You are young yet for stories, this being your first Christmas on earth (although you were among us last year, bobbing in you mother's stomach, waiting to be born, but I know that before too long you will hear those other stories, the ones about Santa Claus and the Christ child, and I want to have my say first. It doesn't matter that you will not understand; it only matters that you look at me, and listen.
Those other stories, when you hear them, will tell you all that you could want to know about joy and hope, about gifts from strangers, about love offered without reservation and accepted without condition, and, as if all this were not enough, about the possibility of life everlasting. The stories themselves are gifts, intended to soothe and to seduce, and there is no shame in accepting them, in falling under the sway of their magic. My story, unlike those others, will not enchant or comfort you; it is not really a story at all, but a fragment of your family's history.
I want to tell you everything I can remember about a Christmas 15 years ago, a Christmas that was as perfect at the time as any that I or anyone else in my family could recall, a Christmas as full of happiness and a sense of well-being as any that I could imagine. And yet the memory of this Christmas makes me sad beyond saying.
That year, my whole family went to spend the holiday at my grandparents' house on the Rappahannock River in Virginia. The house looked, from a distance, like a big white Christmas present, trimmed in green as if with ribbon. You approached it from the road on a driveway that encircled a little English park, planted on its circumference in judas and dogwood, cedar and black walnut, and bisected with a path lined by boxwood. At the center, where the boxwood formed a circle, were four magnolias shading an old well filled with empty whiskey bottles by an earlier owner. The driveway went right up to the broad back steps (you would think they were the front steps, but, as my grandmother often reminded us, the front of the house faced the river). We could see as we curved around the drive toward the house that a large kissing ball of evergreens and mistletoe had been tied with red ribbon to the light fixture on the back porch, and that a holly wreath, dotted with its red berries, hung from the back door.
The door opened as we looked at it, and my grandparents were standing on the back porch to greet us when our car pulled alongside the steps. They stood there every time we arrived and left, side by side, my grandmother's gray hair a head above my grandfather's bald pate, he waving his hand back and forth, she just beaming. That is the attitude in which I'll always remember them best. They both wore cardigans on this bright cold morning two days before Christmas. Their Scottie, Bitty, flew down the steps and barked at us in a friendly way. In a second my sisters and I and Zipper, our Airedale, were out of the car, and there was a commotion of hugs and shouts and barking dogs, and then my father was calling me to help carry bags and presents inside.
But before he could load me up, my brother Jeff appeared on the porch, followed by Carol, carrying Jeffie, their son, who was just about your age at the time. They had arrived at my grandparents' the day before, driving overnight from Florida, where my brother's fighter wing was getting ready for deployment to Vietnam. We had not seen them in several months, and there was another round of hugs and exclamations, accompanied by the barking of dogs. Jeff seemed a little subdued by all the activity, his thin, angular face almost blank in its guardedness, but he managed to cuff me on the side of the arm and say, a weak smile appearing, "Hey, coach. What's doing?"
"Same old stuff," I replied, and stuck out my hand for him to shake. He did, rippling my metacarpals in response to the grip I tried to put on him. Then I went back down the steps to help my dad, who was bent over into the trunk of the car.
The old house was heated mostly with wood, through a floor furnace in the basement and fireplaces, supplemented with gas stoves. When I walked through the back door, I got my first strong whiff of woodsmoke, which would cling to our clothes and burn pleasantly in our nostrils and unpleasantly in our eyes whenever we visited in the winter.
At the far end of the front hall, inside the front door, always sealed shut during the cold months against the blasts of air off the river, stood a Christmas tree nearly 14 feet tall. The peak, which we later snipped off so the angel would fit at the top, just brushed the ceiling. The tree was already in its red metal stand, a white sheet under it, waiting to be decorated. The pungent smell of pine minged with the woodsmoke and with the other familiar odors of the house.
