Naturally, when we went to Chattanooga to visit my family for Christmas, we had to go to the Waffle House.
Because Waffle Houses are to the American south what McDonalds are everywhere else – ubiquitous standardized franchise restaurants serving moderately non-lethal food – and really, how can you say you’ve been to the old Confederacy if you haven’t gone to a Waffle House at least once? You can’t, that’s how.
My side of the family decided to gather at my Uncle Bob and Aunt Linda’s house outside of Chattanooga this year. We’d thought to stay home in Wisconsin after four straight years of traveling for the holiday, but the clan doesn’t gather in its entirety very often anymore and we had two entire nephews that we hadn’t even met yet, so we decided to drive down. Having an exchange student to take with us on the long drive through Illinois, Kentucky, and pretty much all of Tennessee was just one more reason for the trip. You can’t really get a sense of the scale of this country until you’ve driven through a chunk of it.
The family has gotten big enough, through marriage and children, that we can’t all stay at my aunt and uncle’s house anymore, so Keith and Kim worked out a hotel for us and we met there on the evening of the 23rd.
The Waffle House was practically next door!
The next day was Christmas Eve, and naturally that was when the back tire on our minivan decided to die. Or was murdered by pointy object or objects unknown, either way. Thankfully it was good for the entire ride down the previous day, and it had remained fine when Kim went to the store for some last-minute gift-wrap supplies Sunday morning, but somewhere in the following hour or so it became a sad and deflated sort of thing. We sent the kids along ahead of us with Keith and his crew, called AAA, and settled into wait. Eventually a cheerful bearded guy (not wearing a red suit) with the thickest Tennessee accent I have ever heard drove up, pulled the tire off, pointed to the quarter-inch hole, and said, “There’s yer problem raht there!” That seemed a fair assessment. He got it patched up and sent me on my way in good speed, and off we went to join the festivities.
We spent most of the next three days there, hanging out in a swirl of family. We’re an intense but welcoming group, really. There were several themes that played out across the holiday.
For one thing, we hung out a lot. For many people spending the holidays with family is a source of stress, but not for us. We actually enjoy our time together, and the holidays are one of the few times we get together in large numbers – or as large as our numbers get, anyway. We talk. We laugh. We enjoy each other’s company. And life is good.
For another thing, there was food. Lots of food. We’re a family that thinks in terms of its next meal even without the holidays to highlight it, and we had a grand time with that. We kept it pretty informal, though – long gone are the days of bringing out the good china and silverware, because really the whole point of the visit is to do what you love with those you love and nobody loves loading the dishwasher no matter who is with them. The food gets set out, everyone grabs a sturdy paper plate and dishes up, and off you go to the table to get to the main focus of conversation and consumption.
The food was good, as it always is. We’ve pretty much abandoned the “seven kinds of fish on Christmas Eve” tradition since many people in the crowd don’t much like fish and some are allergic to it, but seafood did make its appearance so we can say we upheld the tradition in spirit. There was also ham, turkey, pasta, and any number of sides. There were things for vegans, things for carnivores, things for the gluten-intolerant, things for those allergic to nuts and peanuts, things for people who should be watching their salt, things for everyone because everyone is family and everyone is us and food is love. We also brought down a box of cheeses from Wisconsin to be cut up and noshed upon, and Fran’s family sent us their recipe for bread pudding (really good, by the way) and we made that too. We did not starve.
I may never eat again, actually.
Another theme that played out was the incessant game-playing that went on. There were a couple of rounds of Cards Against Humanity and its lineal descendant, What Do You Meme. There was a Gobblet tournament that never quite got rolling but still managed a few rounds. There was Taboo. There was Phase 10. There was a rousing game of spoons. There was some kind of game played on people’s phones that somehow managed to make all of the participating phones switch to Dutch as the main language. We are game players, we crew.
Also, it turns out that cousin Josh is a wizard with Rubik’s Cubes of many varieties. I find this beyond impressive, since the best I have ever done with a Rubik's Cube is not cut myself on one. He had a cube that was something like 10x10, another in the shape of a soccer ball with pentagonal faces, and a third that was offset, with facets of different sizes, that he could actually solve with his hands behind his back. I watched him do that several times and even now will swear to you that it is impossible.
And, of course, there were gifts.
We’re not a huge gift-giving family. It’s not the center of the holiday for us (see above, re: food, family, etc.). But it’s always nice to get stuff and we certainly have no objections to it. Most of the gift-giving happens on Christmas Eve, which is the bigger holiday on my side of the family. Christmas morning is for the little kids.
For the past few years the cousins of my generation have been playing the Dice Game, which cuts down on a lot of the gift-giving headaches and is fun, so double win for us really. You get a fixed budget and have to buy two gifts with that – one nice and one kind of goofy. You put them in six piles. You roll a die and pick from the pile that the die says to pick from, unwrap the gift, and then pass the die to the next person. When everyone has two gifts in front of them, you take out several pairs of dice, set a timer, and then roll. If you get doubles you can forcibly trade with someone else. And then you see how it goes.
This year the next generation started to get involved as well – Tabitha, Lauren, Fran, Josh, Sara, and Annelise all took part, and it went well. It’s one of those games that people seem to enjoy no matter what they end up with when the timer goes off.
We even got Randall to beam in by phone, because technology can in fact sometimes make life better.
We think that was one of the goofy gifts, but in the current political climate we can't be too sure.
Our big excursion was the day after Christmas, when we went to the trampoline park.
If you’ve never been to one of these things, well, you should go. There’s a big room full of trampolines of varying descriptions and bounciness as well as pits full of foam blocks and other such activities. You put on the special socks, sign all of the various waivers, and let people run around for an hour.
After that we went over to see the new Star Wars movie, which was unique to the series in that it had some jokes in it (“Right away, sir”). Say what you will about Disney, but they’re good at what they do. And what they do is they separate you from your money in exchange for an entertaining story. Really, what more do you want from a movie?
We hit the road early on the 27th for the long drive back to Wisconsin. It was a pleasantly uneventful trip and we arrived back home with vehicle, persons, and sanity intact. It was considerably colder than it had been in Tennessee, of course – while Tennessee saw temperatures in the 20s F, we won’t see that here for a while. At one point in northern Illinois the thermometer on the dashboard got down to -7F (about -20C) though by the time we walked into our house it had warmed up all the way back up to -2F! Barbecue weather!
Today was a good day to stay home and do Not Much Of Anything.
At some point, Kim and I will finish our Christmas cards, too.