Monday, December 28, 2009
Pickled Grape Trees: Jenkins Christmas 2009
Another Christmas has come and gone.
Pine needles litter my living room floor, and ripped, empty boxes cram the recycling bins.
The kids seem genuinely thrilled with their gifts, and despite being trapped in the house for more than a week, they miraculously haven't pummeled each other to bloody pulps. I'm not sure whether to chalk their subdued behavior up to the Christmas spirit or a potential gas leak (note to self: check carbon monoxide detectors).
I've relished visits with family and dear friends in town for the holidays. And I've devoured so much sugar that the thought of another cookie, cake or candy nearly repulses me (I said "nearly". I could choke down another piece of fudge if one were to suddenly appear in front of me - hint/hint).
Overall, it was wonderful holiday, bursting with treasured moments. But if I had to pick my Christmas highlight, it would be Mom's grape tree.
Yes, I realize grapes grow on vines, not trees, which is why I found myself staring incomprehensibly at a grape-covered tree in my parents' den on Christmas Eve.
There it stood by the couch: a large, potted, twiggy tree that had lost its summer foliage and had been wrapped in twinkling, multi-colored lights and festooned with a bow -- and fat, green grapes.
I suppose it's not that unusual to decorate a Christmas tree with food. Before tacky plastic ornaments and electric lights, the first Christmas trees were adorned with candles and fruit. So I could understand strings of popcorn, cranberries or orange slices.
My eyes must be deceiving me, or perhaps my sister's pickled grapes had fermented my brain.
Oh. You heard right. Pickled grapes. My sister is a terrific cook, who loves to experiment with food. Her Christmas bounty of treats and snacks this year was no exception. When she and I compared notes about the dishes we were preparing for Mom and Dad's gathering, she mentioned cheese balls and crab dip and added, "I'm also bringing pickled grapes."
"Pickled grapes?" I questioned. "I hope to God that's a reference to wine." It is the holidays, after all. There's reason liquor stores are among the few establishments open on Christmas.
But no. My sister showed up with a bowl of pickled grapes and insisted we all try one. "It's a Southern tradition," she said.
Now I have lived my entire life in the South, and I know about grits, burgoo and even chocolate gravy, but I have never heard of pickled grapes.
They were a little sweet, a little tart … a little different. Okay. Okay. They were freakin' weird.
So that's why, at first glance, I thought Mom's tree was a pickled grape-induced hallucination.
As Jenkins offspring trampled all over his house, my Dad was hiding, err, I mean, sitting in the den, so I asked him about the curious tree.
"Umm, Dad?" I said. "Why are there grapes on this tree?"
Dad laughed, and said, "Well, your mother…"
Now, he could have stopped right there. Truly, that was explanation enough.
You see, like pickled grapes, my family is a little sweet, a little tart … a little different. Okay. Okay. We are freakin' weird.
Therefore, a Jenkins gathering is probably unlike any family gathering you've ever attended.
Take last Christmas, for instance.
In 2008, we began our Christmas celebration by slipping on our matching Christmas T-shirts, which featured a blue ottoman dubbed "Otto" that became a family mascot after an inside joke (doesn't every family adopt a piece of furniture as their mascot? No?). The shirts, designed by my brother, showcased Otto in a Santa hat and were printed with the message, "You Otto have a Merry Christmas." Perfect!
Once we were Otto-ed up, we traipsed across the lawn to take a plate of treats to the neighbor's house, where we sang carols and danced on their porch. You want treats? You have to watch us dance first. (Odd that the neighbors turned off all their lights when they saw our cars pull up this year).
Back at Mom & Dad's house, Mom handed out the Christmas "flutes" to all the grandchildren, who played their version of carols as we paraded around the tree. Yes, there were jokes about passing around the Christmas crack pipe, but we only do that in leap years.
After the flutes, we opened presents, the highlight of which was a sock monkey ornament for my younger brother, who had been petrified of the sock monkey given to him by a great aunt when he was a child.
Apparently, the years of therapy for primatesockophobia worked, because my brother cherished his ornament and promptly began to film sock monkey videos. We filmed the classic holiday hits, "Sock Monkey Eats Christmas Crackers"; "Sock Monkey Terrorizes Jenkins Girls"; and my favorite, "That's Not a Banana in my Pocket: Sock Monkey Gets Freaky with Mom's Rabbit Knickknack." (Hello, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? Are you taking note?)
Porch dancing, flutes and perverted sock monkeys were just a few of the highlights from Jenkins Christmas 2008. Needless to say, I had high hopes for 2009.
Other than poking fun of my sister's pickled grapes and making a few jingle ball jokes about an unfortunate testicular incident that had plagued someone close to the family (nothing is sacred), our family Christmas seemed oddly restrained this year -- until I stumbled upon the grape tree.
Dad tried to explain it to me: He was concerned that Mom's twiggy tree might poke the eye out of one of his younger grandchildren as they ran around the house, hyped up on Christmas cookies. (It's hard to believe this is the same man who, back in the day, threw all his kids in the bed of the pickup truck for drives down country roads while we passed him beers through the cab's back window). Anyway, Dad had pointed out the tree's potential hazard to Mom before we all arrived. Instead of moving the tree, as he suggested, she covered all the sharp points with grapes.
Then she added lights and a bow, to make it festive.
Envisioning Mom carefully placing the grapes on every twig, I erupted in laughter, which eventually drew all family members to the den. Everyone pulled out their phones and began to snap pictures of Mom's grape tree. Jokes soon abounded about covering all pointy objects with grapes as a safety precaution. My brother said, "I'm putting grapes on damn near everything in the house. Radio antennas: grapes. Light switches: grapes. Cabinet knobs: grapes. My wife's hoo-hoos: grapes."
Since my parents also were worried about my niece's first international flight a few days later, we all agreed that she should be packed in grapes before her departure --pickled grapes, perhaps, so we wouldn't have to worry about injury OR men hitting on her.
With raucous laughter ringing through the house, it was a true Jenkins Christmas at last!
The merry-making continued when my brother and sister-in-law handed out their gifts for everyone: delightful, handmade Otto the Ottoman Christmas ornaments. Next year, I'm going to hang Otto on my very own grape tree. Move over, Charlie Brown. There's a new tree in town. It just needed a little love -- and a few grapes.
After much laughter and antics, the night drew to a close. Before we departed, Mom pulled her kiddos in for a hug and said, "I'm so glad we're not a normal family."
Me, too. Then again, I don't really know what it's like to be part of a "normal" family.
And there's not a moment that goes by, that I'm not grapeful, I mean, grateful for it.