiday traditions that start on Christmas Eve and end on Christmas Day. Geoff tells me that no other holiday is celebrated with as much fervor. Christmas Eve, Geoff’s grandparents, sister, and brother-in-law arrive.
Even at 89, Geoff’s grandparents look stately. Geoff’s grandfather spent nearly 40 years in the army as a medical doctor, serving in World War II and Vietnam, and retired as the Surgeon General of the army with the rank of a 3-star general. Geoff will proudly tell you that a 3-star general in the army is the highest rank one can obtain, except in times of war. Geoff beams when he tells this, and always follows the story by saying that the largest army medical center in Texas still bears his grandfather’s portrait. Geoff’s grandmother is a sweetheart, and recounts with enthusiasm stories of their life together. She has glowing skin, and it is hard to believe that she, too, is 89. They have been married for nearly 65 years, and treat each other with the adoring affection and mock annoyance of an old married couple.
Geoff’s sister, Katy, is the splitting image of their mom; they have the same face and strawberry blond hair that skipped over Geoff and his brother. Katy, like her mom, is a school teacher; Michael, like Geoff’s dad, works in the tech sector. Katy and Michael are warm and friendly.
In recent years, Geoff’s family has had a tradition of serving freshly shucked oysters on Christmas Eve. Not ten oysters, not even twenty. One hundred. One hundred freshly shucked oysters to feed seven people. Geoff volunteers to do the shucking, and dons a bright orange rubber Guinness apron. He diligently shucks away in the kitchen, bringing us trays of fresh oysters on the half shell ever once in a while. We sit around the formal sitting room, the tree aglow in the corner. We sip cocktails. We talk. We laugh. We joke around. We devour oysters off the half shell. All one hundred of them, devoured by the seven of us that eat seafood. What a wonderful tradition. There is no television in the background, and the room is abuzz with pleasant conversation. The gas fireplace is lit, its glow bouncing shadows off the wall. I can hear myself think, which is quite a change from my own family’s gatherings. What a novel idea.
When the evening winds down, and it is clear that we are all tired and in need of rest to prepare of for Christmas Day festivities, Geoff’s mom hands out bagfuls of Christmas stocking stuffers. Each bag has a different person’s name on it, and we each stake out a separate corner of the room to fill a stocking of our choosing with its designated goodies. I fill Geoff’s stocking with goodies that his mom has carefully amassed throughout the year and kept stored in a back closet before bringing them out for official stocking stuffing on Christmas Eve. The goodies are handpicked and personalized: Geoff’s favorite tomato soup mix, a potholder that he’s mentioned only casually that he needed, a polygonal puzzle, and other trinkets that suit his personality. Of course, it doesn’t all fit into the stocking.
‘Oh yeah, don’t worry about fitting it all in,’ Michael says. ‘Every year, there is a vow to keep it to a stocking’s worth of goodies, but no one really goes through with that.’
I stuff Geoff’s beautiful hand-embroidered stocking, with its full bodied Santa in a fuzzy beard that his mom made for him when he was very young, as carefully as I can. The felt fabric of the backing is thinning from nearly 25 years of stocking treats. Finally, I give up and lay the overflowing stocking in front of a large plastic grocery bag also filled with goodies. Treats overflow even before the presents have been opened.
When Geoff and his siblings were younger, his mom says, they used to have the kids set out a glass of sherry and biscuits (cookies) for Santa. Apparently, the British Santa needs a pick-up to get through the night.
Christmas morning is an entirely different affair. By 9 in the morning, we reconvene at his parent’s house. Geoff’s mom opens the door with a Rudolph nose attachment.
‘No one left any sherry out for Rudolph, so he stayed!’ she giggles.
We gather again in the sitting room, and open our stockings. Even my stocking is filled with thoughtful trinkets: a pepper grater that Geoff knows I’ve always liked, a Texas pin, a Texas box of mints, silk hand cream, a miniature Jenga puzzle set, a scarf and gloves, and other goodies.
After the stockings are opened and fawned over in private, we start upon the presents. Geoff’s mom opens the first present, first declaring who the present was from before holding it up for all of us to fawn over in public. Geoff has told me of the ooh-ing and ahh-ing period inherent to the gift-opening process. It’s quite different from the ‘madly tear into your presents’ protocol that my family usually goes by, but its easy to adapt to and oh so satisfying when the ooh-ing and ahh-ing falls on a present that you have given.
