Ghosts of Christmases Past

Grandma H (blue) and Grandma E (pink) with me
and Mike on our wedding day — August 28, 1999

This will be the first Christmas without my grandma H, who passed away this past March. In fact, it will be the first Christmas for me without any one to represent the prior generation of my family–my grandma E died in February 2001 (a few months before my husband), my grandpa E, in February 1996, and my grandpa H, in December 1993. I’m not complaining; I know I was lucky to have only started losing grandparents at the age of 18 and that most of my grandparents lived to see a good part of my adult life. I have many wonderful memories of childhood camping trips with the E’s and both my grandmas attended my college graduation and my wedding. I was really lucky to have them know me as an adult.

But something this year is gone forever. Both of my grandmas were an integral part of my holiday traditions growing up, particularly Christmas. For most of my life, the family tradition was to attend the big bash on Christmas Eve at my grandma H’s house and the smaller gathering in the more cramped but intimate living space of my grandma E on Christmas day. Now, as we try to fill in the empty spaces left by the passing of those who made our traditions before us, I feel a bit sad inside. Nothing will ever be the same again. I’ve never been too good with change.

It was almost befitting of the season with the order in which the two parties occurred. First, the Christmas Eve event which included most of my grandma H’s eight children (with one or two being out of state and only making appearances every once in awhile) and their ever-growing–or so it seemed for awhile–families. (I’m the second oldest grandchild and the oldest granddaughter.) This party, as you might expect, was always loud and lively. I always had kids to play with–or herd, as one might have said in my earlier years when I seemed to love the company of the younger kids. It was a great beginning to the anticipation of Christmas day, especially back in the time when I still believed that Santa Claus was going to pass my house up if I wasn’t in bed by the time he came through my neighborhood. I remember actually being fearful as we drove home at around midnight, afraid that I might see Santa’s sleigh in the sky and know that he’d missed my house because I wasn’t there.

Christmas morning, my parents and little bro and I would spend opening our presents in our PJs. I always tried, like every kid, to wake my parents up a few times too early in the morning before they would finally get up. It always seemed like it was me up first, not my brother. I’m not too calm under the pressure of anticipation, either.

After present-opening, my mom would make breakfast and drink coffee and we kids would spend the morning trying to figure out our new toys. Eventally in the afternoon, we would take off for grandma E’s house for a more relaxed Christmas holiday spent with my dad’s sister Jean, Uncle Jack, and their three kids, Jacqui, Jennifer, and Jimmy (all older than me); my uncle Les (10 years younger than my dad); and, of course, my grandparents. My grandma’s living room was kind of small, so we all squashed together with our TV trays on folding chairs and the couches, feasting on the culinary delights cooked proudly by my grandma. She was such a great cook! She always made sure you ate until your stomach exploded, and then she would ask you if you wanted more. Of course, you went home with leftovers.

Grandma E was a bargain shopper and she loved giving us more gifts than we could carry to the car in one trip. We’d get sweaters and socks and slippers and useful mini-tool sets; battery-operated games and knick-knacks; and, of course, ceramics. Grandma E loved making ceramics. You would get one or two or four for every holiday and usually your favorite color–which she always remembered–was somehow incorporated on the little figurine she gave you. I had tons of figurines of pretty girls with my hair color dressed in purple and cats with purple bows and coffee mugs painted with purple designs.

Christmases just werent the same after Grandma E died. The family sort of disbanded after her death. We no longer spend Christmas day together. The last time I saw Uncle Jack, Aunt Jean, or my cousins Jimmy and Jennifer was at my brother’s wedding in 2006. I don’t remember Jacqui being there. It’s almost as though these people are passing acquaintances in my life without so much significance. Yet, Jimmy at one point was an extension of my immediate family in that he would stay over night at my house like a friend and he accompanied us on many of our camping trips. I used to play with these cousins and now I don’t even know who they are.

