This is what Christmas looks like with my family:
Mass service at a tiny church in East Cherry that I instantly adore; it’s tiny, warm, not stuffy in the slightest, people leaping through the aisles to hug each other during the sign of peace, little kids spontaneously dancing in the loft while a tremendous jazz choir sings remixes of “Away In A Manger” and “Feliz Navidad” to a rollicking piano, drum, and xylophone (yes, xylophone!) accompaniment. It wasn’t a children’s mass (I have very little patience for children’s masses) but kids were involved just as a matter of fact; one of the greeters and cross-bearers (helped by a grown-up) can’t have been more than 7, and the tiny boy who carried in the wine insisted on reaching up to the altar to remove the stopper, and crawled across his dad’s shoulders during the encore, and it was just — the way we used to matter-of-factly hand a laptop to a 9-year-old who walked into an OLPC test event, the way high-schoolers in Fedora are treated just the same as seasoned engineers (because sometimes they are) — it reminded me of that.
Whose kids are in which minivan? Who knows? We all pile in, we all get there eventually, one van peels off and gets pastries for everybody on the way, Barby is melting butter for Nutella cookies on the stove when we arrive, most folks have something red on, everyone is chattering and hugging and catching up, cooking, chopping, walking between houses, reading feet-up on the sofa (it’s not just me — I’m from a family that’s full of bookworms) or playing Call of Duty in the basement (Neil is a disturbingly good sniper, and pronounces me “pretty good” after we figure out how to flip the vertical axis on the controls because I’m used to flight games) or — honestly, I don’t remember most of what we talked about and it doesn’t matter because we’re all together and catching up in this swarm, this happy swarm of people, we can barely fit into the kitchen all at once to say grace before dinner, and then the massive turkey and stuffing and quinoa and salad and onion soup and egg rolls and candied popcorn and all of the bowls and bowls of other food are decimated, and 6ee lugs in spiced sider and pours it into the giant coffeemaker to keep warm, and the zinfandel keeps getting passed around for toasts because 3ee keeps wanting to take pictures of the toasts, Audrey has carefully labeled all our cups with our names (I smiled a little when I saw “Mel” written on mine instead of “Mallory”) and my cousins and I are sprawled across the various couches post-meal chatting with legs and arms and hugs intertwined.
And our dads — the husbands of the 8 sisters (6 of them) — talk sports and stocks and food and newspapers in clusters and hug my Guama when she comes by, and I love that all these wildly different guys have also been drawn together by the nucleus of women in my family, and when I watch my cousins’ boyfriends talking to each other (not tonight, but several days ago) I smile and think that yes, it will continue, that we’re learning (slowly, with a great deal of fumbling and awkward mistakes; the first round is always the hardest) how to welcome in a new (and wider and more diverse!) round of people into this circle in our own way, and they’re slowly bringing with them little stories and recipes from their families, and getting to know people here in their own way and in their own time and their own comfort zone, and we’ll see where everything goes, but I think that for us, the Chinese family is part of the package, and… actually, I think — now that I’ve learned better (I hope) how to understand and handle this — that that’s a wonderful thing…
And 2ee brings out old drawings we’ve made as children, and everyone laughs at my self-portrait oil painting from when I was 9 (but it’s on the wall because it’s Mia’s favorite from when she was a baby, and I beg them to replace it with something less hilarious, like my fading Magic Marker drawing of 2ee and 2eetiu at their wedding, or something Barby and Bea drew, or anything) and Mia’s sense of color and blending looks so much like Jason’s that I mistake her work for his, and 5ee is roaming around with her laptop trying to organize the Oregon activities and we all end up in a circle in the kitchen passing the bright yellow Momofuku cookbook around as a talking stick, laughing and shouting and debating rules for the cooking competition, and Guama is placed on my team, and we agree that each team will pitch in a theme and then we’ll draw lots to see which team cooks each theme, and all the while people are tumbling in and out of the kitchen, snacking, drinking wine, mango-carrot juice, my run-on sentences cannot capture this energy we’re wrapped in — anyway, the themes are…
- biowaste (my team; our first proposal is “okay, we’ll dumpster-dive and pocket the food budget for the night!” but we’re just joking and we have a plan now after our pow-wow session in the basement, and 1ee is an architect so we’re going to have spectacular presentation and dining room ambience)
- pirated software (I have no idea what they’re doing, but this is my brother’s team)
- wet n’ wild (my team’s contribution; the team that drew this has so many foodies in it, including 3ee who works professionally as a food scientist, so they’re probably going to do some complicated gourmet orchestration)
- it’s not what it appears to be (Audrey’s team, who plasters a small plastic notebook with their names and strategy)
Then the doorbell rings, and the last group of people stream in from the Philippines — 1ee and 1eetiu, 7ee and Jelina (Jamie and Agnes and their dad can’t make it over this year, but they’re the only ones missing) and Jelina is in high school now and I don’t know how that happened and when I look at my younger cousins I see their baby selves and how is it that Melanie and Mia are choosing colleges and Neil has to shave and plays Jason’s old saxophone and Audrey’s chubby toddler limbs have turned into an adolescent’s long and lanky ones and 2ee looks at me and says “how do you think we feel?” because all my aunts fussed over me, the first baby, when I was a tiny one, the guinea pig that all the future mothers practiced on (I still turned out all right, didn’t I?) and we laugh at how my parents got married on a Monday afternoon because (my Guama half-complains, half-jokes) that’s when the lucky Chinese astronomy signs said they should get married (according to my dad’s side of the family) and so they all went traipsing in their wedding gear through a Baltimore mall for the reception in a cheap Chinese restaurant because that’s what it was and what they could afford.
