All of the elements are in place.
I sang along with carols on my drive south, car loaded as if it were a sleigh with presents piled high, through the snow as it fell softly but stubbornly throughout the morning.
I arrived to hugs and kisses and cookies, picking through the ubiquitous tins of treats until I found a few that I wanted and grinning at the glass of milk Mom poured as I made my selections. I giggled at the tree, brightly lit and heavily laden with ornaments and the gaily wrapped gifts scattered liberally around it.
We prepared the living room for the Ones, arranging a rocking horse and Dancing Mickey, baby and stroller, wrapped games for Nintendo DSes just like Santa would have left them. I filled stockings while Mom affixed the last of the bows and ribbons and Dad went out to sweep the porch and front walk. All is lovely and sweet, festive and cheerful.
Until you rest a moment and begin to look more closely.
I looked up from the ground meat I was browning and sighed. I'd called Brother for dinner and he ascended from the basement where he'd spent the day with his live-in girlfriend. Mom and Dad were searching for salsa to go with our nachos and Brother stormed back downstairs when Dad accused him of taking said salsa from said refrigerator and hiding it downstairs.
Mom began to scold Dad - something about how he's always critical (which is true, but hardly a new development) and I shook my head before scooping seasoned beef into a serving dish and nabbing the shredded cheese from the counter.
After placing both on the table, I skirted the parental argument in the small kitchen and made my way downstairs to find Brother, face wet with tears. I sighed and cocked my head at him, simultaneously sympathetic and suspicious. We are a manipulative group and our melodramatic tendencies know few bounds when it comes to winning arguments.
"Sit," I demanded when he started to rant about how Dad always put him down and reminded him of mistakes and was awful and horrible and life was naught but misery. "Sit," I repeated over and over, patting the step beside me until he finally stopped his monologue and listened.
"Brother," I said, being gentle but firm, "you are depressed. And having been depressed much of my adult life, I can understand very well that you feel attacked and unloved and as if you're in this dark hole." I looked around the dimly lit basement and winced. "Figuratively as well as literally, I guess," I added.
"Daddy is negative - you know that. It doesn't mean he doesn't love you or isn't proud or anything, really, except that he likes to talk and notices everything that others do wrong. And he's always pointed it out, just as he always gets angry and defensive if you try to correct him. And you can't change that. You can change how you react to it though. You can blow it off or walk away but it's pointless to torture yourself with it like this."
He didn't really hear me - maybe he can't right now. So I had dinner (the salsa was in the cupboard) with my parents and after Dad retired to the living room, Brother emerged again and took food downstairs. In the interim, I'd discussed the situation with my parents - noted areas where neither of them were right nor particularly wrong. Everyone's just different and acting as if behavior is novel or shocking is really a bit silly. Even I - playing the role of the absentee daughter - can pick up on patterns. Or perhaps distance has made that easier...
When Brother brought his plate back, Mom and I were putting together a breakfast casserole for tomorrow, which meant I was browning more ground meat. I finished my sausage and sprinkled it over the torn slices of bread and watched as he went outside to smoke. I teased him when he came back in and asked a silly question and thrilled to the grin that appeared in response. For even as we're melodramatic, we're a giggly sort on Mom's side and I enjoy the way our eyes almost disappear as our cheeks scrunch up in laughter.
He stayed in the tiny kitchen and frosted the pumpkin bars with cream cheese icing. I finished my casserole and began supervising the monkey bread preparation. Growing bored, I joined Dad in the living room and walked over to kiss his whiskered cheek when he asked if he was still in trouble.
"You could be nicer," I told him after I returned to my spot on the couch and curled into the corner. "But he could be less sensitive."
"It is my house," Dad said, pouting a bit and I smiled again and nodded my agreement.
"Go, Team Dad," I offered and was pleased when he returned my grin.
The snow continues to fall and my hands smell of apples from the pie I helped make. The refrigerator now contains the salsa which incites battles alongside leftovers and dishes waiting to be baked. The girls come tomorrow and I'll pray for a lack of arguments. It is a miraculous holiday, is it not?