It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year Unless You’re Related to Me
Seven Songs to Get You Through the Sadness of Winter
Every winter, as other families hang holiday lights and stuff themselves with stuffing, my family braces for death. The first few years, we handled the tragedies as any functioning family would—with hugs and tears. But our holidays have centered on hospital visits and funeral parlors for so long that now we sit in waiting rooms, our pockets full of empty airplane bottles of booze, playing crazed spin-the-bottle games of Who's Up Next? And we tell stories. And we listen to music. And we drink. It's in that spirit that I created this short playlist: part tribute, part good-luck charm, full of songs that are tied to the people I love who have died.
by Talking Heads
My grandpa Melvin was a Los Angeles cop who moved his young family to the wilds of northern Idaho so they wouldn't grow up perverted, California-style. I spent every summer of my childhood next to the lake with him and my grandma. After his first stroke, he was forced to give up golf. After his second, it was tying his shoes. He still pushed through his daily regimen of lifting weights and tanning, but you could tell it wore on him. So we started a new exercise regimen of bicycling around the perimeters of local golf courses and collecting stray balls. Once we had a basket's worth, we'd crouch in the bushes and pelt vacationing golfers—the blond ones—while screaming, "Go back to California!" (He said 40 years in Idaho took the hypocrisy out of that statement.) We'd laugh and laugh, then pedal home and watch hours of crime-show dramas and documentaries about serial killers, from which I learned how to best prepare for my eventual rape and dismemberment. The manic glee of the Talking Heads reminds me of him. In 2005, Mel fell into a coma on my birthday. Even on his deathbed he looked exactly like his pinup hero, Jack LaLanne. Before the coma, his last words to me were "Hello, Cienna! I'd offer you a seat, but I think I just shat in it." He died a week later.
by Warren Zevon
My grandpa Ray was the opposite of Mel: a fat bean farmer. Ray enjoyed slaughtering things and eating things he had slaughtered. He used to take me with him to farm auctions where you could buy everything from automatic milking machines to taxidermied squirrels posed in American Girl dresses. Sometimes he'd buy a tractor or a box of porn to add to his antique porn collection (he also collected meat cleavers, racist antiques, and toy tractor figurines). He died on Thanksgiving Day, 2005, while on his way to the kitchen for fourths. Ray thumped his chest and said, "I think my shit's fucked up," but unlike Life'll Kill Ya, the Warren Zevon album he was unwittingly quoting, he had no time to come to terms with the betrayals of his body. He simply dropped dead on the kitchen floor—a heart attack from eating too much. (In the spirit of the holiday, I prefer to think he cornucopia'd himself.) Someday, I hope to inherit his meat cleavers.
by Frank Zappa
Considering I talked to him just this morning, you could make a pretty strong case that my dad isn't dead. It's true: He's not dead; he's just a drunk. Having a drunk for a dad can seem like an amazing gift when you're a kid. For instance, I learned to drive at age 7. We were doing 70 on a stretch of Interstate 84 in southern Idaho, headed to Grandpa Ray's farm, when he ordered me to steady the wheel while he lit a cigarette. A few miles later, I took the wheel again so he could crack a beer.
"I'm not supposed to be in the car with you drinking," I dutifully said.
"Who's the parent here?" he replied. "Now watch the road, you're drifting."
We drove for hours that way—me steering and him drinking, braking, and shouting along to Frank Zappa's "Catholic Girls" (we both loved that song).
Our sporadic weekends together were fun. I was doing exactly the kind of dangerous shit that my mother forbade me to do: climbing roofs, swimming in canals, running with guns, operating heavy farm machinery, riding livestock, making trash fires, and playing knife-tag with my cousins, a game that amounted to us chasing each other around, screaming, with our grandpa's butcher knives.
