(OK OK I’m gonna post it! It’s late and I’ve had a glass or two. Here goes and apologies in advance for over-sentimentalizing this already over-senti-blah-blah holiday)
Christmas reminds me of my grandparents. No, wait – Christmas has been defined for me by my grandparents: Queenie and Chuckie. Charles Frederick Edwards and Virginia Nell Allen. He called her “his Queen”. Chuckie would expound upon the soup kitchens after the Great Crash of ’29 as we took turns rubbing his feet. Queenie taught us to do headstands, the five basic ballet poses and would sing us to sleep. But more on them later.
Allie and I have the crazed "MORE presents!" look. Sarah (in the middle) strategizes.
My parents, sisters and I would drive south every December with the rest of the fools down Interstate 5, through the frantic traffic and valley fog. Dad would roll down the window at Kettleman City to take in the air, to make us shriek, to hold our noses, and then to wave a loving sad hello to the crowded doomed cows. Up and over the perilous grapevine, past Magic Mountain (faces pressed against the window – any new rollercoasters?) and into Los Angeles. Mom would have at least two meltdowns and threaten that NEXT year we were staying home. Allie threw up once. Sarah and I would make cheese-and-cracker-sandwiches, pulled from the big red cooler. It was always an epic journey – leaving the frigid north – but then! The little house on Bellwood Road, the slippery brick walkway, my grandparents awake and waiting with coffee no matter what the hour. Queenie in her robe, Scotch tape in tidy lines across her hair to keep her freshly done ‘do neat through the holidays. Chuckie, straight out of a 1953 New York Life Insurance ad (for good reason – he was Regional Vice President), horn-rimmed glasses, salt-and-pepper hair, gravelly voice calling me Pocahontas and asking if I would rub his feet. Arms out for hugs. I think this was the best bit – the arrival, in the middle of the night. It was just so exciting.
Roll with the Queen
And oh! The anticipation of what was to come! Cousins, uncles, aunts, presents across the floor, spilling out from under the glittering tree. Bing Crosby warbling from the stereo. Cheese-log and carrot sticks on the festive plate by the fireplace. Queenie making innumerable cinnamon rolls (a family tradition for generations – my great-grandmother’s recipe – cinnamon rolls mean Christmas for me) and putting them in the oddest places to let the dough rise: closets, bathroom cabinets – you’d meet these ghostly, silent, gestating rolls at the most unexpected moments – like when going to get another pair of socks or something. Actually rather unnerving.
Sitting with a cousin or two on the piano bench, pounding out Chopsticks (that wasn’t very popular with the grown-ups). Board games with all family members in on it, laughing at the mayhem until we choked. Uncle Tom would pass out the presents, and commandeer a bow to wear on his forehead. And we would ALL choose a bow to wear, as we opened our gifts. The Brits wear paper crowns – we wore bows.
I’d occasionally leave the frantic, steamy, chattering house, and outside it was sunny. WARM. No stormy skies, wet leaves, or dirt. Quiet. All the other families were inside all the other houses, preparing their own Christmases. I would peek at the neighbors – strange to have other people so close, RIGHT THERE, just over that fence, you could almost touch their wall! I was used to having nothing but pine trees for neighbors. And the concrete yard was quiet, detached, remote, unaware as to what excitement went on inside all these houses. It made ME feel detached, and I didn’t want to feel that. Hmph. How could the outside NOT be affected by what was going on inside? This was IMPORTANT. I needed to be in the thick of it! That sentiment, the importance of things and absolute involvement, certainly hasn’t changed for me. I frown, stormcloud-face, when other beings just DON’T APPRECIATE the relative gravity of a given situation.
Run back inside for dinner, jammed around the long table staggering with food. Hold hands, now, so Chuckie can give thanks – and I felt truly thankful, shyly holding the hand of a cousin I would sooner wrestle with. Sneaking happy looks at my funny loud rambunctious sprawling chaotic family and knowing that they felt it too. The whole thing. I loved those Christmases. I was one lucky kid. I still am, I guess, but it’s different.
I don’t really know what to do with myself now, over the holidays. I haven’t had a Christmas with Queen and Chuck for, uh… eighteen years. I haven’t found a Christmas niche to snuggle into that’s as comforting, as content, as NOISY as the one I grew up with. To be honest I wonder if any of us have – my sisters or my cousins. It really was that good. I’m certainly grateful for my holidays and family now, as ever, but I miss my grandparents terribly. I have become the very thing I never liked: detached. Disengaged while Christmas whirls around me. Is THAT what my problem has been these past eighteen years, my small melancholy at the end of every December? I really need to make my OWN holiday traditions instead of just feeling the lack of them. But you see, I’m a slow learner.
Oh, it’s not all THAT bad. Drink some wine. Merry Christmas, anyway, for real.