My grandmas were almost polar opposites of each other: while Grandma E loved to cook and cooked well, Grandma H found cooking–much like her eldest granddaughter–a troublesome required chore. You didn’t have carefully labored delicacies at Grandma H’s house. Instead, you feasted on spaghetti with big meatballs (my favorite thing to make with her) or pizza ordered out or soup from a can or McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Whenever you went to Grandma E’s house, food was ready for you to eat–no matter what time of day–or prepared when you arrived. At Grandma H’s house, she would welcome you in with a hug and say, “Oh, you’re hungry? I don’t really have much around.”

Grandma E was more traditional while Grandma H was more of what I’d describe as the “modern woman.” This is not to undercut Grandma E at all, for I admired her all the same. Grandma E was a huge reader, knew tons of stuff about everything from reading, and was great to talk to about anything. She was a thinker. A devout Lutheran, her religion did not come to her without careful thought. I always respected that in her.

Grandma H’s natural, happy smile. (Also at my wedding.)

When Grandpa H was diagnosed with MS at the age of 35, Grandma H went back to school and became a teacher. She also wanted to teach because of a determination that she felt she could do a better job than some of the teachers who had taught her children. She had a passion for teaching that made you want to be a teacher too (and a few of her grandchildren have, in fact, become teachers). Because she was a teacher, Grandma H’s house was always full of art supplies and games. She also used to keep her classroom’s Apple IIe at her house over the summer and it was on this computer that she taught me to program in Basic. I always love to tell people that I got my first technical knowledge of computers from my grandma–that always throws them off because people picture grandmas as “old” and “out-of-touch.” Grandma H was never out-of-touch with what was going on in the world. Maybe teaching kept her young. I think it was her love of learning that never died.

Grandma E was a sweetheart. I always have fond memories of sitting with her around campfires at the campgrounds where my family and the E’s would spend weekends in our trailers. She always listened to yacky young Mars Girl and would reply with an, “Oh, ah-ha.” Maybe she wasn’t listening to me but she always made me feel like she was. We shared book titles together when I was a little older (I read On the Beach on her recommendation). She filled my world with presents on Christmas and great handmade chocolate treats on Easter. She continued to give me an Easter basket well into adulthood. It was a constant I’d learned to expect.

When I think of Christmas, it’s not so much recent memories that come to mind but those of the past that have shaped what Christmas means to me. To me, Christmas is visiting those you love, giving them a little token expression of your love, and taking a moment out of your busy to be together. With those people I love so much gone from my life, Christmas seems a little less vivid. Sure, we go through the motions–there’s still a Christmas Eve gathering with the H’s and I go to my parents’ house on Christmas day. But it just doesn’t feel to me what it did back then anymore. I try to make new memories and revel in them, but something special is lost. I’m feeling this more now that Grandma H is physically gone (though she was mentally gone for the last several years with her Alzheimer’s).

I’d refound my childhood spirit of Christmas on those three Christmases Mike and I had together. It was fun buying him gifts, knowing things he would like without him having to tell me. We filled the space beneath our mini-tree with big ticket items and small items. It was almost like being a kid again for a moment in time. I knew I was making new traditions and I was sharing the holiday in a meaningful way with someone I truly loved. The year he died, I did everything I could to not celebrate Christmas. It was too hard.

Unfortunately, the holidays have started to become for me a reminder of those who are missing from them. Perhaps that’s not as negative as it initially sounds because the holidays, while bringing us together with loved ones, put us in the best spirit to remember those who are not with us (whether it be because they have died or they are simply somewhere in the world, unable to get home). It’s a good time to reflect on those near as well as far away or no longer with us here in the physical life.

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2 thoughts on “Ghosts of Christmases Past

  1. I enjoyed this entry very much.. I especially liked the part about grandma painting the ceramics in our favorite colors. I kind of forgot about that. It is pretty good example of her sweet thoughtful heart.. love, Christian

  2. Remember how she made the little figurine people kind of look like you? I specifically keep thinking of this one figurine she made of girl in a purple dress… I think it was my favorite. The girl had dirty blonde hair–Grandma had put yellow with streaks of brown in it. Just like me.She painted the same figurine for Jacqui and Jennifer… Jacqui’s was dressed in red with BLACK hair (like Jacqui) and Jennifer’s was in yellow (or orange, I cant remember what her favorite color was now) with brown hair.She really inspected us closely!

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