Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Bobbie Ann Mason’s story “Drawing Names” takes place on Christmas Day—a poignant time that holds so much potential for heartache simply because it is supposed to be so magical. Carolyn Sisson, her three sisters, and the sisters’ significant others have gathered at Mom and Dad’s house in Kentucky for Christmas dinner. But Carolyn’s significant other, whom the family has never met, is not there; he has given the excuse that he had to go check on his boat, which may have sustained some damage in a bad storm. He’s promised to be there by dinnertime. Carolyn suspects Kent really just doesn’t want to come, and she’s not at all sure she wants him there either.
The story explores the dichotomy between the Christmases we see in the pages of slick magazines, and Christmas as it is lived in the real world. “Drawing Names” refers to the practice of writing every family member’s name on a slip of paper, putting them in a hat or bowl, and asking each person to draw one name to buy a present for. That way every family member gets a present, but no one goes into debt. Carolyn’s mom is bothered by the practice; she wants to buy each of her daughters a present, and instead draws the name of her daughter Laura Jean’s live-in boyfriend Jim, who is a Yankee to boot. Carolyn is surprised that her mother would put Jim’s name into the pot at all; he isn’t even family. What constitutes “family” becomes a central motif for the story.
Unquestionably, Carolyn, her parents, her grandfather, her two married sisters and their husbands, and Carolyn’s nieces and nephews must be considered family. But the rules have been stretched to include Jim, as well as Kent (should he ever actually arrive). Kent wasn’t included in the original ritual of drawing names, so Carolyn has brought a present for him to open so he wouldn’t feel left out. Sister Iris’ husband Ray has a present under the tree, of course, but Iris confides to Carolyn that this might be the last time; she and Ray have separated, and the appearance at Christmas dinner as a couple is only a sham. “It’ll kill” her parents, Iris says, when they find out. Carolyn, who herself is divorced, cannot help but feel that she initiated this process of family ties fraying at the seams.
Customs are clearly changing, as their grandfather Pappy points out at dinner: “Use to, the menfolk would eat first, and the children separate. The womenfolks would eat last, in the kitchen.” Now not only does the entire family eat together, but they welcome at their table those whose ties to the family have neither the right of blood nor the legitimacy of marriage. The legitimacy that exists between Jim and Laura Jean is a product of their own hearts, and they bring it to the table to be recognized as valid—which it is. When Carolyn tells Jim that he was brave to come down here, he replies, “Well, Laura Jean’s worth it.” Carolyn realizes that Kent’s absence speaks volumes about his feelings for her.
For Kent never comes. He phones several times, each time offering an excuse for being late, finally telling Carolyn that all the gas stations are closed and he won’t be coming at all. By that time dinner is long past; “the gifts were opened, Jim helped clear the tables....The baby slept, and Laura Jean, Jim, Peggy and Mom played a Star Trek board game at the dining room table, while Carolyn and Iris played Battlestar Galactica with [Carolyn’s nieces]. The other men were quietly engrossed in the football game, a blur of sounds. No one had mentioned Kent’s absence.” His gift remains under the tree; “an icicle had dropped on it, and it reminded Carolyn of an abandoned float, like something from a parade.”
The parade is composed of all of the people who, over the course of our lives, move in and out of it. We want them to have permanence because we love security, but it is not always to be. We find security in the oddest places, like a Yankee outsider who brings Rebel Yell whiskey into a house of teetotalers; the predictable couples, like Iris and Ray, don’t always work out. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work in Kentucky; this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be on Christmas. But this is how it is, Mason reminds us. Get used to it, and create a family out of those who are here with you now.
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