After our coats were off, our things put away and ur stomachs full of Granny's vegetable soup and crumbly biscuits, we got to work. Granddad, Jeff and I went outdoors with clippers and brown paper bags, to cut branches of holly and magnolia, cedar and boxwood. We carried bags of it in and went back when Granny wanted "just a few sprigs of box" or Mom wanted a "nice bunch" of the deadly reddish pyracantha berries. We also went regularly to the side porch for armfuls of wood to keep the fires going in the sitting and living rooms, and every three or four hours Jeff and I would go down to stoke the furnace with large halved logs of unseasoned hardwood, which had been dumped through a chute into the basement. We'd slam the furnace door shut with a crash you could hear throughout the house.
By mid afternoon the mantelpieces and sideboards were decorated with cedar and holly and the wall sconces with bits of boxwood and pyracantha. Pine cones, magnolia leaves and branches of cedar were set aside in a corner of the dining room. From these, Granny would make an S-shaped centerpiece for the dining room table. But at the moment she was ready to fix the eggnog, and I followed her into the kitchen to help. "A nog isn't fit to drink until it's aged at least a day," she said. "And you can't make it like the Baptists do; it's got to have lots of whiskey." I heard this every year.
We began by breaking and separating several dozen eggs. To the yolks we'd add cups of sugar, pints of cream and bourbon and rum, and a long shot of cognac. I beat the whites in a big aluminum bowl, sometimes adding a little water to help them get stiff. When they peaked, Granny folded them in carefully, and I grated a little nutmeg over the top. Then the whole batch was put out into the unheated laundry room to chill and age. "Let those eggs cook a while," my grandmother would say.
In the evening, after dinner, we went to work on the Christmas tree, my father and Jeff taking turns stringing the colored lights and hanging the ornaments near the top, my sisters and I hanging the rest. All the while, my mother and grandparents sat back by the fire in the living room, eyeing our work through the open French doors, pointing out the places where we had hung too many ornaments, or too few. They took turns holding Jeffie, often passing him back to Carol when he got fussy, as you do, being away from his mother too long.
The next morning was cold and gray, but just as if we had ordered it, by afternoon the snowflakes began to fall and continued falling well into the evening.
"I can't say when we last had a white Christmas," my grandmother said, peering out the dining room window. A new ritual began, about the same intervals we hauled wood in for the fireplaces. Every couple of hours Jeff and I would put on our coats and boots and, I with a broom and he with a flashlight, go out in the snow to beat the boxwoods. My grandmother was afraid that the accumulating weight would break their ancient, brittle branches.
"Go on, take a swing," my brother said, holding the flashlight indifferently. "See if you can hit boxwoods any better than you can hit baseballs." When I swung, the snow flew in puffs of powder, and the bushes exuded their musty, melancholy smell ("the odor of eternity," my brother said, quoting, as I learned later, Oscar Wilde), a smell which, like woodsmoke, still reminds me of my grandparent's house.
That day, Christmas Eve, we spent preparing for the evening meal -- a formal Christmas feast, the main dishes of which my grandfather insisted upon: fbeef Wellington, scalloped oysters, Surry ham, corn pudding and mincemeat pie. To these my grandmother and mother could add whatever relishes and vegetables they wished: olives, gherkins, radishes and celery, squash or yams, peas and creamed onions, mashed potatoes, and even dressing, if one of them yearned too much for the turkey dinners they had grown up eating at Christmas. "Only the poor and the unenlightened eat turkey at Christmas," Granddad would say, in contempt especially for my mother's family, which was Irish and from the North (although Granny would say in Mom's defense, "Laurance, I grew up not 20 miles from you, and my family, which was neither broke nor stupid, ate turkey at Christmas all their lives"). Cranberries were strictly forbidden, even at Thanksgiving.
In the morning Carol and my sisters polished silver and wiped the crystal clean. Jeff and I put the extra leaves in the dining room table and dripped wax into the silver candelabra and the brass wall sconces so the red Christmas candles would be straight in their sockets. After lunch and after scrubbing my hands, I helped Mom and Granny iron the huge, heavy linen tablecloth. Mom stood at the ironing board, which I'd set up in the dining room, and Granny and I would feed the cloth to her and drape the ironed part across the table, inching it along until it was done. It was pale green, embroidered in white.
