Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 5 of 5)

If you missed it, start at Part 1.

Over the years since that night, I’ve tried to conjure the pinball feeling of anticipation that runs through the body like the best warm shiver. It can’t be summoned at will, and entire years can pass without that silver ricochet of wonder that Christmas lights once brought. But some experiences have come close.

Riding in a taxi along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive with my future husband, glittering lights of the big-shouldered city on one side and the vast nighttime shimmer of Lake Michigan on the other. Catching a glimpse of Cinderella’s castle through my daughter’s eyes, its lavender spires rising in glory from the navel of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Reading a poem, or even a finely-wrought sentence, that sparks a memory that travels through my eyes, down my throat, and oddly kindles my heart.

And, to a milder degree, the lights of our own family tree stationed in the front window of our house will do the trick now and then.

Driving my daughter home from dance class one evening, I take the long way around and stop right in front of the window from which our Christmas tree peeks out. “Wow,” I say to the girl in the back seat, “I wonder who lives in this little house—and who put that tree in the front window? Must be a small family, maybe just two or three people?” I feel a bit like Gramps, awkwardly narrating levity into life. She plays along with Mom’s silly game and agrees, “Hmmmm. Must be.” She humors me less every day, this almost-teenager.

I wonder what she will remember about these Christmas days in the decades to come. Truthfully, I’ve made no great effort to manufacture memories with spying elves or baking traditions. Magic will emerge naturally, I trust. She won’t remember the thrill of a brown bag full of nuts and citrus or a cold walk home from Grandma’s house. God forbid she hear the ringtone of bad news early on Christmas morning. I cannot know which ghosts will travel into her future.

Of course, the ghosts of Christmas past aren’t really of the past. They are always present. These ghosts, after all, aren’t really ghosts. If they haunt us at all, it’s a quiet lurking, bittersweet like sugared coffee, like a yellow glow from a window, like cold relatives coming through a warm front door.

For the truth is that memories are indistinguishable from matter in that they can neither be created (despite the claims of vacation brochures) nor destroyed.

From Synthesizing Gravity by Kay Ryan

-Merry Christmas to all! ~Em

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 4 of 5)

Then the unimaginable happened. My grandma died of lung cancer on Christmas morning, just a couple weeks before I turned nine. She’s the one who told me I was almost nine one day when we visited the hospital. A nurse had asked my sister and me how old we were, and I said, “eight.” Grandma weakly interjected that I was almost nine, and it was a sort of revelation. I’d been going along all this time as an eight-year-old, and then suddenly I was almost nine. January birthdays are often eclipsed by the excitement of Christmas. Really, can a child imagine anything beyond Christmas?

I looked out the hospital window onto the dreary, gray parking lot and tried to imagine being nine. After Mom had explained that Grandma might not make it through this illness, I tried to imagine her not being in the world. It was too much to fathom.

On Christmas Eve, we visited her at home. That Christmas morning, the phone rang early, way before dawn.

The next few years seem blurry and irretrievable—nine, ten, eleven. I must have gone to school, church, McDonald’s, the skating rink, the neighbor’s house, but I remember so little.

I do remember riding around town looking at Christmas lights when I was eleven, or, as Grandma might have said, almost twelve. Grandpa, never quite at home in this world but even more estranged as a widower, sat in the back seat with me and Sis. Dad drove through all the usual subdivisions, while Grandpa commented now and then, “Will you look at those blue lights?” His saying something lighthearted was always a small surprise; you could feel the discomfort just beneath it. Gramps was the best of grumps.

Rounding a cul-de-sac and staring at a manger scene projected on a garage door, I remember the thought that bubbled up, unbidden: they’re just lights. No more shiver of anticipation, that ping-pong of hope that ran from head to belly and back again. It was not a winter wonderland, this cul-de-sac, and those were mere bulbs strung on a wire.

I recall this moment and wonder at the reasons behind it. Was it the chemicals of puberty washing away childhood astonishment? Or was it the censure of religion, the attitude that this world is a mere façade? Maybe it was the daily erosion of living without Grandma close at hand and never voicing what a raw deal we’d been dealt that Christmas of 1984.

The voice in my head insisted, “They’re just lights.” And I didn’t argue.

To be continued. Jump to Part 5.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 3 of 5)

When we lived on College Street and my grandparents and great aunts and uncles were still around – those were the days. Around Christmas, I couldn’t wait for the relatives to come over. Mom would put a record on the turntable, maybe the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas. The dining table would be carefully set with plates, food, napkins, and candles. A set of ceramic carolers in Victorian garb graced the top of the stereo cabinet, their mouths permanently formed in the O of “Noel.”

