Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Christmas Legacy of Donna and Dick

Christmas is a time of year where I feel the space between the importance of honoring our ancestors, and trying to walk the path of being a good ancestor, now, for our descendants. My childhood memories of the holidays are tied directly to my Grandpa and Grandma Riddle. They have both passed on within the last decade, and every year, when the holidays roll around, I miss them.

There are not enough words to express the loss I feel, that they are no longer in my waking life. I know that I am not alone in experiencing this. We have all lost loved ones and faced the difficult holidays after. My Grandpa Dick and Grandma Donna are entwined in the memories of my childhood Christmas traditions and their spirit colors the choices I have made in how I create holiday traditions in my adult life.


Christmas Eve was a night out to dinner, dressed up at a nice restaurant. When dinner was over, we would drive around, digesting our good meal and take in all the Christmas lights on our way to my Grandma Pat’s house, my mother’s mother. There, we would have food and drinks and sit in the smoky back-room exchanging gifts. Some years I would walk through the galley kitchen into the formal living room and up the steps to the room that used to be my mothers. There was an organ in that room and I learned to play “On the Street Where You Live” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from the organ book. We’d totter sleepily home, the cold air startling away the smell of cocktails and cigarettes.

Invariably, my siblings and I would wake well before the allowed wake-mom-and-dad-up-time. My sister and I would creep into my brother’s room with our pillows and a blanket, whispering in a sleepy, excited, need-to-eat haze until eight o’clock. One year, because we’d been up so early the year before, my brother had bought and hid a pint of orange juice and a box of donuts in his desk. We watched The Three Stooges on his small black and white television, waiting until dawn. The one Rule we were not allowed to break was that we were not allowed to go downstairs.

When 8 am struck, we children would not be deterred from waking our sleeping parents. We were not afraid to open the east-facing shades or pull down the warm covers. Anything to wake them, to quicken the process of getting them up so that we could wait some more, while mom and dad woke up the downstairs. The three of us would scrunch ourselves together on the top stair while mom called Grandpa Dick.

My Grandma Donna was a pediatric nurse and worked Christmas morning so that the nurses with young kids could be home with their families. When I was a kid, she was Mrs. Santa Claus, doing a simple thing to give the kind of Christmas I experienced to the children of her co-workers. I saw the magic and the sacrifice of it, even as a child. She and my Grandpa would have their holiday when she got up for shift. He would wait for Mom to call and then he’d drive over to spend the morning with us. She’d put the coffee on and then we could come downstairs.

I know it was her favorite part, that look on our faces when we first saw the tree with all of the presents beneath it; so many presents that inspired my strong and whole-hearted belief in Santa Claus. In my life I have watched him transform from a story to a god to a saint to a man to a hero to a myth to a metaphor to an emotion to a state of being. That look on our faces when we were children- that utter joy and faith in something larger than what we knew… that is Christmas.

We opened our stockings first, while my Grandpa drove over, and the cinnamon buns baked in the oven. The Christmas Orange was my favorite part, sticking out of the top of the stocking like the new morning sun, greeting us earlier and earlier every day now. I wish I could say we ran to greet my Grandpa with hugs and kisses when he came, but really we were excited because Grandpa’s presence meant opening presents. A few times we were chastised for not letting him take his coat off, but he always laughed and said he understood, smiling down at us with a twinkle in his eye like Santa, he understood that he was 'just Grandpa' and Grandpa's couldn't compete with Santa. We took turns opening presents. Grandpa would leave when were done, to prepare things for family dinner at their house.

Dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s was always festive and warm, with presents and dinner and games of scat at the kitchen table for pennies. There were always cookies and treats and the sound of laughter and knuckles knocking on the table to the woe of the other players. I would carry the smiles, the echo of laughter on the walls and the warmth of the kitchen home with me, against the bitter chill of winter.


Moving away from home years ago, in the absence of my family, I had to create my own Christmas. And first I had to revisit what the season meant to me. It’s about understanding and honoring family, in its many forms, and setting aside ego. Christmas isn’t about me, it’s about us humans, and the tapestry we weave as we journey through adulthood. It’s about all of the people walking the earth who mean something to me, walking and breathing and touching other people's lives. Goodwill to all beings is more than a holiday wish. For me, it's the only way to walk the earth. So for me, Christmas is the focusing of energy I feel year round. Which is something I hold fast to in the grown-up dance of scheduling around everyone’s family obligations. I am grateful for the moments of togetherness, and the new hugs and smiles and laughter that will sustain me through the months of night yet to come, peeling back a layer of darkness as the wheel turns forward.

In my own holiday, I’ve kept the cinnamon buns and the scent of coffee brewing, as well as the Christmas Orange. I set a cup out with a cinnamon bun for my Grandpa while we open gifts, in honor of the memories he gave me. Everything changes. Everyone who has come into our lives will go out of our lives, and we have more to learn from the waters of the earth and our bodies that we are open to hearing. It is in remembering the moments of togetherness and the lessons we learned from experiencing life through our elder loved ones' eyes that we are able to honor them at holiday time. These moments of togetherness are also a great opportunity to ask for stories about family members that you don’t know, and hear more tales of the lives of the ones you do.

I hold the moments of the past in my heart like a hearth flame. As I move about the crazy buy-this-now-if-you-want-someone-to-love-you battlefield of commerce, I have gratitude for the car that allows me to travel to those I love, and the home I rent that has heat. I try to share that gratitude with others in smiles and patience. In sharp contrast to the shopping days, Christmas morning is the one day each year that the country is mostly still and quiet, every family huddled around a vision of nature within their own homes. I always take a few quiet minutes to experience and enjoy the stillness of the world with my family, in my home. Blessings to you, in this time of celebration, and the Happiest Holidays from my heart to yours.

These are the collection of ornaments I received from my Grandparents over the years, kept carefull by my mother until I moved into my own home. They hold a place of honor on my tree every year.

1 comment:

  1. I got teary-eyed reading this one, for different reasons. I love the way you write, friend, but more than that, I love the way you reflect, learn, and feel.


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