Christmas cheer and Christmas fear
Christmas was one of my favorite holidays. Every year we gathered at my grandparents’ house to celebrate. My grandmother loved to spoil us with candy canes and Christmas presents. Their house was always warm and inviting. My mom moved around a lot. We lived in many different houses and apartments throughout my life, but my grandparents’ house always remained. It was the house that my mother grew up in and the still point of the turning world, as TS Eliot described it. It remained that way until my grandmother's death at 91.
My Grandfather was a product of his generation. He was a tall man with a handsomely chiseled face who didn't really say much. He believed in hard work and routine. Maybe this was a result of the many years he spent in the army. He loved reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. He always sat in the same chair. The four of us knew we were never allowed to sit there while he was home. I'm sure my mother had a different experience with her parents. My grandmother was 20 years old when she had my mother, just as my mother was twenty when she had my older brother and 22 when she had me. Although she barely talked about her personal life, I'm sure my grandmother went through hardships of her own. My mother's father left my grandmother when my mom was a small child. She met my grandfather, the only one I had known, when my mom was about six years old. They married and never separated until my grandfather died at the age of 89.
On Christmas Day it was funny to watch my grandparents interact. By the time I was born, they had been married for almost 20 years. They had a way of arguing about everything. My grandfather swore by his method of doing things, and my grandmother always had a different idea. Every time, my grandfather would give in and do things my grandmother’s way, but he never went down without a fight. It was the kind of argument that never made us feel worried. We chuckled silently from the sidelines as we watch their comedic routine unfold. It always made me feel safe.
My grandparents had a Christmas tree made of silvery tinsel that came with a rotating multicolored light. As the disk rotated, the color of the light changed and caused the tree to change colors too. It was beautiful and hypnotic to watch. The hues shifted slowly from yellow to green then red and finally blue. My siblings and I loved to sit on the sofa in the front room where they kept the tree and watch the colors go round. Each of us had a candy cane to munch on. My grandparents loved to decorate the Christmas tree with candy canes. My siblings and I were like a cloud of locusts that came by once a year to strip the branches of the tree bare. We ate our weight in peppermint and sugar and left very few if any canes on the boughs. I don't think planned obsolescence had been invented yet because my grandparents’ tree was lit up for us, without fail, my entire life, at least until I moved to Japan at the age of 22.
Because my mom didn't have much money, our Christmas presents always came from the grandparents. Every year the Christmas tree would have a present for each of us. My grandmother always knew what toys we wanted because she would ask us ahead of time. She didn't want to make the mistake of buying something we would throw away and not use. One year she did make a blunder. My sister wanted the Game of Life. For weeks she had looked forward to Christmas so that she could open her present and play her precious game with us three brothers. My grandmother did not remember exactly what she wanted. Instead, she bought her something called a Light Bright. It was an illuminated toy that had colored pegs on a blackboard with peg holes in it. You could arrange the pegs into different shapes to form pictures made of light. When my sister opened the package and found the Light Bright, she started sobbing really loudly. I was only three years older than her, but I knew it was rude to cry about receiving a present, even if it wasn't what you wanted. My sister was too young to comprehend the weight of her actions. All she knew was that instead of getting The Game of Life she got a light bright. My grandmother looked confused. “I thought you wanted the game of light .” She said. My sister was tiny. She was like a little woodland sprite with tears too big for her face. “I wanted the game of life not the game of light.” My brothers and I lost it. I don't know why, but that sentence sounded so hilarious to us. It made my sister cry even more.
Fatima forgot her tears soon after the feast was ready. Christmas at the grandparents’ house was a smorgasbord of wonderful foods. You could always count on the standards: greens, macaroni and cheese, yams, stuffing, and some sort of beautifully roasted meats. My grandmother also made the most amazing cornbread muffins. There were plain ones and ones that had chunks of pineapple in them. The pineapple corn muffins were my favorite. The four of us sat at the children's table while the adults sat at the big table. Our daily meals at home were usually humble, whenever we could get them. Being able to have this gorgeous feast was always something I looked forward to the entire year. A month before there was Thanksgiving dinner, of course. Having two feasts in a row made the holiday season extra special.
One year, Christmas was ruined. I think that was the last year that we lived in the project tenements. Our place had been broken into once before when my siblings and I were home alone. That scared my mother so much that she bought a gun. She lined the four of us up and showed us the gun and told us never to touch it because it was dangerous. A short while after that, we were watching TV in the room where the men had climbed through the window. Suddenly we heard a loud rattling noise coming from outside. My mother freaked out, got the gun, pointed it at the window, and shouted, “Who's there?” Her voice was frantic and full of fear. Outside of the window, a group of children giggled. They were satisfied that their prank had been successful. My mom cried so hard. She never talked about it, but I suspect she was crying because of how close she had come to killing someone's child. The next day the gun was gone forever. She never owned another. None of us have. I don't know how much later it was after that incident, but one Christmas when we had come home from our grandparents’ house, there was a hole in the wall of my bedroom. Someone had tried to tunnel their way in from the empty apartment next door. The hole was big enough for a small child to fit through but not a grown man. Maybe we came home before they could finish. My brother and I hated sleeping in the room with the hole in the wall. The night wind always made it sound as if the men had returned to finish the job. It was the last straw for my mom. By the following Christmas, if memory serves, we moved out of the projects and into a house. It wasn't quite as cozy as my grandparents’ house, but it was much better than living in the Blues.