Aunt Ernie was there, always, wearing her pale bluish-gray coat with the silver Christmas tree brooch that I now wear on my blue coat. Aunt Ernie’s birthday was in early December, and something about her pastel sweetness just went well with the month – the pale blue of her coat and the tiny rhinestones of her brooch echoing the month’s blue birthstone. Her demeanor never veered from genuine warmth and humility and love and all the non-material aspects of Christmas. She gave Sis and me Matchbox cars for Christmas. I chalked it up to her having only grandsons, no granddaughters.

Yes, Aunt Ernie was there, along with Uncle Bob. Probably, Uncle Bill was there, Grandma and Grandpa, Evelyn and George, and I don’t know who else. But I do remember the smell that filled the house when Mom got out the Mr. Coffee machine. My parents weren’t coffee drinkers, so they used the Mr. Coffee only when we had guests. In my mind, coffee was a holiday drink. Small as I was, no one stopped me from having a cup or two, with generous doses of milk and sugar. To this day, these are a few of my favorite things: old people, Christmas music, rich foods, memories of Aunt Ernie, and the aroma of coffee.

Another holiday tradition we had was driving around Sparta to gawk at the Christmas lights. We were not a family that lit up the outside of our house. Our Christmas tree stood in the front window most years, and that was the extent of it. I remember thinking of those decorative people who lit up their eaves as exotic, rich, festive — a wholly different kind. Those other people hung lights on their roofs, from tree branches, and around the pillars holding up expansive porches—colored lights, white lights, even big old-fashioned Charlie Brown-style bulbs.

From the warm back seat of our car, I imagined the people who lived on the gently curving byways of “subdivisions” held some secret knowledge of the world that I could not grasp as I lived on the simple grid of our small town. I didn’t know these people, but I did appreciate their festive yardwork. A home’s display of multi-color bulbs could send a shiver of delight from my face to my belly and back again.

To be continued. Jump to Part 4.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 2 of 5)

My mom’s parents lived just down the street from us. I remember one December night after having dinner at their house walking the short trek back home. The inky darkness made it seem scandalously late, like we were getting away with something. It was maybe 8 p.m. The air was cold enough to see our breath, and the sidewalk shone like crystal in the yellow glow of the single light of the funeral home parking lot.

As we walked past the Burns’ house, I spotted the lights of our Christmas tree through the front window, multicolored off-red, off-yellow, off-green, off-white. Back then I loved, though couldn’t have articulated, how the lights of Christmas imitated primary colors, slightly yellowed. They were magical, those lights, far from energy efficient and difficult to replicate after 1991 or so.

My dad’s parents lived a half hour from us, and we saw them much less than our down-the-street grandparents. One evening, they stopped by our house on the way to a Christmas dance at some nearby KC Hall or Elks’ Lodge. They had brought inflatable reindeer for Amanda and me, which stood about three feet high — larger than life to a little kid. I was impressed with them standing guard in front of the Christmas tree, bigger than our dogs and reeking of plastic. My grandparents left as quickly as they came, a blast of cold air from the front door lingering in the living room.

My other grandpa would have examined the reindeer for an origin sticker and grumbled, “Made in China. Damn.” I remember him looking at other things and cursing their provenance. He also hated when McDonald’s employees would ask if you wanted fries with that. I suppose he picked his battles with care.

As I went upstairs to bed that night, I glanced down at the smiling reindeer pair with something I can only describe as sheer wonder. Did one of them just wink at me? Possibly.

The next morning, I discovered the deer deflated into a puddle of malodorous synthetics. Mom said that this happens sometimes – maybe your Dad will blow them up again. Only now can I see the subtext of her shrug: “Manage your expectations.”

Christmastime, I would one day learn, sometimes brings a confounding mix of high hopes and bruising reality – strings of lights bright white and off-blue.

To be continued. Jump to Part 3.

Painted in Waterlogue

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 1 of 5)

This morning as I exited the tiny Baptist church that my parents attend, a kind older man urged me to take a brown bag from the table at the door. Some sweet soul had prepared a bag of Christmas treats for each person, a brown lunch bag containing peanuts, chocolate candy, and an orange. Seeing that pile of treat bags transported me about four decades into the past.

I remember entering the cold narthex of First Baptist Church of Sparta, the air slowly warming as we walked down to our pew on the piano side of the church. Other families sat on the organ side, but we’ve always been piano people. Greenery, a nativity scene, festive candles – I remember none of these things. I do remember the Christmas treats for the kids: a brown paper bag filled with unshelled walnuts, a candy cane, and a bright navel orange. We weren’t really into fruit, my sister and I, but were still delighted by the brown bag. It was a sure sign that Christmas morning, which pretty much took forever to get here, was just around the corner.

