The Ghosts of Christmas Past


Baby in snow, 1971

Are your dead drifting closer, as the calendar creeps towards Christmas or Hanukkah or Solstice or Kwanzaa or whatever you celebrate?  This is something that goes unadvertised amidst the sales and parties and light displays—the way the dead people we loved slink back to us in December.  Maybe they like the skies that press down and leak water, snow or ice for days.  If they could they would make mud and ash and lace and candy bracelets fall too.  Maybe they think we are summoning them, what with the dark falling early and the lit candles in the windows and the boy soprano caroller with that deadly last note.  Maybe your dead just like holidays.  Maybe your dead miss families, and they want to stand at your shoulder as you tear open the red and green and golden envelopes that collect in your mailbox.  Is that really the neighbor of our childhood? The dead friend seems to bark. She looks like a dried husk of that kid!  You might start to concur; you might think you’re going crazy.  But I’m here to say now, you are not crazy.  The dead do like December.  Many choose it for the month they slide back to visit.  And though it is the busiest time, though it feels hard enough to meet the endless needs of the living, I am suggesting here that you make room for your dead, in moments.  It’s not like they want you to go with them—that is to say, don’t think they want you to die.  Let’s assume they only want to reminisce (what else can they do, really?), and if you travel back with them a little you might be rewarded with something like a glowing calm.  You might feel—how can I say it without sounding crazy?—like you have made the past happy.  Maybe even happier than it was.  For don’t forget:  it can take a long time to love someone.  We can’t always do it right while the person is alive.   And maybe the dead can’t either, and this is why they reappear to us in gauzy, gracious glimpses, offering wiser or nicer words than they would have.

Just a few days ago, for example, my sons were speculating on the merits of various-sized tablets (but not the paper kind, nor the stone-scroll kind one marks with a pickaxe), when the long yellow hair and square face of my long lost friend N— appeared above them.  She was looking from one boy to the other with amusement, or maybe she found the big difference in their hair styles funny.  Either way, she was laughing to herself.  The scar around her neck was draped as perfectly as a necklace.  At last she looked up at me.  You need to hold firm, I heard her say, and her dark eyes glittered again in the devious way they did, the way that made me whisk by her door at the end, forgetting to say goodbye. Just tell them the elves only own wood-working tools.  They have no wires or fuses or RAM in their workshop.

And soon, I know, during this or that over-long holiday concert, I will be again twitching in the front church pew, and without moving her eyes from the priest my grandma will offer her hand to me.  Hands can be played like instruments, which is something I knew once but have forgotten.  I will fold each of her fingers forward, one at a time, and then lift them back in a random order.  She will hold them limp or firm as requested silently, by my own little fingers, which only now as a mom do I realize must have felt so valuable in hers, so vulnerable. When I’m done with her hands, I will spin the thin silver bangles around her age-spotted wrist round and round. Just softly, so that they flash but not clatter.      

The snow arrived here yesterday.  It snuck in during the night.  In the morning, I was watching my son pretend to snowboard down the hill on a cheap plastic sled.  He kept persevering, going a little further every time, even after wild spills.  When he crash-landed he would lie on the ground without moving for a long spell.  Not because he was hurt, I realized, but because the quiet was perfect down there.  At last he would stand up slowly.  He only hears snow, is what I thought.  He’s still collecting his Ghosts of Christmas Past.  And even though I was looking at my son I was suddenly seeing my dad as I had never, in fact, seen him.  He was hunkered down on Christmas Eve, arranging a Flexible Flyer sled for me.  Some presents were piled on the wooden back of it, and its twin red blades poked out from under the tree like the dead witch’s ruby-slippered feet.  I really did get that sled for Christmas.  And later he and my sisters piled on it, behind me, because even though I was the youngest and therefore always the last to choose a seat—in this case the sled was mine.  And we really did fly….down and down, laughing, blurring…straight into a thorn bush.  Again, riding this memory, I take all the thorns in my face.  But this time I don’t jolt up and run away from him, sobbing salt down my stinging cheeks.  I lie there in the snow, in the perfect quiet.  I’m sorry Care, my dad says, like he would never.  I picked a bad path.  I listen.  Even the thorns in my eyelids have kindly missed my eyeballs.  I stand up slowly.  Then I raise my face to him, and he begins to pluck them out.


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