My family has often gathered in different homes in different years. Some years we would have Thanksgiving and Christmas at Dad's. Sometimes they would go to my step mom's sister's house with an invite for us. With the children all in military or squirrel service of some sort in our younger days, getting together each holiday was not always possible, but there was always a home to go to. Since my Step Mom died, the holidays are something Dad would just prefer pass, quickly and quietly. We understand, the family gatherings are to be no more, only a handful of us left.
Going home is always different for people. Some have parents already gone, and there is no childhood home. Others have memories that are painful. events that either temper or destroy, lit from within, like the fierce, still glare of a furnace.
I am lucky. My memories of childhood are good. Laughter and exploration wrapped in an warm blanket of sight and sound and tastes that I can taste with the fall of that first snow. My memories of those times, though dusted with occasional hardships for us as a family, were, during the holidays, always joyous, moments that like many childhood memories, hold that impossible quality of perfection we often assign to things we can never have back.
My family never had a Thanksgiving feast for twenty people with Martha Stewart decor. We'd gather and all help in the preparation. Turkey, perhaps from the forest, not the freezer, sweet potatoes and pie, homemade bread and green beans. Though my Mom would make this green Norwegian jello dish that can best be described as a mayonnaise-based science experiment gone bad, but it was tradition. It was HOME.
At Christmas, we never partook of the great debauchery of glut that crowds a home with paper trash and moments of surprise that pass like some race car past a stand; a streak of color, a exclamation of sound. Then gone so fast, leaving only a smell of something in the air that is burnt and past saving. Our Christmas was never like that, mine still aren't. They are slow, old-fashioned and savored. Their memory always haunts the edges of a busy, busy life.
Meals at Christmas were not a theatrical production, but elegant. Nothing that took all day, as it was a holiday for my Mom as well. Never something out of a can. Growing up in the depression, Mom learned to make up a delicious meal out of almost nothing left in the fridge. To this day, I still prefer a meal made myself, even if it's an apple and sharp cheese and a small dish of pickles, to something fast food-like, believing that the only creatures that should eat something tossed at them out of a window are seagulls.
Christmas day was special. We'd start with a breakfast of Bear claws from the local Scandinavian bakery and coffee. Coffee for the adults anyway, for them, as myself now, coffee was a food, not a drink. I always begged for some, because that wise looking man on the Christmas-y looking red Hills Brothers can, brightly colored and studded with little stars, always looked so happy and full of knowledge as he drank from the coffee bowl. The decided grown up act of the Christmas coffee consumption and the robed man with his deep drinking pleasure was likely the reason my parents lingered over the table, whispering the quiet whispers of long lovers, while we snorted and charged around them, playing soldier and spy with our new toys.
The decorations still dot my home, an aluminum tree, wooden toys, a Nativity set that set on the bookshelf for some 30 years. It was old, small and looked to be two different sets, the wise men, wearing bright pink and such robes, sitting atop a bright metallic silver dromedary (pimp my camel!). Still it was OUR Nativity and when we were really little we took baby Jesus on a tour of the neighborhood on our bikes from a shirt pocket just so he could get acquainted.
The meals I make are what we had then. Lunch was Lefse in which was wrapped meats and cheeses with the ever present plate of cookies. Something to hold us through the afternoon of board games and music, perhaps carols I'd play on the piano. We'd have sung, but my family all bore the same family voice - all volume, no tone. So they would listen as I simply played and with the notes of that old piano resonating in us, we'd build the fire. Then, when the fire was blazing and the light outside began to fade, we would sit quietly and spend the rest of the late afternoon watching the Grinch or perhaps White Christmas and read books we'd all received, while Mom would put the dinner together. It's the dinner that I will still make, even if just for myself and my husband.
Roast beef with gravy, green beans with lemon butter, mashed potatoes and an old fashioned "bun warmer" full of homemade parker house rolls. The smell would lead us into the kitchen like horses from the range, my siblings and I would chomp at the bit while Mom put it all together, placated with a slice of dill pickle or an olive from the ever present relish tray.
When the meal began after a moment of Grace, words spoken for those serving far away, it was a silent flurry of roasted meat, the creamy blanket of potatoes, and perfuming us all, the deep-seated comfort of garlic. The meal would last until every last morsel was taken. It seemed as if we could eat endlessly; as if we'd had some successful inoculation at lunch time and could consume not only two plates of food, but more cookies. My older brother and I would help my Mom clean up as they gathered around the table for one last cup of coffee
As we bustled about, washing up and blowing bubbles at each other with the dish soap, we could hear the older members of the family, the laughter, and the comfort of a family together for a holiday. As we finished, I went to pick up from the table the can of coffee with the little man and the stars. But instead, I sat down beside it, full to bursting and worn out from a day of enchantment, lay my head on the table and my eyes drifted shut. Whatever laughter there was, there was, whatever deep worries my parents may have had about life, about a family member fighting in Vietnam, were outside our door. Now it was Christmas and there was something deep and starry in the kitchen. Simply moving the can to one side, I lay my head down beside it, nestled into my folded arms, stomach full, warm, happy safe. Despite my very young age, I knew that whatever happened to my family in the coming days, I could live for the rest of my life on this measureless family security.
Tonight, a cup of coffee and the sound of an instrument playing the first strains of Christmas music brings that all back in small ways, as I gather those I love who have left this earth near me in spirit and thought, the smell of good coffee awakening something in me I was hoping for snow, but it was not to be the day dawning gray, the sky the color and texture of iron, that quietly pressed down upon the land until it lifted up into the darkness without notice.
I will not be "home for the holidays" as only my Father is left, two siblings and a Mom and a StepMom gone. Dad spends the day with a beloved cousin who lives near him and I will go visit as soon as the worst of the winter weather that blocks the roads to his house have passed. But I will be in my childhood home in spirit, with good food, gifts and conversations with loved ones on the phone. Not all of them family by blood, but family all the same, with that same tangible connection, silent invisible, like the draw of a bright flame that doesn't need immediate presence to warm you. Simple, loving human contact. Laughter with like minds and spirits. For the holidays are not simply about being "home" to a childhood memory, that for me and many others, does not exist any more. It's not about who or what have at your table, but what you have in your heart. It's more than the faith that you actively practice or the faith that sits in quiet silence, waiting. It's sometime else, a connection to our friends and children, to the one who quietly loves us, to our God who gave us a wonderful gift. It's a visceral reminder that we are all connected, we are all worthy of love.
We can't all go home for the holidays but we can all let in a little bit of that old fashioned holiday spirit. Let in that feeling of succumbing to something that laps at the edge of your life all year long, something that will wear away the hard edges of stress, so for a moment, you can be a child again.
May you all have a blessed Christmas - wherever the day takes you.