“Keep your gaze fixed at the back of the room,” LSB had said, against the conventional wisdom of imagining your audience naked.
I instinctively disregarded his counsel, and fixed my eye creepily on a number of individuals I believed would be sympathetic. I looked most often at my mother, who had abandoned her high-heels in favour of a pair of sensible sandals.
Given that I often fail to entertain myself, the prospect of commanding the attention of the entire Schultz family and even attempting a few quips along the way was rather daunting.
However, there I was standing in my black graduation dress with all the Schultzs staring at me, desperate to figure out what the Irish contingent had come up with this year. I decided the best thing to do was to start speaking.
“When our mother was a little girl,” I began (in German) “and adults asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer was always the same.”
I paused for effect and a Schultz baby (third generation) began to cry. Unable to decide whether it was in empathy or disgust I continued:
“She wanted to be a martyr.”
The baby wailed again. My sister clicked the next slide and a picture of my mother as a child beside a stock image of Martin Luther (the reformer) appeared.
I regaled my audience with a hilarious anecdote about my mother challenging an irate nun in class. The Schultz family laughed politely. The baby demanded to leave the room.
Before I knew it, it was time for the first theatrical performance.
As part of the research into our mother’s past, we had stumbled across a letter she had written to the “Christkind” when she was a little girl.
While the Christkind fulfils the same role in Germany as Santa Claus does in this part of the world, there are notable differences between the two. For one, the Christkind is an angel, rather than a Coca-Cola-inspired fat man, and according to my mother, genderless. He/she flies from the heavens on Christmas Eve and deposits presents under the trees of good children.
My mother made modest demands of the Christkind. She asked for a pair of tights, a bottle of Rotbaeckchen juice and a fountain pen.
I acquired these items in Regensburg and decided that a cameo appearance from the Christkind simply had to feature as part of the presentation. Having mentally auditioned the entire younger generation of Schultzs, I finally cast my 17-year-old cousin in the role. She is a natural Child of Christ, waif-like with long blonde hair and an angelic countenance.
She fashioned herself a golden costume featuring an enormous pair of glittery wings and to complete the transformation, LSB had the ingenious idea of covering our Frisbee with tinfoil to make a halo.
Shortly before the presentation (we were interrupted by the Family Song) the Christ Child and I briefly rehearsed what cue she would need in order to fly to my mother at just the right time. She had prepared to hide in a little adjoining room until the time was right.
Up to that point –all things considered — my performance had been without major hitch. I was fair-minded enough to put the baby’s reaction down to the stress of his first ever introduction to the Schultz family and accounted for his disappointment at the standard of my opener by diagnosing a case of precociousness.
When I spoke the Christ Child’s cue (“To show our mother that dreams really can come true, we have invited the Christ Child here today to lavish her with gifts”), nothing happened.
No Christ Child flew in, bearing fruit juice, a pair of tights and a fountain pen.
I paused and spoke again.
Still no Christchild.
The Schultzs were quiet. No baby cried now.
I paused a while.
In spite of my meticulous preparation for this event, I had not tested the acoustics of the room next door.
I became increasingly desperate.
“Christchild,” I yelled. “CHRISTCHILD.”
There was a flutter of wings at the door and the Christchild flew in to a great cheer from the Schultzs.
My mother was overwhelmed by her winnings and immediately asked the Christchild to pose for a photograph.
The public’s positive reaction to the Christ Child’s appearance was unprecedented and I relaxed in the confidence that the next theatrical performance would go down just as well.
My Greek cousins re-enacted my parents’ first dance with rare and delicate sensibility. My research had revealed that my father and mother had communicated in French when they first met and that my father was an exceptionally poor dancer. My male cousin, dressed in an afro wig similar to my father’s hairstyle of the time, grabbed his sister around the neck and stepping on her toes, misdirected her in an unfortunate and entirely graceless waltz around the room. She, a method actor in turn, called out “Oh la la,” and “Fais les petits pas” in what came across as very genuine desperation.
Having completed the first section of the presentation, I breathed a sigh of relief, let my sisters take over and took a seat in front of the laptop. On my way, I managed to catch LSB’s eye. He couldn’t give me the thumbs-up because he was holding his camera at arm’s length (much to the mortification of my sisters) but he winked encouragingly at me.
At this point in the story, perhaps I should offer some insight into the background to this curious presentation. This might be of particular interest to my mother, who at time of writing, remains in the dark.
The Ferguson sisters are like any series of collectables. We are essentially the same but we each have some nice individual characteristics to recommend us to the peculiarly attentive.
When we were little, our father used to invent stories featuring my sisters and me in a parallel ancient Greek world. So that they don’t beat me up, I’m going to refer to them by the names our dad invented for us. My oldest sister, Penelope is the DIY extraordinaire and one not to libel, the middle child, Hermione is the scientist and bag-maker in Philadelphia and you all know me, Persephone as the youngest, least accomplished one that isn’t quite sure what she’s doing with her life.
In preparation for the presentation, Penelope scoured the family archives (dusty boxes in the basement) for photographs, Hermione compiled them into a Powerpoint file and I, Persephone wrote the accompanying text.
In the weeks leading up to the Familienfest we encountered a series of artistic differences, which were fortunately tempered by the great physical distance between us.
On the day however, as I watched Penelope and Hermione present our mother finally with a magnificent home-made medal (a speed limit sign with the number “60” within it) and I closed our speech with reference to her love of etymology (the word “martyr” is related to “memory…”) I realised that no matter how far apart, the Ferguson sisters are a bizarre force to be reckoned with.
Belated Happy Birthday, Mama. Hope you liked the juice.