De Niro’s voice was steady on that weekend afternoon.
“If I go down, Greg, I need to know someone will be responsible for the whole Byrnes clan,” he growled. “So I ask you, Greg. Are you prepared to be… the Godfocker?”
“It was Christmas Day 2010, and I was completely alone.”
I was sitting in a movie theater off South Lamar, spending a couple of hours taking in a matinee of Little Fockers, one of the worst movies of the year. I wasn’t there out of a love for Ben Stiller, or even for a laugh. I just needed to pass the time without crying, and I was seeking out the cinematic equivalent of a mix CD one of my best friends had made me for the one-way road trip to my new city the year before. It was part of a farewell gift basket she’d made me. On the disc, she’d written in skinny Sharpie: “Songs pretty much guaranteed to provoke absolutely no emotional response whatsoever.”
It was Christmas Day 2010, and I was completely alone.
I spent the first half of the day looking like a walking Bonnie Raitt song. I took the dog out more times than he needed, stared at the television in restless five-minute patches, compulsively checked my empty inbox and padded around my apartment in an old pair of sweater boots, trying as hard as I could to forget the boy, my mom and the fact that both were gone.
“This piece always makes me think of your mom—because she hated it! BUT, she sang it anyway.”
I’d broken up with someone a couple of months before. It was a summer fling that had felt like the start of something, and with no regard for my own self-worth, I couldn’t shake it off. Before we’d ended it, I’d secretly been looking forward to spending the holidays with his family, who were supposedly as messed up as mine but who were new to me nonetheless. A fresh start, I’d thought. New people to call my own. I was in the midst of a move, too, having spent two years in my first Austin apartment and needing to pay cheaper rent once I’d switched jobs and taken a pay cut to do something I thought I’d love. I didn’t love it, after all, and I was pissed to be leaving the favorite place I’d ever lived in and rooming with a friend across town instead. But I was packing anyway, because I had to. I’d done it to myself, and I was moving on New Year’s Day.
I drifted onto Facebook. My mom’s choir director had left me a note. “Hi Amy,” he wrote. “Last night my choir sang ‘This Little Babe’ by Benjamin Britten. This piece always makes me think of your mom—because she hated it! BUT, she sang it anyway. I thought you’d like to know someone else was remembering her last night. She was a very special lady and I’m glad she was my friend. Merry Christmas.”
It didn’t get a little easier each year. Instead, the ache grew more pronounced.
It was the fifth holiday season I’d endured without her, and the things people had told me weren’t true: it didn’t get a little easier each year. Instead, the ache grew more pronounced.
But that year, I’d decided, I was phoning it in, taking time off, letting it rest. I’d visit my family in January, when the pressure wasn’t so great, when the velvet of Bing Crosby’s voice, the chirp of cheery commercials and the constant trill of “Jingle Bells” weren’t setting us all on edge, making the addicts among us indulge and the fighters among us fight. The holidays had always been her thing and, without her, it wasn’t the same. I’d spent a good deal of time during those five years feeling sorry for myself, feeling sorry for my dad before he found someone new to love, and feeling like the universe had cheated us. She’d died on December 29th. Her last Christmas had been spent in a hospital room. I stayed angry about it for a long time.
Rifling around online, I found a video of the Peanuts gang dancing in its A Charlie Brown Christmas special, with “Hey Ya!” dubbed over it. The clip played in a loop under the music, syncing the cartoon characters’ moves up with the beat in perfect time. I shared it on Facebook as a goodwill gesture, or perhaps a tiny reminder to the universe: I’m still here.
Most of my memories are milky and ethereal, with scents and songs and snippets of conversations holding them together, loosely connecting them to one another in a reel. Christmas memories, though, come back in small clippings with defined edges. Mostly, they’re packaged in the little details of material things: the silken white hair of the foot-tall, hand-painted wooden nutcracker my parents gave me in elementary school, and how it attached itself to his head with one long, imperfect strip of glue. The whiff of library that escaped the boxes of ornaments we’d pull from the utility room in the first or second week of December. The razor-like sharpness of the old aluminum tree I’d begged unsuccessfully until ninth or tenth grade to replace with a real tree, whose spindles left pin pricks under my fingernails as I helped put it together. The crispness of the blue and white bag we’d bring home in my high school years from Peterbrooke Chocolatier, a local business that sold chocolate-covered popcorn — a favorite holiday treat that felt, to me, like the fanciest thing in the world. The bright red supermarket flowers I’d brought my mom at the hospital during her last year, her last week, when we thought she was on the mend but were wrong. Our finest gifts we bring, ba-rum-pum-pum-pum.
