Remembering at Christmas
© 2012 B. L. Bierley
Just like God sent his son to earth to heal and bring the Christian faith to the faithless, I think God also sends our memories of life the same way each year. I mean, it is Jesus’s birthday. When my kids celebrate a birthday, I remember the day they were born like it just happened rather than after the too-quick set of years that keep coming in life like a first summer rain or the colorful leaves of fall. The way I see it, God is likely revisiting this period of history every year during the Christmas holidays, too. And I think the art of remembering at Christmas is a blessing we can all share.
There are few times in life when I pause to reflect on things of my younger years like I do at the holidays. It seems like the memories are on a loop in my mind. Remembering comes easier for many of us at Christmastime. Beckoning memories around the holidays happens sometimes whether we want to remember or not. Christmas for me is the most powerful time for bringing back memories I have tucked away from my past.
Reindeer Games and Ugly Christmas Sweaters
I don’t know if my siblings remember our childhood the same way I do. You see, the last memories I have of my mom involve things I’ve chosen to dwell upon rather than the ragged end of her days on earth. My best memory of my mother is the last Christmas Eve she spent at her parents’ home. I was just seventeen years old.
It’s impossible to recall every single memory of that day. But I remember my mother sitting at a makeshift table, wearing a particularly ugly holiday sweater!
In 1988, my mother wore mostly earthy toned clothing. Her choice of sweater that year was a red, forest green and brown number with two deer knitted into the pattern on the front. The sweater was not hideous by 80’s standards, but in today’s society it would have been deemed an “Ugly Christmas Sweater” by anyone who saw it. My vivid recollection of that day isn’t the thinness of my mother’s body, wracked by the assault of cancer treatments and a lack of appetite. What I remember is her sitting at the game table, wearing that ugly sweater, and smiling.
The tradition in my family is for the younger generations (anyone below the matriarchal figure is fair game) to play games and eat snack foods. The competitive nature is not so much cutthroat as it is comical. The humor and wit flow long with us when we gather to celebrate.
In the final days of 1988, my mother and I probably played a game of some variety. Whatever game it was is lost on me, though. Somewhere there might be a picture of the memory I see in my head when I think of my mom that Christmas Eve night. I’d give anything to have that photo today.
Bawdy Songs and Biscuits
Of all the people in my life whom I’ve loved and lost, none was more beloved than my grandfather on my mother’s side. My grandfather was a former Navy sailor and quite a character. Every photo of him that we have gives only the physical proof of his charm. His smile was mischievous and his eyes twinkled with an unshared secret every day of his life.
From the time he was a small child, my Papa was a good soul. He wasn’t wealthy or even well-known in broad circles. But in the town where he grew up and in the city where he settled to raise his family, no one ever spoke a cross word about him. He was generous and kind to everyone. He was firm with his children, but he loved the people in his life with a blessing of affection he most likely inherited from his mother, who I believe must have been Italian if her name and dark black hair were any indication.
Papa was never without a smile on his face or a tune humming from his throat in a lovely baritone voice. He often would begin to sing a scrub tune from his days as a sailor, but my grandmother would quickly hush him with a flush of embarrassment. I never once heard him get to the good parts of his naughty ditties.
I knew my grandfather for eighteen years, from the day I was born until the day he died. I spent a great deal of my childhood “babysitting Papa” whenever my mother had to work or my grandmother needed to go somewhere without me. I remember making him pretend-food and watching with childhood glee as he ate the offered imaginary fare. I put his thin, grey hair into sponge curlers just like mine as he sat and read his newspaper. I played within sight or earshot of him nearly all of my life.
While growing up in his household, I always felt a strong affection and appreciation for the father of my mother. I owed him my deepest gratitude long before I knew he was a hero. When my own father left my mom, her father saved us both from starvation—driving from Alabama to Florida late one night to rescue my mother from her own stubborn pride.
Papa was a patient, caring man. He lived for the affection of his children and grandchildren. He shaped me into the person I am today simply by being one of the few male role-models in my life. I’m not the only person who felt so strongly about him or mourned him too soon after the death of his youngest child—my mother. He died about a year after my mom from the same cancer that took her from me. But despite all of these wonderful things, the most treasured memory I have of my grandfather was his cooking.
One of the best things I remember about Papa was the way that man could make biscuits. Nobody would ever believe it if they saw him. He was a tall, handsome, strapping fellow. Papa was indeed a man’s man. But he worked magic with buttermilk dough! His biscuits were the lightest, fluffiest confections that ever graced a southern table. My grandmother would try, and her biscuits were nothing to sneeze at, but her efforts could never top his.
I believe if he’d been able to stick around, Papa could have given all of these modern day cooking contest amateurs a run for their money if he’d ever competed. Even to this day I can’t look at the counter in our old family kitchen without seeing him standing over his rolled dough with a jelly jar in hand, winking at me as he cut out the neatest rounds for his baking. Just now, my mouth waters for a taste of one with a homemade emulsion of Golden Eagle Table Syrup and butter.
I have one picture of my grandfather. It’s of him and my grandmother, taken around the same time my mother spent her last Christmas at home. They’re standing together by the Christmas tree in their home. Papa’s eyes are sparkling brighter than the twinkling lights, and Grandma is blushing like he just sang one of his naughty little sailor songs- which by today’s standards probably wouldn’t even make a preacher blush. It’s one of my favorite pictures in the world. I wish my kids could have seen what a wonderful man he was in person.
First Christmas Crazy
Everyone who is a parent knows exactly what I mean when I say that first Christmases are crazy. And in this case, it’s not somebody I miss so much as a period of someone’s life. DaVelma’s first Christmas was, without a doubt, my most insane holiday to date. She was about six months old at her first Christmas.
