Christmases I Have Known and Lived: A First-Draft Holiday Ramble

Christmas 1977: My mother, then pregnant with my brother Chris; me; and Grandma and Grandpa Sundin.

Here’s one of them obligatory saccharin digi-blubbers in which I soak your orbs in syrup and coat your cockles in comfort and/or joy. Unfortunately, I have zilch along the lines of that bestselling gingersnap of hooey gruel, The Christmas Sweater, by Glenn Beck, he of the Tom Peterson buzz (you Pacific Nor’westerners dig who I mean) and a noggin batter-fried in a malodorous cocktail of John Birch dogma and ancient-Caucasian gospel LPs.

In fact, I have no real Christmas stories at all, per se, where life lessons are imparted by relatives cured in dreamcatcher sage. No odds overcome by the indomitable human spirit, followed by a nutsac kick from man’s goodwill. My holidays have traditionally been family affairs where a bunch of us gathered in a familiar space, enjoyed each other’s company (mostly), tore open presents, then dozed off in season-appropriate haberdashery before a roaring football game. After so many years, the ceremonies as individual events tend to bleed into one continuous Kodachrome run.

A few Christmases have escaped that fate, one ’cause I captured it on audiotape….

Every few years when I was but a sprout, the Fryes of Looney Lane would pack their cases and fly the hell out of Oregon to the more sensible climes of Southern California from which we all sprang. It was always an event, what with the stoppage of mail and papers and auditioning/pleading with friends to feed our pets and motorvating 60 miles north to fly a thousand miles south and idling on runways while technicians spat pink de-icing goo on airplane wings, then feeling the rumble of engines and taking to the peanut- and periodical-friendly heavens toward LAX.

That year there was a stopover in San Francisco. I’d heard stories about San Francisco from the other kids at school. Apparently, a lot of folks there were…you know. (Ah, the voodoo of ’80s stereotypes.) My eyes damn near exploded when I saw two city reps cross our gate, hand-in-hand, their eyes shielded by garish tourist sunglasses, their maize-colored maze of locks feathered back like George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” coif. Blew my budding adolescent mind. I went back to my paperback copy of Different Seasons, changed.

Within my luggage was a tape recorder. Not owning a Walkman, I desperately needed something to entertain me through slow afternoons of solitude while I wrote — kinda like what I’m doing now, except in this instance I’m absorbing Out to Lunch’s Melvin’s Rockpile (street date: January 12, 2010; fated for a Wrazz wreview) via iPod deck — intangible mp3s floating effortlessly through the atmosphere, not a solid object wheezing on a reel-to-reel and struggling mightily through a single central speaker. Plus, that year I received a shitload of blank cassettes, so I thought it’d be neat-o to document the ’84 yuletide for posterity. And capture it I did: 45 spontaneous minutes of me drifting through my grandparents’ (my mother’s folks, the lovely Sundins) house, delivering a play-by-play of all that I encountered.

The best part came, naturally, when I shaddap and let the moments blossom organically, when I became an observer rather than instigator. I caught the adults — my parents, grandparents, aunt Celia, and uncle Steve — gabbing post-wrap-massacre in the living room. I still recall this particular exchange, word for word. Grandma Sundin was asking me about school and friends and trends and whatall, a subject that interested her beyond small talk, as she worked for the local school district. She was trying to articulate a particular thought but couldn’t quite summon my generation’s accepted vernacular to put it across.

GRANDMA: It’s, y’know…well, I’m not quite sure what you call it anymore, y’know, the language — it changes so much. “Mod.” Is that what people call it? Is “mod” still in?

UNCLE STEVE: (who graduated from high school in the early ’70s) Yeah, mom. Yeah. It’s in. “Mod’s” in.

I had no idea what “mod” was.  But in retrospect, it was a very sweet and tres mod ’80s Christmas. My cousin Kristy got a Cabbage Patch Kid (still dunno how Celia swung it), and I returned to Oregon with two more Duran Duran albums than I’d previously owned.

At the risk of a maudlin turn, I think that year marked the last time we celebrated Christmas in California as a family. We came back in the summer of ’86, then again the following summer, but by then the rift that had developed between my parents was impossible to ignore. There’d been vows to temper it for the visit’s sake, but all pretense of civility — barely held together in the first place by book-learned communication exercises expressed through gritted teeth — didn’t last the walk from our gate to the baggage claim. I remember tons from that trip, though I’d much rather not.

