What do I remember most about early Christmases? Grandparents. Loads of 'em.
I was fortunate enough to be a "child of divorce." That's right...fortunate. While divorce was still pretty frowned upon when my parents moved apart in 1973, for me there were some definite perks. Namely: more grandparents. So many, in fact, that some wound up with duplicate monikers.
When my new Nana (the mother of my stepfather) came along, previous Nana had to be renamed "Nana Across-The-River." (While that might not flow off the tongue, it was the only logical recourse for the five-year-old me, who loved riding over the big bridge to get to her house.) New Nana was an instant welcome addition. She had a giant scar running down the length of her torso from heart surgery and claimed that the scar was somehow related to the fact that she burped, in a low rumble, for a continuous minute or longer. Frequently. Her husband, Pop-Pop, smoked a pipe and told jokes about peeing in the shower. What more could a kindergartner ask for?
Nana and Daddy Across-the-River (ACR) wintered in Cocoa Beach, Florida. For several years my brother and I would be packed on a plane, by ourselves, on Christmas Day (it was cheaper) to fly south and to subsist for a week on nothing more than Jello Pudding Pops, fresh oranges, and Limburger Cheese - Daddy ACR's favorite. Because of the cheese's pungency, Nana ACR made Daddy ACR eat the pungent cheese outside on the 1960's apartment building's balcony, which was strung with giant, old, blinking, christmas light bulbs and glittered plastic poinsettias. While my brother spent his days golfing with Daddy ACR, I laid in the concrete block "ovens" in the courtyard with Nana ACR and the other giant-bosomed grandmas. We held tanning reflectors under our chins as we turned every inch of our skin into fine (malignant) Corinthian leather while gossiping about our ungrateful children. Which I didn't have yet, of course, but surely would someday, according to them. I was already righteously indignant in anticipation.
For holidays spent up north, we shuttled between two sets of grandparents who lived in the same town. Grandma and Poopa were the most traditional of my grandparents. Grandma served the sort of Christmas meal you see on grocery packaging - turkey, frozen peas, mashed potatoes, tan gravy, etc. It was exactly the same each year, with dishes set in the exact same place on the table, in the exact same order, at the exact same time. And it was exactly wonderfully perfect. But you couldn't talk to her while she was cooking or she'd "get out of rhythm." Which was fine with me, because that meant I could spend my time in the hallway, making calls from her special phone chair and table. She had a flip-top address book that fascinated me. You slid a metal tab until it lined up with the desired alphabet letter, and the pages sprang open to all your contacts with that initial. To me, it was magical pre-computer era technology. I made hundreds of imaginary Christmas greeting calls to my grandmother's contacts on that (wisely unplugged) phone.
Her husband, Poopa, also stayed out of the way, frequently working down at the liquor store through Christmas Eve. While he didn't drink himself (this was his "retirement job,") he did get a lot of great freebies from liquor sales reps. Which explains why my five-year-old bedroom was decorated with giant inflatable Seagrams 100 Scotch bottles and posters of couples in wide-lapeled formalwear drinking "Riunite on Ice...that's nice!"
My final set of grandparents, Grammie & Grampie, were probably the ones I saw most often, since we were dropped off at their house after school. There would always be a plastic cup of Coke, green grapes, and a Twinkie waiting for my brother and me, and the resulting sugar rush catastrophes would always be endured with an indulgent smile. Grammie wasn't...how to put this?...an enthusiastic cook. She could pull of a holiday dinner...if there wasn't an invitation elsewhere in the offing. But she was good at entertaining. And by entertaining, I mean drinking, smoking, and serving snacks. A busy house always gave me a chance to sneak the fancy strawberry pastilles candies that were permanently kept in a tin in the formal living room.
Grampie mostly sat in his swivel easy chair, with a scotch in one hand and cigarette in the other, watching tv and simultaneously playing "Bear Trap" with my brother and I. We'd sit on the floor between his legs and he'd hold us in place with his knees as we struggled to escape. Which, I now realize, is an ingenious method of occupying children without having to put down your drink or cigarette. He also called us "Tiger #1" and "Tiger #2," because he thought we were so ferocious. And because he couldn't remember our names. Which - again now that I'm older myself and call all children "Scout" - doesn't bother me in the least.
All these great men and women are gone now. I have old Christmas cards from all of them, and read them through each year. (Each had perfect cursive penmanship the likes of which we'll probably never see again either.) I miss them tremendously. Painfully. I miss their pre-computer lives. I miss their Christmas Day phone calls - when making a long distance call was a thoughtful expense, not a button on your car's dash while running errands. I miss Christmas gifts that came from summer vacation spots, that sat in drawers all autumn waiting to be given. I miss waiting to watch Christmas specials that aired on television once a year with them.
Honestly, I like to pretend like those old cards from my grandparents are new each year, and that they are all simply vacationing elsewhere this holiday season. That they'll come back to me later. Bringing Pudding Pops and Strawberry candies. Scotch, cigarettes & Limburger Cheese. Rotary phones & heart surgery scars.
It's funny that this world where technology has allowed us to have pretty much whatever we want, whenever we want it, the only thing I find myself waiting for are the things that will never come.
Dear Grammie, Grampie, Grandma, Poopa, Nana, PopPop, Nana & Daddy ACR,
Merry Christmas. Our photos are growing blurry, but your faces are sharper than ever. I'll be here when you come for me.