Recently I had cause to spend a couple of nights in an old abandoned farmhouse, moving out decades worth of stored furniture. I was both relieved and disappointed that there were no spectres, no ghosts, no ha’ants except for the ones in my head. Not unlike Scrooge, most of the memories sparked by the dusty silent house were ghosts of Christmases past.
As adults, we often assume that the celebrations with the prettiest décor, the fancier food, the higher priced liquor and the well-dressed people will be the celebrations that are remembered best, most frequently and most fondly. But kids have a calculus all their own, and what seems strained or miserable to a grown up can be remembered as great fun for a child who remains safely ignorant of the tension and unhappiness that crisscross the room like those infrared laser alarm systems, the ones that are invisible until you put on the infrared goggles and see the thousands of glowing virtual tripwires trapping you in a glowing spider web so that there is no way to move without triggering the alarm.
Growing up, Christmas Day was spent at home surrounded by my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins from my mother’s side. Our house was small, with everyone mostly crowded into the dining room, living room and kitchen – surely no more than 200 square feet total. The house bulged with noise and heat, and the movement of children frothing amongst the adults like river water around rocks.
It should have been by far the best day of the year, and in many ways it was, what with dad’s raised voice directed at someone else, mom too busy to comment on the stringiness of my hair, the aunts’ generous compliments making me feel that pretty could be safe, and did not always have to cost what I couldn’t afford.
Christmas Eve was reserved for my dad’s side of the family. We went to Grandma’s house, which crouched, small and dark, at the end of a Dickensian lane that featured some sort of power station, a small square brick building that made your fillings ache if you got too close to it.
Even full of family, the house was always cold, the air that seeped off the screened-in porch snaking its way into the boxy living room. Winters were colder and snowier then, and frost would frequently accumulate in a thick scrim just inside the front door, where we would print our names and etch snowflake shapes with our fingernails.
Though I know many things now that I did not know then, things slowly revealed after the death of each aunt and uncle and, finally, Grandma, my mind stubbornly presents me with the evidence of memory: we thought Christmas Eve was a blast. We ate sloppy Joes, a sensationally messy sandwich that printed our faces and hands with orange grease.
It was noisy, but in a different way than with my mom’s family, whose conversation resembled large colorful soap bubbles that drifted around the room banging into one another, sometimes denting, sometimes exploding with an iridescent pop.
At Grandma’s house, the adults spoke in sharp pointy voices that flew across the room to hit their targets with a thud. Comments muttered under the breath rolled randomly around the hillocky linoleumed kitchen. The moldy, hoppy smell of beer hung wetly in the air. When we sidled up behind mom or dad’s chair to ask if we could have a Christmas cookie they nodded and waved us off, their eyes never leaving Uncle LeRoys red face or grandma’s grim, thin lipped face.
Can we have two? Three? We’d ask, pushing it, and they’d say our names once, warningly. We’d grab the basket and run upstairs, delighted to be away from the adults. The cookies were always sugar, always frosted. Mixed in with the snowmen and stocking shapes would be an Easter rabbit or chicken. Grandma’s forgetful, dad would say, to which my mom would snort. I didn’t care – the snowman had red hot buttons, the rabbit had red hot eyes. I thought Grandma was the cat’s pajamas.
We ate our cookies and played with the train set under the tree, and Grandma never told us not to touch anything. We sat on the porch and rocked wildly back and forth on the ancient glider and Grandma never told us to keep it down out there. We piled in the center of the big oval shaped green throw rug in the TV room and then hauled it around, pretending it was a lifeboat being tossed about by ocean waves, the last person on the rug the sole survivor.
We heard the adults voices raised downstairs but never thought to listen in – we were too busy playing with Grandma’s dominos game, or examining her collection of ceramic salt and pepper shakers that all came in pairs: the little Blue Boy and his Blue Girl sister, the Mr. and Mrs. Snowmen, the toasters that somehow seemed like man and wife, the blue salt and yellow pepper umbrella, the spotted salt dog and the pepper hydrant. “Don’t’ break them” was Grandma’s only comment, and we were reverent in our handling of the shakers.
I loved the lights on Grandma’s tree – big fat ones in blurry primary colors, some of them with the paint chipped off so you could see the white light shining through. They seemed so much more generous than the lights on mom’s tree, thin and white and orderly and pointed.
The tinsel was better too, long strands draped carelessly on the branches seemed much more festive than the carefully scalloped garland that wove its symmetrical way around my mom’s tree.
Most of all we loved that grandma’s tree was real, even if it dropped needles, even when it dried out and crackled warningly. Mom had a fake tree, a good value made even more realistic with its bendable branches and occasional fake brown needles.
Everything about Grandma’s house was enclosed, the rooms small and low-ceilinged, the cellar-like kitchen, even, somehow, the tiny dank bathroom that had a curtain instead of a door. The only books in the house were located behind the toilet. Grandma didn’t like for anyone to read in her presence – if you did, she’d turn off the light. The bathroom had a bare bulb with a string, so you could read in there, for awhile anyway, as long as you made bathroom noises to cover the sound of pages turning.
The single bedroom door was always shut. We were drawn to that door simply because it was closed; we were too young to be curious how a family of five was raised with just that single bedroom, a room we knew without being told belonged to grandma. We never asked my father where he slept, and he never showed us, never wanting to help us picture his young self in this place.
It’s just as well, I know now – there were no warm stories to tell about sleeping on the floor next to the furnace, nothing cozy about reading in a miasma of sewer smells. He kept silent, and we ate cookies dotted with red hots and remained blissfully ignorant of what it was like to grow up in that house, with that mother.
A house where only the master bedroom was heated, where no books could be read, where lights could not be burned for schoolwork, where a dime was school lunch money, where a boy once went partially deaf from an ear infection due to neglect, where the children were tossed out at age sixteen to sink or swim, with the hope of sinking palpable in the grim mouth and stone eyes that watched to see what would happen as if it made no difference.
We knew nothing of the woman with hair the color of iron and the cold dark house she ruled, the boy hidden in his basement. We knew only the freedom of wandering the rooms, eating as we pleased, playing unchecked, a respite from a strict father, a freedom to do as we wished that we thought was love, and wouldn’t know differently for many years to come.
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