Column by Miranda Cipkowski
Last New Year’s Eve, my husband had to be at work early, so I set about the task of dismantling the ancient artificial Christmas tree our family had used year after year. When I purchased the tree several years ago, it had been beautiful. It was pre-lit and sturdy, and now it was solely a thorn in my side I could not wait to pluck. My poor husband had to rig an extension cord through the center just to make the lights on that decrepit thing work. As I gazed at this barren, sad object, I decided then and there, it had to go.
I had taken it apart and began to drag the ragged, misshapen green heap straight out the front door and down the daunting hill that is my driveway for the trash collectors to confiscate. Physically moving the tree by myself was not an easy task. I pushed and pulled and cursed my way down the driveway in my red flannel pajamas and my Nike’s. By the time I reached the trash can, I was bawling. As I stood there sobbing, I had no real idea why in the world there were tears streaming down my face. After a minute or two, I began to gather my wits about me. I looked around in my periphery to make sure I had not been seen. The last thing I wanted the neighbors to think of me as was the girl who cried in public in her pajamas. Realistically, in that moment, I was the girl who cried in public in her pajamas.
Without further thought of my momentary emotional lapse, I trekked the hill, into the house, and wiped my eyes, neatly tucking away my grief. I took my Prozac and made my kids breakfast. Note to self: Buy another tree in the next few weeks to get the best deal.
Fast forward a year: it’s Black Friday 2012 and I have yet to buy a tree. I hastily made a decision. I called my husband and asked (rather stated) that we must get a real tree ASAP. He knew better than to put up a fight this time because I had already made up my mind. I loaded the kids up and headed to Walton’s Greenhouse as fast as my decade old car would take me. I marched into the store and immersed myself in the rows of greenery. I paused at a Fraser fir that was just right. This had to be what Goldie Locks felt in the Three Bears’ house. I paid for the tree on the spot, scheduled delivery and left with the girls shuffling behind in sheer bewilderment. I went to Walmart and bought the biggest colored lights I could get my hands on and silently prayed they wouldn’t burn down the house. I was giddy. I suddenly felt 12 years old again.
Then, out of nowhere I recalled last Christmas. That was the first Christmas without at least one of my grandparents.That grief lingered a bit longer than I could have anticipated.
My grandparents (my mother’s parents) raised my sister and me. To be quite honest, they are about the only parents I remember. Everything before them is a hazy collage of images. Occasionally, my mind wanders to a small brick house with orange shag carpet, a very pretty woman with long black hair, and the smell of Brut aftershave. Unfortunately, those flashes are all I can recall of my mother and daddy.
When Mamaw and Papaw Roberts took us in to live with them, they were retirement age. Those two had already raised seven children of their own, and they were hoping to relax more. Boy, did they ever have another thing coming. To say the transition into their home was difficult would be an understatement. But one thing in my childhood in which I took respite was Christmas. Christmas was in no hurry; it seemed to take its own sweet time. I really loved that time of year, and Mamaw and Papaw seemed to enjoy it, too.
Papaw Roy only had a third grade education, but he was the smartest guy I have ever known. He could make anything. If that man had two paper clips and a rubber band, he could build a house … or that was certainly the way it seemed. Every year after Thanksgiving, he would begin the exhausting and monotonous job of hanging Christmas lights. He would literally spend hours checking each bulb; turning the lights on and off to see if they were to his liking. If something stayed outside long enough and appeared inanimate, before too long, it was draped with something festive.
Papaw Roy tried feverishly to ensure everything ran smoothly, but something always went comically wrong. For instance, the time I felt as if I wasn’t getting enough of my granddaddy’s attention while he was arranging the lights, so I pretended to stick my tongue to a frozen light pole (No, I was not an easy child to raise). Papaw managed to shimmy off the roof in record time, but the kettle of hot water he showed up holding in his hand scared me enough to call my bluff.
Mamaw Gerry, as we all affectionately called her, was a cross between Edith Bunker and Lucy Ricardo. She decorated the inside of the house the way Papaw decorated the yard. When she put Frank Sinatra on that old record player, I knew Christmastime was drawing near. Mamaw introduced me to the greats: Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Andy Williams. She had all these old figurines she proudly displayed every year. I often secretly wished we could throw them all away and buy new ones. I was too immature to comprehend or appreciate sentimental value. She would regale us with stories of her childhood Christmases in Depression era Brooklyn and when she spoke, it was with the odd southern drawl of a New York City transplant. I wished I had listened a tad more closely.
Christmas memories are like diamonds. Each one is precious and unique. Memories such as the time I wanted an electric pencil sharpener, but instead, my cousin got one. One of the Ten Commandments states “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” Man, I certainly struggled with that one (I must hold some residual ill will, because when Weatherall’s delivered my brand new top of the line electric pencil sharpener the other day, I found myself doing a little happy dance in the middle of my classroom). The “pencil sharpener” incident, as it came to be known in my mind, had to be a foreshadowing that I was destined to spend my life in a classroom. Even the worst gift I ever received is a memory I cherish now (a blood red puffy coat, in which I could hardly breathe, much less walk).
I realize now — much, much later — that Papaw Roy and Mamaw Gerry embodied the true Christmas spirit … not just on December 25th, but all year long. They were selfless, hardworking people who chose to trade in their golden years to raise two orphans. I appreciate them now in a way I was incapable of expressing when they were on this Earth. I keep their memories alive in things like fir trees, colored lights and electric pencil sharpeners. Just as Frank Sinatra sang on that old LP, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”