Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ghosts of Christmases Past

Work has been slow this week. There's been a lot of time to listen to the X-mas music on Classical MPR and let the melancholy set in. Not sure why, but I figure there's still some grieving catching up with me, having been so busy-busy these last couple months and not slowing down. Lots of memories come up, bringing lots of feelings, all tied into the season.

The earliest X-mas memories come in tidbits and flashes. There's the tantrum at Grandma's (Brogren) when I hated the silly little present she got me, threw it against the wall, and broke it. Needless to say I was sent to bed without any presents or other goodies, definitely intensifying my mood if not improving it. I was just old enough to be selfish, not old enough to be grateful. And certainly not old enough to understand about budgets and tight times. I suspect that was also about the time that Grandma was newly widowed.

The trees were generally spruces, often cut ourselves, and set in a stand that needed watering yet still let needles drop all over before it was taken down. Tinsel was a must back then, hung carefully after all the other decorations were on, and neatly vertical or we'd done it wrong. The other decorations consisted of regular lights, now the size of night-lite bulbs, and bubbler lights, something still available every few years. Some of the ornaments were shiny foil circles sewn in chains or folded flat for storage and opened up into many layers spread into a three-dimensional shape such as a ball, bell, or star. I've never met anybody who remembers that kind of ornaments outside of our immediate family, but would love it if anybody could come up with a line on how to find some.

Being great on economizing, we also strung popcorn and sometimes cranberries. We never economized so much that we turned to using the funny pages to wrap presents in, though I'd heard about it when raising my kids and thought it seemed like a good idea in the really lean years.

Earliest traditions involved waking up on X-mas morning, waiting for our parents to get up, and then, finally, being allowed to open presents. You had to recognize your own name and only open your own, but it was pretty much every kid for herself/himself. I have no idea what my parents did with opening their presents. One year I got up early and snuck down to peek at my presents. I didn't dare turn on a light because Mom was a light sleeper. I slid open the wrapping paper, careful to make it so I could re-affix the tape later and pretend it was a complete surprise. I'd been hoping for an Easy Bake Oven. Unfortunately, it was so dark and some of the letters were red on black or perhaps black on red, and thus invisible in the dark. So it was still a surprise when I opened it the next morning and got my oven! First time I recall getting just what I asked for.

Some years there were dolls, or gray modeling clay in a block like a quarter pound stick of butter. Often clothes came disguised as presents. When I got older there was a Kodak Brownie Starflash camera. It had some flash bulbs which melted on the outside when they were used. And it came with a roll of black-and-white film. I was busy for a while shooting everything I could, finding out that flash overpowers nearby things and doesn't touch far things, making some interesting pictures. I also learned about budgeting to buy new flash bulbs, film, and paying for developing.

The family went down to Minneapolis most years to join the rest of the relatives who mostly lived down there. There'd be a big Maxson Christmas party while my grandmother Elizabeth still lived, held somewhere large enough to accommodate that huge and growing bunch of us, though we were about the youngest, thus last, of the grandchildren and many of our cousins were old enough to have been our aunts and uncles. Every kid would get some kind of present, and a couple years a photo was taken of the whole group. Looking back it's amazing what we thought fashions should be and how young our parents were. The last year I remember of one of those parties, our parents had told us while we were about halfway down in the car that they'd had Goldie, our golden retriever, put to sleep while we were gone. We never knew she was sick, never noticed her getting old, never got a chance to say good-bye to her. She was older than I was, and had always been a part of my life. I keenly felt the betrayal, and wore it like a Greek tragedy the whole time we were down there. Nobody else seemed to care, and it wasn't like I didn't announce it to anybody I thought might listen and sympathize.

The tiny Methodist Church in Hubbard, the nearest town to our resort, celebrated X-mas with lots of singing of carols and by giving each kid a small paper bag of salted-in-the-shell peanuts. There were some candies in them as well, nasty little things, but, hey, sugar! I seem to recall an orange one year. At any rate, these were treats for us and our parents didn't object to us eating what we got, so there was nobody to spoil the gift of goodies. Mom was always so full of rules and cautions that I sometimes wonder how we got to enjoy anything.

While we didn't often get peanuts, every year at Christmas there was a bowl of mixed nuts, along with a nutcracker and nut picks. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts. Of course we never knew their proper name back then. They were always called "nigger-toes", back before we'd ever seen anyone of African descent, before we had any idea that the name was offensive. We giggled about it, but it was the thought of nuts being named after toes we found so silly. They were the hardest to crack too, needing to be lined up just so in the jaws of the nutcracker, and could take up long segments of time trying to pick the last speck of white nut out of the unforgiving shell.

Speaking of nasty little candies, those were the days of ribbon candies. Pretty until they broke, relatively flavorless, but again, hey, sugar! And too big to put all the way in your mouth so you'd drool while eating them. I found some years later to give my kids, but they were completely unimpressed. Another fond memory/tradition bites the dust.

