By Vance James
One of my best Christmas memories comes from when I was about nine years old. But I have to warn you: this is not a feel good Christmas story. It is kind of gross.
After getting up early and opening our presents it was a family tradition to meet at my aunt’s house in the afternoon for Christmas dinner. Everyone who lived closed by would come. I remember this being an adult affair and for those of us under the age of 18 that meant being mostly bored. We usually would bring one of our Christmas presents to show to the other kids or to play with just to help pass the time.
But not this Christmas when I was nine.
We were sitting down to eat and for the first time ever my aunt had us all sitting at one long table. Usually the kids were put at a separate table, mostly because the room was so small. But Uncle Pete had the house remodeled the summer before and now we could all sit together for Christmas dinner. This made my mother very nervous. She had lectured us all the way over there about being well mannered at the dinner table.
The blessing was said and the feast began. Sitting opposite me was old Uncle Alonzo. And when I say old it seemed to me that he was ancient. His wife, my grandfather’s great aunt, had died years before and I only saw him every year at Christmas. He would smile and wave to us kids but we all stayed away from him because he was kind of creepy with those sunken eyes and that wild hair. My mother called him a sweet old guy and when the seating arrangements were made she was certain to place me close to him for whatever reason.
He was shakey. When he grabbed his glass of water he almost spilled it every time. And even though he did not eat very much his mouth was always moving. He would chew and chew and chew his food then he would sit there and kind of suck on his teeth for a little while before taking another bite. I had never been this close to him before and since I was sitting directly across from him I had a whole new view of him. Something about him was different to me at this angle and for the first time ever he didn’t creep me out. I think he caught me staring at him because at one point he kind of smiled at me and said something — although I didn’t understand a word he spoke.
My mother was sitting right next to me and she saw the little exchange between us. She nudged my arm and whispered to me, “Ask Uncle Alonzo if he wants you to pour him some more water.” I didn’t even ask him. I just stood up from my chair, grabbed hold of the water pitcher and started pouring.
“Here Uncle Alonzo, here’s some more water for you.” He looked up at me and gave me a big toothy smile and said thank you. That’s when I realized for the first time that his teeth were not real. He had dentures and they kind of floated around there in his mouth. It seemed clear to me now why he did the things he did with his mouth.
It was at this preceise moment that he got up from his chair and leaned forward to grab the gravy boat. Now when I say this thing was a boat, I mean it was a boat. It was huge and filled to the top with gravy. Minutes earlier my mother had taken my plate and used the ladle to serve me some gravy so I didn’t think it was supposed to be moved. I sat back down as Uncle Alonzo was rising and I thought for sure he was getting himself some gravy in the same fashion as my mother had for me. My mother was looking the other direction while this was going on, talking, I suppose, to whoever was next to her. But my eyes and I’m sure all the eyes of the other kids were on Uncle Alonzo because, frankly, we thought he was confined to a wheel chair and to see him rise like that was quite honestly like watching the dead walk.
But what happened next is what keeps this Christmas as the most talked about in our family nearly 30 years after it happened. Uncle Alonzo bent down and attempted to pick up the gravy boat. Underestimating both the size and the weight of it he grunted a bit and pulled hard as he reached. Just then his teeth fell out and plopped into the gravy.
The sounds around the table were immediate and varied. Everybody stopped, including Uncle Alonzo. To my right, where my mother and most of the other adults sat, you could hear gasps and forks dropping. To my left, especially where my little brother sat, you could hear immediate and not well disguised snickers. I sensed every mother at the table instantly reach for their kids — including my mom who actually put her hand over my mouth to keep me from bursting out loud with laughter.
Aunt Rose got up from her place and touched Uncle Alonzo on the arm, who seemed to be more concerned with the gravy on his shirt than anything else. “Here,” she gently said, “let me get that for you.” Just as she was reaching for the gravy boat Uncle Alonzo shocked everyone by slapping her hand away.
“I got it,” he said. And with that he dipped two bony fingers into the gravy and fished out his teeth. I felt my mother recoil in disgust at the sight of this but I have to tell you I thought it was pretty cool. They were smiling. Without missing a beat Uncle Alonzo drained his dentures for a second and slipped them back into his mouth.
He looked right down at me, winked, and said: “That’s how you eat gravy, boy!”
What could I do? I was nine years old and had just witnessed the most incredible bit of entertainment ever at Christmas dinner. My mother was still firmly clamped over my mouth so I clapped — that was all I could do. Immediately every one else clapped too and Uncle Alonzo had the presence of mind to take a little bow. Relieved, my mother released me but quickly whispered in my ear “Not one word!”.
A few minutes passed and everyone went back to their dinners and conversations. I looked straight at Uncle Alonzo and his eyes were dancing and full of life. He laughed and said: “Wanna see it again?”