(Part I and Part II )
Grandma served Grandpa the same breakfast every day: a soft-boiled egg perched in a Hadley egg cup, a side of buttered toast with jelly, one small glass of orange juice, and a cup of scalding tea with lemon.
It was now the day following Thanksgiving, and my brother and I sat munching away at the breakfast table with our grandparents, eagerly waiting to help Grandpa run some Christmas errands.
Running errands was usually code for a trip to the toy store, where Grandpa allowed us to pick out any one item, followed by a trip to Brigham’s to enjoy an ice cream cone sprinkled with jimmies, all of which took place before lunch.
But on this cold and sunny day, as we buckled our seatbelts in the backseat of Grandpa’s Volvo, he informed us of other plans.
We will first stop in the hardware store, as your grandmother has asked me to buy the Christmas wreaths. And then to the Five-and-Ten, so you two can do a little Christmas shopping.
Grandpa loved going to the hardware store, despite the fact that he had not one handy bone in his body. Duct tape was his repair method of choice, and even though he was the proud owner of a remarkable tool bench with fine tools, he scarcely touched them. His sons-in-law repaired most household things, painting and caulking and hammering away.
But regardless, Grandpa loved to give the hardware store fellows some business, as he was fond of saying. As we careened out of the driveway, he put a cassette tape of Evie singing Come on, Ring Those Bells into the cassette player, and the three of us crooned along. I remember feeling filled up, bursting with love for God and his gift of Jesus, for Christmas, for my brother who was my very best friend, and for my magical Grandpa, who made life glow.
We arrived and hopped out of the back seat, zipping up our coats in the frosty air, and helping Grandpa decide which Christmas wreaths were the best. He chose the largest ribboned ones, and their pine smell swirled…deliciously intoxicating. We helped ourselves to the steaming mulled cider offered at the counter, reaching up and pulling the lever as it glugged into our tiny styrofoam cups. Grandpa disappeared, returning with several boxes of bulbs for their Christmas window candles.
I shivered with delight as we finally arrived at the Five-and-Ten. This place was the best: narrow rows upon rows of everything anyone would ever want: bubble gum and candy bars and tiny doll-house miniatures, plastic toy animals and brightly colored pencils, a leather pouch of jacks and decks of playing cards, miniature pinball games and Christmas-tree-shaped pencil sharpeners, tinsel and hair bows, matchbox cars and small tablets of drawing paper, Chapstick and decorative socks, fancy bars of soap and crossword puzzles.
As Grandpa opened the door of this fine establishment, a cluster of silver bells tinkled and the store owner looked over and smiled, saying: Merry Christmas, Bob! And who are these two?
I blushed and stood by Grandpa’s sleeve, while my brother happily shook the man’s hand. Grandpa proudly introduced us. He then pulled two crisp five-dollar-bills from his billfold, (as he called it), and told us to go ahead and shop for some Christmas gifts.
It was extraordinary, this being graced with so much money, and we took our time covertly shopping. I found a shiny matchbox car and a bag of candied orange slices for my brother, a new black comb for my father’s back pocket, and a package of flowered tissues for my mother to tuck in her purse. I bought several miniature sliding puzzles for each family member, plus a bag full of Old-Fashioned caramel cream candies called Bullseyes, which were my favorite. They would certainly not last until Christmas Day.
I had been gifted the world, with some change left over. I held out the remaining coins to Grandpa.
Keep it for your piggy bank, he smiled.
I looked up at him and knew.
I was standing next to greatness.
Back on Washington Street Grandma had been working, dusting and vacuuming and placing the small nativity on the fireplace mantle. Grandpa and Grandma had taken a church trip tour to the Holy Land, and had returned with an olive wood crèche. I studied it, gently holding the smooth, wooden baby Jesus in my cupped hands. Grandma and my mother had also unpacked the Spode Christmas dishes, my favorite plates of all time.
Grandpa handed my grandmother a paper bag of ice cream.
