Well, technically it’s the day before Christmas, because the actual holiday is reserved for my side of the family—my mother and siblings and so on. But Lisa, my quirky and never-boring girlfriend, wants to honor a long-standing Panzica family tradition by gathering her whole family—almost—at the Carl’s Jr. on Lincoln Avenue in Buena Park. They celebrate the Yuletide at a fast-food restaurant, as they have for most of her adult life.
For me, though, it’s a peculiar custom, this business of commemorating Christ’s birth with a side of CrissCut fries. I feel like I’m intruding, somehow, on an event I don’t fully understand.
“I’ll have the Teriyaki Six Dollar Burger and a medium soft drink,” I tell the counterman. “Uh, Merry Christmas.”
Lisa gets the fish taco combo and Josh, her developmentally disabled son, gets a Famous Star With Cheese. Josh enjoys Christmas. He’s in his mid-20s, taller than I am, but with the brain function of a second-grader. We’ve just picked him up from the group home where he stays with other, similarly challenged young men, under supervision from the county. Today he’s showing off his new haircut.
“Haircut,” he says, preening.
“Josh, have some fries,” Lisa says, spreading them out for him. He digs in. I’m a little uncomfortable with this man-sized boy, but he doesn’t care; Josh is pure and guileless, qualities I’ve come to admire.
Lisa’s cellphone rings. It’s Brittany, her daughter, reporting they’ve gone the wrong way on Lincoln and they’re in Anaheim, not Buena Park. They’re U-turning and should be here soon. Meanwhile, Lisa’s mother and brother are heading up from their home near Disneyland, which is closer, but they’re chronically late and today is no exception.
While we’re waiting, we eat. The burger is good. It’s not your traditional pre-Christmas dinner, but the savory combo of pineapple, teriyaki, and ground beef gives a holiday zest to our fast-food vigil. Josh makes short work of his burger and fries, and Lisa wolfs her fish tacos. We’re finishing up when a white SUV pulls up.
And a parade comes into Carl’s Jr.
First comes Brittany, a stunning girl with olive skin and raven hair who’s fiercely outspoken, even more than her mom. Her partner is Ivan, who’s tall, strong as a bull, and scrupulously polite—at least in front of Lisa. Their kids are toddlers: Aiden, who’s clever and loves to scream; Ariah, who’s got an impish smile and constantly is falling off things; and Autumn, the baby, who watches the world through solemn, steel-gray eyes.
Ivan carries Autumn in her portable carrier. In his other hand, he’s got a bag of Christmas presents so overstuffed it would make Santa Claus hesitate. They troop in and commandeer three booths, perching Autumn’s carrier on a plastic seat, jamming Ariah in between them so she doesn’t tumble off and hurt herself. Aiden runs between tables, checking out what everyone else is having. Brittany embraces Josh and says, “That’s a great haircut, Josh.” The presents are jammed on the seats, on the tables, under the tables, wherever they’ll fit.
“So where’s your mom?” Brittany asks Lisa. “How could we get lost and still beat her here?”
Discreetly, Ivan says nothing.
In time, Lisa’s mother arrives. They call her Emma, which is not her name, but rather a corruption of “Grandma,” as mispronounced by her grandkids. She lives with her son Nino, Lisa’s brother, who’s off-the-charts brilliant but painfully shy. Emma and Nino don’t like to have guests over, which is how we wound up here sharing not ham or roast turkey, but paper-wrapped burgers.
On the upside, there’s no cleanup—you pitch the schmutz into the trash, return the tray, and you’re done. Aiden especially likes those disposable cups that you pump ketchup into. He eats more ketchup per fry than anyone I know. But before he can make too big a mess, we start opening presents.
Making an even bigger mess.
Josh gets Lakers memorabilia—gloves, slippers, a visor cap, all emblazoned with the team’s emblem. “Lakers!” he says, with obvious delight.
Aiden gets a million toys, but his favorite is a Buzz Lightyear figure, which shoots light beams and cries, “To infinity and beyond!” (Or it would, if we had the right batteries.) He starts acting out galactic warfare scenarios, annoying other diners as only a cartoon-obsessed 3-year-old can.
Ariah is a tougher sell, fitfully crying for no obvious reason, unconsoled by the fries Lisa keeps shoving at her. But when her presents are unwrapped—starting with a plush Minnie Mouse in a hot-pink dress—her mood brightens.
As for baby Autumn, I don’t know if she understands about the holiday, but she loves her new Snow White doll, grasping it with small, plump fingers, flashing a loopy, clown-faced grin. Christmas is a hit with all three kids, washing away their seesaw moods and outbursts, turning even this glorified burger stand into a place of magic and miracles.
Which I find oddly depressing.
I have a knack for finding gloom when others celebrate, but this time there’s good reason. I’ve never had kids of my own, and always wanted some. Now it’s too late, probably, and I look at Aiden and Ariah and Autumn with a certain sad jealousy, all examples of the kids I might have had but somehow never managed. I’m sitting apart from them at the last table, watching their meteoric sorrows and delights, wishing Lisa’s family could be my own.
And that’s when it hits me: They are.
I’m welcome here. This peculiar, over-the-counter late-lunch holiday is for family members only, and I’ve become part of the clan. Munching burgers and shredding gift wrap is part of the family DNA, as surely as their hot-blooded Italian temperament, and I’ve earned a place at the hard plastic table. I always help Lisa with the baby-sitting, making Autumn grin and Ariah cry (no matter what I do, she’s always crying), trying to contain Aiden as he catapults around, spreading glorious chaos. As for Josh, the grown-up kid—don’t tell him, but the Lakers stuff came from me.
In short, their story is now my story, something I’ve never fully appreciated until this weird, wonderful, teriyaki-flavored Christmas Eve at a Carl’s Jr. in Buena Park. Hallmark it’s not, but I’m pleased to be part of whatever the hell this is.