There’s this memory I have of Christmas.
Cleveland, Ohio. In the back seat of my parent’s car. Sitting next to my sister Alison, each of us staring out of our windows as Christmas Eve night rolls by. It’s late, almost midnight, and we’re tired, fighting off asleep. Mom and dad are in the front seat and we’re driving on Wallings Road, coming home from my grandmother’s house.
The trees lining the street are filled with snow, almost ghostly because the night is so dark. The trees swim by, in front of houses decorated in many-colored Christmas lights. Tomorrow is Christmas Day and my stomach is jumping even though I’m old enough to know there is no Santa Claus, because it’s just as amazing to me that my mom and dad are going to stay up tonight after we go to sleep, and put wrapped presents under the tree, and fill the stockings hanging over the fireplace, so that we can tear it all open after our breakfast of oatmeal with raisins. They will even take bites of the cookies we leave out on a plate next to a glass of milk. There is no possibility that all of this won’t play out exactly as I remember from the years before. A Christmas performance carefully arranged, every year, just for us.
My grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve was steamy. It smelled of her cooking and sounded like grown-ups talking. Such a small house, I realized much later. Just a living room and a kitchen really, with a hallway leading to her pink bathroom, and a room off to the side that we never went into except to put our coats on my grandparents’ bed. The kitchen table was filled with food: a ham, potato salad, baked beans, and Czech dishes – kielbasa, sauerkraut, and flicky (pronounced “fleech-key”, a noodle, sour cream and cottage ham casserole). On the counter, for later, there were Christmas cookies that my mom and aunts baked, and Czech pastries called kolache, filled with prunes and poppy seed. Proudly in the middle of the table stood my grandmother’s crystal punch bowl filled with the eggnog she made with a big block of vanilla ice cream and a whole bottle of rum. And next to the sink, an industrial-sized urn filled with coffee, which the grown-ups would drink all night long.
The kids opened presents. Christmas music played faintly in the background. The same Rudolph and Santa decorations lined the mantle of the fireplace, along with the Christmas cards everyone had sent. A small Christmas tree, adorned with familiar ornaments, would stand on the same table, every year. It was like each December 24th someone hit a reset button and this specific evening would begin, the same one we had been having my entire childhood.
All the players on this tiny stage were so dear to me. Uncle Bob and Aunt June. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Carol. My mom and dad and sister. My cousins running around. My grandmother smiling and laughing in her rocking chair, and my grandfather, stoic, saying very little. Their big gentle German Shepherd, Smokey, with his silky fur and dark eyes, resigned to all of us, and sleeping at my grandfather’s side.
The adults would go outside to smoke because grandpa wouldn’t allow it in the house. They stood on the front concrete steps of the house, watching the traffic drive by, wrapped in their heavy winter coats and stamping their feet, complaining about the cold.
Of all my childhood memories, Christmas Eve is the most indelible. I can smell the inside of the house, and the cigarette smoke that wafts in when my parents and aunts and uncles open the front door to come back inside. I can taste the food, and the eggnog that I wasn’t supposed to drink. I can remember feeling drowsy but excited on the drive home, and enchanted by the lights lining Wallings Road – thinking that all these people, these strangers, had strung Christmas beacons just so that I could see them as I drove by.
The world seemed good, like my family was good, and it seemed there for me, like everyone I knew. I was surrounded by comforting voices and food and people. I had whatever I needed.
I think that, as a parent, all that I do and wish for and strive toward and hope to achieve is to recreate for my kids that feeling I had in the backseat of my parents’ car driving home from my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve. That feeling that the world is perfect. And it will be perfect every year. We would simply hit the reset button and be together, come what may.
So here is my wish to everyone this Christmas. May our paths, no matter how dark, be lit and guided in some way. May we feel safe, and excited, and surrounded by love. And sure of the future. And filled with joy.