The curse and the blessing of rituals and annual family celebrations are that they rekindle memories. And often a re-experiencing of the feelings and sensations that accompany the recollection of whole scenes from the past. Sometimes gentle, sometimes powerful, they are clear and persistent. They can conjure up nostalgic smiles, still raw hurts, or sad tears.
Recollections of my childhood Christmases are not detailed stories of entire days or memorable worthy events. Rather they are vignettes; thin slices of greater portions of time. The details, specific dates, prequels, and sequels are either lost or blocked.
I know that my favourite relatives, Aunt Lillian and her partner, Uncle Tommy, made the long train ride from Toronto to Montreal to have Christmas with us sometime in the early ’60s. I know that means it was a happy time for me. I have evidence of this visit in a tattered and faded photograph I found when we cleaned out my parent’s shoebox of pictures that didn’t make it into an album. I am in the middle of the family grouping, sitting on the floor with my arms draped around our beautiful beige and black german shepherd. My mother, Aunt Lillian, and Tommy are perched on the edge of the formal blue-flowered couch in the living room. A space that was preserved for such special occasions that even the Christmas tree didn’t deserve to be in there. It was in the TV room. My older brothers are flanking the adults. In their early teens doing their best to convey boredom and minimal tolerance of the family gathering. I assume my father was behind the camera lens. He forgot to tell us to smile.
A few weeks ago we made the decision to have our 2020 turkey dinner on Christmas Eve. Our precious family time had a hard stop midday on the 25th. It made sense to shift the festive meal to a time when our table would be at it’s fullest.
On the morning of December 24th as I unwrapped the heavy, slippery turkey and shoved my hand into the cavity to retrieve the waxy damp bag containing the neck, liver and heart I was transported back to our kitchen on a Christmas eve day in the early ’70s. The brown wooden cupboards and matching round table and chairs pressed into the corner of the small square room. The harvest gold refrigerator and stove. The black phone hanging on the wall, in reach of my father’s chair. With an extra-long coiled cord falling from the bottom, down the wall. A black tentacle long enough to reach over to my mother’s chair so she wouldn’t have to move to talk on the phone. She liked to chat with Aunt Lillian as she sat at the table and sipped her first pre-dinner rye and water each evening.
In those days we had our turkey dinner on Christmas eve. We too had a hard stop on family time. It was midnight. My two older brother would be going skiing with friends or to their girlfriend’s families on Christmas day so we celebrated the whole event on the 24th, presents included. It was convenient. While everyone was still at work, my brother Brad and I were to get the turkey dressed and in the oven. We were sipping rum-laced eggnog. Laughing as we wrestled the slimy turkey from its plastic sheath and shoved handfuls of stuffing into it’s front and rear cavities. Brad offering to pay me money to wrap his presents – always the businessman wanting to cut a deal. That’s the sliver I remember of that day.
I have another vignette without laughter. And there’s no warm feeling or smile when I remember it. It’s Christmas Day and I am sitting alone in our living room. On my mother’s olive green armchair with the scratchy tweed finish. The wooden arms not high enough to wrap around me. The Christmas tree in the corner is no longer vibrant. The coloured balls weighing down the branches. The silver icicles without shine. The only evidence of presents is the box with ribbon remnants and bows to be saved for next year. And the dark green garbage bag of torn and balled up wrapping paper in the corner.
The house is so quiet I can hear my own breath, ragged at times. My parents have gone back to bed after coffee and breakfast. It was a long night of Christmas punch, dinner, wine, dessert, port, presents, champagne. My brothers are celebrating their other Christmas.
In my own home with my family at various stations around the kitchen helping with the meal preparations, four dogs vying for crumbs and dropped scraps, the warmth of the blessing and the tears of the curse of these memories hold me hostage for a few moments. I can see my brother’s memorial tree from my kitchen window. The Bradpine. We have it wrapped with burlap to protect it from the vicious and relentless wind and snow that careens down the valley. It needs to survive to old age, even though he didn’t.
Our Christmas carries through to the morning. To coffee, stockings and the opening of presents. We take time for a brunch before the move to share the season with others. It’s a particularly sacred gift this year to be together.
The rekindled memories may come again next year. And I may visit with them for proof of life, love and resilience. Right now I’m busy engaging in present-day vignettes.
At least, that is my experience.