And I sit quietly on the couch by myself during a snatch of lone time looking at a book my aunts put together for Guama and Guakong in 1978 with pictures telling the story of their courtship and family, and my mom’s toddler self looks so much like mine, and we look at these pictures of the sisters crawling and climbing and grinning as children, and at our mothers in their fifties (mostly) now, their faces all a different blend of our grandparents’ features, and then at their pictures in their teens and twenties clustered together as young women, and then us, in our teens and twenties, tangled on the couch, on the cusp of our lives.
I wonder what our kids will do and see and hear and think of us and see these women as — they’ll know our aunts as their 8 grandmother-sisters, white and ancient; they’ll know our Guama only as a picture — but someday they’ll grow up and they’ll see pictures of us this Christmas and some of them will be old enough to realize that these young men and women in the hilariously outdated 2012 clothing (with the scarves and the layered tanks and the trendy-at-the-time hoodies and sneakers) were their moms, their dads, their aunts and uncles — and that we looked at old pictures and saw our moms when they were young, and that when they were kids, our moms tumbled into a giant room of cousins and ran and played and watched the grown-ups they’d become someday, and it is probably not so many years from now until my generation starts being the one having the weddings and the babies and the aunts and uncles clustering around to help and I’ll remember my cousins being born and being little and this web — this web, this cycle, this tree of life, this ecosystem, this thing of wonderful messy life that is a family — its us.
And something in my chest heaves and chokes and bursts and I am crying as I write this because I feel like I have been away from home too long, that I want so badly to bring this web of love home with me, share it — but I can’t capture or explain or analyze or anything except be present in it now, and honor its existence and its transience, and remember it, and carry it into a long, long life alongside the rest of my clan. And somehow this feels liberating rather than constraining now, because I see the people that we are becoming, and the limits that we won’t accept, and the shoulders we will get to stand on, and where they came from, and why their branches grew the way they did.
I’ve been a poor example as an Achi (eldest sister) in some ways, paying so much more attention to building and learning how to shape and work and nurture all these technical and educational communities as part of my career while ignoring this tremendous, huge, rich one right in front of me that ought to be my pride and joy — and as I climb through the maze of cousins and conversations and casseroles I see the navigation of the complex shifting webs of people that I make my living by was actually something I learned as a tiny child just roaming through this family when we would all pile together for reunions, or even just for dinner before all my aunts got married and moved off. It was just a matter of rediscovering that as a teenager, learning how to apply it to my studies and my work — but I can see the early roots of that chaos-surfing skill and how they grew from here. And it’s not too late. It’s never too late. We can all learn. I’m learning. What it means to bridge all of these worlds. I think I’m bridging more worlds simultaneously than anybody in my family ever has before, and so it’s taken me a while to learn to love all of the ones I’m in.
When I was little, I used to wish that all my mom’s sisters and their kids could live on our street, or that we could all live in one giant house. I’ll get that wish tomorrow; we rented a massive, massive house in Oregon that will fit all 26 members of the extended Lim clan who are here for the next 5 days, and hopefully Jason won’t snore too loudly in the triple bunk-bed room I share with him and Mia and Neil, Barby and Bea. We’ve placed the particularly loud snorers in strategic locations where the volume will be muffled, mostly. Unfortunately, my mom’s just got to put up with my dad, since they’re married and all — but she’s put up with his snoring for 30 years so I suppose she’s used to it by now.
A large bag of just-add-water pancake mix has been procured for breakfasts, and I think there’s a pool table and a basketball court and such inside the house, and I’m sure movies will come along, and there’s a huge bag of board games, and Melanie has brought my audio recorder for Storytime with Guama, and Kei and Audrey and Neil and Jelina have been appointed the Accountancy Committee for the O-Lim-Pics (corny name courtesy 5ee) to tally up scores for the cooking and other competitions, and I…
I wish you could see this. I wish you could share in this. This is my family, and I do not know how to write them on a page other than to say I can’t — that there’s a wonderful tangle here, impossible to capture, that I’m trying to write down enough here to remind myself of later — and now that it’s closing in on 8am and others should be waking up (I’ve been up and thinking and working since around 5:30am) I will go up, get some breakfast (the fridge is stuffed with leftovers, which can always be thrown into an omelet — ah, the incredible edible egg!), and learn more about living and loving in this crazy clan I’m from, hoping that someday I can share it, mix it, blend it, see what fusions form with all the funky new things and places and people and knowledge and stories and traditions we’re discovering in the world.
Good morning, family! Your Mel is here, and coming up to join you. Now: where are the eggs?