“Christmas…the day of the year when most of us would show up and pretend to like each other even when we didn’t.”
I’d tried decorating for the holidays a couple of times, going through the motions of being in the spirit of things but really just faking it the whole way through. Thanksgiving had become the optional holiday, the one where no one got offended if anyone spent it with friends. I’d let friends’ families adopt me, I’d gone to Friendsgivings, and I’d begun reveling in the idea that chosen families are just as special. Christmas, though, had never been skippable. It was, in my family, the untouchable holiday, the day of the year when most of us would show up and pretend to like each other even when we didn’t. But this particular year, I needed to be a party of one.
After the movie, I didn’t feel like going back home. It hadn’t made me laugh, but it hadn’t made me cry, either; and the emptiness was starting to feel self-indulgent, self-imposed. I’d looked up volunteer openings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Nothing. Everything I could find—every soup kitchen holiday meal, every gift dropoff—had taken place earlier in the week, and I’d cursed myself for procrastinating. I’d written letters on Christmas Eve to people who’d touched my life that year, but I hadn’t put them in the mail yet. I’d ignored each impulse toward connection.
I drove to Mount Bonnell and climbed its steps, deciding on the way up that my self-pity was embarrassing. I had legs; I had health; I had the luxury of getting myself around. I was fed and clothed and loved, even if it wasn’t by all the people I would have wanted; I had a roof over my head in a city I loved. I’m being stupid, I thought. One day I’ll look back on this day and think, What a waste. Be grateful.
“Katz’s Deli on West 6th Street was closing soon…so, I took myself there for dinner and sat quietly amid the sights.”
Katz’s Deli on West 6th Street was closing soon; it was in its final days before going out of business forever. I’d stopped in many times – stumbled, rather – late at night after the bars closed with friends to soak up the alcohol with 3 am diner food, and I’d heard it had served many a holiday meal to folks who didn’t have plans. So, I took myself there for dinner and sat quietly amid the sights, sounds and flavors of one of the decades – old Austin institution’s final nights in business since its motto, “Katz’s Never Kloses,” had turned out to be contrary. Over my meal, I wrote a letter to the food editor at the Statesman. Later, I went to Bennu Coffee, took a seat in an overstuffed chair and typed it up with the subject line “Katz’s Last Khristmas”:
I’ve never spent Christmas away from my family in my life, but a number of things converged this year and ultimately kept us apart. The other day, I went to the Statesman online to see what might be open on Christmas Day to feed a momentary orphan like me when I noticed an article about the fact that my beloved pastrami palace was closing its doors in just over a week. And thus, my holiday plans were set. Unbeknownst to me until I saw that article, this is evidently the place that’s been feeding Austinites in need of someplace to go on December 25 every year since I was three.
And now, this is the place where I get to tuck into a plate of turkey with a side of Stevie Ray Vaughan on my very first (and, hopefully, very last) Christmas spent all by myself. And I’m not ashamed to admit there are happy tears in my eyes over the fact that I’m writing as I do it… in the very first Moleskine I’ve ever owned. (I bought it just up the street – of course – at BookPeople on my first trip to this town.)
I don’t care that there’s no cream for my coffee tonight. I don’t care that I’m by myself. I love that there are just as many people in Santa hats exchanging Christmas presents as there are those who have never done such a thing because their faith (or their worldview) dictates otherwise. I love the fact that my overworked server, Logan, actually wants to talk about why I’m here and what I’m writing, and I love that he just showed me a photo of his dog, Mowgli, even though this is one of the busiest nights the joint has probably seen in a while and he’s probably been ready to go home and collapse into bed for hours.
Most of all, though, I love how this place – both the deli and the town itself – has always hugged me. In writing these long, jangly run- on sentences clumsily slurring about my love for it, I can’t think of a better way to hug it back.
High on coffee and good music in the air, I looked around the room at all the other orphans. Maybe, I conceded, some of them had spent the day with loved ones and just needed a retreat. Maybe some of them were on their own, as well, either by choice or by chance. Feeling a collective sense of kinship, I decided to do one last thing before I took myself home and tucked myself in for the night. In the car, I was switching stations when a familiar old carol came on. Even though I’d always hated it, I sang it anyway.
When I got where I was going, I climbed out and sliced a slow, circuitous path through dozens of couples and families with small children in tow. Then I did something I’d never done before: I took my place under the Zilker Tree, looked skyward and spun.
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