I remember as a kid the excitement and anticipation that was always associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas. That hasn’t really changed much, but then I don’t think I’ve really grown up much either. And I’ll tell you, a lot of the anticipation had to do with the fact that my family did the same thing every year. The “same thing” might sound really boring and whatever, but it wasn’t at all.
I have an extremely close-knit extended family. Growing up, this was no big deal to me. I thought this was just what families did and why should my family be any different from anybody else’s? The older I got, though, the more I realized that there was a reason for the expressions of surprise and even envy on the faces of my friends when I described my family’s holiday traditions. My family really is the exception to the rule I think, in more ways than one.
I remember every year piling in the car with my sister and my mom and my dad to drive the few miles to Grandmother and Granddaddy’s house. They had lived there literally for as long as I could remember and we went there all the time just to visit, and every single Thanksgiving and Christmas without fail. There was always the excitement of seeing my cousins and aunts and uncles that we hadn’t seen for awhile maybe, and my sister Betsy and I would start planning weeks ahead of time and counting down the days. We also have a large family – my mother is one of five sisters, all of whom have at least one daughter if not more, and there are a couple of sons thrown in for good measure.
There are lots of things I remember particularly about those days. I remember the Scary Guy who lived next door to my grandparents who was very mysterious, and we made up stories about him that scared the living hell out of us. I remember the basement that was crammed full of old toys and dress-up clothes and dolls and stuffed animals, and how the basement would get really spooky if you were down there by yourself, and how you wanted to look over your shoulder in the dark but just squeezed your eyes shut instead and ran back up the stairs. I remember the stool my grandmother used to sit on and smoke her cigarettes, dye Easter eggs, shell pecans, and distribute cookies from the huge cookie jar she kept for us young ones. I remember late at night after the meals when the kids would be playing outside, one or two of us would run inside to use the bathroom or get a snack and see all the grownups sitting together, talking about Deep Things, and we would wonder how they could be so insufferably boring all the time. I remember making a jump rope out of Grandmother’s old scarves tied together end-to-end and attached at one end to the stair railing in the basement so you only needed two people to jump rope. I remember the little shed and the pile of things next to it in the backyard that Grandaddy kept so carefully organized, and how we kids would go out there to build a fort, usually under the direction of Allie. I realized a few years ago thinking back on it that our grandfather never once in all those years said a word about us messing up his stuff. Never once, and he always went out after we left and cleaned everything up in his slow, purposeful way. He is a man of few words, but a huge heart.
I remember the huge spreads of home-cooked food on the old gold-flecked Formica countertops in the kitchen. I remember the old organ that used to sit on the other side of the kitchen that barely played, but it would if you banged really hard on the sticky keys. I remember the piano in the “parlor” that we cousins who knew how would play at Christmas. I remember all of us crammed into that selfsame parlor every Christmas, surrounded by our grandmother’s elaborate Christmas decorations and the tree and all the lights, and piles of wrapping paper and all the moms reminding the cousins to say thank you to whoever for their gifts. I remember every single Christmas Grandmother and Granddaddy giving each cousin a Christmas ornament, a tradition we didn’t much care for as kids. But now? Every time I decorate my tree for my own kids at Christmas, and I hang those ornaments on my tree, the memories of all those Christmases past and the memories of my grandmother make me smile. She loved Christmas.
We lost Grandmother a few years ago. Towards the end she really couldn’t speak much, or chose not to because it required too much effort and pain. I remember when I brought my boys, just three days old and fresh out of the hospital right after Thanksgiving, she indicated by gestures that she wanted to hold them. I will never forget that day. She sat in her old rocking chair with a pillow on her lap and the boys on the pillow, just rocking and rocking and looking at them. She sat like that for hours. Not too long after that day she passed away, and most of the family was there at her home to be with her. The sisters, her daughters, joined hands around her bed, my grandfather on his knees beside her, holding her hand. Someone started to sing a hymn, one of her favorites. She died surrounded by the people who loved her the most.
That is what our family is, and has always been, about.
Things are different now. We feel the loss of Grandmother keenly when we’re together. The cousins are all grown and we have lives and families of our own. There are great-grandchildren for Grandaddy and new husbands and wives, new boyfriends and girlfriends, and new fiancés. Some of us are no longer there – divorce has affected us too. Some of us are now one who used to be two, and some of us are five where we used to be one. Some of us have been touched by the horror and uncertainty of the war in Iraq. Some of us have graduated high school, college or grad school. Some of us have new jobs, new houses, new babies. Our views on life have changed perhaps as we’ve changed and grown. Holiday celebrations are no longer at Grandmother and Granddaddy’s house. That house with its rooms filled with memories was sold after my grandmother’s death. I remember though, every time I drive by the street. We go to different places now, homes of aunts and uncles.
The one thing that’s never changed about these holiday celebrations is that everywhere we go, wherever we end up for whatever holiday or special occasion, there is always, always love there, and constant laughter. No matter how much things have changed for each individual person or family, the heartache and loss we’ve survived, births and deaths we’ve blessed and let go, all the little things that make up this eclectic mixture of people we call family, that love has never changed. Ever. And it never will. We cousins who remember this stuff may not be kids anymore, but those memories will stay with us forever. They really were, and are, a defining force in our lives, and I am so thankful that I get to experience this kind of love and this kind of family. Now we watch our own kids (and innumerable and beloved dogs) play with each other, and we’re the ones who sit and talk about Deep Things. And now we understand. We sit and we tell stories of when we were little and laugh until we cry and some of us are more than a little tipsy. And every time we get together, we build and we build and we build, and we learn something new about each other and poke fun at each other for the stupid things we’ve done growing up.
We’re different now, but still the same. Always the same. I love and cherish each and every one of them.