But any child of a lifelong drunk knows what it's like to grow up mourning a parent long before their heart stops beating. When I was a teenager, I mentally buried my dad after his fifth DUI. I couldn't keep holding my breath for news that he'd killed himself or someone else. Then in 2005, he went to rehab (again), came out clean, and was resurrected. We rebuilt our tenuous relationship—mostly through phone calls about the weather and Dancing with the Stars. Last June, he visited me in Seattle for the first time since getting sober. After his visit, I found a half rack of Smirnoff Ice and two big bottles of Mike's Hard Lemonade buried in my kitchen recycling (I don't drink either). Also, my bottle of whiskey had been refilled with apple juice. When I confronted him, he said he started drinking again when Grandpa Ray died, but I've always suspected that he could've just as easily answered, "Because it was Tuesday." He and I still talk. But in my mind, I buried him with his dad, on Thanksgiving.
by Tom Waits
My great-uncle Arvid used to keep a stash of Tootsie Rolls in his pocket—and if you reached into his mouth and pulled out his teeth, he'd give you one. Arvid died on Veteran's Day, 2009. He was not a veteran.
by Rosemary Clooney
My grandma Roberta (Mel's wife) was a tiny woman with a silver puff of hair, pink lips, and a throaty, upbeat voice like Rosemary Clooney. "Come on-a My House" was the only song I remember her singing aside from children's lullabies. Together we explored nearly every graveyard and ghost town in Idaho. She taught me how to bake cookies, paint, and pan for gold. When she got older and walked with the pained grace of a two-legged mule, it became my job to drive her around looking for old barns to paint or over to play video poker at the Indian casino. In 2008, we celebrated her 83rd birthday with lemon drops and pedicures. At dinner she requested her birthday dance—a tradition started after Mel died. It began with me drinking at least four lemon drops, then mounting her chair and air-humping her face until she cried from laughter (as you can guess, the dance had less to do with birthdays than it did with my lemon drop intake). I can't think of her without seeing a montage of all the places I humped her face over the years—the Pink Door, Olive Garden, several Blockbusters. On Christmas Eve that year, she fell asleep in her chair and never woke up. Every December I wish I could hump her face one last time and tell her in person what a bitch she was for ruining Christmas.
by Das Racist
My cousin Suzanne was a librarian who loved cats, hotel minibars, and fan fiction. Her affection for cats and fanfic was obvious; her obsession with minibars came to light only when her liver failed. Suzanne was young and her decline was swift. My aunt and mother were devastated. Don't we all share the same indomitable hillbilly livers? they asked her doctors. Don't we all enjoy a minibar or two after dinner? She was flown to Seattle on the long shot that they had a spare part to plug into her. For a few painful days, I was her only company. That first day, she recognized me. But after that, when the infection set in, I'm not sure. I watched her eyes and skin turn the color of creamed corn, then squash. She didn't talk, just slept and sweated. So I did the only thing I could think to do: I drew her thin hospital curtain closed, turning her bed into an instant smut confessional, and told her every horrifying secret and stray bit of gossip I had stored up in me. (Which is exactly what I want on my deathbed.) I told her about the time I accidentally shit myself. I told her about the cowboy I know who pierced his own scrotum with his wife's earring and wears silk thongs under his cowboy getup when he competes at rodeos. I told her about the nurse in the neighboring ICU room who was giving dating advice to a man over the body of his lightly snoring wife. Once I ran out of secrets, I read the warning labels on her hospital machines aloud to cover the sounds of her dying. Then, because I can't sing, I turned on my iPod and chanted along to song lyrics so she knew someone was still there. I have no idea if Suzanne liked Das Racist, but I'm fairly confident I made her nurse hate them.
by the Band
My aunt Judy—daughter of Mel and Roberta, mother of Suzanne—was a proud, batshit woman who hated children, kept wolves as pets, and buried a substantial fortune somewhere in her 50-acre backyard because she didn't trust banks. Judy followed her mother's example and died in her sleep on Christmas Eve, 2010. All I'm asking for Christmas this year is that no one else dies. But barring that, I suppose I could make do with a metal detector.
This article has been updated since its original publication.