When my mother was in her twenties, she had sukiyaki parties with her friends in Hiroshima. Instead of bring your own booze, it was bring your own extra ingredient. To complement the sliced beef, it could be cubed blocks of tofu, a tangle of graykonnyakunoodles, sliced napa cabbage or the Wonder Bread of noodles, white pillowy udon.
It was a risk, you see, as no one would consult with one another. So you might end up with a stew of beef and only konnyaku, made from the devil’s tongue root, which in its plant form looks positively phallic. That was the fun of it. Not knowing what might result at these sukiyaki get-togethers.
As my mother tells us this, the steam from the sukiyaki fogs her bifocals. Our small family is gathered around the electric pan this past Christmas Eve. There’s no red and green Christmas tablecloth, no holy candles.
Dad stays at the table for only a few minutes. His emaciated body in his loose pajamas, he sits bent over a bowl. He is only able to manage a teacup’s worth of rice, meat and sauce, if even that. He returns to bed. Our youngest at the table, Rowan, only two, smiles widely, his mouth full of a mash of rice and meat. He is oblivious that life is literally seeping out of our family circle.
Christmas for me always feels a little odd, like putting on a nice piece of clothing that doesn’t quite fit. It’s bad enough that we are here in Los Angeles, with joggers and bicyclists ubiquitous on our sunny December streets. It does seem foolish to send cards and sing songs centered on snow and glowing fireplaces – definitely more myth than reality.
And for me, it’s not about faith and religion even, because I became a Christian convert at an early age on my own. But I grew up with smells of broiled salmon instead of gingerbread during the holiday season.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s usually a Christmas tree and even decorations; I’ve even hand made a few.
In my childhood, Christmas Eve was usually spent at the house of another gardener’s family in Altadena. Bunk beds and rooms filled with children, it was lively and raucous. The parents would spend all night around a mahjong table, the rumble of tiles sounding like the revving up of a small airplane.
The boy around my age was glued to a transistor radio. “Santa is above Whittier.” “Santa is above Monrovia.” He’d provide the rest of us regular reports while his older brothers pelted him with insults. “You’re too old to believe in Santa.”
We’d usually stay until it was way past midnight.
One Christmas, I doze off while sitting in between my parents in the front seat of our van on our way home.
My mother laments that she doesn’t have time to secretly bring out my presents from Santa.
I open my eyes halfway.
She sighs and says, “You know there’s really no Santa, Naomi.”
And yes, it comes as no shock at all.
This year, our first holiday without Dad, Mom asks what we should do on Christmas.
I say, “Let’s make this a Sukiyaki Christmas.” Let’s huddle together around the electric skillet, each pair of chopsticks drawing out something different for our respective bowls of rice.
Let’s forget about making another turkey (ordered that from Whole Foods for Thanksgiving). Let’s forget about the ham.
Let’s just sit elbow to elbow in the linoleum-floored kitchen, tossing in different meats and vegetables, being washed in a steam of sugar, soy sauce and mirinand hearing the Lakers game in the background.
We will be a smaller circle this Christmas, but nonetheless still a circle. Heck, if we are feeling adventurous, maybe we’ll play that game of my mother’s young adulthood, each bringing something for that evening’s sukiyaki, not knowing what will be in excess and what will be in want.
Whether your Christmas will be full of joy, sadness or Chinese food, I hope that you enter 2020 with a sense of peace. Much love to all of you, my readers.