My grandfather Joe got the blues at Christmas after his wife died. He outlived her by twenty years or so, and every holiday season after her death he thought about Christmases past and mourned for what he had lost. On Christmas day he would sit in a chair with his hands clasped and head down and speak in monosyllables.
We gave him presents of clothes, chocolates and whiskey. He opened the wrappings and briefly looked into the boxes, and thanked us with a few words that seemed to cost him effort to utter. My sister eventually discovered a horde of unused, untouched gifts sitting on the floor of my grandmother’s old sewing room. I don’t think that he was saving up for a later day, and I doubt if the gifts were piled up in her room as a sacrificial offering to her memory. I believe that he boycotted Christmas when we weren’t looking.
My mother told me stories about how hard he tried to make Christmas magical when she was a child. Her favorite tale went like this: “Your grandfather got up from the supper table on St. Nicholas’ Day and said, ‘Do you hear something in the parlor? I think that it’s Santa Claus and I’m going to take a look.’ The parlor doors slid shut and locked, and we were told to never look through the keyhole until Christmas Day. We might get coal in our stockings if we were naughty and sneaked a peek. A rug ran under the door on both sides, and your Grandfather stood on it as he bent down and put his eye up to the keyhole. The rug whipped out from under him, and he fell on his rear end. He turned to us and said that Santa Claus had caught him looking as he put up our Christmas tree. I had been losing my faith in Santa Claus–I was about 6 or 7–but I went on believing for a couple more years. I found out later that his brother had sneaked into the parlor through a side door and waited. Your Grandpa whispered a signal, and my uncle pulled the rug.”
When I was a little kid Grandpa Joe’s mood was one of quiet contentment on Christmas Day. His younger brother Norby and his wife joined us at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a big meal in the early afternoon. Conversation was light and happy at the table, and Grandpa made a show of pouring wine for his guests, Sauterne for adults and Mogen David’s Concord grape for kids old enough to handle a splash of alcohol. He and Norby found time in between afternoon naps to sit off to one side to share a joke and a smoke. I can still hear Norby’s rasping laugh as he leaned in close to Grandpa.
My grandmother died of complications from a series of strokes in December, 1980. Mom hosted Christmas at our house a few weeks later, and the mood was solemn. Norby told no jokes and Grandpa stayed mostly silent. The dinner conversation constrained itself to the weather and “please pass the peas”, and the day couldn’t end too soon. Everyone’s holiday spirits recovered in the next few years except for Grandpa’s. We got used to the empty chair at the dining room table, but he could not.
It’s customary these days to expect folks to “just get over it” as if grief has an automatic expiration date. I met a woman years ago who grew up in Germany under the Nazi regime. Ingrid survived the fall of Berlin to the Russians and the loss of her mother to cancer, and endured two bouts of the same form of cancer. Her marriage was difficult and finances uncertain. She was a generally cheerful person nonetheless, but told me that Americans try too hard to be happy all the time. She held that sadness was a natural part of life, a valid emotion that required no apology.
Grandpa’s sorrow on Christmas day was genuine and deep, and we learned to let him have his due. He had the right to feel anyway he wanted, Christmas Day or any other, and we respected that. His life ended in many ways when his beloved died, and who were we to demand something he could no longer give?