This week I found myself faced with the question, “what is your favorite holiday memory?” A normal ice breaker type question, right? I began to sweat as the question seemed to inch its way towards me as it flashed around the circle closing in on my turn to answer.
Most people in the circle responded with sweet anecdotes about how their family gathered around the Christmas tree laughing while they decorated. Or how they told of always going see the first Christmas lights turn on the night of Thanksgiving. One kind lady told how she loved as her dad would lift her up as she put the angel on top of the tree. And now, seeing her dad lift her daughter to put the angel on the tree always makes her smile. Others told of how they loved making latkes with their grandma or how they would make gingerbread cookies that look like each of their family members.
You see, I share many of the same stories or sentiments in my repertoire of holiday memories. But those pale in comparison to the ones I love and hold so dear. As this ice breaker question became mine to answer I had a moment of hesitation. Do I tell the sweet and kind story, or do I share the one that first popped into my mind as the greatest holiday memory from my formative years?
With the person to my right wrapping up their memory of unwrapping presents in hospital because they had Christmas there after her daughter had an emergency C-section, I froze.
After a brief moment of feeling the room, I opted to share about how we always baked huge amounts of sweet treats for my dad’s office when I was a kid. I shared how my mom shared her talent and knowledge of everything from making the perfect icing to crafting chocolate covered pretzels to the tips and tricks of the best toffee every with each of us gathered in the kitchen. My story evoked “ooo’s” and “ahhhhs” from the crowd.
The question moved on past me with little to no pause. But if I am honest, that is not the story I wanted to share. I edited for the room. I don’t know why, sometimes I think too much about what others will think of me. Or I wonder if the people around me need to actually know me. Sometimes, I only show my book jacket. I’ll work on it.
But that means this week, you get to hear my real all time favorite holiday memory from my childhood.
I bestow to you the honor of reading about what has henceforth become known as:
“The Christmas Where Poop Came Out of the Shower”.
Circa 2000 in Austin, Texas my mother’s side of the family gathered for Christmas. My dad had strep throat or some sort of illness that rendered him unable to attend, to this day he is so grateful he was sick. But other than that, we crammed my siblings and cousins, my mom, my aunt and uncle, and my Memaw and Pawpa into their small home. The cousins always slept on pallets we sprawled throughout the house at night and piled up during the day.
It started off like any other gathering of the family. Everyone talked at once, cooked, told stories and played very competitive games of anything. We watched Steel Magnolias and yelled at the television while we watched sports and shared stories in the same breath. Then the night before Christmas Eve things got rather interesting. My uncle came down with a stomach bug and was quarantined to a back room. My aunt was in pain from kidney stones, but she was hanging in there with everyone. All seemed doable and on track for our kind of regular Christmas.
That night I remember my sister, my cousin and I up late playing rummy while we talked about boys. My cousin, who is about ten years older than me, was telling us about this new guy she had met, and unbeknownst to us at the time would eventually marry. She was telling young Anna and I about how she liked his hands because she could tell he was a hard worker by their appearance, unlike the last guy she dated who’s hands were too pretty and hence never worked. My sister and I grew enamored because we were young girls and real love seemed so foreign. Not to mention we loved our older cooler cousin who would be willing to talk to young girls about her love life.
At one point around midnight, my cousin got up to the go the bathroom. She was gone for a long time. Upon her return she slunk into the garage quietly to get a plunger. We all started poking fun at her because, well that is who we are.
All the girls ended up in the bathroom laughing loudly as we started plunging the toilet together.
Now you are starting to see why this could not follow “opening presents in the hospital’s story”?
We kept plunging.
Our laughter silenced for a brief moment, and then we heard it.
When you face the toilet at my Memaw and Pawpa’s the shower/tub is directly behind you. With our laughter stopped momentarily, I plunged down and up. Then I heard a sound I will not soon forget. As I forced the plunger down a deep slow gurgle emitted from the depths of the porcelain tub behind me.
Wide eyed, we slowly moved the shower curtain back to expose the bathtub. I half expected some creature to slink out of the drain and eat us all.
With the tub exposed, we saw the culprit of the low rumble.
A thick dark sludge bubbled up from the dark remoteness of the drain below. The stark contrast of the mucky sediment against the white porcelain left us with gaping mouths. And then of course we became eight year old boys both fascinated and disgusted with the presence of poopy silt oozing into the tub.
Deeming ourselves unfit to solve this problem and having exhausted our own knowledge and resources, we clamored for backup and got my Pawpa up. Much to his dismay, in the cloak of darkness we ventured to a 24-hour Walmart about thirty minutes away to get a plumbing snake to attempt to solve the problem. Upon our return, we learned that the snake would not be the answer to this predicament. We were left without plumbing.
On Christmas Eve morning, everyone awoke to a house humming with the noise of family only to learn that no one could use the bathroom. Instead we would pile into minivans, trucks or cars and drive to Target to use the bathroom. All eleven of us. We were such a spectacle every time someone needed to go to the bathroom.
A call to the plumber on Christmas Eve left us with the realization we would not be able to get someone out until after Christmas. Picture the scene. My uncle bedridden and confined to a backroom with a stomach bug and can’t use the bathroom. We were however kind enough to put a bucket by his bed. My aunt sitting perched on a rocking recliner in an upright fetal position through pursed lips would occasionally squeeze out the words, “I’m fine. I’m just fine” as she was clearly riddled with the pain of kidney stones. Randomly a call would ring out for a bathroom run as keys jingled in the front hallway of someone who was about to leave with or without you. And if my mom and I were in charge of the vehicle, we would sneak to an upscale local grocery store farther away but with a nicer bathroom because sometimes a girl’s gotta have standards.
I do not remember anyone ever mentioning checking into a hotel or splitting up and staying somewhere else. I never remember complaining or grumbling. I don’t remember any of the presents or gifts I received or gave that Christmas. What stuck with me, besides the epic tale of poop in the shower, was that we were determined to spend Christmas together. Even if we had to drive to go to the bathroom or didn’t have water, we were together.
Together meant more than stuff or perfection. We embraced, and continue to each embrace, all of our collective quirk and whimsy.
I realized in college that my family may be the strange one. Y’all don’t dance the turkey each Thanksgiving, have a ribbon that stops small children on Christmas, have a system for eggnog, or yell with all the gusto at multiple football games at once on TV while carrying on seven conversations like we do. But all of our idiosyncrasies are part of what holds us together. We are who we are. This season, be who you are.
As we prepare for holiday celebrations, remember together matters more than anything. Decide to be present. Decide that your holidays will be wonderful regardless of what goes down, or doesn’t go down. We cannot always control our circumstances, but we can control how we respond. Choose to respond with joy in the sludge and laughter in the car rides when you waited too long to go to the bathroom and aren’t sure if you will make it!
For those who are curious, the plumbing did not work because a tree root had crushed the pipe leading out to the vast world of city plumbing I don’t really understand. It was not my cousin. After some extensive plumbing work, everything was up and running again just in time for everyone to head off to their next celebration.