The last time I celebrated Christmas in the United States was 2002. My parents travelled to my Wabaunsee, Kansas home and we had a memorable visit. One cat I had at that time pulled the small tree, complete with ornaments, over all of us as we played a board game.
It’s a memory I hold on to. It was the last in a series of family Christmases for a long time.
But when I think of the winter holiday season, what most comes to mind are the Christmas Eve dinners at my grandma’s house. Christmas morning was always intimate, just my parents and brother and grandma would come over for a light meal later in the afternoon.
But those Christmas Eves. I lived for that night nearly the entire year; the trip up Ridgeland or Oak Park Avenue, looking at all the decorations on a dark, frigid night, shushing through the slush or snow down the four miles to Berwyn and my grandma’s neat home, her tree, ornaments and frosted paper houses beneath the boughs, always predictable.
On the freezing porch, an apple and pumpkin pie. There were green plastic berry punnets filled with my grandma’s Marshmallow Fluff fudge and Rice Crispie Treats set on the coffee table after a dinner that rarely altered, including green bean casserole and my Aunt Jane’s favorite Creamette salad.
The angel food cake with her pink glue frosting complete with a ring of pink bird candleholders stood on a side counter, waiting for dinner to pass. Christmas Eve was my grandma’s birthday, and another reason to celebrate.
After dinner, if my Aunt Judy was home, I would help her pass the presents, one at a time. If she wasn’t home for Christmas, it was down to me.
That night brought all the family together.
It also brings the thought of my grandma back.
I was lucky to have two grandmothers for many years, thought one had moved to Washington state when I was only about five years old. This other, my father’s mother, played a large part in my life. What is funny was how this woman, a largely undemonstrative, slight, efficient lady made a mark on my life.
My grandma was born Patricia Harney in Henry, Illinois to a small-town family with several children in 1913. I recall a story she told of one day out riding in an open car packed with friends on the roads around Henry. The driver swerved to avoid a buggy or wagon (I think that’s what it was-it might have been another motorcar) and she was crushed against the side of the vehicle and fractured her pelvis.
Six weeks she was laid up in her second-storey bedroom on the blistering heat of a Henry summer. She said her father would not allow any friends up to see her. That’s what she told me, anyway.
Wanting a vocation, she and a sister made it to Chicago as young women to train as nurses and it was there she caught the eye of my grandfather. They settled in the west-side Lawndale neighborhood and had three children. The middle child was my father Daniel who had a sister on both sides of him.
While my father was still in high school the family moved to a home by grandfather had built in Berwyn just half a block from the still lovely Proska Park. A magical park.
By all accounts, my grandparents were never very openly affectionate with each other. Clearly, they loved each other, but there might have been a reticence to their public displays of affection. I was only six when my grandfather died, and I wish I had had more time to know him. He seemed a gentle, kind man.
I experienced the same reserved affection from my grandma for many, many years until I was in my late teens or early 20s when something seemed to melt in her and hugs I gave were returned with a near equal pressure of love.
I say that, but I never doubted how much she loved me.
I spent at least one week a year at my grandma’s house. Early years, I was whizzing around the tidy basement on an old tricycle, or up and down the very brief run of backyard sidewalk. She followed me as I pedalled though Proska Park, watched rabbits, water striders and spun myself silly on the merry-go-round.
We drove into downtown Berwyn along the Burlington tracks to the dime store and she would hover on the boundaries of patience while I chose the one thing she would buy for me.
She made me Creamettes with butter, Farina or Cream of Wheat better than anybody ever did or ever has. We sat with colored metal bowls of popcorn and watched the Waltons or sometimes the local channel hosting the polka show. We watched Lawrence Welk in the TV room, or I would be told to play while she caught up with her stories in the afternoon.
I think of this small woman who would say to me, “You and me, Michèle, we love to go”. She meant, we both loved to travel, and I may have some of my wanderlust from this woman.
One summer she had a terrible run of bad health, and her spine was crumbling and she had a bad case of shingles. I bought her The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher, unabridged on tape so the weeks she spent laid up on the davenport in the living room were a little less grim.
As I went on and lived my young adult life, my grandma began to descend into dementia. It came with ideas there was somebody or something in her house. Red flags rose. There were small accidents.
The family suggested she move to a retirement hotel near my parents. Leaving her home was the real step toward the end but she accepted her decision. It was inevitable, as it so often is, and the wrench of separation from home was equally common, but still tragic.
Her health deteriorated and she was then moved to a care facility so the transition to higher and higher care would be easier.
I saw my grandma for the last time after I had spent my first three months in Australia. It was 2003, and she was in and out of awareness. On that day, my father and I found her in the dining room, sitting with another woman she didn’t seem to care for, and she was delighted to see me.
“Little Michèle,” she said, her eyes bright. “Come all the way from Australia to see me.” My father said in the car as I cried it was amazing she knew where I had been; her memory had been so poor for so long.
I held it together then, much better than I am now, thinking of this woman who looked after me in so many ways, for so many years.
Unfortunately, things did not improve for my grandma, and dementia had a tenacious hold on her mind at the end.
She was not the kind of grandma with a big bosom who would cuddle you or spoil you with many presents. She was not a woman of books or great education. But in her careful, generous, loving and steadfast way, I could always count on her. I never doubted my grandmother. I trusted her.
One memory especially stands out for me. I was an independent child, and in all the years I was in high school, my parents never came to the school to see me play badminton, or to get an award. Not until the very end when I graduated, and I can say that it did not seem to worry me.
But one week, my parents were away for visit to the Washington family, and my grandma was staying at our house, looking after me and my little brother. There came a one morning I was in a tap dancing class, and we had a casual performance planned. I don’t even recall mentioning it that morning, it seemed so inconsequential, but parents were invited.
One by one, parents turned up, some sitting in chairs set up along the wall, others standing. I could see their reflections in the mirror before me as the class followed the teacher in our shuffle-ball-change in our warm up.
And in walked my grandmother. She had never been in the massive school that sprawled across two blocks She would have had to drive over, find a parking spot, ask directions to the tiny room tucked deep in the bowels of the gym wing, and yet, there she was.
Neat, quiet, obviously proud, and I danced for her. I danced and I danced. I was a terrible tap dancer, but I danced for my grandma who came to see me.
-The photo is of my grandma on the back porch of her Berwyn home.