Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Happy Christmas

I recently mentioned Jen Hatmaker's post about how some of her children, adopted out of hard situations, have a tendency to sabotage Big Days such as Christmas. I was interested in the post, and I went through and read all the comments, of which there were several hundred. Some adults wrote about how people in their families, for various reasons, continued to sabotage Big Days; others wrote that they realized that they had a tendency to make Big Days miserable for those around them.

There are a few reasons I followed the post so closely. One is that in my novel The War That Saved My Life, which is going to be published in 17 days, not that I'm counting, of course I'm counting, my protagonist, Ada, absolutely sabotages Christmas. I got to know Ada very, very well in the course of writing her story. Yes, she's fictional, but whatever. She's essentially adopted out of a very hard place, so she has lots in common with two of Jen Hatmaker's children. I read a LOT about kids coming from Hard Places as research for the book, but I also drew on my own hard stuff. Sometimes, too, Ada's own story seemed to take on a life of her own, in that I felt like I knew exactly what she was feeling even though I didn't really know why. This happened especially in two places in the book, the Christmas meltdown, and the ending, with its unexpected but very real joy.

Anyway, I loved having some independent confirmation that I'd been listening to Ada. But I also realized two things: my paternal grandmother was a prime Christmas saboteur, and, despite that, I have very happy memories of Christmas.

My grandmother was a difficult, complicated person with a mostly hidden past. I loved her dearly, and she loved me, but sometimes she could pull some really crazy stuff. Her birthday was the day after Christmas, which might have been part of the reason why Christmas was always so variable with her around. My dad and my aunt don't talk much about their childhood, but whatever they say about Christmas is pretty bleak. What I remember is that sometimes my grandmother would give completely excellent presents--once she gave my mom and dad and my aunt and uncle both new stoves, complete with built-in microwaves which were pretty new at the time. They were really great stoves, very much appreciated. Then another year she gave both sides queen sets of sheets that she'd clearly bought on some discount table. They were hideous, but they still might have been useful if either my parents or my aunt and uncle owned a queen-sized bed.

I dated my future husband for six years and we were married in July, so it's not like I sprung him on my grandmother, but on our first married Christmas she looked at him as she was passing out gifts and said, "Oh. I forgot all about you." That was the first Christmas I got a snarky gift from her--an impossibly ugly tablecloth meant for a long, skinny table. (My kitchen table was round.)

It didn't matter, though. My parents never let my grandmother spoil the holiday for my brother and sister and me. Christmas morning was at our house, full of happiness. Whatever we got my father, he loved. Always. If it was an article of clothing, he usually put it on right that moment, and wore it the rest of the day. He never criticized any gift we gave him. Not once in my memory. And he loved giving us gifts that suited us well. He loved surprising us.

For a few years when I was in high school my family took off for a ski vacation for the whole of the Christmas holiday. We would leave in our well-packed van the moment school let out, and return right before school resumed. Our Christmases featured tiny live trees we'd decorate with paper and our small collection of skier ornaments, and Mass in the freezing little church with the priest playing carols on the organ himself and inviting everyone over to the hall for a snort afterwards. Just the four of us (my sister wasn't yet born), and happy.

When my own children were small my dad used to say he wanted to have another skiing Christmas. This irritated me: two of my immediate family have medical issues that prevented them from skiing. Now, though, I understand what my father was trying to say: he wishes we could go back to that, to those two happy weeks. But I've never felt I needed to. Christmas was always happy, because my parents took care to make it so.