This story was written and performed by Randy Brooks for the live, personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales) on December 13, 2011, at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas.
The theme of the show was "Home Is Where the Heart Is."
"Randy tells a hilarious story about his childhood Christmas spent with his idiosyncratic family and how it led to his writing 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,'" says Oral Fixation creator and director Nicole Stewart. "Read the story he wrote about those fun days, and be sure to watch the video below to see him sing his famous song! It's our holiday gift to you."
I'm tempted to say that when I was growing up in Kentucky in the 1950s, Christmas was a simpler affair. But of course it was simpler -- I was a kid! I had no responsibility but to sit and wait for Christmas to happen. And as far as I knew, it was simple for adults, too, since I was under the impression that Santa Claus took care of everything.
But Christmas really was simpler for the male gender back then because some believed that the women would take care of all the cooking and the cleaning. After our holiday meals, the women would clear the table and disappear into the kitchen, while the men set up a card table in the living room in front of the black-and-white television. Beer and cigars appeared, and Granddaddy and his brothers -- Uncle Lewis and Uncle Henry -- commenced playing cards with one eye and watching football with the other.
Sometimes I'd climb up in Granddaddy's lap, and he'd let me have a sip of his beer. He always drank either Schlitz or Oertle's '92. I never had to acquire a taste. I liked it right away; it tasted like Granddaddy. As he became more involved in the card game, I became more involved in the beer -- until I fell asleep in his lap.
All of us grandchildren called my grandmother Dot-Dot. "Dot" was short for Dorothy. As a toddler I added a second Dot, and it stuck. The real mystery is why anyone ever called her Dorothy in the first place since her name was Katherine.
Granddaddy suffered a stroke when I was just seven. Uncle Lewis and Uncle Henry passed away around that same time. But Dot-Dot lived on into my young adulthood.
She was a funny little thing. As time thinned her hair, she took to wearing a luxurious wig of a brunette color not found in nature among women her age. A true Kentuckian, she liked her bourbon. A memory lingers of her leaving our house one night, giggling, with wig askew, and my dad asking if she was sure she was OK to drive.
This was my mom's side of the family. I never knew my dad's parents as well. We would pay them an obligatory visit on Christmas afternoon, and I would receive a little dress shirt and bow tie or some gift similarly repugnant to a young boy.
Granddaddy Brooks died of an overabundance of Southern cooking while I was still quite young. His widow, my dad's mother, was a repository of ailments. My most enduring memory of her is that she would sit at the dinner table going, "Ooh... ooh... ooh. Well, honey, aren't you going to ask me what's wrong?"
The other fixtures around my childhood Christmas table were Great-Great-Great Cousin William and his wife, Aunt Edna. They were a colorful duo. Cousin William was vice president of a distillery (and believed in bringing his work home with him). He and Aunt Edna would have a drink or two before leaving their house, another couple at our house before dinner, and by the time we all sat down at the table, they were attacking each other like Republicans and Democrats. Cousin William liked to bait Aunt Edna by speaking ill of Sam, their dachshund. Truth be told, I think he was secretly fond of Sam, but he never failed to get a rise out of Edna by saying that he had a good mind to "slip Sam the needle." Edna would spit out some venomous response, to which Bill would reply, "I think maybe I ought to slip you the needle, Edna!" The rest of us would laugh heartily, but nervously -- never quite certain whether we were witnessing performance art or mayhem in the making.
A recurring story of Aunt Edna's had to do with their courtship. Coming home from a date on a moonless night, the porch light was burned out, and Cousin William couldn't locate the keyhole to open the door. Aunt Edna said, "I told him, Bill, if that thing had hair around it I bet you could find it!"
But back to Dot-Dot. If memory serves, she passed away in 1982. My mother tells me that Dot-Dot was a harsh taskmaster, a former school teacher who expected perfection from her children. But as the oldest grandchild, I could do no wrong. Dot-Dot and I had a special relationship.
About five years after her death, I stumbled upon a Merle Haggard song called "Grandma's Christmas Card." As I listened, I anticipated that Merle was taking us where so many country songwriters did during that period: singing the praises of some beloved figure for two verses, only to reveal in verse three that the beloved figure had passed away.
I thought, "Merle, if you were half the songwriter you think you are, you wouldn't manipulate your audience like that. You'd break the news in the first line of the song that Grandma was dead -- and then if you could still come up with three verses and a chorus, you'd really have something!"
So I climbed in bed with my guitar and wrote my own Merle Haggard Christmas song. I dredged up those childhood memories of the Christmas poker games with Granddaddy and his brothers, and most of all, Dot-Dot, with her wig and her whiskey. Had she lived just five years longer, I'm sure no one would have gotten a bigger kick out of the song that resulted. And whenever it's played on the radio, I suppose that, in a way, my relatives and their idiosyncrasies live on in other families' Christmas celebrations. Merry Christmas, everybody.