A middle aged man decides his elderly mother can no longer cope alone. Squeezed by the demands of the demographic time bomb and the requirements of the rest of the family, the Man in the Middle is bemused that life has become a hi-wire act, just when he thought it should start getting easier. How can he keep everyone happy and survive with his sanity intact?
If you’d like to begin at the beginning and missed the first instalment, you can read
No. 1: The Letter here
No.15: Christmas Crackers
This Christmas we have people flying in, popping by and sleeping over. It’s going to be a week-long Bacchanal which will test our livers, family unity and organisational skills to the max. There’s only one person capable of pulling this complex operation off and it’s not me. Wife, on the other hand, has the diplomatic and logistic skills of an Olympian. If she’s on her game, we’re all OK. If she’s not, nothing will happen. Christmas will be a cock up.
In days gone by, she would have embraced her role as Head of Making Christmas Happen willingly. She would even have counted it as fun. But her love affair with Christmas has been eroded over the years and now hangs by a thread. It started with the children skipping Midnight Mass and now involves the questioning of most of the rituals and routines which she created for them and once charmed them so much. She must feel like a Pope faced with the Protestant Reformation.
I haven’t helped. I lack Christmas spirit, apparently. I say things like ‘I don’t like Christmas carols as a genre’ and if someone starts waxing lyrical about the John Lewis Christmas advertising, I will lecture them about the contradictions between the preaching’s of Jesus Christ and what capitalism has done to his birthday celebration. Thinking about it, I’m probably the biggest Christmas downer of all.
We need Wife to ‘Get Christmas Done’. The oven is ready but the turkey is days away from being stuffed. Which is why when I hear Mother say she wants to veto Christmas crackers I start to panic.
‘No point buying them. I’ve heard all the jokes before. After all, I grew up with half of them.’
Son supports her on environmental grounds. According to him, the UK wastes 30% more paper at Christmas than at any other time of the year and cutting back on Christmas crackers would be a small step towards climate salvation.
‘Why stop at crackers? I think we shouldn’t wrap any of our presents this year,’ says Daughter. I can hear Wife grinding her teeth as another relic of her Christmas ritual is thrown to the heretics of utilitarianism.
‘Respect,’ says Son, as if he were a hoodlum from the Bronx. ‘What else can we ditch?’
‘Please God, the Queen’s Speech,’ says Mother throwing herself fully into the unfestive spirit.
I am genuinely worried that Wife might explode if this conversation goes on. Not least because her mother will want to watch the Queen’s Speech, making it another conflict zone to navigate come the day. I switch the conversation to the Christmas menu, which is normally controversy (but not gluten) free.
‘I’m thinking nibbles are smoked salmon canapes, crisps, nuts washed down by a glass of prosecco. Spinach souffles as a first course and for the main event beef wellington and a vegetarian loaf. Potatoes, red cabbage, carrots, peas, bread sauce on the side. Christmas pudding for dessert and then cheese and port. OK?’
‘Are you feeding the five thousand or just the family?’ asks Wife, dry as a ten-year-old panettone.
‘You need to lose weight, not put it on,’ says Mother, thinking she’s supporting Wife.
‘Your vegetarian loaf is like a brick,’ says Son. ‘I don’t see why I should be penalised at Christmas because of my vegetarian principles.’
‘This is why I may go to Jonny’s. Why does Christmas have to be so bloody stressy,’ says Daughter, perhaps not realising that the threat to be elsewhere on Christmas day is only adding to the stress.
I am having a man in the middle moment. It’s like being surrounded by smoke on a battlefield. You can hear shouts and groans but you can’t see where they’re coming from. It’s impossible to know what the right thing to do is next. But doing nothing is dangerous, too.
Mother has made her decision. She’s retreating to her bedroom. She’s picked up the smell of gunshot and decided she may get caught in the crossfire if she stays.
Age UK says more than half a million older people aren’t looking forward to Christmas, because they feel lonely. I wonder if she feels the opposite.
Read more blogs by James Thellusson
Read the next in the series – Chapter 16: Rorke’s Drift
Read the previous one – Chapter 14: Made in Chelsea
See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here
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