She laughed. Oh, Bob, really? More ice cream?
He kissed her cheek.
It’s Christmas! he offered by way of explanation. Little did she know that we had already partaken of a heavily sprinkled cone.
My brother and I watched as Grandpa went to work, positioning the plastic candles in each of the front windows. They were cream-colored, with pretend drippy-wax stuck to the sides, a mock likeness to a real candle. I thought these candles were simply beautiful, and could not wait to see them glow.
Grandpa then hung one of Grandma’s wreaths on the front door, keeping an extra nail between his lips as he hammered away. Christmas was in the air!
By late afternoon, as the wintery dusk encroached, Grandpa gathered us all together and plugged in the lights with a flourish.
An interesting, opaque orange.
Aren’t they wonderful? He looked terribly pleased.
Bob! They are orange! my grandmother gasped.
My parents simply stared.
Aren’t they fantastic? he smiled.
What will the neighbors say? my grandmother wailed, hand resting upon her cheek.
Regardless of anyone’s opinions, the orange bulbs were here to stay.
What will the neighbors say? was my grandmother’s modus operandi.
My grandfather, as it turned out, did not think this way. He lived to serve others, acknowledging preferences and humbly deferring.
Well, most of the time.
When he was truly moved by something he simply did not care what others would say. And this, I believe, was his charm. It was magnetic, it was freeing, and it was oceans apart from keeping up appearances.
Folks bent on keeping up appearances are insecure, discontented people. You cannot possibly be content while simultaneously running around attempting to keep up appearances; grasping to fill that interior chasm with man’s approval. It is a space that only God is meant to inhabit.
I will admit, however, that those lights were interesting.
This is my brother’s take on the glowing bulbs that Grandpa placed in the windows of their home on Washington Street: Kristin, they were the exact same color as Campbell’s tomato soup.
I cannot think of a more perfect description.
What made this tacky light scenario so interesting is that our Grandpa was a class-act guy. He liked to gift his family, and others, with fine things.
He treated Grandma to dinner out more than once per week, at fancy places like: Legal Sea Foods, Giovanni’s, and the Ninety Nine. He never preferred fast food establishments, and also never looked down upon others who did. He was simply comfortable in his own skin. Quality was king, in his estimation, and he refused to buy anything, for anyone, of poor caliber in order to save a buck. Of course I did not have the advantage of knowing Grandpa in those early years, when he and Grandma scraped to make ends meet. I am sure his generosity had something to do with the hard remembrance of suffering.
Grandpa was forever pulling someone up and out of despair, quietly buying groceries or clothes for those in hard places, while allowing his love to cover a multitude of sins. He served his church with joy, clearly laboring not out of duty but from a place of deep, heartfelt devotion to God. Unlike so many older folks, Grandpa never held back his generosity of spirit, waiting for a sunny day to shine, or stockpiling cash for rainy day expenditures. He thrived by dwelling fully in the present, blessing and gifting and relishing those opportunities sparkling before him.
One time Grandpa was tasked with confronting an usher at church, who had been caught stealing cash from the collection plates. It was soon discovered that this had been going on for quite some time. I overheard a family friend inform my mother: Your father is the measure of kindness and justice. That usher will have to repay every penny of what he stole, but it was your father who worked out a quiet way to keep him from prison, preserving his dignity with forgiveness and a reasonable repayment plan.
The Bible was Grandpa’s comfort, his mirror, and his joy. He was quick to exclaim over the grace and forgiveness of God, and then turn and extend those very things to others, in spades.
I am leaning in and learning from him, even now, thirty years after his death.
I imagine we all would have guessed that Grandpa would have chosen, shall we say, more elegant lights.
But he did not.
It raised more than a few eyebrows, not only in our family tree but likewise in the neighborhood. Although during this time period it was common to see bright green and red lights, no one–and I mean no one–displayed Campbell’s tomato soup lights.