Our family’s first Christmas in Oregon, in the tiny town of Scio. That year Grandma and Grandpa Sundin flew down to check out how ex-Californians coped with plagues like snow, ice, and living in a trailer planted in stone oblivion. But this Christmas would be memorable for reasons that everyone involved except for me took for granted: it was the first and last time I recall seeing all four of my grandparents in the same room. Since one set lived in California and the other in Oregon, it was a rare sight, indeed. And it happened purely by accident. Grandma and Grandpa Frye just showed up one evening a few days before Christmas to visit and came face-to-face with the in-laws for the first time in moons. The reunion was kind of sweet. Grandpa and Grandpa caught up while Grandma and Grandma sipped at their coffee and gabbed, their conversations dancing to a shuffle I’ll never forget. Harmony like that didn’t come around too often: four of my favorite people in the universe chattering deep down the clock. I sat on the floor, transfixed. I didn’t want to go to bed; didn’t they realize how momentous this was? But I begrudgingly hit the sack at the appointed hour, pointed an ear toward my open door, and clung to every syllable ’til sleep came at last.

1982 (or thereabouts)
Folks got ambitious and sprung loot on an Atari 2600, our family’s first serious gaming system since Mom and Dad retired their Pong paddles to assume their roles as Mom and Dad. Being ten (or 11) and sans common-sense filter, I soured the spirit by wondering aloud if Football and Combat were to be the extent of my inaugural catalog. There’s a happy ending, though: my parents eventually forgave me for being ungrateful. A few months later I welcomed Activision’s Stampede to my modest menagerie. Then in 1986 I bet Heather the babysitter two doors down a full 20-second kiss that I could power my way through the final level on Towering Inferno. Biffed it royal, but maximum smackage of the lipular kind would soon be mine, despite her promises of an ass-stomp if I puckered in her jurisdiction. That was the summer, anyway, when kisses are sweeter. Christmas kisses taste like gingerbread and vodka.

First Christmas as a California resident the second time. That September I’d been hired into the laureled editorial department at Rhino Entertainment, an L.A.-based record label (also my favorite label), so I grabbed my dad and pointed the nose of my cherry-red Dodge Intrepid toward the nearest outpost of scrumptious decadence. At Christmas time I was still suitcasing grooves through motels up and down Santa Monica Blvd., hemming and hawing on my eventual move back to my old hometown of Whittier, where I’d spent many holidays as an Adam Rich-mopped squirt. Yup, the ol’ “full-circle” bit, with a dash of New Life. That year the label held its yuletide throwdown at the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire, where Biggie’d been riddled a few years before. As it was my first posh industry soiree, I made the mistake of arriving on time, walking into a semi-empty room dotted with various bigwigs I’d never met. Sensing my obvious discomfort, Rhino co-founder Harold Bronson (he and Richard Foos launched the company in 1978 from their storied store on Westwood Blvd.; both men were amazing to work for) grabbed my arm and said, “Cory! I’d like you to meet some people.” Then he took me around the room and introduced me to everyone. It was a strange experience; I’d so recently left a working situation where someone of such stature wouldn’t have fraternized with the likes of me, much less remembered my name. But for whatever reason, Harold did. I remember later in the evening grabbing some fresh air on a balcony in between astonished sips of champagne, staring into the twinkling cityscape and thinking, well, shit, man, I’d made it. A couple days later I paid my final bungalow bill and followed freeways to Whittier, where I enjoyed Christmas with the Sundins, a growing brood with the addition of my cousin Daniel’s then-girlfriend (later wife), Ginette, and spent six consecutive holidays in their most wonderful company. Very mod. I miss ’em. I miss those times. Those were some Fat City years, dog.

Second year back in Oregon, for the second time. Tonight is Christmas Eve, and I’ve much to be thankful for: roof overhead, job over yonder, a slate of potential gigs lined up in the new year, which hopefully brims with more promise than this one did. Tomorrow I’m having breakfast with Mom, then spending the afternoon with Dad. With the financial sitch that dogs us all (hasn’t been an easy year for anyone), I doubt there’ll be much by way of presents. That’s not what matters, of course. In all my Christmases, even the ones memory can no longer summon at will, every inch is packed with laughter and family, warmth and reconnection. Tomorrow I’ll cherish what I have and had, and remember fondly those I’ve lost. Then, at the stroke of 2010, I’m taking the year by storm.


One comment

  1. Virginia Jordan · December 25, 2009

    Excellent !

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