While commenting on another blog (Minnesota Mamaleh, written by Galit Breen), I recounted a special holiday memory, which started me thinking about some of my best (read favorite) holiday memories, the memories that I cherish and attempt to recreate each year, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
The first one is a Christmas at my grandparent’s house. My mother is one of three children, my father an only child, thus ensuring that most major holidays were spent with my mom’s family, with dad’s family invited to come along. Since the extended family all lived in Florida, we often journeyed to see the family and the arrangement worked well for all concerned. Except for me, of course.
We traveled for most holidays. If we spent Thanksgiving with my dad’s family, then Christmas was with my mom’s. Occasionally we stayed at our home in South Carolina, but I can only recall three Christmases there. It was always a dream I had that the four of us, me, mom, dad and lil’ bro, would stay at home and create our own traditions. But that wish never materialized and in its place is the memory of the tradition of the bedlam of a large family coming together for the holidays. It was truly grand!
This particular Christmas was spent in the house with the intercom system. Previously, my grandparents had resided in a double wide trailer in the woods on the edge of a pond. My memories of that place include playing with toads, watching snakes play on my plastic slide and the neighbor girl telling me all about how I missed the best sight- chickens with their heads cut off that ran around, spurting blood into the air until they finally fell over. (Actually glad I missed that sight!) It is from here that my grandparents moved into a nice three (maybe four?) bedroom home. Mamaw (what we called my grandmother on my mother’s side) was tired of finding snakes in her laundry basket and had threatened to leave her husband if he did not get her a more suitable home.
This new home was equipped with an intercom system which allowed you not only to pipe in music to every room, but, much to the grandkid’s delight, the ability to speak with someone in another room by pushing a button. We loved using it and were therefore summarily banned from it. That did not stop us.
On this Christmas, everyone was in attendance- my parents, with myself and younger brother in tow, Aunt A., her husband and their daughter, Uncle D. with his wife and their son, and both of my sets of grandparents. (This was also the year I decided that Santa was not real. A fact made more apparent to me when Papaw- yup, grandfather on mom’s side- showed up with toys and dressed as Santa. I was not unaware of the fact that when Santa showed up, Papaw had gone missing. He was not prepared for the onslaught of questions we threw at him on his return.) Aunt A. was (in fact, still is) known for her exuberance for the holidays. She can’t sleep on Christmas Eve and I am convinced that it was her husband who restrained her at least until 5:30am, when she could no longer stand it and woke everyone else up.
I walked into the living room to see her laughing, eyes wide and excited, sitting on her daughter’s new tricycle. In my memory, the tree is ten feet tall and the presents for the family spread out of the room and into the kitchen.
Aunt A. had made all the cousins stockings. I still have mine. It reaches to my waist. At that age, I could stand inside of it. This stocking was filled with gifts. There were gifts under the tree as well as unwrapped presents from Santa.
Finding a corner just for me, I settled in and began unwrapping the booty. I don’t remember all I was given that year, but two presents stand out- an erector set from Santa and a bible from my God parents. Other than those two gifts, what stands out in my child’s eye is the warmth and security of family. We were all there, whether we wanted to be or not. Surely we ate until we could bust later in the day. The kids probably spent loads of time with favorite gifts. I remember hugging my daddy, because I knew he was the one who gave me the erector set I had wanted so badly. (The erector set which later became a problem since I have never been a neat person and lost many of the small parts of the set, much to my father’s consternation.)
My next memory is as an adult, or at least as someone whose age should have betrayed her as an adult. In high school, I had participated in two exchange trips to Germany. The second one was to Bamberg where I stayed with Family F. I remained in touch with the eldest daughter, S., who is just a year older than me. When I went to Germany on a college exchange, they asked if I wanted to stay with them at Christmas.
This was in my college years, but I really should have known how to plan. I arrived in Germany, on Family F’s doorstep with every intention of staying one week and then traveling for four weeks before starting school. It was only after I got there that I realized my budget wouldn’t allow me to travel for four weeks. In fact, I didn’t have enough money to travel at all. That’s when I became the ‘thing which wouldn’t leave.’ Family F. tolerated my presence long past my expiration date and for that I am eternally grateful. It is also the reason why Hubby and I take in people who need a place to stay the night. Graduate student looking to go to school in our town? Check. Singers traveling from church to church? Check. Blind Russian student whose apartment is insect ridden and needs help getting a new place? (That’s a fun story!) Check.
Despite having well overstayed my welcome, Family F. did not rescind their invitation and on Christmas Eve day, S. took me to her favorite bar.
We spent the afternoon there, hanging out with her friends and drinking. We made it home in one piece and were instructed to set the table. This proved to be tricky, but we managed and by the time we sat down at the table to eat, S. and I were respectable.
When I was younger, my mother had tried to foist fondue on me, and I thought I didn’t like it. Turns out I had just never given it a proper trial. For dinner, Family F. had meat fondue. It is a slow process whereby you cook small, individual pieces of meat in a hot pot of broth and then eat the meat with various sauces. The upside to eating this way is that you take time not only to eat, but to converse with the other people at the table.
After our leisurely dinner, they pulled out a board game- Balderdash. My German is good. I can converse without much trouble, listening and reading are easy tasks. But writing.
Well, that’s another story altogether, so I was skeptical of my ability to participate in a meaningful way. I was right. And wrong. While people rarely guessed my answers as legit (though S. did this on occasion, which meant I did not come in last, thanks to her), I was able to correctly guess most of the right answers.
Later, we went to the cathedral and then on to a friend’s house. The next day, more relatives would show up, exposing my inability to recall names, a problem which still haunts me. But that evening with S., her parents and sister, was the closest feeling I had to family that year. (It had been a hard year of divorce from Soldier Boy and general confusion in my life.) The fact that they were all together, enjoying each other’s company, even if it was just for a few hours that night, really left an impression on me. It’s something I hope to reproduce in my own family.
There are many demands on us these days. Not just mothers and fathers, but simply as people. We are pulled from one engagement to another, keeping up with the latest important event- from saving the children to supporting the arts. It all sounds so convincingly critical to the welfare and continuation of life as we know it that rarely is the imperative questioned. But reflecting on these memories, I am reminded of what’s important: The connections we make, not the stuff we give or get. Enjoy your family and friends this year. I know I will.