I knew that nothing I bought or wrapped or put under the Christmas tree would even be a blip on her memory after the day ended, but I was determined to give my daughter everything that year… literally everything for a child her age that I could find or afford. I fully admit that I went a little crazy. But for the first time in my life I had someone to love in the same intense way that I loved my own mother. I was determined to make it magical.
There were so many gifts under my tree that year that DaVelma grew restless and ornery before she finished watching me open the second package. And the only thing she cared at all about was a doll she’d latched onto a week prior to Christmas at the local Wal-Mart that she refused to put back. She dubbed the doll “Fee-fee” … after her favorite lady at her daycare center—Miss Felicia.
DaVelma was not interested in opening any presents or unwrapping any paper-covered surprises. In fact the only thing she opened that whole day were cabinet doors in order to give her little body leverage to try and get upright. DaVelma was walking unassisted and talking by the time she hit nine months. I have video evidence to prove it.
By her second Christmas, I’d gotten a better handle on my purchasing. But something else had changed in the interim year. Santa Claus was now public enemy number one! Those who know DaVelma today will find it hard to believe that my opinionated daredevil was ever afraid of anyone. But in her toddlerhood, DaVelma was a different child.
By this time in her life, DaVelma’s dad and I were divorced. She’d weathered the change without any outward symptoms of stress, in fact at daycare Felicia stated how much happier DaVelma seemed at preschool after the divorce and our move to the townhouse. And yet in her ensuing toddler years DaVelma was not as tolerant as she had been as a baby.
From ages two to four DaVelma didn’t like strangers- males in particular or anyone dressed in any sort of costume. At that time in my life I was teaching a variety of science curriculums at a small county high school. I was the teacher sponsor for band auxiliary groups as part of my job description. Students whom my daughter knew and loved would send her screaming in terror the minute they donned the mascot costume for the football game.
A more specific case in point of Christmas Crazy was how my lovely child would talk about Santa Claus, draw his picture, write him letters and go on and on about what she wanted him to bring to her. However, in her second photo with Santa Claus you can clearly see the arm of my middle sister as she tries to lean far enough out of the frame in order for me to have a photo of DaVelma with Santa where she wasn’t screaming bloody murder. Her third photo I opted for a photo with Santa peeking in the window behind where she sat. In the photo DaVelma looked as nervous as a prisoner on death row, waiting with paranoid anxiety for the executioner to call her name.
In fact, until my nephew joined the family when she was three and a half, she was perfectly fine with skipping all venues of holiday characterizations. Elves, Easter bunnies, Halloween bunnies, you name it, she avoided it. By the time Ziggy was born, she’d accepted the challenge of being an “older sister” and the result was staggering.
DaVelma mellowed on costumed figures and Santa Claus was more like an old family friend. I hoped she would be helpful with Ziggy when he faced his Santa Claus phobia. However, Ziggy was a completely different story.
Ziggy was never afraid of Santa Claus. He went willingly into the velvet covered lap without a tear. He smiled for the photos. He tugged at the beard and gurgled in oblivious joy. His first Easter saw him sitting on the lap as unconcerned as if he were in the lap of a favorite relative. No idea what made him so calm when his sister had been so creeped out. Nowadays when DaVelma would slap the devil himself, preteen Ziggy still prefers a nightlight and checks the closets when he goes into any room alone.
I’ve said it before. I love them more than breathing, but I’ll never understand my kids completely.
New Memories Made Every Year
I don’t mean to suggest that Christmases past were any better than the ones I have now with my friends and loved ones. On the contrary, excepting one year when we had a family feud going, every Christmas we share with one another is a year to be savored and cherished. I don’t remember what gifts we gave one other or what years certain things may have happened, but I remember the laughter we shared, the craziness that sometimes encroached and the good times that we had around the lazy Susan there in the cozy kitchen of my family’s home.
I remember the old tradition of making the kids wait until the last minute to open their gifts after everyone else opened theirs first as a lesson in patience. I remember when Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday having to go to church and listen to an extended sermon on the one day when patience was at a premium. Or waking up to a Sunday Christmas day and being thankful that God and Jesus didn’t mind if we opened our gifts before we dressed up and went to the later service.
I remember using Christmas music as a weapon. Uncle Jude has been married five times to four women. He married his first wife twice just to be sure. At her first visit for Christmas, his last wife complained obsessively about our choice of festive holiday music, calling it noise and saying that it gave her a migraine to hear it.
Our aunt four-five is Jewish, refuses to use capital letters when writing her name, and no longer joins us for the holidays even though we have tried to be more considerate since that first year. We even bought wrapping paper adorned with menorahs and dreidels especially for her gifts!
I remember being unable to sleep a wink in anticipation of the big reveal each morning when my kids woke to find their new toys and gifts. I remember the mistakes I made trying to do things last minute or by sticking to a manufacturer’s recipe. I remember the people who left us and the shared tears when something would happen that reminded us of one of our departed loved ones.
I remember the games, the silly rule-breaking where we would try to convince one another that words really do exist in order to get that extra point in Scattergories. I remember my sisters sharing their stories from work in the days leading up to the holiday vacation. I remember the year my middle sister missed coming home because she was in a hospital with my two-month old nephew on his very first Christmas, praying that whatever was wrong would be made right so that she would have many more years to share happier times with him.
I remember taking one last trip to Wal-Mart for something else someone said they hoped for after we thought we’d satisfied every item on the lists. I remember the last minute gift wrapping. And I remember the light in their eyes when a gift is so well-thought out and perfect that they realize how much it means to us to see them so happy.
All of these things are what make each and every year a great memory for my kids to share with their children someday.
Merry Christmas to all of my friends, fans and family!
B. L. Bierley