By late afternoon, when the snow was already several inches deep outside, my grandmother pronounced the eggnog sufficiently aged, and we gathered by the fireplace in the living room to have a cup. My mother went into the hallway and rummaged around among the presents under the tree, returning with one for each of the men. Probably she had some small gift for the women, too, but if so I don't remember what it was. For each male, from Granddad down to Jeffie, there was a red Japanese "happy coat," a thigh-length cotton robe that tied at the waist. On the back of each coat was the same large, white Japanese character. I asked my mother what it meant, and she replied, "Happiness, my darling. That's why they're called happy coats." My sisters snickered, and Jeff tried to hide his smile. We put them on over what we were wearing and kept them on through the Christmas meal -- Granddad did not insist, for once, that we go upstairs and put on ties and jackets. I suppose we looked silly, so many of us in the same red robes, but they added to the festivity and made us all feel more comfortable among the polished English furniture in that formal dining room, even sitting, as we did, under the severe stares of several generations of farmers, fixed in oil.
Chrismas morning I got up early to stoke the furnace, hoping that the extra heat would rouse my parents and grandparents. It worked. Before the wood began to pop, and the air above the floor register began to shimmer, my father and I were in the kitchen drinking coffee. "Let them sleep," he urged me. "All of your presents will be open soon enough, and you'll be wondering what to do with the rest of the day." Before long, others began to appear: Carol and Jeffie, he cooing and saying, "Da-da,"; my grandmother next, her long gray hair not yet wrapped up on her head; Granddad soon after, the hair at the sides of his head slicked back with water, shining like his bald dome; then Mom, who urged me to put on my happy coat, as my father and grandfather had done; and my sisters, who came down together, chattering excitedly. Last of all was Jeff, always a heavy and luxuriating sleeper; he came down the stairs so slowly that he seemed almost reluctant, but he was smiling, and he gave Jeffie and all the women a kiss.
When the last "Merry Christmas" had been said, and the coffee cups filled or refilled, we went into the living room, where my grandfather knelt at the hearth, lighting the fire he had just laid. My sisters began ferrying the presents from under the tree into the living room, finding one present for each person, then sitting and watching as each one of us opened his own, until the next round began. It's odd, considering how much time is spent each year buying and wrapping and presenting Christmas gifts, that I can hardly remember what I have given or gotten from one year to the next. But I remember one present I unwrapped that morning 15 years ago; in fact, although I barely used it after that morning, I have saved it ever since and think about using it almost every week. I doubt it was the nicest thing I got that year, or that I was unsually excited when I opened it. It was from my dad -- a small, inexpensive Japanese tape recorder, with a microphone the size of a match box and a reel of tape about three inches in diameter.
Naturally, I began pestering everyone after I opened it, asking if they'd like to say a few words, then playing the tape back. It was fun for them for the length of time those things are, hearing their voices come back, strangely small and unfamiliar. But before long the novelty wore off, and the attention of my family was drawn to other gifts, so that I was able to begin taping people without their knowing or particularly caring.
When all the presents had been opened and fawned over, and assembled or wound or sized, and returned to their boxes, my grandmother and mother went off to start breakfast. Carol and my sisters began to set the table, and my father and grandfather started hauling out the paper and ribbon and unwanted boxes (we couldn't burn them in the fireplace, for fear the chimney, which had not been cleaned in too many years, would catch fire). I sat on the big Oriental rug in the living room, playing with the tape recorder, perhaps a little petulantly, already bored now that the presents were opened, as my father had predicted I would be. Jeff and Jeffie sat in the room, too, both wearing their red happy coats (that Carol had fetched for them). By now the chill was off the room, and they sat back from the fire, in a corner chair near one of the windows that looked out toward the river. All I could see out the window from my spot on the floor was the tip of a boxwood -- thanks to our efforts, only dusted with snow -- the bare branches of a walnut tree and the clear blue sky. But in my mind's eye I see from a different angle, from perhaps a few feet above the level of my brother's head, in a line beyond him and Jeffie -- looking across the terraced lawn, white now, that falls eventually to the river, across the flat pewter stretch of the Rappahannock, and finally, perhaps half a mile away, resting on a small white farmhouse surrounded by acres and acres of snow-covered pasture land.
