My irreplaceable late wife used to get nervous when in a weekly column I announced our imminent departure for more than a day or two. She didn’t want folks to know we weren’t going to be here, with the house unguarded. Thus, I restrained myself from the habit of spilling those beans until just before we left, so they wouldn’t appear in print until after we got back.
That’s the case with this one: I’m leaving in about 42 hours to spend Christmas with my son and his family in Arkansas, just across the river from what used to be the Oklahoma Territory. Remember John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn? Yeah, that place: Fort Smith, where there’s a National Historic Site with a picturesque old museum full of ancient six-shooters and wanted posters, a pretty impressive stone-floored basement dungeon in the courthouse of “Hanging Judge Parker,” and an industrial-volume gallows just outside. Lest all that sound too grim, it’s now a world (and over a century) away from the Southern warmth of the kids’ home. The now-grown-up granddaughters will be there, too. And I just checked the weather for the next 10 days. It’s to be in the 50s the whole time I’m there. I guess I can handle that — especially after looking out the window just now, I see it’s begun to snow again. I can leave my creepers here.
Christmas was a really big deal for my wife, and a perfect tree her cherished big thing of the season. Personally, I’d rather undergo a root canal (a slight exaggeration) than decorate a tree. But she did make it easier by putting the tree stand on top of a heavy-duty Lazy Susan, so all we had to do was put the lights and bulbs on as we rotated it, and touch up whatever needed to be fiddled with whenever it came around. After she was no longer home, I let the tradition lapse; so all her stuff now languishes in various cabinets — especially her collection of crèches, which used to brighten corners and tabletops all over the place. You wouldn’t know Christmas from Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday around here anymore.
Which is the main reason I’m delighted to join my children’s Christmas celebration. I’m looking forward to just relaxing, reading, enjoying the life of their family and meditating on the ineffable gift whose arrival we celebrate at this darkest time of the year. I’ll try to be helpful, of course, but keep out of the way and, as much as possible, do what I’m told.
When years ago I talked with Cree natives in northern Quebec, I was always taken by their ironic comments about the anthropologists studying them, who became so much a presence in their homes that they considered listing them as family members. Likewise. in one of my favorite films, the funky “Norwegian Kitchen Stories,” where the visiting efficiency expert strives unsuccessfully not to be a part of the farmer’s life. The goal of being just a quiet old guy relaxing in a corner armchair, maybe taking the dog for a walk and maybe asking my wizard granddaughters to show me how to use my phone is probably not attainable. So it’s important for me to consider what additional stress I might be causing. My father never came for Christmas; he was busy celebrating the eucharist and preaching that day; and my father-in-law, if he’d ever shown up, would’ve been hustled off to the clink on outstanding warrants. But I can imagine the disruption either would have caused in our orbits; so it behooves me to be gentle and agreeable.
Time was, the old folks didn’t come for Christmas, because they were there already; it was, in fact, probably their house, with the kids living in it. Tolstoy and Turgenev speak often of the ancient ancestor (in the days when folks didn’t live nearly as long as we do now) snoozing contentedly through the long winters up on top of the masonry stoves that heated farmhouses in 19th-century Russia. “Granny” and “Grandfather” were terms of reverence and were used in addressing them. Consider the irony of a modern woman’s delight at becoming a grandmother and her chagrin at being called “Grandma” by a stranger. One of Tolstoy’s best lines is the remark of one Martin Avdeyitch to a woman who’s caught hold of a boy trying to steal an apple and screaming that he should be horsewhipped. “Granny, Granny!” pleads old Martin, “If this boy should be horsewhipped for stealing an apple, what should be done to us for our sins?
We old folks have a sacred responsibility to impart the wisdom we’ve gathered from our experience — but only if and when we’re asked. Otherwise, we should keep our mouths shut, even if we’re sorely tempted. There’s a reason philosophers are always portrayed as elderly: It’s nothing to be philosophical and dish out prescriptions for others’ behavior after our own fires are banked and the passions of our youth are but faint, and perhaps faintly regretted, memories.
I need to be as nearly perfect a guest as I can be: to listen, encourage and enjoy. I have seen my two lovely granddaughters so infrequently, and have such respect for what they’ve achieved — not to mention the successes of their parents — that I can hardly wait for this first Christmas “alone.”
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.