Kevin Kling's Holiday Inn

Excerpt from Kevin Kling’s Holiday Inn:

When I was a kid, after the big holiday meal, my family had just enough strength left to watch television. We especially enjoyed the old black and white movies, mostly because those were the only two colors our TV set got. Hardly anyone stayed awake through the whole movie–Dad never made it past the opening credits. My favorite, Holiday Inn, featured Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds running a nightclub that was open only on holidays, when Fred Astaire dropped by to dance and make trouble. I loved the idea of a place that housed only holidays.

Another good one was A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim. Charles Dickens was right to have ghosts visit Scrooge. The holidays are the time of year for ghosts, unsettled spirits that go bump in our hearts and minds, memories looking for a home. A single phrase can open a door, like an Advent calendar, and out pops a ghost of the past, present, or future. Memories arrive like relatives–some I barely remember, some not at all. Do you belong to me? Some enter like a kid pleading, “I’ll be relevant, let me stay.”

So I knock on the door marked “Christmas Past” . . .

There was the year of the salad dressing, when my sister’s new husband, eager to make a good impression on our family, leapt up at Christmas dinner to dress the salad. Unfortunately, he hadn’t checked to see if the cap was on the bottle, so while he smiled and shook the bottle, the family watched with horror as Italian salad dressing flew over his shoulder and all over the new curtains.

The year of the peaches happened decades before my birth. During Prohibition, my grandfather had made some of his famous home brew and left it to ferment in the cellar. At Christmas dinner, while the preacher sat at the table, some of the bottles began to explode. Everyone knew the sound and what it was, but my grandfather, without batting an eye, looked at my grandmother and said, “There go your peaches, honey.” A catch phrase in our family ever since.

My first memory was the year of the TV dinner. When we went to the grocery store, my brother and I usually sat in the car while Mom shopped. But this year she had lots to buy and it was ten degrees out, so we got to go in, pleading the whole time to go down the cereal aisle for Lucky Charms.
As Mom loaded up the shopping cart, we hung off the opposite sides, stretching out our arms and singing the Davy Crockett theme song. Suddenly I got a terrific idea for a science project. “If I jump off, would my brother’s weight be sufficient to topple the cart?” The answer was yes. Quite sufficient. He lay in the aisle under the metal cart and all the fixin’s, screaming in pain. My mom said, “No, Steven, see? You’re fine, and your turkey is fine, see?”

“My turkey?”

“Yes, your turkey. Here.”

He carried the frozen turkey the rest of the way to the checkout, hiccup-crying, “My . . . tur . . . key.”

Ten days later, when the time came to thaw the turkey, it was nowhere to be found. Who would’ve taken the turkey? My brother said he had. He figured that if someone broke in the house to steal his turkey, the freezer was the first place they’d look. So he’d kept it under his bed. Now all of a sudden that smell made sense. Also the fact that he’d been sleeping with a loaded bow and arrow in his bed. I kept thinking, any of those nights my father could have popped in to check on us, only to be plugged by an overly protective child. So that was the year of the TV dinners.

Last year was the year of the dog. We have a dachshund named Fafnir. Dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers, which are known to be fierce. I used to feel sorry for the little dachshunds. Now I pity the badger. When you tell Fafnir “No,” he hears, “Try another way.”

Last Christmas I brought Fafnir to our family gathering. There was food on the dining room table, so I warned everyone: push in your chairs, watch the food, at home we call him a counter terrorist. Then Fafnir made his move. Quick as a flash, he was on the table. The only food available was a bowl of my sister-in-law’s famous oatmeal cookies. Fafnir quickly deduced that if he started eating cookies, he might get one or two down before I collared him. So with his face he smashed them all to tiny pieces, then inhaled the entire supply. It was so swift and violent nobody moved.

No one spoke of the incident the rest of the day. I was ashamed. Fafnir seemed pleased. Couldn’t have gone better.

The next day, when more family arrived, my brother turned to a cousin, pointed at Fafnir, and said, “See that dog? You wouldn’t believe what that dog can do.” Then he told the story with the pride usually reserved for an honor student. The rest of my family joined in, adding color and details. They patted him, showing, “See, and I can touch him.” Overnight Fafnir had achieved legendary status in a story that would be recounted time and again. I was reminded how Love thrives in audacity. It’s why so many girls in high school fall for the wrong guy. It’s why a good holiday needs a bit of tragedy.

This book is my Holiday Inn. It includes some of the days on which we celebrate, in good times and bad, what we hold sacred–as people, families, and communities. And now I’ll open a few doors, stand aside, and welcome whatever ghosts, blessings, torments, or desires choose to enter.

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