Christmas is generally a joyous, festive time, if somewhat stressful and chaotic. But for those of us who lost loved ones this year, or were separated from family due to Covid-19, or have traumatic holiday memories or negative family relationships or for a million other reasons, the holidays can be a very challenging time.
I’ve had my fair share of terrible Christmases, but this was simultaneously the worst, and strangely, the best, in my 22 years of life so far (given the circumstances).
A bit of backstory: I’m the youngest sibling in a very large, branching, complicated family. I grew up with seven siblings, but for the sake of clarity this story only relates to five of them.
Before I was born, my mom moved to rural Buttfuck Nowhere, B.C. with her five kids and met my dad. They bought 4.5 acres of raw land on a mountainside, built a house, and when the second youngest sibling was already 14, my mom had me.
Surprise! Your seventh child arrives when you are at the spritely age of 46!
Anyway. None of that is overly relevant but it paints a decent picture of the unique family dynamics taking place 60km from the nearest decently sized town.
When this story really starts is in March of 2021 when my oldest brother (22 years older than me), who is also my hero and the coolest person ever, went out into the backcountry and got himself killed in an avalanche. My tone may seem flippant as I write about it, but his death ripped my family into pieces and definitely permanently traumatized me, as the death of a loved one usually does, so I use whatever I can to cope.
So, understandably, I was feeling apprehensive about spending the holidays with his three young fatherless children and various grieving family members.
Family Christmas 2021was a 14 person event planned by my mom and I; we would cook and host the entire thing as our Christmas gift to all attendees. 3 of the 4 surviving siblings on my mom’s side would attend, plus children and assorted partners.
I flew from Vancouver to Stinksville Nowhere, and then drove 3 hours to icy, snowy, winter wonderland Buttfuck Nowhere, population 354 according to the ancient welcome sign.
Everything went smoothly in the days leading up to Christmas. The turkey was acquired, and on Christmas eve I set it to cure in a lovely salt brine. We made pie crusts, prepped vegetables, put candles in little mason jars, and decorated the windowsills with fresh cedar boughs. Snow fell in thick, determined drifts outside as night expanded, but we were warm and tipsy inside next to the wood stove, so we paid it no mind.
I woke refreshed and early on Christmas morning, ready for a full day of cooking and controlled chaos. The sky was gray with sleepy snowflakes that drifted to collect against the sides of the house, and it was a brisk -13C outside. The two feet of standing snow had increased by six inches overnight; certainly no one could complain that we weren’t getting a white Christmas.
I stumbled from bed to the shower and then the kitchen, and had two apple pies in the oven by 9:30am. The day was strictly scheduled around oven space,with the 16 pound turkey to be in the oven by 11am, and guests arriving around 4pm. I was confident in our ability to cook it all.
Ten minutes after the pies went in, the power went out.
I waited with bated breath for several minutes, but there was no optimistic hum of returning electricity. The bathroom light did not flicker back on in a timely fashion, the fridge did not commence its eternal low grumble, and most importantly, the LED display that had previously proclaimed the oven’s temperature remained black and dead.
I made myself a drink.
Kicked into problem solving mode, I called my sister. It is here, looking back, that I made the gravest mistake of the day. She still had power, and if we’d been brave enough to drive through the crazy snow…but no, hindsight is 2020 and the Fortis website promised a return to power in a timely fashion.
A lot of it can also be chalked up to stubbornness on the part of my mom and I. We were going to cook this damn dinner even if it ended us both.
To summarize the next five hours in point form:
- Sister arrives with propane, which we hook up to the oven in the suite.
- Realize that the oven requires electricity to power the control panel.
- Hook extension cord from oven to motorhome battery; panel turns on, oven lights, hurray.
- Stuff turkey with hope in our hearts as the oven preheats.
- Ancient 20 year old oven preheats halfway and then turns off, without consideration for all of our desperate hopes riding on it.
- Unstuff the turkey dejectedly to allow for faster cooking.
- Call sister again, to request a generator (what a well-prepared sister!).
- Call brother to pick up said generator on his way over.
- While waiting for reinforcements, cook potatoes in a large pot on the wood stove.
- Cook cranberry sauce in a small pot on the wood stove.
- Mom remembers the tiny oven in the motorhome, and into it goes the stuffing.
- We run back and forth between the house and the motorhome, half dressed, carrying pots of steaming vegetables through 2.5 feet of snow and ice.
- The bottom of the stuffing burns, but the rest tastes damn good.
- In go the poor half-baked pies.
- I have another several drinks. Have I eaten today? Who knows.
- My other sister makes punch and gets in the way.
- I yell at my mom a little bit. (She needs it and it helps us both).
- My brother arrives with the generator. It is almost 3pm and starting to get dark.
- The turkey stares balefully at me from the cooler in the snow.
- Generator gets unloaded and hooked to the electric stove, which turns on. Hallelujah!
- We preheat it to 450 degrees and it begins to warm. Praise the universe!
- After about five minutes, the generator groans, sputters, and turns itself off, the power draw too much to handle.
At this point, it was just funny. Had we driven the turkey to my sister’s five hours ago, it would be out of the oven and resting by now. Hubris will be the death of us all.
As night fell and everyone arrived, I still had a raw bird and people to feed; as my oldest brother would have said, it was time to put on my big girl pants. I acquired another drink, a headlamp, some candles, and my chef’s knife. In near darkness, with small children peeking around each elbow, I attacked the turkey. Legs, breasts, and wings met the sharp blade of my knife, and I did a damn fine job of breaking down the stupid thing into fryable pieces. I slapped the huge hunks of meat into a cast iron pan on the propane stove, and the bird was finally defeated. An hour later the meat was cooked through, and somehow, quite tasty. I even managed to make a gravy.
After the family gathered at the table, I lowered myself to the cool linoleum of the kitchen floor and struggled to breath as the adrenaline fled my system. My head spun as the alcohol finally caught up with me; I do not encourage drinking all day on an empty stomach.
Joining my family at the dinner table, I found a sweet moment of collective grief as the stress eased. My brother’s five year old son stopped the seating process with a strident demand to “set a place for daddy, I wanna sit next to him!” It was at this moment that I understood what acceptance is about. Instead of spending the day mourning, we channeled the kind of attitude my brother cultivated, and we honored him with our actions instead of lamenting our losses.
We set a place for my brother, and spoke to the emptiness next to his son; we remembered our brother/son/father and held one another close, and it was survivable.
So while the day was a nightmare from hell, it was also a blessing. We were too busy to be sad, and the chaos was the kind of thing my brother lived on. He would have had the turkey roasting in a six foot high bonfire by noon, and it would have come out perfectly, because the universe bent to his will.
I didn’t quite bend the universe, but I think I was badass enough in butchering a 16 pound turkey in the dark that he would have been proud, and that’s enough for me.
This short story by Kira Dinim is posted in submission for the ESA’s 2022 Short Story Competition.