Grandpa carried on quite happily, plugging in those candles every year, for the rest of his life.
I miss those warm, tomato soup bulbs. It was perfect…unique Christmas lights for our one-of-a-kind grandfather.
Grandpa was not the only one to surprise me that Christmas.
On December 25, Grandpa’s and Grandma’s home on Washington Street filled to the brim with relatives. Conversation was loud, the women bustling about, serving cheese-and-cracker-platters, and fancy punch dotted by pale green sherbet, poured into heavy goblets. Their home was toasty, given Grandpa’s propensity to shiver in wintertime. The scene was wonderfully festive, as all of us seemed to be donning something new– a watch, a scarf, warm socks, a new sweater. We had opened our stockings and gifts at our own homes before packing up and meeting at Washington Street to carry on the celebration of our Savior’s birth.
While Grandpa and Grandma always gave fine gifts, I know that Grandma tempered Grandpa’s spending, reminding him of something known as The Budget. He loved to go all out: the finest stuffed animals, expensive jackets, well-crafted toys, tasteful jewelry.
Grandma usually bought me a dress or earrings.
But that year, I was surprised to receive something far more special. A book that she had hand-selected: Black Beauty.
I opened up the hardback, delightfully weighty in my hands, and read a note scrawled in her penmanship:
Dear Kristin, This was one of my favorite books when I was your age. I hope you love it, too! ~ Grandma
A little jewel of warmth flooded my bones. Grandma and I had something in common! She had considered me, my love for reading, and had purchased a book that she had once read as a girl.
She must have noticed my delight, because the following March, she gifted me with a birthday gift sublime, the first book that ever made me cry: Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I was thrilled to later discover that this same author was a dear friend to several of my ancestors.
Don’t worry, Kristin, it made me cry too, Grandma said–an unusual flash of understanding–after my mother confessed to my deep sorrow over the death of Beth March.
In the years to follow, story birthed a tentative bridge between us. One year, when I was in middle school, my mother and I popped some popcorn and joined my grandmother in her tv room a few days before Christmas.
This is my favorite Christmas movie, Grandma said.
We watched together, and I was utterly enchanted by this old 1944 Judy Garland film, Meet Me in St. Louis, a movie which I now watch every single year during the Christmas season. Grandma grew stunningly verbose that day, telling us how this film was a box-office smash as soon as it was unveiled in the theaters.
It was a craze that swept the nation, she smiled, remembering. I pictured my grandmother, a pretty young lady, enamored by this movie that had likewise captured my heart.
Meet Me in St. Louis also introduced the world to the beloved Christmas song: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
I am now sitting in our living room, alone, enjoying the quiet as well as the soft twinkly lights on our tree, studying ornaments from Christmases gone by, and remembering. It is good to remember with a tender and thankful heart.
As I ponder my heritage, I thank God for the many stories lived out on Washington Street and beyond, tales both beautiful and crushing. There are so, so many to tell.
The truth? Some people love well, and others do not. Will we choose to forgive, even apart from a sincere and broken apology?
We must, if we want to be well with God. (Matthew 6:14-15)
One small ornament catches my eye: a nail, dangling from the pine branch, ribbon bright red.
Jesus, God made flesh, the Savior of the world.
From Perfect Baby to Crucified King.
Our darkened hearts made righteous through faith by Christ’s death, that he might present us to God, alive in him. (1 Peter 3:18)
This is God’s plan. Isn’t it amazing? The story of our existence, with its many agonies and delights, is fully authored by him. Nothing, nothing, is accidental. Isn’t that comforting?
May we have eyes to see our stories through an eternal lens, thanking our Heavenly Father, who is working all things together for the good of his children who follow in genuine faith. (Romans 8:28)
This Christmas, as you glance back, or peer ahead, remember to also stand firmly in the present. Trust not in princes, or any mortal man, but in God alone. (Psalm 146:3) Those hard, bleak crevices and golden sunbeams of life, are his good and holy design.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas.