(with apologies to Truman Capote, who I think would have understood)
Every year around this time, one of our friends cheerfully asks us to recount our favorite Christmas memory. Every year around this time, we have to remind her that people who grew up in dysfunctional families don’t have favorite Christmas memories. They have vivid Christmas memories, but those aren’t the same thing.
I wish we could have taken our cheery friend to a recent church service commemorating the darkest day of the year (that is not, as you might suppose, the Solstice – that’s the longest day of the year). The minister riffed on the fact that while Christmas is frequently about families getting together, exchanging gifts, preparing food, telling stories, making new ones, it’s not that cheery for everyone. Some people are lonely; some are ill; some are dealing with loss. Not everyone is happy around the holidays.
Certainly part of me isn’t this year. A few months ago, I made plans to visit my friend Bob (see photo) in Las Vegas for his late-October birthday. He had moved from Silicon Valley a couple of years ago, hoping to become a STEM teacher; it didn’t work out primarily because of Clark County’s ridiculous educational bureaucracy. And although he liked the weather in southern Nevada, it was clear that he was lonely. He warned me after I sent him my flight information that he’d had been fighting a horrible bout of the flu.
Except that it wasn’t the flu; it was the onset of congestive heart failure. He died a couple of weeks later, just days shy of his 59th birthday.
Bob was a big man, both in size and heart. I hate that the latter failed him. I miss him. I fear that the worst part of getting older, especially for those of us with really good genes, is accumulating more and more memories of departed friends and loved ones. It doesn’t help that one of Bob’s favorite activities was throwing an annual Solstice party. This year, we’re getting together on that day with some mutual friends to toast his memory.
That’s what’s hovering over Christmas present. There’s also Christmas past. Some people, like us, simply don’t have fond memories of those either.
For my spouse, whose parents were florists, Christmas was one of their busiest and most hectic times of the year, equivalent to Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Her parents had no energy left over for the yuletide. As for me, I remember my father yelling at my mother for paying $25 for the top-of-the-line Lego set for me one year. Even more vividly, back when I was around twelve, I remember the Christmas morning of the flashcube.
We were at our beach house (we were not destitute). My sister had received an Instamatic camera as a gift. It used those light-blue flashcubes to illuminate the subject. My sister was goofing around, and put her foot on an ottoman next to me; I took a picture of her big toe. In addition to setting off the flashcube, it set off my father. He started screaming about how expensive flash cubes were and how wasteful I was. He opened the front door and yelled at me, saying I might just as well have thrown thirty-five cents into the street. As my wife has gently pointed out recently, my father’s path in life was not to be my parent. (When we spread his ashes in the Pacific, even though it was illegal to do so, I added a quarter and a dime so that he would have the money in eternity.)
Don’t get me wrong – I love the holidays now. Our tree is adorned with ornaments from all the places we’ve visited around the world. My wife and I stuff stockings with each other’s favorite candy. We watch Miracle on 34th Street and Scrooge (the 1951 version). I love cooking Christmas dinner. I’ve made molasses gingersnaps using Bob’s recipe – twice – in his honor.
This is the lesson I will try and take away this year, and every year: The old memories will never completely dissipate. They’re here to stay. What’s important is to keep making new ones, nicer ones, so that one day, perhaps very soon, we’ll be able to recount to our friend that we’ve finally created our favorite Christmas memory.