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21 Dec 2016
After 73 Christmases, the memories kind of blur together. Christmas has always been a Very Big Deal in my life that it's hard to adjust to the fact that it has, of necessity, become a Not Very Big Deal these past few years.
I was thinking back over the past 73 Christmases and it's sometimes strange the things that I remember so clearly about the Christmases of my childhood.
In the days before we learned The Truth about Santa, I remember the night my sister and I heard him in the living room. We were terrified to go out and actually see him, but we listened carefully, so excited to know he was there.
I should mention that we grew up in a 2 bedroom flat in San Francisco, that had no fire place, but there was a space, maybe 3 feet wide between our building and the building next to us which was called the "light well" and we were told that Santa came down the light well, so we always left the dining room window open for him, with a plate of cookies and milk standing there. We hung our Christmas stockings by thumb tacks on the edge of the window seat by the bay window. Stockings in our house were not filled with toys, but with oranges and walnuts.
I don't have any real memories of the Christmases of my young years. We always had a tree in the same corner and my mother always put on the lights. My father always got angry when one of the bulbs was burned out and then he had to figure out which one. Only after the lights were on could we start putting on ornaments and my job was to put on "the face" ornament. It had come from my mother's family and was just the face of a woman wearing a red hood. I kept that ornament after I started having my own trees and had it for years until it got broken one year here. It was like breaking a piece of my past.
We had a village that went around the base of the tree, with houses that had holes in the back of them for light to go in. And my father had built a manger, which I still have today. Some years it's the only nod to Christmas around here by way of decoration.
I still remember the magic of sitting in the living room with only the tree lights on, smell that wonderful smell and maybe listening to Bing Crosby's Christmas record. My favorite Christmas, I have mentioned here before, was the year my mother read "A Christmas Carol" to Karen and me over about a week. I just loved that and hoped it would become a yearly tradition but it only happened once.
Our Christmas dinners were always that same. It was the four of us (mother, father, two kids) and my father's parents plus my godfather, Fred. who was also my grandfather's brother. In his youth, Fred had been a six day bicycle racer and I only recently found out what a big deal six day bicycle racing was when I talked with someone about donating his scrapbooks to our Bike Museum. Fred had been married, but his wife left him and he never divorced or remarried because he was a devout Catholic. He worked as a vacuum cleaner salesman until he retired and lived in a small apartment in San Rafael. He always showed up for Christmas and Easter dinners, with a box of Sees candy in hand.
We always had turkey and my mother made the best stuffing (doesn't everyone's mother?). If she was going to get "fancy" with the dinner, she would make a special salad. I remember one year when I was sick and in bed. The fancy salad for that year had cranberries and walnuts in it and I got so sick I couldn't stomach the thought of eating that salad for decades.
We would have cocktail hour, when my godfather would tell the same jokes each year, my grandmother would roll her eyes, and my grandfather would usually sit silently, since he didnít speak much. (About the only thing I ever really remember him saying to me was "Well--tell me all about yourself," each time he saw me.) Gradually, through the evening, my mother, father, sister and I would all end up sitting out in the kitchen because we couldnít stand the tension in the living room any more. Some years we had visitors who joined the table. Those were fun years because it was always nice to have a change in routine.
My godfather would go to the bathroom right as dinner was called, and my grandmother always got angry at that. My sister and I would get small glasses of wine as a special treat because it was a holiday. Always pumpkin pie for dessert.
I don't know if my father made egg nog every year, but I remember the first year he did it. I can still see him with this grey metallic mixer thing whipping up whipped cream. I got to have a cup of the non-alcoholic version and to this day I have never tasted another egg nog to match it.
We were allowed to open one gift on Christmas eve and I remember the time I chose a gift from a school friend and was so disappointed when it was a piggy bank. Isn't that silly that this is such a strong memory?
I have memories or certain gifts. My mother bought her gifts at the stores downtown, which delivered for free and a big package came one day that my mother said was for me and that it had 3 or four different things in it. She decided not to open it but just wrap the delivered box as is and on Christmas morning I was disappointed that the "3 or 4" things were parts of a camera (flash attachment, film, etc) but thrilled to have my first Brownie box camera. I've been taking pictures compulsively ever since. It was perhaps one of my favorite childhood gifts.
There was another Christmas when my mother was so excited about something she had bought for me. I was babysitting a few nights before Christmas and watching a show on TV where the girl received a gift of a fur jacket. I just knew that this was what my mother was so excited about. Nothing that excited me, but I acted the part. The thing never fit and I think I wore it twice.
The best gifts were always books. I loved the new books I received each Christmas.
