My Christmas Story
© Adam Granger
My family was small, overly-intellectual, reserved and a bit melancholy. My dad was hired to teach English at the University of Oklahoma in 1953. My parents, with my older brother and me in tow, moved into a little frame house in Norman. They lived there for 40 years, and just sort of wore that house out, rarely replacing, repairing or painting anything. They weren't unaesthetic—quite the opposite; they were just so busy trying to keep their heads above the troubled waters that seeped from their emotional baggage that they had no energy left over to maintain their physical environment.
Mom was a lapsed Unitarian and dad was an Episcopalian Quaker. I was the hybrid result: William Penn at a Free Thinkers' meeting. It's fair to say that we were bigger on the pageantry of Christmas than its spirituality (although, in a fit of latent fervor—or maybe guilt—my dad did take us to Episcopal midnight service once). Our Christmases were essentially secular, and as ascetic as the rest of our existence, but they were nevertheless happy interludes in our complicated lives.
My cultured mom had a great collection of non-in-your-face Christmas music, from German brass bands to chorales to Stan Kenton, which played constantly during the season. No Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for us, thank you very much. We always had a tree and, year after year, the same advent calendar, its little doors and windows falling off their hinges by 1960. We placed the same St Nick-nacks around the living room.
Every few years, the family drove down to Chickasha, Oklahoma and, at midnight, caught the Rock Island Rocket for St Paul, where we spent Christmas with my mother's parents. They lived on the corner of Sargent and Mt Curve in a house designed by my architect grandfather, Magnus Jemne. My grandmother, the artist Elsa Laubach Jemne, was an overachiever in everything she tackled, and Christmas was no exception: their already-magical house brimmed with classy Christmas trappings and exotic artist friends and once-a-year treats. The Kodak Moments were many and the Memories Are Forever.
But mostly we Christmassed in Oklahoma. We lived on a 1950s professor's salary, which would be poverty level by today's standard of living (seriously). I got one “big present” each year, and I can remember them all: a pirate ship in the 4th grade, a Ben-Hur play set in the 5th, a Winchester cap rifle (with bandolier) in the 6th, a stethoscope in the 7th (don't ask), a rechargeable flashlight in the 8th, a basketball in the 9th, a wristwatch in the 10th, a microscope set in the 11th and a portable stereo record player in the 12th.
We got to open one present on Christmas Eve, and I remember thinking as a child that I would not have liked to be in one of those families that opened everything the night before Christmas. I was always careful to avoid what I thought to be my big present, but one year—the watch year—I accidentally selected it and was sorry to have done so. By the same token, I never tried to find my presents beforehand, but in 1960 I accidentally saw my big present (the cap rifle) in my father's closet and I was really bummed out: even though I always got the big present I asked for, actually seeing it ahead of time ruined the suspense, dang it.
Many Christmases later, everyone in that family is gone except me. I've been married for 24 years to a woman who grew up in a large Catholic family in northwestern Minnesota. Their home movies show herds of urchins swarming over dad in his easy chair, he holding his ever-present cigarette out of harm's way. Renee's Christmases appear, structurally, to have been the polar opposites of mine, but—and this is important—when we trade reminiscences, hers seem to have been neither more nor less happy than mine.
When it comes to the traits we adopt from our parents, we strive to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, as the song says. Deficient as my parents may have been in other areas, they score big points in the Christmas department.
Thus it is that, in 2011, Renee and I have brewed a unique blend that is our family Christmas. There's joyousness from Renee that was missing from my family, and some neat music from me that was missing from hers. We put out my old advent calendar, its hinges repaired now with scotch tape, and set out our mutually autobiographical collection of holiday tchotchkes. We put on Stan Kenton and play family games. There are some who would find our celebration wanting, but we are under no obligation to meet their standards. That's one of the great things about Christmas.