My family all loves each other, and gets along pretty well. Which means that my holidays are usually pretty great, but rarely make for much in the way of great material. Four generations of people that love and respect each other kind of puts me at a disadvantage for a career in the arts. I try to work around it, though.
What follows isn’t really a story with conflict and an arc and surprises and stuff. But this chapter in my family’s history is so magnificent that it needs to be recorded somewhere. So I’m annotating a series of photos that sum it all up.
In-law jokes were for hacks back in the ’60s. Everyone knows that. But one of the things that nobody ever tells you about getting married is that if you get lucky and pick it right, you actually get to join a whole new awesome family in addition to your own. And if yours sucks a little, you kind of get another shot.
I started the holidays with Maggie’s family in suburban Maryland – here we are, opening some gifts early. My soon-to-be father-in-law gave me the entire run of Battlestar Galactica, which I’ve actually never seen – pretty solid!
For those of you that don’t know, my aunt and uncle own and operate a Christmas store in Smithfield, Virginia. It’s open year-round, and it’s not one of those chintzy chain stores you see at your more pathetic shopping malls. Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Elaine have an entire wardrobe of Christmas-themed clothing, and wear this stuff all the time, like it’s completely normal. They also usually have a little glitter or fake snow from a shedding ornament stuck to their sweater, glasses or something the way that other people might wear cat hair.
Here are a few shots of the shop:
My grandparents (Uncle Jimmy’s parents) helped out in the shop until their health began to fail. We lost my grandpa in early 2008, but Daro (my grandmother) is still with us. She turned 99 in December. She needs help walking to dinner and the bathroom, but she still more or less knows where she is, who we are, and makes some pretty solid jokes. I said to her, “You’re ninety-nine years old? I thought you were ninety-four for some reason!” She replied “Well, I was, for a while.”
Every time I go to visit her she peers at my silhouette until I get close enough for her to see. Then she throws her arms up in the air for a hug and smiles the the sun rising on Eden at day one. It’s all I can do not to cry every time it happens. Here she is, greeting my sister the same way:
Daro turned ninety-nine on December 7th, and her great-grandson, my nephew, was born on December 11th. His mother is my sister, and December 11th is her birthday, too.
If I had to sum up my family’s experience on Christmas this year, it would be with this image right here:
We had four generations of family all in the same room on Christmas day. This is the first time that Daro’s been out of her room at the retirement home for anything apart from a doctor’s visit since Halloween. She got to hold Gavin, her great-grandson, for the first time. And for the rest of the day she kept saying “oh, that little head! Those tiny little hands!”
I got to hold him, too:
He’s got dark, intense eyes like both of his parents. And there’s something about holding a baby that opens you up a little, makes you drop your attitude. He’s totally getting a drum set from me for his 8th birthday, though.
Daro can’t really leave her apartment, and she hasn’t been back in her house for years. For the past few years, she’s sent Uncle Jimmy over there to pick out some of her possessions to give to the family as Christmas gifts. It’s pretty much perfect, really. This year, she gave me an incredibly lifelike chickadee that my grandpa carved out of wood back in the late ’80s. I saw it around their house for years, and he used to teach me how to identify parts of that bird with a magnifying glass.
It was dark in the house when Uncle Jimmy grabbed the silver serving bowl Daro wanted to give my mom. And it was dark in the room when he handed it to Daro, who stuck it in a gift bag. Naturally, her eyesight isn’t what it was.
So nobody really noticed that the serving bowl had a black old mummified banana stuck to the bottom until my mom opened her gift Christmas day:
If you look closely, you can still see the Chiquita sticker in perfect condition on the banana.
We got out some champagne for a toast:
Daro wanted to give the toast. We didn’t really know what to expect. She’s from a part of Appalachia at a time when people were either wife-beating drunks or teetotalers, and I think that this is the first time that any of us had ever consumed alcohol right in front of her. She raised her glass of seltzer and said:
“To a long life, full of great health and loving family. And baby Gavin, may you know so many rich, wonderful pleasures beyond the simple pleasure of a dry diaper for as long as you can possibly manage.”
We could all drink to that one. Now it’s 2013, and it’s just regular old January. Life proceeds. This could have been Daro’s last Christmas, for all any of us knows. The year is going to bring a lot of surprises, shocks and curveballs. Some of them will be wonderful, and some of them won’t. But just now, just in this moment, while I’m sitting here typing this, we are all warm and most of us are alive, and in okay health, all things considered. And as long as one of us that was in the living room on Christmas stays alive, that day is going to live forever.