I loved wrapping gifts and learned to make ribbon roses, using the ribbon that stuck to itself when moistened. I remember sending a gift box to my old teacher/friend Sister Anne the year after she left San Francisco and made this huge bow with a dozen ribbon roses on it. I was very proud of that package.
I remember clearly the year my father had a nervous breakdown. His job with the post office had recently changed and he no longer worked on the train, which he had done for decades, but in the post office itself. He couldn't handle the change and had been seeing a therapist and on medication for awhile. What I remember most about that Christmas was how pale he was, and how he tried to pretend to be having a good time, but looked so miserable.
When Walt and I started having our own family Christmas traditions, we used to make a big deal out of trimming the tree. We served egg nog and put on Christmas music (always starting with Bing Crosby) and brought out the familiar old ornaments. As the years passed, we ended up with more home-made ornaments than store-bought (doesn't an USS Enterprise ornament with Spock saying 'live long and prosper" just sound like Christmas to you?) The kids drew photos and ran string through them and hung the drawings on the tree one year. That particular year, they were all involved with the springboard diving team and so Nedís ornament that year was a picture of Jesus doing a front dive. Iím really sorry we lost that one! As we had pets who died, we collected what I called the "necropsy ornaments," a memento of each of our dead pets, a ball for Seymour, Toby's collar, etc. which hung around the top of the tree.
Instead of regular socks, I knitted Christmas stockings for the kids. Huge Christmas stockings. Huge, difficult to fill up Christmas stockings. (The older they got, the more I regretted not having followed my parentsí example and had the kids use their own socks to hang up!
Each year the kids dressed in their Christmas pajamas (some years matching, other years not) and we took the annual "train picture" under the tree
And when we had foreign students living with us, we made them be part of the train picture too.
I loved that Walt always read "Night Before Christmas" to the kids before they went to bed. He started when they mostly fit in or around his lap and continued into their adulthood, when NOBODY fit in his lap any more.
When the kids were very small, we always put unwrapped gifts under the tree after they went to bed on Christmas eve so they could find them in the morning. When they got older and learned about Santa, I would put wrapped packages under the tree--but to keep them from figuring out which was theirs, instead of putting names on the packages, I put numbers. Nobody knew who had which number but me so even if they found the packages, they had no way of knowing if they were shaking their own or their brotherís.
We would open packages Christmas morning and then have a special Christmas breakfast (a tradition we continued until Paul died, actually). The family all came over for dinner, much as they all had as my parentsí home when I was a child. My grandparents and godfather were gone now, but Walt's mother, brother and sister always joined us.
We took it to new heights, though in the years during and after the time we hosted foreign students. It was not uncommon for us to have 24 people crammed around tables in our 12x24' family room.
After dinner the kids would put on a show, the Egg Nog Gala. They would play musical instruments and create wonderful skits (the year Jeri, as Mary, gave birth to Jesus was hysterical...Iím sure even God laughed).
Our traditions were shaken up in 1996, when David died. The joy went out of Christmas. I couldnít bring myself to want to put up a tree, but the other kids got a lot of the members of their band to come over and make a party out of it. Iíll never forget how great those kids were that day. They made it fun, and only a few tears. We got it done.
In the first few years after Paul died, our Christmas tradition included going to the cemetery at midnight with a group of their friends, putting a small tree there, then standing over the grave where the boys are buried together, drinking a toast with Jim Beam and poring a bit of it on the gravestone. But after a few years, fewer people came and it got cold and we just stopped doing that.
Now we are scattered and we have no traditions any more. Tom and Laurel and the girls are making their own traditions, as they should, and I feel at sixes and sevens each year trying to figure out how to celebrate the holiday. It's the only time of year when I regret not being part of a church any more, where there would be traditions that would go on no matter what was happening in our lives.
We did start a new tradition when Brianna was younger and we started going to Santa Barbara to be with the kids for Christmas. But when my mother moved to Davis that changed. Trying to include her is important to me, though she can't remember from minute to minute that it's December or that she has grandchildren. There is no way she could handle a trip to Santa Barbara any more.
But Jeri and Phil will be flying in on Christmas day (weather permitting) and will join us for dinner (so now I know I have a dinner to plan). I'm not sure if Ned and Marta will be with us or Marta's family, but we will all visit my mother a day or two after Christmas when Tom and his family will be visiting her cousin in Sacramento. We'll have lunch with Atria and hope the size of the group won't be overwhelming for her.
Mostly this time of year just
feels rudderless, with no more tradition. There is a hole in my heart that doesn't go away. Life goes on
and we laugh and continue as if things were normal, but normal has changed
and on days like this, the emptiness just gets accentuated. Things will be
fine. We'll all have a good time. Just need to take a little time out,
give a sigh for what can't be, maybe shed a tear or two, and then plunge
back into life.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
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This is entry #6112