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Onions in My Stocking

Holidays with an antitraditionalist


My mother gave up traditional holidays sometime in the mid-1970s. She grabbed her bathing suit, headed for the Caribbean and declared anyone who hated turkey welcome.

At first my two brothers and I loved it. We were not only used to her compulsion to reinvent special occasions, we were proud of it.

The depth of her iconoclasm first became obvious when we moved from Southern California to Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s. Here she worked in the art world. Out went my grandmother's bread stuffing. Out went my grandmother's baked Alaska production number. Out, eventually, went my grandmother.

In came a guest list consisting of artists and eccentrics. There was a sculptor who lived in a barn in New York, a bald painter who painted nothing but stripes, a government lawyer whose wife nicknamed his mistress "Joan Carpool." Our family adored them both.

One year the lawyer gave me a big black electric fan he claimed he had stolen from the Supreme Court. His wife, who was from North Carolina, played a guitar and sang songs whose lyrics consisted of nothing but brand names: "Oh, Ajax, Ford, General Electric, dah de dum, ah, Coca-Cola."

As the season wore on, my mother's ingenuity redoubled. First step was cooking up some suitably nontraditional Christmas cards. One year she mailed out brown paper lunch bags, each with a balloon taped to it and bearing the stamped message: "Christmas is our bag."

The big event for our family was not Christmas Day but cocktail parties on Christmas Eve. My mother used to wear neon pink stockings and striped dresses with hemlines to the thigh. There would be an enormous quantity of drinks, and she would set out dozens of Parliament cigarettes in crystal dispensers.

One year, circulating in the smoky haze of our living room, one of her artistic friends lit up a joint. My brothers and I stared in amazement as he offered it to my father. My father, who worked for the Pentagon and would have been scandalized if he had realized that it was marijuana and not tobacco, simply replied, "No thank you. I don't smoke."

The next morning, as on every Christmas, we kids rushed downstairs to where our sequined velvet stockings hung from the mantel. Our parents had stuffed them with jars of cocktail onions, which we spooned back as if they were breakfast cereal.

When our parents awoke, the blender started up as the grown-ups prepared holiday morning cocktails, which were served in silver-plated goblets and called Silver Fizzes. I have no idea what was in them, just that the goblets gave whatever it was an unpleasant metallic taste.

Finally, there would be dazzlingly smart presents for us kids. The one I remember most fondly was a zebra-patterned transistor radio.

Those were heady days. No one brought 1960s brio to the holidays the way my mother did. But by the mid-'70s, she had begun flying south--way south, to the Caribbean. Sometime in the 1980s she moved to the Virgin Islands full time. As she left Washington, D.C., for the last time, she threw away those sequined velvet stockings.

When my brothers and I compared notes recently, we realized that, even in exile, our mother never lost her taste for parties. These simply became more impromptu. When one of us would visit her, it was not uncommon to return from the beach at 5 p.m. to be told by our mother that any number of people would be arriving for dinner in an hour.

But by the spring of 1995, the parties had stopped. We brought her home to California. Three months later, she died in a hospice near her birthplace in Covina. Among the people who attended her funeral were orange farmers who had known her father. He had helped treat the soil in their groves. We rehashed old stories about how mother had been an uncontrollable tomboy who used to drag race on dirt tracks and set fire to palm trees.

Ever since then, I have thought of her most frequently in the lead-up to the holidays. It is, admittedly, a case of missing someone who is dead whom I avoided when she was alive. Starting in 1980, I began to systematically decline invitations to her anti-holiday holidays.

Most years I stayed back in my adopted home of Britain. There I would go to the home of English cousins on my father's side. There would be normal comforts: country walks, Christmas trees, midnight Mass, turkey and plum pudding with pennies in it.

Two years ago, deeply Anglicized, I moved back to America, to California, to a nice old house that's a five-minute walk from my older brother's family in L.A.'s West Adams neighborhood. My father, my brother's family and I now struggle with what to do over the holidays, and where, and with whom.

Five years after my mother's death, we still face a steep learning curve. Her flair bridged profound rifts in our family, which have opened up since her death. If the holiday meals this season go as well as a birthday brunch I threw for my father last summer, then my family might just make it to the main course before half of the assembled guests storm out in a huff.

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