The walls of our house have pretty much pulled back into their normal shape after a week’s worth of bulging to contain the gatherings of our extended family. My wife’s sisters and one brother live in the area, and her mother and another brother and his family were here from Oklahoma. Add in all the accompanying husbands, wives, nieces, nephews and invited friends and mix together for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and you can be sure the windows will still be rattling two hours after everyone’s left.
The Oklahomans stayed with us and they have two children, ages 8 and 3. Their mother is from Ecuador originally and their father is fluent in Spanish and the kids are being raised bi-lingual. Being kids, they have a great interest in our animals, and within moments of their arrival there are high-pitched cries of “Gato! Gato!” from various parts of the house as they pursue our cat, hoping to play. Our cat had a reputation for surliness in his younger days and was known to bite and scratch if not approached with the proper respect or if he hadn’t gotten his full 22 and a half hours of sleep a day, but he has mellowed in his latter years. Now he copes by trying to stay on the move, and I frequently saw him bolt past with the children a few steps behind, his ears back and his eyes wide, looking for an inaccessible hiding place.
I can relate. I think I’m mellowing with age as well, but with age also comes an appreciation for routine and an abiding affection for my comfort zone. These seasonal infusions of family dynamics would be quite a test for those boundaries if they weren’t kind of a routine themselves, and part of the comfort of the season. In the years my wife and I have been married this side of the family has developed a workable system for food delivery, distribution and clean-up with familiar and looked for recipes. The tumult of voices in a full house and attention to the needs of those ranging from very young to the most seasoned are as familiar as my memories of my own childhood and part of the cycle not only of the season but of life itself.
My parents and siblings are scattered across the country and while we see each other regularly throughout the year we usually don’t do Christmas together. Part of it is geography, part of it is the accommodations of married life in settling “this holiday with yours, that holiday with mine”, but it is also a matter of our changing roles in the annual Christmas pageant. Once I was the child transported to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, to roll around on the floor in the wrapping paper with my cousins. Then I was the teenager and young adult rolling my eyes at the unsophisticated trappings and enforced participation. Now I’m the host, watching as each family unit and generation rolls in the door, or on the floor, or its eyes – and I wouldn’t miss it because some day I will miss it, indeed.
In this year’s crop of cousins, nephews, nieces, in-laws, outlaws and whoever else comes in the door I still remember the people from the past, some now gone, some now hard to reach, and yet it is as if I can still touch them. That may be why I once cut out the following poem when I discovered it:
In my dream I was the first to arrive
at the old home from the church. Wind
and night had forced through the cracks.
I pushed inside, turned on the lamps,
lit a fire in the stove. Frozen oak
logs stung my fingers; it was good
pain, my hands reddening on the icy
broom-handle as I swept away snow.
On Christmas Eve, I prepared a warm
place for my mother and father, sister
and brothers, grandparents, all my relatives,
none dead, none missing, none angry
with one another, all coming through the woods.