Saturday, December 24, 2005

Remembering Christmas Past

Christmas Day was spent at my grandmother’s house when I was a child. Really through my young adulthood, until her death in 1994. She insisted on it. I didn’t understand until I was older that she pretty much made everyone come to her house on Christmas. To me, it was just what we always did. All of her sons and their families were dutifully at her house on Christmas. I’m not sure anyone questioned her authority. She decorated – really decorated. The photo in this post is perfect of her. It’s how I remember her, especially at Christmas, with all the frills, lights, candles and garland she could fit into her house. It didn’t seem to matter that she was living in a mill town in Georgia and her husband was a barber. She had my grandfather, and after his death, my uncle take her into Atlanta to Rich’s to do her shopping. She was a lady and she would have the nicer things. Period. She wasn’t a bad person. She had a difficult childhood and a strong will and with all sons, she was not going to be take a back seat to anyone. I’m not sure she wasn’t right, she set up a family tradition that contributed considerably to the closeness of the family and some very fond memories. She worked us all hard. There were no excuses for not contributing. That was expected too. She raised 5 hard-working, very fine, honorable and just basically good sons. So she obviously did some thing right. That was Christmas. We got up in the morning. Daddy always made us wait in the hall while he got his movie camera out (the kind with the huge hot lamps), when he had everything set up, we could come into the living room and see what Santa had laid out for us during the night. Then we all got ready and went to my grandmothers for the evening and opened presents again. One or the other of my uncles always had a prank gift for someone. My uncles were all hilarious. They played as hard as they worked. After dinner the men would go and sit on the porch and smoke and tell tall tales. The women went to the kitchen and cleaned and prepared for opening gifts. When I was very young I could go out on the porch with my granddaddy and uncles. I always liked going out there with them. They talked about more interesting things than the women did and they thought I was cute. They would sit me on their laps and let me light their cigarettes with those old-fashioned propane lighters and laugh at everything I said and did. I loved them very much. As I grew older, I had to help in the kitchen, but escaped as quickly as I could to go back out to the porch with the men. I remember the last real Christmas there. The last one before they all started leaving. It was crowded in her house, as usual. I remember we were at her table and she was opening presents. My daddy’s youngest brother had gone into the kitchen to get more coffee and was coming back into the dinning room, I bumped into him as he came through the door. He made some kind of joke out of it, as he always did, I wish I remembered what he said. What I do remember is that I looked straight into his eyes and I remember behind his laughter I saw a sadness. He was beautiful, he had strikingly beautiful eyes, and he was so very young. It was the last time I ever saw him. A week later he died of a massive heart attack at 47 years of age. He was the first. My father died just before Christmas the next year. Within a couple of years, 3 of the 5 brothers were dead. All died suddenly of massive heart attacks, just like their father did. Nothing was ever the same after that. My grandmother still insisted on the Christmas gatherings at her house. But it was different now. The laughter was more forced, if it was there at all. Unspoken sadness inevitably hung over the gatherings. The two surviving sons talked together and became closer than ever. My grandmother outlived all but one of her sons. When her 4th son died, she seemed to decide it was time to go herself. Eventhough she had been remarkably healthy during her life, she died within just a few months. We haven’t had Christmas together with that side of the family since then. I’ve rarely seen them at all since then. I find true joy in my family and friends who are in my life now. But during the Christmas season I always find myself thinking back on those years with a certain amount of melancholy. I am always sad for the times that have been tucked away into the past. Times that I had no idea would ever end. I miss the people who have left. I miss them, everyone.