I’ll Be Home for Christmas

April 1971 at the Melrose house

That’s me on the front porch of the Melrose house in 1971. It must have been Easter or something. I wasn’t normally so fancy.

I played alone for hours outside the house where I grew up in Southfield, Michigan, daydreaming on the swing set or exploring the pastures and back woods, acting out books and creating my own worlds. A barn on the property housed several horses, and one of its three pastures doubled as a vegetable garden, which I helped my Uncle Lincoln plant and tend each summer. The modest ranch house with a screened-in carport anchored two acres of land, but it sat close to the gravel road, its doors always open to the stoppers-by who regularly bellied up to my Aunt Thelma’s table. Her kitchen smelled of coffee, cigarettes and bacon grease, a combination of odors that thirty-some years later still reminds me of home.

I left the house on Melrose at age 11 to move in with my father and his new wife, but I can still picture the kitchen table, where my aunt sat in her white quilted bathrobe, smoking cigarettes and writing letters, while Patsy Cline sang softly on the transistor radio. I can see my bedroom window at night, a bright light beckoning from an apartment building on Lahser Road, and hear the soothing hum of a train passing in the distance. I recall the gilded mirror with a photograph of a boy playing cowboys and Indians that hung on the wall of the rec room, or “rumpus room,” as my aunt and uncle called it. I remember the cobalt blue candy dish in the living room filled with butterscotches, which my uncle let me eat before dinner when my aunt wasn’t looking.

Whenever I dream of going home, even now, it is to that house.

With the holidays approaching, the Melrose house and my childhood there are on my mind more than ever. It was in that house that I knew safety, comfort and stability after losing my mother as a toddler. It was there that I discovered the importance of tradition and the meaning of family. It was there that I felt the unconditional love of two people who were my aunt and uncle but also my parents. And it was there that I unwittingly learned how to be a mother and make a house a home.

I miss my aunt and uncle, and the Melrose house, the most this time of year. An industrial park now stretches across their property, their house long since razed. Uncle Lincoln, my second father and best buddy, passed away when I was pregnant with my son, who is now 14. Aunt Thelma, the only mother I ever knew, died two years ago, four days before Christmas. As anyone who has lost one or both parent knows, there is something hollow and unsettling about spending the holidays without them, even if you have a family of your own and no matter how much time passes.

Although there is nothing left of my childhood home, I like to think it lives on through the life my time there helped me find. After the tumultuous teenage years I spent with my father and stepmother, I wandered lost and miserable through my early twenties. I was looking for something, I guess, but I had no idea what. When I met my husband, a quiet, thoughtful man much like my Uncle Lincoln, I realized all I ever wanted was what I had in that ranch house on the gravel road in Southfield: to feel safe and loved.

I’ll be home for Christmas. I am already there.

It Really Is a Wonderful Life

Source: RKO/NBC

The first time I watched Frank Capra’s magnificent film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I was a single twenty-something living in Dearborn, Michigan. The movie made me sob, first and foremost because I am a gigantic sap. But also because it made me think about how much value each of us has and how many other lives we touch, whether we know it or not. It made me think of my future and the place I wanted for myself in the world. It made me realize I wanted to matter to someone.

I’ve watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas since then (the black-and-white version, of course), and each time it says something new and different to me. There was the year I watched it for the first time in a Chicago apartment with the man who would be my husband, and he loved it just as much as I did. There was the year we watched it in our first house, a 1920s’ bungalow in Chicago, and I understood exactly why Mary wanted to fix up and live in the drafty, old Granville house. There was the year we watched it for the first time with our kids, neither of whom liked it all that much, and I cried extra hard when George found Zuzu’s petals in his pocket. There was the year we watched it after my husband lost his job, when Mr. Potter seemed extra villainous and George’s victory celebration was particularly poignant.

This year, the line that resonated most with me was Clarence’s inscription in the copy of “Tom Sawyer” that he leaves behind for George: “No man is a failure who has friends.” It has been a tough 12 months for me (parent’s death, job loss), and I don’t know what I would have done without the strength and support of the friends who buoyed me through it. I’m also very lucky and grateful to be married to my own George Bailey, my best friend and the richest man in town.

On this Christmas Eve eve, I am happy and thankful to be exactly where I am. I wouldn’t change a thing. The bad times only make the good ones mean more. I guess I don’t need Frank Capra to tell me it’s a wonderful life, but I do enjoy the reminder.

Wishing you all the happiest of holidays with those you love the most in your own wonderful lives.

How Lovely Are Your Branches

I don’t remember placing a single ornament on our first ever artificial Christmas tree last year, not even the ones I bought for each of my children. I don’t recall shopping for gifts, wrapping them in patterned paper and shiny bows, or placing them under the tree. I have no idea what we made for the family dinner we hosted on Christmas Eve. I’m certain we did these things. I have the photographic evidence to prove it. But I have no memories.

Last year my aunt, who raised me and was a grandmother to my children, died four days before Christmas. She had been ill with pneumonia since Thanksgiving and passed away shortly after her 92nd birthday. Given her age, frailty and poor health, her death was a blessing. But that didn’t make it any easier for her children, grandchildren and all those who loved her to let her go.

The weeks surrounding my aunt’s death were a numb blur, and the holidays became something to endure rather than enjoy. I can see it in my glassy eyes and forced smile in a photograph of my husband and me that I don’t recall being taken on Christmas Eve. It appears that I put on the “happy mommy” show as best I could for my family, but it was as phony as our new tree.

After the holidays, we packed up the 12-foot, pre-lit tree, which my husband hated and hadn’t wanted to buy in the first place. He swore we’d get a real tree next Christmas.  I don’t remember caring too much one way or another about the tree being artificial. I just didn’t want to look at it anymore.

As the weeks and months passed and took us further away from Christmas, my numbness faded. It may not be the nature of grief to release us entirely, but it does slowly loosen its grip. The darkness gradually lifts, and the good days, so fleeting initially, grow more frequent. The ghosts of our memories move to the outskirts of our thoughts, and we focus on those who remain before us. We remember to feel, we remember to live, and we desire to do both.

This year my husband tried to convince me to get a real tree, but I wanted to give “Tree-hemoth” a second chance. I even managed to talk him into putting it up the week after Thanksgiving, which is early for last-minute holiday non-planners like us. The door of my home office stays open all day so I can admire my glimmering fake fir.

I am feeling festive without pretending, but I haven’t deluded myself into expecting a picture-perfect holiday. I know there will be stress, and some things will go wrong. I will miss my aunt and everyone else who is no longer with us or cannot be here. But I’m ready to make new, happy memories with my family. My smile in this year’s photo will be real.