I’ve always loved Christmas. Not just the presents, but everything about it. The music and lights, the crisp cool air…if you’re lucky snow. Christmas was always a time for family and being together. It was the time of year when the entire family would gather at grandma’s house.
On Christmas Eve the house on Tony Street was packed. Grandma had been in the kitchen all day and the smells of homemade noodles and mashed potatoes wafting through the house. Grandma bossing everyone around about where things should go.
Uncles and Aunts and cousins in the living room finding a seat…turning down the gas stove in the room to make it a little more bearable, only to have Grandma come in and ask who turned off the stove and the whole game would start over.
Outside the house, lights adorned every window and every eve of the house. Homemade wooden characters stood guard over the house. The nativity scene with a flood light providing the illumination over the manger scene. The gingerbread house village, the carolers, the train with the chasing lights around the wheels of the train…it was all there. Until grandma got the house rewired the electrical box would be tripped at least once when someone forgot and used the microwave during gathering. We all sat in the dark until someone found their way to the fuse box.
Inside grandma’s house ever decoration collected over generations was out. The homemade crafts grandma had made or grandchildren had given her over the decades. There was the candle house village that sat on top of the cabinet, surrounded by the oil lamps that belonged to great-grandma.
Hidden on the Christmas tree was always a spider…just one of the Christmas traditions grandma had read about in the magazines. Under the tree were presents awaiting grandma’s “I told you not to get me anything” before she was forced to sit down and open them.
Behind all the voices, the sound of Gene Autry singing Christmas songs from the 8-track player.
There was also the smoke alarm that would go off to let us all known when the rolls were done. They were delicious…as long as you cut off the burnt bottom.
It was family. It was everything the holiday should represent under one roof.
Slowly it all faded away.
Families changed, people moved away…but mostly we always returned for Christmas Eve.
The time came when grandma couldn’t keep up…the party moved to the community center.
The next year it was there again after grandma had to sell the house and move into an assisted living center. The family still gathered. We were there for each other, but grandma was still there. She may not have heard all the conversations, but sometimes you could see her sit and take it all in…the slightest smile on her lips as you could see peace and contentment. She was taking it all in.
As she moved from her house to retirement homes to assisted living I saw one thing move with her. Each time she had to give away or sell a few more things, but each move she kept her plaster-cast nativity. These plaster cast characters were so familiar. Grandma would help us make so many different plaster people and animals during vacation Bible school craft time. It was her piece of Christmas she always kept close.
Last year, it was the fall when I made a surprise visit back home. I was about to go see grandma when the nursing home called mom’s house. Grandma was having an episode, they thought she was going to need an ambulance. I went with mom and my sister to check on her.
There I saw my 95-year-old grandmother in her bed, every cover she owned on her and she was still shivering. She didn’t know what was happening…she was so frail. I feared this was the end. As I tried to comfort her I could hear her cry out for her mamma.
I shut down. My sister and mom cared for her in her small bedroom, but mostly we just waited. We sat and waited. Slowly she seemed to improve over the hour or so we were there. The danger passed and by the next day she was sitting up and able to see my family.
It was the first time it really sunk in that I would have to say goodbye to her. I always knew it in the back of my mind…but each time I visited I always made sure to say I would see her the next time I was in town. It was never goodbye.
There were other scares and hospital stays that fall. I prayed each time for her recovery.
Selfishly I prayed….God…give me one more Christmas.
My prayer was answered. I tried to believe that she would pull through. She was the toughest person I knew. Looking back I realize she was in her 60s when she would get out and challenge the grandkids to a foot race, and would beat most of us. She was past retirement when she would play basketball with us in her backyard. At 90, her sons confiscated her ladder so she couldn’t climb up on her roof by herself anymore to put up Christmas lights.
This Christmas I sat with Grandma trying to talk loudly enough for her to hear and get her to understand what others were saying to her. I knew I would have to get on the road…it was a long drive back to Oklahoma to make sure my girls were able to wake up in their home on Christmas morning.
I waited as long as I could and finally said my goodbyes. Grandma got up to go with me. She thought I had brought her. She was confused, she rode with mom, but she wasn’t sure who I was. She sat there with a look on her face that was a mixture of shock and confusion. She looked like she thought I was abandoning her and she wasn’t sure where she was or where she was going back to. I still had to leave.
That was the last time I was able to talk to her.
It would be a little over a week later when I got the call I needed to come to the hospital. Grandma was dying.
I was able to be by her side during her final hours. I was able to say goodbye.
I haven’t been able to let go.
Normally I would have my house decorated for every holiday. A way to keep grandma’s tradition of bringing a little outdoor entertainment to all those who might pass by. I couldn’t do it this year.
Halloween came and went, so did Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving I sat and thought about it, it was the day I would normally be up putting up Christmas lights after taking down the giant inflatable turkeys. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself celebrate.
I tried, the joy of the season is all around, but I can’t seem to grasp it.
For only the second time in my life that I can remember I’ll be missing Christmas Eve with the extended family. It’s part due to weather concerns, but I know deep down that I just can’t do it. I can’t put on a smile this Christmas and pretend that the holiday isn’t a little less bright without grandma around.
I am sure I will celebrate again. I have missed the challenge of coming up with a good design for the lights, inflatables, projections and the wooden characters that grandma gave me. Maybe I’ll light up the house bright enough for everyone to see. For now, the lights are off…in mourning for this season.
With one exception. I found some solar-powered lights and put them on grandma’s grave. Even if I cannot bring myself to light up my world…it just wouldn’t be Christmas if grandma didn’t have lights shining bright.
There is time for both celebrating and mourning this year.
In the meantime, I keep grandma’s nativity on the wall next to my bed now. A daily reminder that the joy of Christmas is always with us, and as long as I have my memories…so is grandma.