Guacamole and Turnips

Guacamole and Turnips

Christmas at my parents’ house in Pleasant Hill is nothing like Dylan Thomas’s idyllic A Child’s Christmas in Wales, where the snow is “like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards.” In Thomas’s Wales, the mustached aunts wear “wool against their skin,” and the food consists of “butterwelsh . . . pudding and mince . . . and parsnip wine.”

At my family’s house, my brothers stand around the backyard drinking cold beer under a tepid sun as they barbecue buffalo wings and wait for their turn at ping-pong. Nick talks about his carpentry business and the trouble he has finding good laborers, Bernard bounces the basketball and takes shots against the house, and Lyle shows off his newest tattoo of a naked woman. In the kitchen, my sisters and I give popsicles to the kids and put on a video to keep them occupied. Against an eclectic background of wavering candles, synthetic icicles, opened gifts (including Dad’s gift to Lyle of a Remington rifle) and a miniature nativity scene, we drink strawberry daiquiris and eat chips and guacamole and talk about everything from laser eye surgery to after-school programs. On the coffee table in the center of the room a plump, blond-haired, oversized ceramic baby Jesus sleeps in a manger overflowing with plastic hay. As long as you don’t look too closely, the smiling Virgin seems to be having a great time on the end table across the room, even though she is separated from baby Jesus on account of being too large for the coffee table.

Mom has a blazing fire going in the fireplace despite the fact that outside the mercury is hovering at 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Someone turned off the Vivaldi, and now a jazz-electronica mix thumps through the stereo speakers causing the Santa Claus doll wearing black sunglasses to clap and do the bootie dance. A lonely neighbor arrives in her best Sunday outfit to talk about her divorce and get drunk on white wine, while the rest of us make silly faces at each other behind her back. “Be nice to Miriam,” Mom says. “She’s having a hard time.” And we are nice to her. When she spots us giggling, we pretend we’re making fun of the lights that blink to the rhythm of “Hark the Herald” playing from a tiny speaker installed in its cord.

Since we’ve been married, John and I have spent nearly every Christmas at my parents’ house. The exceptions were the two times we spent it in Scotland with his family. The differences between the families are not as striking as you might imagine. Except for the snow and early darkness, the atmosphere at both houses is uniquely un-Christmasy.

“Christmas is like any other day at your family’s house,” John complains. “Only there’s a spruce tree in the room.”

As a college student I’d read A Child’s Christmas in Wales and loved it. And I still find every single line in it worth quoting—and listening to (Google the title and author and you can hear the poet himself reciting his famous story). “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.”

As the next Christmas approached, John and I agreed it was time to do something different. That’s when I mentioned the poem. “Why not Wales?” I asked. It was a perfect solution. We could even piggyback a visit to his parents’ house for the New Year.

I was a little sorry to miss Christmas at home, but when December came we packed our warmest things, stuffed the three boys into a taxi and left California, arriving in England early the next morning. Bleary-eyed and groggy we fought the temptation of a hotel, rented a car and drove west, heading straight toward Dylan Thomas’s Swansea. But we didn’t stop in Swansea, which is now a bustling city and nothing like the place in the poem. We had booked a disused rectory in a remote village about 20 miles up the coast on the very edge of a rocky Welsh cliff.

Squeezing along roads the same width as the car, we arrived in Rhossili on that whistling, cold night. In the town’s darkness, two pub windows glimmered into the night like a pair of dragon’s eyes, and a single row of stone houses, their windows dark, stood stiff, blank-faced and doomed, like old headstones in a haunted graveyard.

Rain-slick cobblestones shadow-danced under the sparse moonlight. Shouts and wild laughter echoed from the pub, mixing with the occasional scream of a nocturnal animal. And there, inches from a cliff with a broken fence, our headlights lit up a tall iron gate on which a sign said, “The Rectory.”

Inside The Rectory, we dropped our bags in the long, wide hallway that had seen the comings and goings of centuries of priests in their long robes, heads lowered in prayer, hands and feet chilled from the positively frigid atmosphere.

The first sound that came to us was the wind howling through the bowels of the house.

“It sounds like a cat. Maybe it’s trapped,” said our 11-year-old Daniel.