The present opening chain proceeds clockwise, and at one point Geoff’s dad opens a package of assorted hot sauces.
‘Hmm,’ he says. Geoff’s dad is a stoic man, not prone to wasting his words. He is a technology incubator, like a venture capitalist, and brilliant, always on the edge of a technological breakthrough that he’s researched and handpicked. He’s a fit man, and looks like a no-nonsense college professor with his graying beard and formal demeanor. He seems to really like his present with all the different little jars of hot sauce variations. He opens one jar, inverts it onto his fingertip for a tasting.
‘Not bad,’ he says.
‘So it tastes good” Michael asks.
‘Yes, have a taste,’ Geoff’s dad says, passing the bottle to Michael.
‘This is what we do,’ Geoff whispers to me, ‘we ooh and ahh and ask for specs. And we don’t go on to the next person until the present has been put down by the person before them.’ I assume this is so that no one gets cheated out of their ooh-ing and ahh-ing time.
When it’s finally my turn, I open up a present from Geoff’s mom and unveil a dark blue denim shoulder bag.
‘I sewed it myself,’ she says.
‘Wow,’ I say, working my way around the details of the bag. ‘That’s so nice of you. Thank you. And look, it’s got a lining, an inside pocket, and a cell phone holder too,’ I say, showing the details of the bag’s making to the whole room.
It takes us until well after noon to finish opening presents. It is a pleasant affair, with no overwhelming need to hurry any faster than the natural pace that has befallen us. Geoff’s dad opens the nearly the last present, a metallic colored container the size of a hat box. He carefully lifts out its contents, and unwraps a number of heirloom gifts from his father’s military career: a block of the Berlin wall mounted on a plaque ‘In Appreciation of Dr. Jennings’ Service,’ an engraved silver dagger from South America ‘Thanking Dr. Jennings’ for his Contributions,’ and U.S. Surgeon General commemorative coins.
‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’ Geoff’s dad says, and it is clear that he is touched.
The last present lies at Geoff’s mom’s feet, and is from Geoff’s grandmother. It is a little bag, which opens up to a smaller bag, and then to a box housing another box. There is an accompanying card though, and Geoff’s mom opens that first. As she reads it silently to herself, tears well up in her eyes. By the time she opens the little box, her eyelids are pink, and tears trickle down her cheek.
‘Thank you so much,’ she says, overwhelmed. The box contains a pair of medical symbol earrings, below which dangle a deep green tourmaline stone. The tourmaline stones were hand picked and bought along the shores of the Amazon River during a trip that Geoff’s grandparents took in 1994. They were brought back to the States so that a jeweler could set them into earrings that Geoff’s grandmother chose to remind her of her husband. Geoff’s mom reads the card aloud, ”These earrings are very dear to me, and I want you to have them.”
‘Take care of them,’ Geoff’s grandma says.
‘I will. Thank you,’ Geoff’s mom replies.
Family history roots itself into our lives in little ways, disguised as bricks, knives, coins, and earrings. Treasures, that would have otherwise been trinkets, had they not once belonged to those we love so much.
After presents, we reconvene in the formal dining room to a beautifully set table with a fresh flower center piece and fine crystal wine goblets for the early dinner. (‘Where are the styrafoam plates” I wonder.) A full meal with all the trimmings has been prepared: turkey, broccoli casserole, mashed potatoes, broiled potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, brussel sprouts, carrots. It is delicious and we eat and drink heartily.
‘Isn’t anyone else going to have some of this wine” Geoff’s grandma asks.
‘Oh, there isn’t that much left in the bottle,’ someone replies.
Geoff’s grandma takes a closer look at the bottle, which has only a few inches of wine remaining.
‘Oh, that’s right. Well, I can kill that,’ she says.
The rest of Christmas festivities actually last well into the evening, when Geoff’s extended family arrive to sit and chat. It’s a mellow affair, with people lounging on sofas and the ground. The conversation is friendly, and Geoff seems happy to catch up and joke around with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. It is nearly 11 pm, when Christmas partying actually ends. I had a great time, but am amazed by the 13 straight hours of Christmas stamina in the Jennings household.
It was a beautiful holiday spent in Texas with Geoff and his family. Geoff’s family could not have welcomed me into their home with more graciousness and warmth. Christmas was beautiful. I am thankful for the invitation to share in their holiday traditions, where the days and evenings were filled with the pleasant company of family, conversation, and the best seven layer dip I’ve ever had.