Life Lessons from the Ghost of Christmas Past
If you’re lucky, you come from a family that expresses lots of love and warmth during the holiday season. If you’re not lucky, your family might be something like mine. Listen, I love my family. But every time we all get together for the holidays (brothers, sisters, grandmothers, nieces, nephews), someone always has too much egg nog, says something stupid, and causes a fight.
Oh brother. I could tell you some stories.
Of all the stories I could tell, there’s one worth sharing. And if you take the time to read it, I hope you’ll come a way with a deeper appreciation for what it takes to extract happiness from a holiday season clouded with less than perfect relationships.
Christmas with My Mean Grandma
When I was a kid, my mother used to take me to Grandma’s big, old farmhouse for Christmas dinner. I always enjoyed hanging around with relatives I hadn’t seen all year: cousins mostly. We’d play hide and seek in the drywood ruins of the barn, tag in the frozen pasture where cows once grazed. We’d watch the strange winter sunlight flashing on the bales of hay in the loft, and we’d root through boxes of old forgotten heirlooms, withered photographs, rusted bicycle parts.
Grandma’s farm was a magical place, lost in time. And it was fun. Well, it was fun except for Grandma, who was always telling me not to touch anything. “You let that alone, boy,” she would say whenever I got too close to one of the cherished China dolls she’d perched on a shelf above the dining table.
Compared to the misery my mother had to endure growing up, these were small transgressions indeed.
Grandma once said to my mother, “I wish you’d never been born,” or so I have been told, along with other insults too numerous to mention. Because of my grandmother’s careless words, my Mom grew up believing she was worthless, stupid, and unworthy of love.
I still remember walking through the pasture by the barn as the sun set on one cold Christmas Day, asking my mother, “Mom, if you don’t get along with Grandma, why do we keep coming down here every year for Christmas?”
She looked at me and said, “Because she’s my mother.”
Even at fifteen, I was old enough to want a better answer. I guess I wanted to hear some great words of wisdom about the importance of family and choice and learning and pain and thankfulness, but all I got was a good look into my mother’s sad eyes and a painful reminder that we human beings are creatures of habit, so prone to returning to the things that hurt us.
The farm has been gone for 10 years now: sold to the highest bidder.
And my Grandma is gone too: she died last month. My mother did not cry at Grandma’s funeral.
After the rest of the family returned to their cars, my mother and I stood alone in the middle of the deserted country graveyard, staring at the hole in the earth where they would soon lower my grandmother. Here we were, spending our final holiday season with Grandma, ashes to ashes.
My mother said, “You have to accept people for what they are, if you’re going to accept them at all. Some people won’t change.”
I quietly said, “Did you finally learn to accept her for what she was, Mom?”
She paused, touching her forehead. The cold country wind whipped through the green canopy overhead. Finally, she put her hand on the gleaming cherry wood of the coffin and said, “John, your grandmother had a rough childhood. She was forced to take care of her siblings at the age of twelve. She saw everything in her life as a series of unavoidable responsibilities, and it made her bitter.”
“So you did learn to accept her?” I asked.
My mother looked me in the eyes then, and I was transported briefly back in time to that Christmas on the farm so long ago, when I had dared to ask my mother why she insisted on spending Christmas with a woman who had hurt her so badly. And the words my Mom said to me now, here at the funeral, possessed all the wisdom I’d longed for back then. “John,” my mother said, “Learning to accept my mother was the easy part. The hard part was learning to accept myself.”
My mother grew up thinking she was too stupid to go to college. But at 65 years old, shortly before burying her mother, she finally enrolled. And guess what? She just finished her first semester; she made straight A’s. Seems my mother isn’t stupid after all.
Our families are mirrors of who we were; harbingers of who we might yet be. And this Christmas, I hope you have it within yourself to appreciate all you have and all you are, to accept the imperfections in the people around you, and to know that you have it within yourself to lead whatever kind of life you desire, no matter who doubts you.
December 14, 2007 Friday at 1:51 am