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The Milk House: Christmas conversations

Ryan Dennis Published on 11 December 2015
Christmas socks

Sometime in early December, the municipal leaders will put up the town’s Christmas decorations in Galway, Ireland, where I’m living again.

The official launch of the season is not dictated by the Thanksgiving holiday; the beginning of the month is as natural a starting place as any other. There will be blue Christmas lights over wet city streets, which I have always found charming. Lampposts will hold snowflakes and garland, and shop windows will be covered in red and green.

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The real Christmas season, however, starts when I fly home in the middle of the month – more specifically, in the first few minutes after arriving, when I sit at the kitchen table with the old man. No matter how late my flight gets in at the airport, he’ll pull a bottle of gin from the press and pour us tall glasses in whatever jelly jar or calf nip cup is clean in the cupboard.

We will sit in the dark, and he will ask the big questions: how’s it all going, what have I done, am I happy. We will drink quickly and fill our glasses with quiet ceremony. Then we’ll go to bed, knowing that the Christmas season has started.

At some stage, my family will make a point to sit down and watch “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” Although cartoons and claymation have always put me at ill ease, even from a young age, there’s something about the 1964 classic that stands endearing.

The moment when Rudolph’s eyes get wide seeing the other reindeer and he yells, “Does!” has become an inside joke between my father, my sister and I. We will also watch the complete season 5 of The Walking Dead, zombies being a binding element among the household.

This year, I left the U.S. a weekend before it came out on DVD. My father, unable to help himself, still went out and bought it, watching it himself this year. He’ll sit on the couch as I see it for the first time in December, trying to hold back from commenting on what he already knows is going to happen. For the next few days we’ll make zombie sounds, measure their probability and evaluate the survival methods both used on the show and what our own would be. This is Christmas in our family.

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The holiday season is also a time of year that, together, we count the things we’ve gained and what has been lost the previous 11 months.

I wonder if it’s no coincidence that Christmas happens at the end of the year – before we decide that another year begins after it. This time, the gathering of our family will be marked by an absence. It was the first full year without my grandfather. He was known to shout, “Hey!” when you walked through the door and quick to give you a beer, always smiling and always kind.

It will also be recognized by one cousin starting at a new university and another cousin expecting to propose to his girlfriend. My father started driving school bus, and my sister is hoping to get tenure in teaching high school biology.

For myself, moving to a different country will receive less attention than the fact that I’ve been dating the same Italian girl for the last three months. This will make for a different conversation than the usual inquisition of whether I was ever going to settle down – for some serving as slight evidence that someday I might.

I’m prepared to deliver the same few lines about Alessandra as I move about the family after the Christmas dinner, which will probably be about how Italians put olive oil on everything and that they wave their hands impossibly about them when they talk. Sometimes Alessandra dictates whole sentences with only her gestures, and I’m supposed to understand what she’s saying.

Some might ask what part of Italy she is from – and I will say that if Italy was actually a boot and that boot stepped in dog feces, her town would be where you couldn’t scrape the poop out, which is a line I’ve probably become too comfortable saying.

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There will be talk about deer hunting, the season just ending a few weeks earlier, except with my uncle from the city, with whom we’ll discuss football. My aunt married and had children in a quiet suburb of a residential area an hour away, but as far as we understood it – a place without deer hunting – it was the city. My father, a natural conversationalist, will navigate the various topics with the people around him like a man who moves from boat to boat to help unload the day’s catch.

My niece, a year-and-a-half old, will stumble around as the center of attention. Dogs and small children are natural focal points in between discussions. She says “Mamma” and points at things and shrieks and sometimes makes sounds that, with the greatest benefit of the doubt, vaguely imitate the names of the things she’s indicating. While I maintain that these squeals do not make for very interesting discourse, they seem to please everyone else.

When it is all said and done, on Christmas Day the floor will be littered with detangled ribbon and balled wrapping paper that we had thrown at each other. Our bellies will be full, and we will be caught up on everyone else’s affairs. Another year will slip away in silence once and for all, proving again that Christmas is nothing more than a series of conversations we’d known we would have, and that we were glad we had them. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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