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Christmas Eve, Rev. Billy, and The Car-Bar


Although I doubt that Billy Graham would ever claim me, that's never stopped me from claiming a kinship with him. We are third cousins, and unlike some other Southern cousin claims, this one is valid. Billy and my grandfather were first cousins. My entire family -- at least 150 relatives of any and all bloodlines -- lays claim to Billy as well, especially if a crusade is coming to Charlotte or Atlanta, or if he's just left the Mayo again, and especially if it's close to Christmas. Ever since I can remember, every Christmas Eve the entire medley of great grandmothers, great grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers, brothers, aunts, uncles, and every breed of cousin from first to fifth -- but minus our most famous cousin -- gathers to share food and presents, and to brag about our accomplishments since we last saw each other, whether we had them or not.

Maybe it's in secret anticipation that Cousin Billy will crash our celebration, or perhaps it's all the recent family converts to the Highway 51 Pink Palace, but alcohol has never been part of the festivities. Unless, that is, you're bold enough to slither out the backdoor and get into Uncle Bruce's car, parked among the brigade of SUV's lined up and down the dark suburban block.

If you were able to make it past the Christian sentries, then there was only one thing to do: have a swig of whatever Uncle Bruce was offering on that particular Christmas Eve. I was the only female audacious enough to join the other renegades in his car, even if it took me until I was in my 20s to muster the bravery. Though I'm now in my 40s, it still takes courage to get past the Cousin Billy bloodlines. They know and you know they know.

All the Christmas Eves when I wound up in Bruce's car-bar always seemed to meld into one colossal Christmas as soon as the liquor rolled down my throat, while the sounds of overwrought Christmas carols whisked through cracked car windows. My short sneak across those leather seats for a contraband swig always cost me my mother's glare when I came back inside. Then, stuffed with food, whispers of the car party, and arms packed with presents, we said our goodbyes and promised to call before the next Christmas Eve. This ritual could be counted on year after year, until the Christmas we all got sick after eating Aunt Libby's homemade candy.

Uncle Bruce may have always served his "defy-the-religious-right-cocktails," but that year, Aunt Libby dispersed a lethal dose of "how-to-lose-all-your-holiday-weight-in-24-hours." Shaped innocently as Christmas bells and smiling cherubs, Libby's candy was the first to go. The next morning, so was I.

The sounds of a typical Christmas morning were different that year: there were no sounds of paper being torn to shreds. . .only the crackling of plastic tops of Pepto-Bismol and prescription suppositories. Alone in my apartment, as I paid homage to the porcelain god, I thought about calling Cousin Billy's hotline, and getting on any prayer list I could.

Uncle Tommy, the only doctor in the family, diagnosed and treated us one by one. Though he didn't say so, he probably wished he had stayed on duty at the hospital, because 54 of the 55 relatives who attended the party were ill. Suspiciously, Aunt Libby was the only one who didn't get sick. Rumor has it she felt so good on Christmas morning that she ran five miles. That was the first clue for Uncle Tommy. The second clue was that although we all had a plateful of this or that, the single commonality was that damn candy. And then the breaking news came that Libby had just gotten over the spew-it virus the day before she made that candy. . .before she transported the germ from Boston on a flight to Charlotte.

For two years, there was a silent boycott of anything she made for the Christmas Eve dinner. On the third Christmas Eve party after the tainted candy, gray hairs having been counted, and weight loss or gain innocently/intentionally mentioned, the Christmas singing cranked up again.

"Deck the Halls" had just begun when I took a swig of tequila in Bruce's car, and passed it to another cousin in the back seat. But Bruce suddenly intercepted the hand-off, twisted the top back on, and shoved it under his seat. I thought we were finally going to get busted by one of our "Billy wanna-be" relatives after all these years. Bruce flung open the car door, got out, and slammed it shut. We watched him sprint across the lawn: his footprints shimmering in the frozen grass, his breath trailing like a comet. We began piling out of the car. By the time we reached the sidewalk, we could hear someone singing loudly, almost shouting the words to "Deck the Hall."

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