By tradition, I cook dinner on Christmas Eve.
This tradition dates back to before the kids were born.
When I first began to Christmas with Lucy’s family, just after college, we were six: Lucy’s mother Bucky, her father Bernard, her brother Richard, his boyfriend Paul, Lucy and me. If Bucky had a girlfriend at the time, another chair could always be found.
(Lucy’s stepsister Julia was then in her teens and still preferred to spend Hanukah with her mother, Bernard’s second ex wife.)
At the time, the traditional dinner was lobster.
Once she got the water boiling, Bucky would call me into the kitchen.
“I don’t mind dropping in the lobsters,” she explained. “But I need you here to talk with so I don’t think about their demise.”
So she and I would chat as the lobsters met their fates, our voices drowning out their death rattles.
I’d stay to melt the butter.
As our numbers grew, it became expensive and impractical to serve lobster. So one year, I offered to make burritos and margaritas.
The menu worked and the tradition took hold.
Bucky keeps the original shopping list I prepared in the back of a cookbook. Each year, I arrive to see that everything has been purchased in advance—right down to the precise amount of raw chicken, not an ounce more or less.
Around six, Richard and Lucy built a fire.
“Collie?” I whispered.
“What?” he whispered back.
“Can you help me cook dinner?”
“Yes,” he smiled. He thought a moment. “But that means Jason can’t help, right?”
“Right, just you and me.”
He nodded happily.
“C’mon, then let’s get to work.” I took his hand.
“Now wait a minute,” Bucky said, standing. She took up her vodka. “What do you need me to do?”
“I think we’re all set, Bucky,” I said, as she followed us to the kitchen.
I’ve been cooking in this kitchen for most of my adult life.
“Well, look, I want to show you where everything is. The vegetables are by the chopping block, the rice is by the stove, the beans are over here . . .” She opened the refrigerator. “And here are the cheese, the chicken, the sour cream . . . and the salsa is over here by the chips . . .”
I closed the refrigerator door behind her.
“Okay, great,” I said. “We can take it from here.”
“Well, which knife do you want to use?”
“Do you recommend one?”
She opened a drawer. “I just sharpened this one, it’s the best, but you may want this smaller one.”
I looked in the drawer.
“Collie, you want to take the big sharp one and I’ll use the small sharp one?”
Collie looked at me, deadpan.
Bucky removed her glasses. “Well, my dear, he can’t use that knife, he is a mere child!”
“He’s kidding. Right, Dad?” Collie said.
“Yes, I’m kidding.” I scruffed his hair. “I’ve got your knife right here.” I handed him a butter knife from the silverware drawer. “This will be fine for chopping mushrooms.”
Collie took the knife as though it were his father’s light sabre.
“Now, what do you need me to do?” Bucky asked.
“I think we’re fine, thanks. It’s very simple.”
She looked around. “Well, I’ll make margaritas, then.”
“That’s a fine offer—I didn’t think of that. Collie, let me show you how to cut these.”
I put out a chopping block and piled the mushrooms. I showed him how to cut the stems, flip the heads and slice them.
Collie cut into a mushroom.
“That’s perfect, but for one thing. Always cut away from yourself, like this . . .”
“Oh shit!” Bucky exclaimed.
I looked to see her holding the blender carafe, confused.
“Oh, well, I stupidly poured in the tequila without checking the bottom . . . and it wasn’t screwed on . . .”
Tequila streamed onto the counter.
I grabbed two sponges.
“Here, let’s clean it up. No big deal.”
“It’s just a stupid waste,” she said, wiping the counter.
Collie stopped cutting to watch.
I squeezed a sponge in the sink, and returned to help.
“Oh, I’ve got this, I’m fine,” she said. “You’re cooking, I can make drinks.”
“Okay, you seem to have the situation under control.”
“Yes,” she laughed. “Now that I know to screw the Goddamned blender in place.”
Collie looked at me.
“Let’s see you chop some more, son. Remember to cut away from yourself.”
I chopped peppers, then onions.
The chicken poached as broth bubbled for the rice.
There was a crash behind me.
Ice was scattered on the floor.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yes, now I’ve dropped an ice tray. What is with me?”
“Need a hand?”
“No, I can manage this.” She snorted. “You’d think I never made a drink before.
The crash brought Paul in from the living room.
“Look at you, Collie. Nice work. Anything I can do to help? Oh, there’s ice on the floor?”
“Yes,” Bucky said, stooping to pick up a cube. “I’ve dropped the ice.”
“Oh here, I can get those,” Paul said, bending to one knee.
“Thanks. I’ll get another tray and make the margaritas.”
“Are these mushrooms good, Dad?”
“They are great, son, thanks.”
Bucky finished the margaritas as Paul took down the glasses. Bucky poured them and added lime wedges.
“One for the chef,” she said, setting a glass by my side.
“Thanks, honey.” I lifted the glass. “Cheers.”
“Well, I don’t have a glass yet, but cheers.” She laughed and put a hand on my shoulder.
Paul and Bucky distributed drinks in the living room, where the fire was settling nicely.
I moved Collie to his next task, grating cheese. Uncle Aaron offered to help.
I stirred the peppers and onions. I added Collie’s mushrooms.
She’s changed, I thought. Hasn’t she?
Bucky is scared to death of Alzheimer’s.
Her mother had it. Her grandmother had it.
Bucky has always been eccentric, and she’s always been a lush. When things go awry, she has those excuses.
Maybe she was just missing part of the conversation, she could say to herself.
Maybe she was a bit in her cups, she could say.
But she knows: after decades of hiding her drunkenness, she is now using it to cover other things.
We’ve all dreaded the possibility of Bucky with Alzheimer’s. She is so physically strong, and so accustomed to being in control.
It will be so hard for her, and for us.
Well, not us, I mean. For them.
When Lucy dumped me, she took away one set of my parents.
Lucy rarely consults me about our kids. I doubt she will consult with me about her mother’s health.
I certainly have no legal authority to deal with Bucky’s health care.
That will be left to her children—her son Richard and the daughter who hates her.
Even as she hates me.
I sipped my margarita.
“Five minutes to dinner!” I called.