I know Christmas has come and gone and everyone is getting ready to party like they’re in The Revolution, but I wanted to share the sights, the sounds, and the smells of A Very Brando Christmas. Specifically, Christmas Eve at my Grandma’s.
Every year, my family gets together at Grandma’s house in northwestern Indiana, or The NWI, as my brother Matt calls it. Grandma has lived in the same house for more than 40 years, and my family are all from The NWI. I was born there and spent many days of my formative years at Grandma’s, horsing around with my aunts and my uncle and promising not to tell on my Grandpa when he would pull out his hidden flask (he was a terrible alcoholic and an even worse hider).
Since then, my parents, my uncle, and one of my aunts have moved away, so Christmas Eve at Grandma’s serves as our yearly family reunion. And it's good Christmas only comes once a year, because that reunion almost kills us every time.
The first challenge is The Noise. Not “noise,” The Noise, a formidable alloy of bellowing, yelling, guffawing, and more bellowing...from children, from adults, and even from Grandma when said adults are acting like children. Having grown up with this, I've built up some immunity to its lethal effects, but poor TLB suffered through a rough acclimation period as we assimilated her into the family. One year, as she sat downstairs in the basement, there were four children standing around her like points on a compass, screaming. Why were they screaming? That would imply that there is a reason for The Noise. It just is.
Part of The Noise is The Dead Horse. Usually, there is some sort of joke that winds up getting brought out of the stable, run around in the yard, shot, dragged off to the Elmer’s factory, and made into paste. A couple years ago, it was this joke, courtesy of my sister, Erin:
Erin (sniffing): Does it...(sniffs again) does it smell like up dog in here?
Me: What’s up dog?
Erin: Nothing, G! (laughs)
That one-hit wonder got played more times than Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” to the point where I was ready to cut off my ears so I wouldn’t have to hear it again.
This year’s Dead Horse was, “Ma, meatloaf!” It’s a reference to Will Ferrell in Wedding Crashers, and my Uncle Tim kept yelling it over and over again from the living room as various relatives brought us appetizers from the kitchen. It was funny the first 2.73 times we heard it, but its comedic radiation quickly decayed after we heard it 2.73273 times. It became so unfunny that it circumnavigated back to funny post-Christmas, as TLB now says it randomly to me around the house.
The appetizers that triggered this year's Dead Horse comprise another hallmark of Brando Family Christmas: The Pork. First, there is always ham. Why? Because in the Polish Bible, the Gospel of John starts with, “In the beginning, there was Ham.” It's like The Noise, with us since the beginning.
Then there is the garlic sausage, a gray, snaky meatsack with so much garlic, the next seven generations of my family will be immune to vampirism.
The best dish, however, is what my family calls “Polish Rejects.” I am not sure why they have that name, because they are never, ever, rejected by the Polish people who wolf them down at Grandma’s. Polish Rejects are ground pork sausage on small slices of rye toast, covered with Velveeta and baked in the oven. They look disgusting. They sound disgusting. But they taste so good that I’d trade gold, myrrh, and frankincense for a plate of them. I wish I had brought my camera because I would submit them to Delicious or Disgusting over at Three Bulls.
The Heat is the last and definitely most challenging foe at Grandma’s. Her house is not very big, and we usually have 15-20 people packed inside while the oven and stove are going full blast. No matter how cold it is, the kitchen and living room doors are usually propped open so that an Arctic gale can bring the inside temperature back down to 85 degrees. My siblings and I were even taking over/under bets on how hot it would get. In fact, as TLB and I drove up to the house, we saw my father, wearing a sweater, leaving.
Me: Dad, where are you going?
Dad: To buy a shirt that will let me stay in that house!
After all the Noise, Pork, and Heat comes the crowning climax: Santa. Everyone gathers in the much-cooler basement as adults relay reports of reindeer sightings to the kids. Someone in a Santa suit shows up and hands out presents from all the relatives. In recent years, I’ve usually been Santa. Until this year, I’ve used a suit Grandma has had since the Eisenhower administration, a costume that smelled like The Ghost of Christmas Past after too many Polish Rejects. But we had a new suit this year, one that smelled better but was also 110% hotter. I didn’t get my first ho ho ho out before I felt the sweat building up under the white wig.
We now only have two family members not explicitly in on the Brando-is-Santa secret: my nephew Zachary, whose analytical skills make him like Encyclopedia Brown on CSI; and my cousin Little Matthew (not to be confused with my brother, Big Drunk Matthew). As soon as I came down the stairs this year, Zachary immediately had me pegged. “You’re Uncle Brando!” he said, sitting right next to Little Matthew.
“Ho, ho, ho,” I replied, looking him in the eye. “Maybe Santa should take these toys back to the North Pole.” He clammed up after that, unwilling to trade getting lots of toys for being right. Like I said, he’s a smart cookie.
I passed out all the presents, often having to yell because The Noise doesn’t even stop for Santa. After I finished and changed back into Uncle Brando, we played a guys-vs-gals match of Taboo, with the game's buzzer making a very special contribution to The Noise.
Finally, the gals victorious, TLB and I said our goodbyes as we departed for her parents’ house north of Chicago, our ears still ringing with, “Ma, meatloaf!”
I hope everyone had a great holiday and I wish everyone a Happy New Year.