Episodes: The last Christmas


The way you knew my grandparents' house was close, in the dark, on a cold Christmas night, was when you reached the bottom of the long, snowy hill, your headlights would flash across a single spot of red, reflective tape, then catch the ghost of a cardboard cutout in the gloom. Drawing closer, you would see Rudolph -- the red tape his nose -- and know that you were almost there.

We held Christmas at that little house at the bottom of the hill every year as I was growing up. Sometimes, all four of my grandparents' sons would show up, and sometimes only three (depending on if the youngest had made it home), but even in the event of a horrible blizzard, we would do our best. As a young child, it was my favorite because there were so many presents, but as I got older, and the haul less significant, it became my favorite for the large number of traditions that had grown up around it.

We ate oyster soup, always, a holdover from my grandmother's days in the Depression. (Eventually, my grandmother relented and started making chicken soup for all the grandchildren disgusted by oysters, a number that included me for most of my childhood.) We sang carols around the organ. We usually played a board game, often Guesstures (if you don't remember it, it was basically charades). Rudolph was always there to light the way home, just as my grandmother placed her well-loved and worn Nativity set in the same space each year, a tiny light atop the stable to keep it lit all the night long. Ritual made the event safe, made it feel religious in a way family gatherings can sometimes.

The family grew, as families do. Grandchildren married and had great-grandchildren. Boyfriends and girlfriends came and went, but there was always room and always oyster soup for everybody, even as my grandparents grew older and frailer. Christmas at their house was an institution, sacred in a way I couldn't imagine Christmas with my immediate family being. I wonder, now, if my own nieces and nephews view their Christmases with their aunts and uncles at their grandparents' houses as similarly awe-inspiring. I hope so.

I learned my grandfather had brain cancer on September 10, 2001. My girlfriend and I had gone to our favorite spot on our college campus to talk about our lives and, notably, if we thought it was time to get engaged as so many of our friends were. (We would decide not to.) In the middle of our conversation, my father called to say that he had gone over to my grandparents' house the night before to talk to them and had learned that my grandfather was feeling out of sorts, having problems sorting his thoughts. At the doctor that morning, the tumor had been discovered. It was operable, but brain tumors in people north of 80 years old are rarely welcome news.

The next morning, of course, the world would change. But these two events -- national pain and very personal pain -- are forever bound up in my memory. As rescue workers sifted through the World Trade Center's rubble, I was sitting in a waiting room, hoping to hear good news of my grandfather's recovery. As the US built up to war in Afghanistan, my parents would check in, every so often, with news of his recovery regimen. He was now a shell of his former self, and it looked likely he would need to go to a home. My grandmother, already racing across the outer rim of dementia, might have to follow. The tumor was gone, but it was as if whatever essence my grandparents carried inside of them had gone with it.

A little over a week before Christmas, he died. It was, in some ways, a mercy. He was in pain, and he was not the sort of man who belonged in a home. It was as if most of him had gone, and he gathered up whatever was left to will himself the rest of the way. I skipped out of finals, and my girlfriend and I went to see the first Lord of the Rings movie, because I needed the distraction, then drove down to my hometown the next morning for the funeral. I helped carry the coffin. It felt lighter than it should have.

We tried, the next week, to have Christmas again, but it wasn't the same. Rudolph was down, because no one had thought to put him up, and though we all pitched in to provide a reasonable facsimile of the traditional Christmas meal, you know how it is when one person has been in charge of a particular meal for decades, then others try to recapture it. You can't, because its strength is in its secrecy.

We opened presents, and we even sang carols. But my grandmother, in her usual chair, seemed confused. "Where's Dad?" she would ask every so often, and have to be reminded that he was dead, that without him, she would surely go to a home herself. She would accept each new answer, but only for a little while.

My girlfriend and I would get engaged the following January, after my parents, in the wake of everything, asked when we were going to get married already. (I used the small inheritance I received to pay for the ring.) My grandmother would die the following October, after less than a year in the home. The country would stumble on past tragedy, then mire itself ever deeper, as if it were caught in an echo.

It seemed, in 2001, that perhaps we were looking at the last Christmas, at the end of things. But it wasn't. Here we are, stumbling forward, often without those we loved and centered ourselves on.

My family got together for one last Christmas the following year, at a different house entirely. There was a new looseness, now, the sons no longer having to worry about shocking their parents, like when you're old enough to realize that your parents swear, too, only amplified, because we were all good Dutch Christians. We had oyster soup, but less of it. More and more of us ate the chicken noodle soup instead.

It was a fun evening, but we haven't really repeated it. It's ceased to be a tradition as the people at the center of it have passed on. I still see the members of my extended family regularly enough, when I travel home, but I'm more likely to get brief glimpses of what they're up to on Facebook. The oldest great-grandchild is in college now, and my wife and I talk, idly, of having children of our own. Things begin small, then grow larger with time, and if you look back toward the center, you can still hear the vibrations of what once was in the radiation.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, because Christmas (or whatever year-end holiday you celebrate) is a time for memory, a time to be haunted, just a little bit. There is something new coming, very soon, but for now, we're comfortable to live in the past, for just a moment. These ruins suit us, because we remember what they were.

My grandparents' house still exists, but it sits empty. No one wants to live in a farmhouse miles from the nearest town, at the bottom of a hill, in a valley, that floods every time it rains hard enough. As with all houses left to their own devices, it's shutting itself down, slowly but surely. The one thing it still bears from when they were alive is the very particular smell -- some mixture of dust and my grandmother's perfume. It lingers. From the outside, though, it looks like a closed parentheses. Were I still a child and were I to glance at it from the backseat of the car, as we drove by, I would surely declare it "haunted."

It is, but mostly by those of us who remember what it was. I think when I go home for the holidays this year, I'll go out back to the storage shed where Rudolph has stayed all these years and go stand him up in the snow. Lonely travelers, headed down a dark road in the middle of the night and seeing for a moment a bright red flash, might wonder, for a second, what ghosts these are, and whom they belong to.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more or less (usually less) if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.