I have to admit, my childhood rocked. I’m an only child and was an only grandchild on both sides until I was 9. My parents were a loving couple. I rarely saw them upset. If we ever hurt for money I never knew it.
My favorite memories of childhood are the holidays. Halloween prep was spent wandering the pumpkin patch looking for the perfect pumpkin. Dad always needed a huge pumpkin and I certainly wasn’t complaining. There’s a picture of me, as a baby, sitting next to the pumpkin my parents carved. It was bigger than me. Pumpkin carving was a family activity. I’d scoop out all the guts and pick through them to find the seeds which mom would roast. Dad always carved whatever face I wanted. The eyes had pupils and the nose and ears stuck out. He’d carve a hole in the bottom to insert the base which held a red flashing lightbulb. The pumpkin proudly sat on display in the front window for Halloween. Trick or treaters would comment on how great it was and I was so proud of that.
Trick or treating as a diabetic child wasn’t easy. I collected a bag of candy that I couldn’t eat. My direct neighbors were always very sweet and would get sugar free candy for me. Mom would walk me around about a block, just to give me the experience. I always had a costume. Usually homemade. I was periodically allowed some candy as dessert depending on my blood glucose numbers. After my short tour, I got to hand out our candy to the trick or treaters. Kids would come in car loads from the surrounding cities as our times were different than the other cities. We would go through 7 or 8 bags of candy.
Thanksgiving was just as special. The best part was 3 days of no school! Mom would bring me to my Dad’s parent’s house on Wednesday and Grandma and I would start cooking. Grandma cooked for our family as well as their tenants. My jobs were to rip up 5 loaves of bread to make stuffing and open enough Equal packets to make 5 sugar free pumpkin pies. I also got to help roll out the dough for the pie crusts and put on dance shows for her while they baked. Mom and Dad and I would have an early lunch with grandma and grandpa. I was so excited when I was a pre-teen and got wine (in a double shot glass). We would be loaded up with leftovers and would take them home to unload and relax a bit before heading to another Thanksgiving with Mom’s family. Mom was one of 5 children and everyone would gather at Grandma’s house. My aunts and uncles all lived far away so holidays were the times I got to see everyone. Grandma lived for gathering with her family and there was always SO MUCH FOOD!!! After the meal was over the women headed for the kitchen to do dishes while the men cheered for football if it was still on or chatted or most often fell asleep. I was given the task of drying the dishes. We would leave at the end of the day full and happy with partings to see them all next month for Christmas.
Thanksgiving weekend started Christmas traditions. Mom would make a big pot of chili while dad and I went out and put up Christmas lights. Our neighborhood was one people drove through to see lights and helping Dad is my favorite memory of quality time with him. He would get up on the ladder and string chasing lights on the rain gutters. I would string twinkly lights on the front bushes. We would work together on the pine trees, Dad getting the tops and me stringing lights on the bottom. Then, the final piece, string lights on a wreath and hanging it over the kitchen window. It was cold at the end of November in Wisconsin and we often did this in the snow. We would come in frozen and change into dry, comfy sweats and enjoy a hot bowl of chili. Christmas had begun.
Christmas time has always been my favorite. There were trips to the mall to see Santa, a new Christmas dress to buy, shopping to do, meals to plan, and the Sundays of advent. Each mass leading up to Christmas lit the candle on the advent wreath getting closer and closer to the reason we celebrate at all, the birth of Jesus. In school we’d prepare for a play, or a Christmas talent show.
The inside decorations were also a family event. Most of them were handmade as Mom was quite skilled in the crafts department. There was the trip to the tree lot to pick out the perfect tree and spending the afternoon finding the perfect place to hang each ornament. Mom would spend hours in the basement family room carefully wrapping each present while watching one of 3 channels that came in on the TV in the big wooden console. She would carefully stack each present on the couch until it was full. Mom would spend hours in the evenings hand writing Christmas cards. She and I had our bonding time making Christmas cookies. We would make several but my memory was sprinkling red and green sugar on the Christmas tree spritz cookies and putting the cherries in the middle of the wreath spritz.
