By Susan Howe
I didn’t know it until the year she passed away, but my Grandmother held the secret of Christmas.
As a child, we would drive the 30 minutes west to her small spanish-style home on a small park in San Diego, past dairy land and open spaces unheard of today in over-developed Southern California. Those drives were filled with an almost unbearable expectation, for we knew what awaited us at Grandmas…Christmas!!! For although a white-Christmas was almost unheard of where I grew up, my Grandmother somehow captured the essence of an old-world Christmas in her home.
I can feel the cold of the wrought-iron handrail as we mounted the stairs to her heavy wooden door, the one with the quaint little window that actually opened out to view arriving guests. That door opened to a place as magical to me as Narnia must have been to the children in C.S. Lewis’s timeless classic.
Hardwood floors gleamed in Grandma’s entryway, where a polished wood table held a beautiful ceramic Christmas tree, handmade by children with special needs, and dear to my Mother. I can still see the heavy black dial-up phone that my Grandmother used to firm up our Christmas plans. But it was by stepping down three tiled steps that we were transported to paradise, for in her living room a welcoming fire warmed us, casting it’s glow on a handsome round table I used to polish to perfection. And to the right, framed by a gigantic bay window, was the tree. Not just any tree, but a huge confection of a tree, sometimes in all it’s evergreen spendor, sometimes flocked with what has probably been found to be toxic by todays standards, but whatever the theme, Grandma had it decorated to the hilt.
“Less is more” was not a theme she believed in, not in trees, and happily not in gift-giving. Every nook and cranny beneath that tree was crammed full of colorfully wrapped gifts, so many that it took one’s breath away. For months, my siblings and I had spent many awe-struck moments pouring over the Sears holiday wish book, envisioning each and every toy displayed in it’s pages as our very own.
And much to my parent’s chagrin, it usually was. It seemed that any toy we oohed and ahhed over ended up under that magnificent tree. Before we were allowed to delve in, we all sat at the long dining room table, dressed for the occassion in fine linens and china, to partake of a wonderful steak dinner (my Grandmother’s gift to Dad) and we children were left to gaze longingly through the arched doorway at that glorious tree and it’s waiting bounty.
After what seemed like forever, we all retired to the living room once again and the fun really began.
Before long, a pile of wrapping paper was fed to the fire, as treasures were revealed and stacked for later perusing. Candy dishes were raided to fuel the hard work of handing out the gifts, and eggnog was sipped by the adults.
At long last, we kids retired to a section of the room to gloat over our bounty, and eventually begin to load up the car for the return trip home. This was our tradition for much of my childhood, until the year my Grandmother sold her house and moved to Los Angeles to be closer to my Uncle and his family.
She died not long after, and a piece of Christmas died with her. It wasn’t just the presents, or the candy, or the decorations.
Grandma WAS Christmas.
She embodied those special gifts so few are blessed with. She had the ability to make memories that have lasted this child a life-time, and I shall always remember her as Mrs. Christmas.