“It sounds like a balloon when you stretch the neck and the air squeaks out,” offered 8-year-old Kyle.

“It sounds like a train,” said Cameron, Kyle’s twin.

“You guys are all wrong,” I said. “It sounds like a thousand ghosts wailing miserably over their lost lives.”

Cameron started to cry. I picked him up and gave him a squeeze. “I’m sorry, honey. Mommy has a strange way of making a joke.”

In the kitchen we turned on a blinding fluorescent and looked around. Besides the flowered teacups and welcome card, there was no mistaking the austere Church of England atmosphere. What terrible things had happened here? A murder? An exorcism?

I turned to John. “What do you think?” I asked. Secretly, I wouldn’t have been opposed to turning around and checking into a nice hotel in Swansea, but of course I wouldn’t admit that.

“It’s perfect,” he said, smiling broadly.

John spent the next hour making a meal of organic whole wheat fusilli with olive oil, garlic, dried basil, sun-dried tomatoes, canned cannelli beans, pine nuts and other California-style ingredients we’d been able to dig up at Marks and Spencer back in London. I bathed the boys and got them into their pajamas. We were full of anticipation for morning when we’d get to see Wales in the daylight and our friends arriving soon to share The Rectory.

As it turned out, our week in Wales did not include snow. It did, however, include wind. Lots and lots of wind. Belligerent wind. Whimsical wind. Angry wind. Laughing wind. A wind that seemed to have one goal, and that was to lift our old rectory off its foundation and hurl it into the Atlantic Ocean. Every day we and our friends bundled into our coats and galoshes and ventured out the door, gripping each other by the hoods and sleeves and hunching close to the earth in case the wind chose to pack us tight into its mittens like snowballs and fling us into oblivion.

On some days we climbed down to the shore to get a feel of the “ice-edged fish-freezing waves” Dylan Thomas had talked about. Down there, mortality was everywhere, as if the god of Neptune had feasted on all kinds of local life and spit out the indigestible parts—a leering wolf’s skull, a whale’s jawbone, a fossilized flipper, skates’ eggs in sacs called “mermaids’ purses,” enormous gutted clams still shimmering with their own saliva, the rib cage of a grounded ship, smooth and green with algae. Stand in its windy torso and you could feel the souls of the drowned sailors passing right through you.

On Christmas Day, we ventured miles along the high trail of a mountainous cliff in the pounding rain. Sheep huddled in packs and highland cows stood stoically gazing through the swirling wetness as our motley group tramped in the mud singing silly songs to keep the kids entertained. On returning soaked and exhausted to The Rectory, John got the gas furnace going and I rubbed the kids down with towels. Our friends Kathy and Gareth started cooking. We poured whiskey for us and hot cocoa for the kids.

Hunkered down by the little gas fire, I couldn’t help imagining the scene at my family’s home back in California. It would be sunny, or maybe slightly overcast. As Vivaldi played on the stereo and Miriam sipped gratefully at her glass of white wine, Mom would hand out the junky plastic stocking stuffers to the grandkids. On the table would be a big bowl of tortilla chips, another of guacamole and another of salsa. The Christmas lights would be blinking frenetically, the blender sounding like a chainsaw, and the barbecue simmering in the backyard. Mom’s famous cranberry wobbler, a bright red jello packed with oranges, raisins, coconut and walnuts, would actually wobble as it was passed around the table along with the other traditional dishes.

As the dense blackness descended on our cold stone rectory and the rain pelted the tile roof and the wind howled through the plumbing, I reveled in the bleakness of winter and in my awareness of mortality. I didn’t crave material goods. Or saccharine cocktails. Or silly decorations. I would rather be there than anywhere else in the world. And as far as a Christmas feast goes, I can say frankly that nothing beats hot turnip stew, heavy on the salt, crusty oat bread with mouth-puckering cheddar cheese, steamed and buttered Brussels sprouts, and single malt Scotch whiskey served straight up.

Except maybe guacamole.

Veronica Chater’s stories have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and the Guardian UK, and she has narrated her stories on public radio’s This American Life. Her upcoming memoir, entitled Waiting for the Apocalypse, will be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in February, 2009.

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