Eventually the day came: Christmas Eve. We would spend the day cleaning the house top to bottom. Once clean the task of clearing the couch of presents ensued. We would all trek up and down the stairs with arms full of packages to place under the tree. I was then allowed to open one gift. We would dress up and attend the early evening children’s mass where I got to participate. When we got home, we would enjoy sandwiches made from the ham mom baked that afternoon. Christmas Eve dinner was the only time of year our kitchen table saw a table cloth and a candle was lit. After dinner we would open presents as a family before loading up to go see Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma would have the coffee table full of goodies. There was the Urban family famous brandy fruitcake, a mixture of nuts, candy, and sugar-free homemade cookies with Carob instead of chocolate. They were not good but I ate them anyway and thanked her for making them for me. We would visit and open gifts. I had a crocheted stocking handmade by Grandma. It hung on the doorknob of the front door and touched the floor. The table top tree on the stereo cabinet had gifts stacked around it as the stereo softly played Christmas carols. We would snack, open presents, chat and my uncle would call from Arkansas and take turns talking to everyone. We’d then load up our loot and Grandma and Grandpa would follow us to our house. I’d change into pajamas and we watch as they opened our gifts for them. There would always be one big gift at the end for me. After presents we would usually watch a movie if there was time or just visit. They would enjoy the cookies mom and I made. When they went home, we would put out the cookies and milk for Santa with some veggies for the reindeer. Then, I would go and try to sleep.
Christmas morning I was up bright and early. I would dance in my parent’s doorway until they decided it was a reasonable hour to get up. As soon as they were up I was allowed to dive into the pile of Santa presents and open my stockings. Yes that’s right, plural stockings, I had 2. Mom and Dad would have coffee and then Mom would make ham and eggs with toast for breakfast.
After getting cleaned up we would head over to Grandma’s house where Mom’s family had gathered. I would sing along with the Christmas carols in the car and mom would beg me not to sing “grandma got run over by a reindeer” once we were there. We would greet everyone and once I arrived my cousin and I got to open our stockings. We played with their contents while our meal was prepared and mid afternoon we sat down to another feast. We would catch up on school and work and once an empty spot appeared on our plates Grandma would see to it that it was filled with more food. Once everyone was stuffed the women would head to the kitchen. I resumed my dish drying duties. Once everything was put away it was time for gifts. As the little one, I was the one under the tree handing them out. We would spend our time into the evening playing with all our new stuff before loading it all up and heading for home.
The season continued through the new year when eventually all the decorations came down, the tree went to the curb and the presents were put away. The holiday season always held magic for me. Magic of bringing my family together, special traditions with my parents and, well, Santa of course. The new year always held hope of great things to come, a new beginning.
As time went on things changed. When my cousin was young, my aunt and uncle changed their beliefs. They no longer celebrated holidays and stopped coming to Grandma’s house for them. My aunt and her husband made the trip for Thanksgiving or Christmas but not both as the repeated travel became too much.
Right before Christmas of 1993 Mom was diagnosed with cancer. We did all the same traditions. Little did we know it would be the last time. We lost both Mom and Grandpa in 1994. Everything was different now. Dad bought a new house and we moved. Grandma moved in with us. Things were definitely different then. We didn’t get a pumpkin, we had an artificial tree and there was no tablecloth or candle with Christmas Eve dinner. We were sad and it felt like the magic was gone.
I grew up, moved out on my own, dated some real asshats and tried to make us into my mom and dad with each one. None of them were having any part of it so eventually neither did I. I lost Dad to diabetes, his family decided I was no good and turned against me and eventually I also moved away. I got married and had a stepdaughter. I tried then to continue everything and was fought every step of the way, even to the point my husband wrote a column in the newspaper on how ridiculous I was for all his readers to laugh at my wish for magic. My boss at the time laughed so hard he cried. I never admitted it but I was hurt. All I wanted was to bring some of my childhood joy back into the world and people fought me. Some even did things to spite me. Inflatables were popped, light strings had bulbs removed and decorations were taken down, sometimes destroyed. I was beaten down and broken.
A couple years ago I decided enough was enough. Magic doesn’t come from decorations and candles, it makes them. Magic comes from within. I started making Thanksgiving dinner myself and shared plates with my pets. I got Christmas lights and put them up while a crockpot of chili cooked inside. I bought a fake tree for $20 and decorated it myself. It was up 5 whole minutes before Stanley the cat tore it down. I put it back up and as the crash had scared the crap out of him, Stan left it alone. My house at Christmas time is full of penguins. I get a new outfit and attend services at my neighborhood church. I hang stockings for my pets and Santa fills them. I bake cookies and have even tried the Urban family fruitcake. Christmas movies are on dvd and I watch them with sugar free hot chocolate and I turn on the hallmark channel.
My parents are gone, my grandparents are gone, my uncle is gone but I am here and like Santa says, Christmas magic is real as long as you believe.