The windows in the farmhouse reflect, in my memory, the flash of morning sun. My brother held Jeffie, who was squirming and soon began to cry. Jeff was never unnerved ny his son's crying, but became more serene and deliberate, in order to calm Jeffie down. This morning Jeffie wasn't having it; he responded to Jeff's low murmurs with a wail that grew higher and higher in pitch. Jeff began to cluck at him and to bounce him a little, in hopes of distracting him. Finally my brother began to sing, very softly and slowly, as if the words were to a lullabye: Dashing through the snow In a one-horse open sleigh, O'er the fields we go, Laughing all the way. Before Jeff got to the refrain, Jeffie had calmed down and was staring wide-eyed at his father, entranced. When Jeff got to "Jingle Bells, jingle bells," he began bouncing Jeffie furiously, and the baby erupted in laughter and giggles. Jeff and Jeffie went through round after round of the song that way -- the verses sweet and slow, the refrain tumultuous. I got it all down on tape.
When Jeff went off to Vietnam a few months later, and did not come back, I remembered that tape and vowed to keep it until Jeffie was old enough to hear it and to understand. I wanted to preserve for Jeffie one perfect moment he had shared with the father he would not remember. When Jeffie got old enough, I would tell him about that special Christmas, as I have been telling you, and we would listen to the tape together. I've kept it all these years and have often told myself that I should play it back, just to be sure that it is all really there, to be sure that it is the way I remember it. But my grief was such at first that I could not bear to listen to it, and as the years have gone by it has gotten harder rather than easier to imagine playing the tape. So I never have, not since that Christmas morning, if I even played it then.
Last summer when Jeffie was up for a visit he asked me for the first time what his father had been like. Jeffie is 16 now. I told him a few things about Jeff, about what a good big brother he had been and what a good father. But the time did not seem right to tell him my story or play my tape. I asked what his mother had told him about Jeff, and Jeffie said a surprising thing: "From what Mom says, I don't think I would have liked him very much. She says he was really into the military -- wearing his uniform and bossing people around. She says all he cared about was his career."
That hurt me at the time and angered me the more I thought about it. I wanted to call up Carol and remind her of the Jeff sitting in the corner chair that Christmas morning. But I never did, and it occurs to me now that Carol had to have her story just as I had to have mine. Hers made it easier for her to live, just as mine has, and she would not give it up any more than I would.
It's funny, but I've felt almost the same way about my memory of that Christmas as I've felt about the tape. When we said our goodbyes on the back steps of my grandparents' house the morning after Christmas, we all agreed that it had been the best Christmas we'd ever had, a perfect Christmas, and we kept on saying that, but not as much after my brother died. Our memories of it naturally changed when we realized it had been the last Christmas we would all be together as a family. And over the years -- just as with the tape -- it has become harder and harder to think about. Because slowly, Christmas after Christmas, there were fewer of us present.
After a couple of years Carol remarried, wo we didn't see her or Jeffie during the holidays any more. Then about 10 years ago, Granddad died in early December. And just a year ago Granny died, too. Last Christmas, the one you almost made it to, there were only three of the original 10 there, since both my sisters have married, and they spend the holidays with their husbands' families now. Think of all those ghosts sitting around the tables as we carved the turkey (for we started having turkey as soon as my grandfather died). It had gotten so we could hardly even bring that other Christmas up; it had gotten so we hardly wanted to get together for Christmas at all.
You've changed all that. This Christmas there will be one more person at the dinner table, instead of one more ghost. Those missing people are irreplaceable, of course; our lives will be poor with the loss of them for as long as we have memories. But at last our family is no longer on the wane; with you, it waxes. May you have brothers and sisters, and, in your time, daughters and sons.