Growing up, my parents usually fought on Christmas. Something would always go wrong. Dad would drink too much or Mom would get mad about something. I don't remember any specific fight on Christmas, but I recall the vague memories of them. Those fights are like old songs I can't remember the words to. I remember thinking that when I was older my life would be perfect. I wanted to be like the Brady Bunch girls on TV. My other fantasy was to morph into Joe (aka Nancy McKeon) on The Facts of Life who escaped her dysfunction by going to boarding school.
You see, as a young girl, I was a dreamer. Maybe I still am. Losing myself in books was my main pastime. Hours were spent in my room reading and daydreaming about the lives of my favorite heroines. I would lie in bed and imagine myself as Laura Ingalls Wilder on the frontier or Ramona or Beatrice Quimbly. As I got older, I tried as hard as I could to daydream myself into a Judy Blume character and later into Scarlet O'Hara. I also had an unhealthy obsession with Harlequin romance novels (my mom let me read hers when she was finished). I remember one specific Harlequin about a nineteen year old ward who lived with her twenty-something unrelated guardian in Greece. The cover showed her green eyes and long, black hair. And, I remember a scene where the guardian ravished her in a pool.
My husband Adrian tolerates my fantasizing. I am constantly ranting about a new goal or dream. One week it could be meeting Morrissey (every week more like it) and the next week it might be traveling to Latin America for a year or trying to write a screenplay or taking a camper cross-country. I keep thinking to myself that perhaps I should be happy with the life I have instead of the one I imagine. Why can't I just be content? Why do I yearn for a life that is different from my reality?
Maybe, my discontent and yearning could be a propelling force to my destiny. Or perhaps, my adult reality (like my childhood reality) contains too much chaos to handle without a fantasy life.
My extended family is my mother-in-law Orieta and brother-in-law Gabe. We live with them in a house on five acres in the high desert. My mom Judy used to live with us but she has her own apartment and is blissfully happy hanging out in her senior complex at the pool and at parties. I envy my mom at times. (Don't judge, just read.)
The drama from my childhood is still ingrained in me and I usually create tension with family around the holidays (See "A Mantz Christmas Story Part 2"). The holiday drama this year started on December 22, 2013, the day before my five year wedding anniversary. My mother-in-law Orieta had not talked to me for a week and I knew something was wrong. It had to be Vegas.
Adrian and I had done the unthinkable. We were leaving Orieta at home on New Year's Eve to spend it in Vegas with our friends. I knew she was pissed because Orieta loves Vegas almost as much as she loves her two sons Adrian and Gabe. Orieta is a natural at the slots and once stayed at the same machine for eight hours without a break. We usually take her along to Vegas, but this year we were going solo. This was the ultimate betrayal.
Did I mention Orieta is Italian/Argentine? When Orieta gets mad she appears stoic but you know there is something coming. You can feel the black clouds looming on the horizon and I felt the storm coming that morning at the kitchen sink the day before our anniversary.
"Good morning Orieta," I said with a smile.
"What are you doing?" I asked her. She had her hands in the sink washing some material.
"Nothing," she said. "On New Year's Eve do you want Gabe to take you to your friend's house?" I asked her.
"No, all my friends have family. I have none," she said and walked away.
Later that morning of the 22nd, Adrian and I were packing the car getting ready to leave to the Mission Inn in Riverside. We were loading the car when I saw Orieta walking outside with her head down.
"Adrian, go talk to your mom," I ordered. "She looks sad."
Adrian talked to her and it turns out that she had forgotten our anniversary. And she thought we were not coming home for Christmas. Adrian patiently explained to her that we were going to Mission Inn for our anniversary and would return on Christmas Eve morning. And, he told her that we were not leaving for Vegas until the Saturday after Christmas.
Was Orieta still pissed about Vegas? Of course, but she was a bit mollified. Plus, there is nothing you can do when an eighty year old Argentine mother-in-law gets her feelings hurt. You just have to let her work it out.
When we got home from our anniversary everything seemed fine and Adrian cooked us a roast with rosemary and potatoes for Christmas Eve dinner (note the irony after reading "A Mantz Christmas Story Part 2"). On Christmas morning, we packed the car to leave for my sister Annie's house. Orieta handed Adrian her gifts to put in the car. "Do you have your white elephant gift?" I asked her. Orieta nodded and handed me a package to put in the car.
Every year, my family plays the white elephant game. We may play it different than others so I will explain our process. We each bring a gift. There is an implied agreement of at least twenty or thirty dollars in value. I usually spend more but the minimum is twenty dollars (note, this is an important fact). We then put numbers in a hat and everyone picks a number. The first person picks a gift and opens it. The second person picks a gift, opens it and then they can take any gift that was previously opened and so on. Obviously, the prime spot is the last number. For example, if there are ten people playing, number ten is the best because you get the final pick.
We all put our gifts in the pile. I had made "A Christmas Story" movie gift package containing the movie blu-ray, a pair of Boston Terrier footie pajamas and a "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" t-shirt. My other white elephant gift was a forty dollar set of owl canisters from Kirkland's (very cool canisters in a retro kind of way). I spent more than eighty dollars on the two gifts and I imagined my sister Jackie getting the Christmas Story set (Jackie is obsessed with the movie and her Boston Terrier Lizzie) and someone loving the owl canisters. That is how I play the game. I buy gifts I know certain people will like.
Orieta plays it differently. For her, the goal is to spend as little as possible. The first year we played she put in a little snowman figurine that looked used. This year she planned on putting in the ugly watch with removable faces that she had picked the year before. I had forbidden her to put in the watch set ("Orieta," I had told her. "You are not allowed to put in the watch set or you can't play. Go buy something new."). I was curious what she had bought.
When my mom, who always has bad luck at the game, opened Orieta's gift I was speechless. It was soap. A bottle of economy size hand soap. Who puts hand soap into a white elephant game? The answer, Orieta does.
With my mouth open, I watched as my mom used her swap power to take Orieta's gift and handed her the hand soap. Orieta made a face and said, "I don't need this, I have two more bottles at home."
Try as I might, I couldn't stop myself dear readers. I said loudly, "That's what you get for putting hand soap in a game."
The drama does not stop there. Jackie got my movie package like I planned and was delighted holding the Boston Terrier pajamas up to herself and exclaiming with delight about how she had watched "A Christmas Story" over and over the day before. She was like a little kid on Christmas and it made me think of our childhood Christmases. I felt happy.
Alas, the happiness was not to last. My niece who had picked the tenth number stole/swapped Jackie's gift and handed her a gift that Jackie had brought herself. Jackie sat in the circle we had created with a crestfallen face. It was as if a Grinch had stolen her Christmas and all I could think was, "I am not playing this stupid fucking game next year."