Few family holiday stories begin: “Not all marriages go smoothly all the time.”
But this was the case, many years ago, for a certain 40-year-old father in Northern California. He had three children, all younger than 5. The family home was in the middle of a seemingly endless remodeling project. (Picture a roofless second floor, patchwork of flapping tarps, constant drumming rain.)
It was all too much for his sleep-deprived 37-year-old wife; weeping, in the minivan, in the rain, she called him one morning and said she was filing for divorce.
As fate would have it, the call came in mid-November. That’s a classic divorce time clock for you. (I know: I am an ex.) Adult hearts break into pieces, then the major holidays roll in, one after the other, in a slow-moving emotional tsunami.
This dad, however, had the wonderful luck to have a younger sister — me. At this time, I had a 1-year-old daughter and was hugely pregnant with another. (There are a lot of small children in this story.) I was bursting with strawberry-banana Danimals and “You go, girl!” hormones.
My traveling musician husband had blessed uprooting myself temporarily from our comfortable-if-comparatively-squalid Van Nuys neighborhood (El Pollo Locos, discount tire stores, pawn shops). In a jingly Christmas sweater, I threw suitcases in the car and barreled north to pull off the Yuletide miracle of cheering up a very sad brother.
The course of this holiday project was not entirely smooth. Yes, Pacific Grove, where my brother, Eugene, lives is idyllic. Pacific Grovians enjoy soaring views of the Pacific, verdant eucalyptus groves and a cozy Swedish bakery. The chief traffic challenge is stopping to wait for bunnies to hop across the road.
It seemed impossible to be sad here. Except that the temporary bachelor rentals on my brother’s restricted budget were on a side of town I had never seen. The winds blew colder here; these gray complexes all seemed etched in sadness. Think serial killers' apartments, loose wires sprouting from overhead sockets, a 25-foot-high grimy inflatable Santa banging against the building as though attacking it.
But sheer optimism won again. Almost by chance (the magical appearance of a Realtor’s flier), we found a charming cottage near his kids' school that seemed sent by the spirit of Christmas. It was a mini-oasis of Kelly green, natural woods, a sunlit kitchen.
More good news: Thanks to my frantic/enthusiastic emailing, everyone in our family — our dad and stepmom, my sister and husband, my husband, a couple of cousins — would descend on the Bungalow of Joy for Christmas.
Busy work schedules opened. Air miles triumphantly applied. There was a grand spirit of exhilaration as everyone arrived breathlessly .
Thanks to my energetic, new-mom shopping, there were fun IKEA child chairs and animal towels and lavender-scented soap from Target and — and, and … cookie dough!
Which is to say, unlike in my more urban Van Nuys, the small, idyllic, bunny-run town of Pacific Grove didn’t offer many shopping options on Christmas Eve.
No grocery stores were open. The only store with lights on was Rite Aid. The only comestibles apparently available here, aside from apocalypse-themed amino-acid body-building drinks, were tiny cans of Bumble Bee tuna.
So here’s how Christmas day went, in a certain Gift of the Magi way:
Christmas morning, my brother’s kids were with mom. A talented artisan, she gave them, as usual, extraordinary hand-crafted wooden toys from “the North Pole" wrapped in Santa’s special gold paper.
In the afternoon, the children came to us. Our presentations were more ragged. We made do with humble things we travelers were carrying. “The Nutcracker” played on a tinny Radio Shack boombox. Incompletely wrapped presents (due to a paper shortage) were flung around the backyard because they “fell out of Santa’s sled!” Or so said a hand-scrawled note taped to a 50%-off wooden rooster from Pier 1, dubbed “the Christmas Chicken.”
Family dinner was a quasi-Dickensian, if surprisingly delicious, Christmas tuna casserole (covered in Lay’s potato chips). My brother’s wife’s lonely meal that year was oatmeal with rum in it. So she told us months later, when the couple reunited.
But from that Christmas on, whenever I see a humble manger scene? I always look closely, in the straw, for cans of tuna.
Tsing Loh is a writer, radio humorist and actress. Her Christmas show, “Sugar Plum Fairy,” runs through Dec. 23 at the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles.