Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas with the Folks

This column first appeared on 22 December 2004. Traditions must start somewhere, so rerunning this one has become part of my Christmas tradition. My best wishes to you and yours, and see you on Friday.

For all of my life, Christmas has meant going back home to visit the folks. Great-Grandmother Grace was the matriarch of a large family: when my father got together with his brothers and sisters and all their children — and later, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren — the scene of the disturbance was always a glorious tumult of cousins, nieces, nephews, babies, laughter, noise, music, food, shredded wrapping paper strewn absolutely everywhere, and box upon box of chocolate-covered cherries.

This year, it will be different. Grandma Grace died long ago, of course. Even my father died years ago. Last year we buried the last of his siblings, and a month later, we buried the first of mine. Funerals have long since overtaken weddings in my family, and those who remain of my cousins and brothers are scattered far and wide across the continent. We buried one cousin's daughter last summer — car accident, far too young — and it's only through the grace of God and the vigilance of an overworked guardian angel that my sister's son, the hard-drinking Harley rider, has managed to hold his position at one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel floating in a puddle of 90-weight gear oil.

On my in-law's side, the story is much the same. Last spring we buried my wife's mother, a fine lady who lived for her children and cooked like a genius, and now the nuclear family that she glued together with pasta and marinara sauce is slowly drifting apart. Brothers and sisters have children; children have jobs and fiancés; what once was a close-knit family is slowly coming apart at the seams, unraveled by the gentle but persistent tugging of competing commitments and obligations. So this year, things will be different. This year we are not going anywhere to visit anyone.

This year, we are the folks that children are coming home to visit.

I am not ready to be this old. I'm not ready to become part of the Parents generation, as if I had a choice. But one of my daughters lives half a continent away and can't get the time off work to make the trip home for the holidays. Another will be coming home for a few days and may bring her fiancé, but then they'll probably leave to spend a few days with his family. The third will be staying at the house a bit longer, but she's really planning to spend most of her vacation hanging out with her high school friends.

We're lucky. We still have The Kid: the 9-year-old late-life surprise who keeps us young and reminds his older sisters that they're not quite ready to start families of their own, yet. So we'll haul out the camcorder, watch him tear into the presents, and record every happy shriek and bit of shredded wrapping paper for posterity.

For posterity?

Yes, exactly. Among other things, my father was a dedicated amateur photographer. I have very few pictures of him, because he was always the one behind the camera. For more than twenty years he lugged his Bell & Howell 8mm movie camera — and a blinding bank of photoflood lights — to all of Great-Grandma's Christmas riots, and got everything he could down on tiny 3-minute spools of Kodak film. Sometime in the early 1970s he got the urge to edit these spools together into one epic production, compressing twenty-plus years of family Christmasses into one half-hour of grainy footage.

A few years ago I transferred that film to video and dubbed in a soundtrack — Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong and the like — then mailed copies to my surviving cousins and siblings. I kept a copy for myself, of course.

Ergo, this Christmas Eve, my wife and I will share presents, eggnog, and warmest wishes with our children. We'll hug the older ones goodbye and remind them to drive carefully as they head out to resume the social lives they've graciously put on-hold in order to spend a few hours with us. We'll open a present or two with The Kid, and put him to bed.

Then we'll crack a bottle of Merlot, put Dad's Christmas movie into the VCR, and spend half an hour with a family that exists now only in memory and on faded Kodacolor. We'll drink a toast or two to those who have left us far too soon: Louise. Carlone. Julie. Myrtle. Tom. Ray. Arnold. Bucky. Frances.

And then, at midnight, we will drink a toast in celebration, remembering that joy and grief come together in an inseparable package, that life does not last forever but love does, and that this is the night that the God we believe in — who so loved this little world He made for us that He took our mortal form upon Himself — this is the night that Christ, our saviour, was born to live among us, to share our lives, and to tell us that, while time may separate us from those we love, we won't be separated forever.

And you know, when you get down to it, it is a wonderful life.