A Christmas Story









I realize most bloggers have moved onto 2013 but I was out of town and absent from the blogosphere. I could not, however, leave 2012 properly without this post and January 6 is technically the last day of Christmas so I’m only a three days late.

Gift Letter

“Hi Darling–

Sorta disgustin’, how sober I am.” 

So my grandfather began a letter to my grandmother shortly before they wed in June 1955. They wrote nearly every day before they were married. She lived in Toledo, Ohio, where she had grown up, and he was a reporter in New York. The engagement was not long and they only met three times before the wedding.

My sister continued reading, “Maybe it was the big meal at Leones’ and maybe it was the desire not to get drunk–but I didn’t.” My cousin Jacqui’s eyes met mine over the tissue-stuffed gift bags lined up in the center of the table and we giggled. That my grandparents’ correspondence involved so much talk of booze should not have been a surprise: Jacqui and I both remembered Grandpa’s briefcase, which never carried paper. It was filled instead with the tools and ingredients to make Manhattans. The briefcase made every road trip from my grandparents’ home in Hilton Head, SC, to Chicago, the Grand Canyon, and various other national monuments.

Grandpa's meditation on sobriety

I was fortunate to know all four of my grandparents growing up. I was close to my grandmother, who learned to use email the minute it was invented. We wrote back and forth throughout college and the year after, until she could not use a computer any more. But, I realized too late, I never asked enough questions.

The afternoon of my cousin’s funeral in 2010, I ironed a black shirt in her living room. She stood by, curling her hair and asking if I had eaten enough.

“Grandma,” I asked, “where were you when Kennedy was shot?”

She told me where she was when Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. Something about the kids being at school, calling the school secretary to ask if they knew. Then, she said, “I used to work for the superintendent’s office. Never liked having to stay home and raise children. I worked until I was 30.”

If only I had asked, before her dementia became so bad that she could not keep major events straight, what she did all day in her suburban ranch house with two kids while her husband was away. If only I had asked how she felt about it. If only I had asked what Women’s Lib meant to her.

We realize too late, I think, how fleeting our relationships are. It is always upon my return to the United States that I realize how little I know about the places I’ve been. It is at the end of the conversation, once the person has walked away, that I realize I have other questions.

Menu, 1989

Loss makes what you have more precious. Finding a menu from a Christmas dinner served in 1989 becomes as profound a discovery as unearthing prehistoric bones. The menu was our time capsule. Growing up, we ate Grandma’s chicken Parmesan, German chocolate cake (which, it turns out, was actually Betty Crocker) and homemade toffee. For Christmas, we started with the cheeseball (below), involving cream cheese and canned ham, an ingredient as foreign to me as fish sauce before I moved to Vietnam. We ate the chicken Parmesan and what my grandmother called a salad, made of canned pineapple, maraschino cherries, sugar and sour cream mixed together and frozen. It was food familiar and comforting to my father and aunt, who grew up in the 1960s when canned food was all the rage. It will probably show up again next year.

Grandma's Cheese Ball, 1989

But if the menu was a time capsule, the gifts were our DeLorean. Each gift bag contained something that once belonged to Grandma: beaded white gloves, a silver bread dish, a mousepad with a family picture printed on it, a saltshaker shaped like a butler. We chose them randomly, White Elephant-style, but are too non-competitive to swap and steal. The crown jewels, however, were the letters. Each bag contained one from Grandma to Grandpa and one from Grandpa to Grandma.

Dad reading

Handwritten in cursive or typed on thin typewriter paper, there are hundreds of them, all numbered in the order they were received. Besides booze, my grandparents wrote about mutual friends, family members, illnesses, work, Toledo and New York City, and wedding plans, including when and where to buy dishes. They’re sweet and oh so innocent. I hope we’re reading them for years to come.


4 thoughts on “A Christmas Story

  1. This was so sweet and touching. It makes me sad to think of our future — what will our grandchildren have to read? Our emails? Our blogs? It’s not the same as a handwritten correspondence; there’s no soul in an electronic missive. I have to admit I’m a bit jealous as well, all of our family history was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution — you’re very lucky to have these.

    • Thanks, Edna! I am an avid diary keeper so I hope that’s the document my grandchildren read first! You’re right, though. Holding a handwritten letter connects you intimately to the person who wrote it. I am grateful to have my grandparents’ letters–and that they were such diligent correspondents. I am learning so much about them, especially my grandmother. She was much more dynamic–funny, independent, smart–than I ever realized. I remember her being so consumed by taking care of my grandfather that I thought that was all she knew how to do.

      I’m so sorry that your family history was destroyed. I admit, I don’t know very much about the Cultural Revolution but I think it’s tragic any time personal history or traditional culture is destroyed. How did your family deal with the loss of those things? How was family history passed on without the pictures, letters and other documents?

  2. I think a couple of photographs managed to be hidden and saved, but that’s literally it. I’m grateful to have even those though, to see what my grandparents looked like and what my aunts and uncles and parents looked like as children. Our family history’s been passed on just by my parents telling me stories about their childhood. I’m devastated at the loss of my family history, but even more so for the loss of so many generations’ history; and tens, even hundreds of years of photos, documents, and other precious memorabilia, as the Cultural Revolution hit all over China.

    • Edna, I’m so sorry! The more I learn about the Cultural Revolution, the more shocked I am by how much material culture was destroyed. Nothing replaces the precision of a photograph. If it’s hard for one family to recover from that loss, how does a diaspora or a country recover?

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