On Christmas Eve we didn't have to try and look
white and middle class
in the clean, cramped living room of my stepdad's parents.
The cracked white walls swallowed up by big and small crucifixes,
strips of dried palm fronds, and holy statues of the Virgin Mother.
The fuzzy TV screen blared Spanish soap operas
we didn't understand as we watched the beautiful brown-skinned
children -- their voices falling in and out of Spanish.
They mostly ignored us as we sat close and silent
like a pair of misplaced shoes. From the kitchen,
sheets of laughter waved. Our mother's voice high,
her tipsy Spanish pouring over shuffled cards and quarter bets
as the refrigerator door slammed shut again and again,
followed by the crisp snap of pulled beer tabs.
The house reeked of spicy tamales and the singular scent
of menudo that tasted just how it smelled, hot and horrible.
Our arms folding, our mouths sealing each time a spoonful was offered,
we demanded burgers from Jack in the Box, just like last year,
so we wouldn't go hungry.
Staccato Spanish and toothy hugs greeted each new arrival,
everyone stepping back to see how many trips it took to unload the car
and stack brightly wrapped boxes wherever there was room.
Each time my brother and I scooted further and further over
on the couch until we disappeared behind the open door.
When it was time for the paper to fly and fall away
we unwrapped slowly, dreading the appearance of our stepdad's mom
with her handful of small white envelopes and huge eyes
magnified by her glasses. She moved from child to child saving us
for last, then grabbed our hands pulling herself close to get a good look.
The other kids clapped and held up tens and twenties
to compare to our five-dollar bills.
Wooden heads nodding, we responded softly to our mother's pinches,
her sharp whispers to say gracias for the cheap perfume
and compacts, the dark socks and handkerchiefs heaped in our laps.
First appeared in The
Noe Valley Voice, December 2001
P. J. Taylor ©2001