The Christmas Blowtorch

“Mom, tell a story from when you were a kid!”


“A funny one!” Sam’s head and eyelids were getting heavier by the second.


“Yeah, a WEIRD one!” Nate always wants a weird one. Neither Tighe nor I are even sure what that means.


We alternate nights putting them to bed, and after three books and prayers and the lights are off, they always request one more story, improvised, calling on my ability to make something up on the fly, never easy when I'm within thirty minutes of falling asleep.


Tighe’s stories are intentionally planned out with character arcs, plot twists, and a moral that’s usually reflective of an event that happened in our lives that week, designed to teach a life lesson. It’s impressive. My stories, on the other hand, are usually some hodgepodge of events that my brain wearily strings together. They’re nonsensical and anti-climatic and at the end, I usually just trail off and hope they’re already asleep.


But almost always, Nate asks a follow-up question about my brother, Tim. Tim is his godfather and the object of his first crush. It’s always, “Then what did Tim say?” or “What did Tim do?” Sometimes Tim wasn’t even a character in this particular story, but, like a needy partner in any bromance, Nate needs to know every detail of his life.


The past week or so, I’ve tried to make my stories about Christmas. I always embellish, of course, but with Christmas, you throw in a Santa reference or a favorite toy and your story is gold—a special brunch with Santa, Santa riding down our street on a fire truck passing out candy canes, the year I was convinced I spied the glow from Rudolph’s nose outside my window. They eat it up.


Last night, my Christmas story also needed no fabrications. It didn’t involve any magical traditions, but it was compelling and a bit nostalgic for me. For them, it may have been a bit disturbing. For Nate, it was most definitely weird.


It centered around my Jack Russell Terrier, Rambo—a birthday present from my aunt when I turned eleven—and my grandfather, Poppie—may they both rest in peace. They had a special bond, and I like to think they’re taking long walks together in the afterlife. I typed it up for your…enjoyment.




“Rambo escaped from our backyard all the time! Because he was a terrier and terriers are crazy!”


“What’s a terrier? Is Sam a terrier, then?”


“What? No, Sam’s not a terrier. Sam’s a different kind of crazy. Anyway, Rambo loved to escape and run through the woods, hunting and digging and stuff.”




“Because terriers love to hunt and be free. And our neighbor’s dog, Smoky, hated Rambo!”


“Is Smoky a bad guy?”


“No, Smoky is dead. He was a good dog, but he didn’t like our dogs, so they would fight sometimes. Anyway, one year on Christmas, we were about to sit down to our big feast—beef tenderloin and crab cakes and pies and cookies!”


I paused to recall the food in more detail. Actually, I’m doing that again now.


“Ok, back to the story. Suddenly, we heard Rambo returning from his outing. His white fur was red with blood and his whole body was shaking. He left a trail of blood all across the white tile floor in the kitchen—part of the reason Mimi always says to never get white tiles—and every time he shook his body, blood would splatter all over the walls and the ceiling! It was gross!”


“Cool! Did he die?”


“No, he didn’t die. Well, not that time, anyway. He was really old when he died. Anyway, he had been fighting with Smoky, and the tip of his ear had somehow been punctured. No matter what we did, we could not get it to stop bleeding—there was blood everywhere! It felt more like Good Friday than Christmas.”


“Christmas is this Friday?”


“No, never mind. Anyway, Poppie said, ‘I know how to get him to stop bleeding.’ And we said, ‘Ok, great.’ Sometimes we all forgot that although Poppie’s professional background was in mathematics and engineering, he also fancied himself an amateur veterinarian.”


“He didn’t eat meat?”


“No. A veterinarian is a doctor for animals. So, anyway, Poppie scooped Rambo up and took him out to his van in the driveway. There, he removed a blow torch from under the back seat and, restraining Rambo with one arm, proceeded to try and blow torch the tip of his ear!”


“What’s a blow torch?”


“It’s like a gun that shoots fire. Remember how hot your hot chocolate was this afternoon? A blow torch is much hotter!”


I noticed Sam struggling to pull his comforter up over his head. In retrospect, this story may have been a bit…real. It was time to end it.


“We were all watching from the windows in the family room, but we could hear Rambo barking and screaming, so Pop-Pop [my dad] ran outside and rescued Rambo. ‘But that’s what they do in the army!’ Dr. Poppie was saying. So Pop-Pop and Straight Dave and I got in the car with a trembling Rambo and drove forty minutes to the only animal hospital that was open on Christmas. They fixed his ear and we went home and had a Christmas dinner that couldn’t be beat—like Arlo Guthrie. The end.”


“That WAS weird. And what did Tim do?”




A few minutes later I was back downstairs.


“I told them the blow torch story,” I told Tighe.


“You did what?!


“It’s a Christmas memory! Family folklore! Anyway, I think Sam was scared. They might wake up with nightmares tonight.”


“Uh, yeah. Geeze, Erin. They’re too young for that.”


“So was I! So was Rambo! Okay, never mind. Let’s watch something funny.”


And through to back-to-back episodes of Jim Gaffigan, we tried to push the visions of blood splatter and charred dog fur to the backs of our minds. Merry Christmas.