I don’t remember any of the presents. Who does? A litter of torn paper had most likely been gathered and stuffed in the biggest shopping bag for Monday’s trash. A smaller bag would have held the poufy twists of ribbon for future Christmas mornings. Or perhaps we stuffed them all away beneath the torn shards of plastic packaging and ripped paper, knowing that The Big Move would have little space for used ribbons and refolded Christmas wrapping. There would be no more Christmases in our little house.
Nine years earlier, on a sticky summer day, the ancient stones, wide planked floorboards, and creaking, winding staircase had enfolded our family of girls. In the middle, I wobbled on the sharp edge of thirteen, slipping clumsily between child and young woman and back again. Karen brought her flute and guitar, her Sixteen magazines, and her secret crushes to her room of ten windows. Kathy tumbled into the house with scraped knees and a travel box of Little Kiddle dolls, the youngest at nine. Our mother arrived with white uniforms, polished shoes and winged cap in which she had just sailed bravely back into her nursing career after seventeen years of being a mom at home.
Betty and Dick, Carolyn and Lloyd, Lois and Clif: all Mom’s smiling high school friends from old black and white photographs, arrived like an army to repair, caulk and paint the little house in the woods. A picnic followed a hard day of hauling furniture and memories from our old house. Mosquitoes and lightning bugs swam in the muggy twilight as we waved goodbye to our friends, dragged the dog into his new home, and unpacked life without Dad.
Window glass, a secret liquid, slides south on gravity and time. Grey sticker bushes and swaying fingers of trees peered through hundred-year-old glass at our lives flickering in each room of the house like the colors of our new television. They became “our” trees: solid, predictable, constant, quietly watching over the agonies of geometry and first loves, stupid sister quarrels and tight hugs, and the healing of four broken hearts. The old glass distorted their view, as if through tears, but the trees nodded at nine years of fire-glow and shimmering candles, plates of ginger cookies and Swedish Braid, and the comings and goings of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. The doors swung open and shut, airing out our grief, replacing it with unexpected life. We had reached the last chapter of Dottie and the Girls in the Big Woods. New chapters were trailing up and over our tall trees, carried in four different directions by time.
What 100 other Christmas stories had the trees watched over in that house? We never knew. Our story ended on a cold night in 1977, around a warm fire, gleaming turkey, creamy mashed potatoes and gravy, and the traditional but unloved succotash. Like others who knew they were witness to great historical moments, we savored each element of the day. We sighed over the memory of fires that kept us warm and stirred the scent of the Christmas tree. We would miss singing in the kitchen as we cleaned up after holiday meals. Each of us gazed at the ornaments… the table cloth… wreath on the massive door…. Silently, and near tears, we thought of each memory that would move on with us to unknown places…
Wallowing in my most mournful tone, I dug the big serving spoon under the steaming white mountain in the yellow flowered china bowl. “I’ll always remember… these mashed potatoes.” Our giggles began, and the house filled with laughter at our own sappy sentimental sorrowing.
I have since celebrated Christmases in homes in Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even on the beaches of East Africa. My sisters have gathered at holiday tables in Costa Rica and Thailand. Mom now celebrates in heaven, but she still seems present in the love and recipes at our scattered tables. (There is no succotash in Heaven, I am sure.) Those old tall trees remain, but the house crumbled from neglect and was torn down long ago. The trees have grown protectively over the hump of brick, stone and glass. Every Christmas, wherever we are, we remember the joy of holidays in that old home, and the healing that time and laughter brought to us under that roof. And, wherever we are, we never forget to celebrate those legendary mashed potatoes!