Once grown and married, we started some of our own traditions. Every year I bought some new ornament for the tree. When the kids were old enough, they painted and glued wooden ornaments, or melted plastic beads in forms to make "stained glass". There were beaded snowflake balls using sequins and beads on hatpins stuck into a cork ball. I handmade felt stockings decorated with sequins including each kid's name, still surviving to this day including the part where Richard chewed off a few of the sequins. If he swallowed them, they seem to have done him no harm. I never did find bits.

While the kids were young, we traveled to southern Minnesota to the Rosa family farm to do Christmas with Paul's folks. Mostly my memories were of how drunk everybody got. Except me. After one drinking disaster during my college years, I couldn't stand the stuff, and was the sole sober person in the room hoping nobody would notice how impolite I was not to be entertained by all the rest of them, hoping I didn't show my total boredom, hoping it was soon bedtime.

There was one amazing exception. Steph was two and Richard a baby that year. I'd just taken her to see the Loyce Holton's Nutcracker, the version filled with tiny kids in mouse costumes. It was a magical time, and the first of several such times we went to such performances until finally the kids announced they were bored with them. But this year it was new, fresh, magic! After supper, the afternoon rain stopped. In the weather's wake a thick fog rolled in. The strong yard lights typical of isolated farms revealed that the rain had frozen on every surface including tree branches, resulting in a glistening and crackling winter wonderland worthy of the best Nutcracker set. The family located the old toboggan, Steph and I dressed in our winter warmest, and escaped for about half an hour into a land of fantasy and ice. Arriving down at the end of the drive near the highway, there were moments where we could imagine we were the only people on earth, until another car came along to spoil the illusion.

One new tradition with our kids was started by my folks. They gave us $20.00 for each kid to spend on other people. The only rules were they had to spend it all on others, and we parents could take them shopping but could not influence their choices of gift. We could inform them how much they'd spent and how much they had left, and often the last few pennies went for a candy cane or some such tidbit, duly wrapped and gifted. The most memorable gift was a toy "Little Bird", a small yellow stuffed friend to the Big Bird on Sesame Street, presented to me by Paul. Of course after I opened it he thought it should be his to play with since I wasn't going to give Little Bird the proper attention he deserved. Paul got properly thanked, and after a few days it went up on a shelf somewhere. But not for long. We gave the kids toys for Easter too, and Little Bird showed up as one of Paul's presents that spring. On another gift-giving occasion, Little Bird went to somebody else, and his travels became a family joke for a while afterwards.

Hmm, I wonder if anybody would remember if I located another one and restarted his travels?

Steph has strongly negative associations with Christmas. The year her father and I agreed to split up, it was just before Christmas. He decided to wait until after the holiday to tell them and move out, so as to not spoil the holiday for them. But by noon on Christmas day he couldn't stand it any more and gathered the kids together and informed them he was leaving. It finally was about him after all. Thanks, guy!

While the timing sucked, the reason for it and the implementation made it ultimately the best thing he did for his kids. We had been visiting my folks for Thanksgiving while they were vacationing on Sanibel Island, relatively close to where we lived then outside Atlanta. Seeing the shock in their eyes over how he treated his kids opened his eyes to what he was doing. While he told a lot of wild stories later about the "why" of the divorce, his reason at the time was that he didn't want his youngest and namesake to go through the abuse that his older son was. At that time, if you yelled Richard's name in irritation at him, his response was to duck and cover his head with his arms. Somehow, we'd managed not to let ourselves see it. It's the one thing I'm most ashamed of in my life, not seeing my child being abused. My only excuse is that I was so busy surviving emotionally myself during those years that I wouldn't allow myself that one extra blow to my defenses.

It still doesn't help much.

There were some particularly lean years after the divorce. It got so bad one year that one day a neighbor came over to announce that we had been chosen to be the family "sponsored" for X-mas by the hospital she worked for. She explained that everybody at the hospital contributed, our family was selected of the ones submitted for consideration, that she was sent to explain the gift, get my permission for it, and get the kid's sizes for new clothes. Later she'd be back with clothes, toys, and food. Even all these years later remembering that Christmas gets me choked up. I'd already had the humiliation of applying for food stamps. The child support, had I known it, was about to go from erratic to nonexistent, and my job was proving insufficient to the task of supporting the family. It had never occurred to me that somebody else had noticed, much less would offer to help. Once back on my financial feet again I've tried to find ways to pay it forward. While I sent a thank you letter to the hospital, I can only hope that they might know how much it still means to me.

This year Christmas is mostly a joyful time. I'm surrounded by loving family, making plans for wonderful new things in my life. All those Ghosts of Christmases Past are still there, but the melancholy doesn't last. Mostly they make me appreciate life today all the more. For all of you and yours, I'm hoping for the same.

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