I’ve never performed a triple lutz on an ice rink, but I remember my small intestine attempting something like that maneuver when it was my turn to perform at the annual TeSlaa Christmas gathering. I looked at my mom for solace and quickly made up something about needing to go to the bathroom—a feeble attempt at escape.
The collar of my sweater vest itched my throat, tightening like some sort of wool boa constrictor. This was it. This was the moment my entire family would oust me from the clan. They would hear my solo performance and hoist me into a snow pile outside the door where I would survive on snow cones until the spring thaw.
For Christmas, presents were not simply given willy nilly on my mom’s side of the family; no, a TeSlaa present was earned, usually through musical performance or some other whimsical display of talent. Being in possession of no such talents, and having not rehearsed anything as a result of my being eleven years old, I defaulted to “Away in a Manger,” a snoozable hymn if there ever was one—maybe I could lull them to sleep and they’d never know what they missed, I thought, pleased with my strategy. Plus, I knew my sister could play this one on the piano and perhaps drown out my vocal wheezings.
She played the interlude, and out came something vaguely resembling the hymn.
“…to live with Thee there,” I croaked.
I surveyed the damage through squinted eyes: Uncle Mike crossed his arms over his chest as if shielding himself. Aunt Gale shrieked. My own brother looked away; apparently he had suddenly developed an interest in the upholstery of my Grandma’s couch. At this point, a one-way trip to the snowbank seemed merciful, a coup de grâce of sorts.
Of course, none of this really happened. Well, most of this didn’t happen. The singing was mandatory though, and the nerves I felt were as real as the sweat beads on my forehead.
Performances aside, Christmas at my Grandma TeSlaa’s house was always one of the best nights of the year, complete with card games, happy kiddos, jolly adults, and the world’s butteriest mashed potatoes. My Grandma would print song sheets for us with lyrics to the classic hymns plus “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” she’d craft the meal by hand, starting days in advance, and she’d never skimp on hugs for each of her grandchildren. She valued tradition, so we’d sing hymns and read the Christmas story from Luke 2 together before the meal. She’d make the same meal and the same green-sherbet-and-7-Up punch each year. Grandpa would feed his squirrels jumbo raw peanuts, the uncles would play chess in the living room, and Grandma would remark how her house was too small for all thirty-or-so of us to fit inside.
This year was different. Grandma’s gone, along with so many of our society’s elders this year. But her traditions live on in my family through her way of valuing quality time spent with one another, her recipes, and her love of music. Even the green punch made an appearance. Fortunately, no one performed any solos this year. But we did sing along to hymns together while my mom played the piano.