Mom was obsessive about Christmas morning fairness. Sis and I often received identical Christmas gifts, which we had to open at the same time to warnings of “no peeking” and “don’t look at your sister’s present!” One wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise by five seconds.

As we got older, mom would season Christmas morning with explanations that while it may look like one sister got a bigger pile of gifts, remember that the other sister got one big gift that cost the same. My mom is terrible with numbers, but Christmas turned her into a human tabulator. Even now, Amanda and I both in our forties, Mom will explain that this gift is equivalent to your sister’s three gifts combined. We aren’t keeping tabs, and we’ve never called for an audit. Mom’s concern with equity and fairness is a harmless quirk. It’s actually pretty sweet.

My dad, as far as I know, has never chosen a gift for me or my sister. He may have given input if asked, but he is not a gift giver. He has written me poems and beautiful, heartfelt letters on a yellow legal pad, but gift giving for him is a last-minute trip to the drug store on Christmas Eve.

Back in the day, Mom drew the line at choosing gifts for her in-laws, so that’s why he had to make the two-block trek to pick up a set of perfume, lotion, and powder for his mom and possibly a box of chocolates for his dad. I remember that feeling of déjà vu when he’d bring home the same boxed set of perfume for Mom’s wrapping service, wondering if Grandma went through a whole set of the same perfume every year. I don’t recall her having had a particular smell, but it’s possible.

At Christmastime, anything is possible.

To be continued. Jump to Part 2.

cutlass supreme

Lowercase Life: happy arrival in christmasland

[Note: this is Part 5 of a 5-part advent series. If you missed the earlier posts, start here!]

Every year I’m surprised at how quickly Christmas is here and gone. In our house we extend the fun by having the whole family over in the evening on Christmas Day. We eat a big meal. Again. Then we scoot the furniture back and have a dance party, to the tune of Kidz Bop songs.


Jesus was born at the wrong end of time for many—too late for all the people who died awaiting their Messiah, too early for those who didn’t get the political firebrand they wished for. I think of Baby Jesus wrapped in linen and sleeping in a nest of hay, like the baby bird hatched at the tail-end of November.

He was born at the bottom of the staircase, among the animals, a horse of a different color, a baby bird nestled with hopes and dreads. Unlike you and I, who never asked to be born, Jesus freely poured himself out and put on animal skin.


Early Christmas morning, cold and dark, I heard the phone ring downstairs. I tried to go back to sleep, but I knew even then that a phone call at 4 a.m. meant bad news. Christmas 1984 was a blur of funeral arrangements and phone calls and disbelief that God hadn’t healed my grandma.

At the bottom of the staircase in her house of wonders was a wooden baluster topped with a finial that looked just like a fat cinnamon roll. She had stood at the foot of the staircase as long as she could, but that Christmas morning she was carried upstairs, healed into another place. When I meet her someday in brand new skin, I believe she’ll be wearing blessed assurance all over her face and gold dancin’ shoes on her feet.


On a recent morning too cold to exercise outside, I drove to the mall and stood in the warmth near Dillard’s while untangling my earbuds. Over the mall speakers a Christmas song I’d never heard before pierced the pre-shopping silence: Tony Bennett’s recording of “Christmasland,” with lyrics by Brian Farnon.

It begins with some pleasant holiday-song clichés: “Come along, follow me / Let me take you to Christmasland.” Then it veers in a whole new direction: “Waiting there for you / You will see all the friends you knew.” What is this place? It’s a place where all the friends you knew—past tense—are waiting. Christmasland sounds a lot like heaven: “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore . . .”

The song returns in the next few lines to twentieth-century Christmas themes: “Santa Claus will be there / There’ll be toys and some mistletoe / All the things that you loved as a child / Many years ago.” So, it’s like heaven, but it’s located in the past, somewhere east of childhood and west of nostalgia.

I was struck by how the song conflates Christmas and heaven in a way I’d never seen before—in a way that losing my grandma on Christmas morning had already whispered to my subconscious. It allows for seemingly unlike things to sit side-by-side: anticipation and sorrow, Baby Jesus among the animals, expectation and not knowing just what to expect. In the subtlest way it sweeps from hope to peace to joy to love to the arrival of a long-expected savior. It’s a song of advent, in the lowercase.

“Come and take my hand. / We’ll find happiness. / Let’s go to Christmasland.”

Tony Bennett Christmas

We’ll go, you and I,
To find our Christmasland . . .