“He had eaten most, talked most and laughed most. But now he simply was not there at all!”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit”
Every year, my sisters and I knew that to wake up Christmas, we had to wake up Grandma Elsie.
We planned it with the skill of a military operation. I would stay awake through the night on Christmas Eve, softly singing carols to myself in order to stay awake. At 6 a.m. – the earliest time we were allowed up, amidst warnings that would chill the blood of Jacob Marley – I would wake Leslie. She would wake Carey. And together, we would let our rambunctious dog into the basement where Grandma slept, so that she could make coffee and trade silly songs with us while waiting for the caffeinated odor to rouse Mom and Dad.
It was her English-accented voice that taught us the words to “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” It was her presents that always included a package of miniature chocolate Santas. She was often the one who invited us to Christmas Eve services and always the one who would have a margarita with Christmas Eve dinner at the Armadillo, our standby restaurant on Dec. 24th for over 30 years.
And this year, it’s her absence that’s felt most around the Christmas tree.
It’s our first Christmas without Grandma. It still feels strange to say or write it. It felt strange back on Thanksgiving, when my Dad’s voice quavered slightly as he remembered her while saying grace. It was an occasion with good food, good family and lots of squirming toddlers – just the sort of environment she loved most.
The place she would once have been at the heart of.
They say the holidays can be the hardest time. I had no idea how true that was until now. We’d had an empty place at the table before – once, when my new job in Kansas had me working on the night of the holiday, and a few times since after Leslie moved to Washington and couldn’t join us as frequently.
But those were small things by comparison, shadows that could be put to flight if needed. All of us knew that, if it were necessary to have the whole crew at the old house, we would find a way there.
Not so easy this time.
It may be most powerful now because of the ritual. Christmas is the time when traditions wake and walk again, when we do things the way we’ve done them for years upon years. Favorite movies, favorite meals, favorite memories. The weight of that habit can become mighty, as Heather and I discovered our first Christmas, when we debated whether stockings were emptied before presents or afterward. (I still think I was right.)
But when the time comes to walk that ages-old dance again, there’s suddenly a step missing. A skip in the music.
And it makes the absence, the presence, more noticeable than ever.
Perhaps that’s as it should be. I’ve always had a disdain for “getting over it” or “moving on.” Memories should remain, just as love remains. How horrible to even contemplate forgetting, how hideous the thought of putting that memory away, like an unneeded ornament in a taped-up cardboard box.
But memory doesn’t have to be joyless, either.
Grandma loved this time of year. She may have had mixed feelings about the snow – or even spectacularly unmixed feelings – but she never failed to take joy in the lights, the music and especially the gathered family. She would not have wanted that joy to end, nor should it.
Not even when it needs to live side-by-side with grief for a while.
It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to remember.
But it’s also OK to celebrate.
And so, as we scramble to gather presents, I’ll also stop to mind a Christmas presence. Maybe even sing an off-kilter carol or two.
I’ll wake up her memory yet again.
And with it, wake up Christmas one more time.