Short Pieces and Essays

Remembering Christmas

(taken from a letter I wrote to my Grandmother while she was in hospice in 1979)

Dear Grandma,

As I recall, the nights were always bitter cold on our noses and cheeks. I guess I wasn’t really dressed for the New Jersey weather in my Christmas party dress and black patent leather shoes. I don’t know for sure that they were always black patent leather, but that image sticks with me. Hats, mittens, and scarves were tucked around me, probably around Tom, too, as we hopped, danced, and paced up and down the sidewalk on Clinton Avenue in front of our house. Sometimes we were on cement, sometimes on ice and snow. The basic scene was always the same.

In back of us were lights around the door. Dad had made a frame to hold those larger size multi-colored outdoor lights. Bubble lights in a sort of candelabra showed in one window, to one side of the door. A gaudy lighted plastic Santa face graced the window to the other side of the door. Any number of yellow-bulb candelabras filled the rest of the porch windows which faced the street.

In front of us, cars whizzed by on Third Street to our side, and now and then an occasional car wandered up or down Clinton. Mostly, we were anxious, eager, and time seemed endless as we waited and waited for what seemed like forever for the car that brought you and Grandpa (and sometimes other relatives) so that Christmas could begin.

It took both of you forever to get out of the car and into the house. In – past the porch with all the lighted decorations. In – past the foyer door which each year I had painted holiday designs on the glass with my tempera poster paints. Into the foyer where the top of my piano had some sparkly flossy covering with various decorations on it. Mistletoe balls hung in the archway between the foyer and the living room. Wooden, red-painted reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh ran up the bannister, which on the foyer side, held our Christmas stockings.

Christmas cards would hang everywhere – there were so many. Some would be poised on top of my upright piano. Others – the kind with the top fold – were strung on a string across the archway. Others might be scotch taped to the trim around doors and windows.

Mom on left, Dad on right, other relatives in the middle.
Tom, Me, our cat Frosty, around 58-59
Me in my Christmas dress, around 1956.

You always took such a long time to get settled. First, you went into the kitchen at the back of the house. There, you deposited a pile of friars made of specalaas. Each set on cardboard, wrapped in foil. When opened, the one for me was a Dutch Boy. The one for Tom, a Dutch girl. Raisins and currents made eyes, buttons, mouths and noses. Careful lines with a sharp knife drew on the costume details – the Dutch caps, necklines, and for the girl cookie, stripes on her skirt. The arms of the cookie were always with hands on hips – the space to define the arm carefully cut out from the body. Once, Tom complained about this, as the cut-out section meant he lost some valuable cookie. The next year, Tom got a big rectangular blob from you with a face. He was more concerned about the cookie amount than your artistry.

Next you deposited multiple loaves of Christmas bread also carefully wrapped in foil. Something in between white bread and fruit cake, your Christmas bread would get served later in the evening, slathered in butter.

Meanwhile, Grandpa wandered into the house with two or more department store shopping bags, laden with gifts. He would put them under the tree, or let Tom and me do it. Then everybody – all the grown-ups that is – would remark on how many presents there were, and then make some ridiculous chatter about how we should just leave them all there until next year. Tom and I were not pleased at such comments. The harder Tom and I tried to get the ball rolling, the more the grown-ups procrastinated with idle and meaningless talk. Someone would say, the later we start, the longer it will last. But the waiting was painful torture for me and Tom.

Of course, we were already scanning the size and shape of packages bearing our name on the cute red tags. We knew right away which ones were heavy, or rattled, or made no sound at all. Boxes that were more cube shaped were more likely to be toys. Flat boxes were more likely to be clothes, which was less exciting. One box always had new pajamas, which we needed anyway. Long narrow boxes could be dolls! That was the moment I waited for. And it there was a new doll, there was also, farther under the tree, a box of hand-made clothes for the doll. Mom would have sewn up a storm making the doll, pants, a jacket, a dress. You had used leftover yarns to knit scarves, sweaters, skirts, and tams for the doll. And it was glorious.

This Christmas has been very nice. My best friend – Martha, with her little girl Laura – and I went to the Christmas Eve service at the Universalist Church in Bangor. This candlelight service in a historic building began with the young minster saying that many of us had come here in search of Christmas. But, he said, you will not find it here, because each of us must find it for ourselves. The children sang a carol. The choir did a The Hallelujah Chorus. A young boy with a delicate golden voice sang “Whose Child is this?”

Everyone moved from pews to a circle around the entire sanctuary for candle lighting, with which everyone sang “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” by candlelight as we all filed out and headed home in the wintery ice and snow.

Here’s wishing you the very special feeling of Christmas.

love,

wendy

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