Ghosts of Christmases Past

I tried to negotiate the underfooting, alternately slick and coarse, an icy crust that sometimes held but more often gave way. “I’m not wearing the right shoes for this,” I told myself as I carried festive wreathes from my mother’s car down to graves that even after all these years I could find in the dark if I had to.

But this day was bright, the double-bright of winter sky and of snowed and frozen ground. I’d only brought sneakers with me on this trip, assuming that I’d just rush from warm indoors to warm indoors cowering, avoiding cold winds that San Francisco taught me how to forget. But I’d also forgotten that there would be a trip to Mount Olivet Cemetery, the place where most of my matrilineage were laid to rest. There, first, was the Bednar headstone: John and Tekla, my great-grandparents. John—Giggi, we called him, an Old World label ‘Grandfather’—who died when I was three years old, who left me with a single memory that was really a collective of similar memories piled atop one another by the unfinished mind of a small child: he was too frail, too ill to climb the steps to their bedroom, so he slept, sat, slept again on an old sofa bed in the middle room of their side of the duplex. And Tekla, my great-grandmother—Nanny, we called her—well, for her the names bounce away from the many memories I have of her. She died when I was six, only three months after my mother’s mother, “Ma” died.

As is sometimes the way of extended-yet-close-knit families, I was closer, much closer to my great grandmother than to my grandmother (who lived on the other side of the duplex building). The reason the labels bounce from Nanny is that the memories did not so much overlap and merge as they coalesced into something which leaves me with a warmth that remembers the memories for me as evidence to what was and what is no longer. Or so I thought.

We were inseparable for the whole of the six years our lives overlapped. So much so that when my family moved into the house (newly built by my father) that has been Home beginning in 1968, I was last to arrive and was accompanied by Nanny. Perhaps it was that I spent most of the time with her at her own house, perhaps it was the permanence and finality of our Home, but when she left that first night my life partitioned itself. Scary stuff for a four year old. I believe I even expected to leave with her that night and allow my parents and brothers to get settled in for themselves.

Almost two years after that night, so my own mother says, I cared for Nanny when she was sick from cancer, I held a lined trash bin when she vomited and reporting to my mother everything that had occurred. Nanny’s cancer was pancreatic cancer, the same cancer that took my dearest, my very own Auntie Mame, Julia, in turn just a few weeks after my own heart’s true love died. But those deaths weren’t to occur for another twenty-five years.

The thread of death often gets away from me, dominoes which fall off the end of the world into darkness—or nothingness, if that better suits. I suppose that’s how Death appears: in consuming gulps down inevitable paths. There’s no escaping it, but there are stories which are powerful enough to keep it at bay for small leaps of time.

To follow death backwards: Julia, my “Aunt Toots”, twenty-five years after her own mother, twenty-five years after her oldest sister, my grandmother. Just as births overlapped (my great-grandmother, at thirty-four was pregnant andabout to become a grandmother), so did deaths. But I wanted to tell a story and Death will not intrude, will have to remain outside in the wintry gusts, alone in the dark: I have no sympathy for it.

A few days before Christmas—just weeks ago from right now, wreathes in one hand, metal tripod stands in the other I trooped down to the Bednar headstone and placed a wreath on a stand in front of it. I took no care where to step until I did remember and from then on I took care not to stand upon the actual graves.

There are certain annual events which prompt visits to the local Roman Catholic cemetery besides for regular maintenance and care, and Christmas is one of them. And this is where I must give a credit to the Catholics: they are the only Christians who create and utilize “graven images”, much to the grave misgivings of other Christians. The statues are not objects of prayer, merely a means of focussing one’s prayer to the One represented in the statue. Catholics often ask for intercession of the Saints, for example, but Mary, Mother of God is by far the most popular.

It is in much the same spirit (pardon the pun) that ancestors’ graves are kept and decorated. And for myself, still, the lettering on the headstones: names—dates of birth and death, usually some kind of ornamentation or flourishes, the rare aphorism—serve not so much as an aid in focussing a prayer to Someone on their behalves, but rather a visual and haptic end-point behind which my memories order themselves by time and filter themselves by my mood.

That blustery day was no exception. A small nod, a quiet moment. Respect. Honor. Gratitude. Love. I place myself in time, in my family. When it comes to family, I am an arboreal creature, respecting the tree yet hopping from branch to branch on whim and by right.

Anyway, after the Bednar grave I moved on to the Trosko headstone—my mother’s parents—another moment, sweet and sad and grateful. (I often strike back through the familial past in my mind, strangely according to women on my mother’s side and men on my father’s. And I never realized that until just this moment.) I loved my grandmother dearly. Love of mother, grandmother, great-grandmother was a given, and felt odd to hear that one should love and respect one’s elders because love needed no other reason than who they were. It was only the men who verbalized it, insisted on reminding the boys. Insecurity? Who knows.

Forgive the self-involvedness, but I have written about this kind of thing before:

I have written before about my mother, Marie. I have also written of her mother, Mary and even Mary’s mother, Tekla: the Three Graces, I call them somewhat tongue-in-cheek but more ethereally, I’m quite genuine about the name. Three women very different to one another, even in appearance, especially in demeanor. All loving, caring, giving women. All strong women. All three adding to the world rather than subtracting from it any apportioned notion of their fair share.

After the ministrations of the Trosko grave, my mother called to me, reminding me that “Toots” (my aunt Julia) opted only for a placard on the ground at the head of her grave. “Too cheap,” my mother said, laughing. “‘What the hell do I need a headstone for?’ Toots asked me”

“How the hell am I supposed to find it, then?” I asked, laughing too. “Well, tough shit, she’s just gonna have to settle for ‘close enough’.” I didn’t need a headstone to help me to focus on the life of Aunt Toot’s. She was and is always with me.

Lee was there, too, I should mention: the visit to the cemetery was family business, after all. If he found our language unfit for a place of respect and remembrance, he never let on. If you find my use of language offensive in such a place, well, you and I have different ways of honoring the dead.

After setting up the third and final wreath, I turned and made eye-contact with my mom. Whether she’d agree there was a pause and an exchange of thoughts at that point, I don’t know, but I certainly felt a reinforcement and understanding pass between us. She and I both agree that the finest way to honor the dead is to remember them as they were, not what the world turned them into when they died.

Many, many years prior when I was still living in Pittsburgh, but before I had told my parents that I’d stopped going to Mass because for me and my own world view, God was superfluous and therefore Mass was moot. I meant and mean no offense, but living openly and honestly is the best way to honor other people’s God(s).

Yet now I’m about to directly contradict myself: on that Christmas long ago, I went through the motions of preparing to go to Christmas Mass in the late afternoon on Christmas Eve Day. I’d put on my suit, even made some small talk about which old friends I might see there, and then I left the house. I did not go to Mass, however. I couldn’t do it. I felt as if I’d be disrespecting the others, a liar in their midst.

But how the hell was I supposed to kill a whole hour? It was frickin’ cold outside! I cranked the heat in the car, drove over to St. Therese’s Church and just kept going past it; I figured I’d drive around. I mean, I still knew all the back roads, and more to the point knew to stay the hell off of them in the dead of Winter.

My car was a conspicuous one: a very large white Chevy Caprice convertible tooling around a very small, very white town. And then I’d figured out how to honor my family, to lend some kind of nobility to the lie I’d told to avoid ruining Christmas. I went to Mount Olivet Cemetery in that time and stood in front of the Bednar stone and the Trosko stone “just to see” if there were still a spiritual component to it all in the absence of the notion of a god.

And guess what? There was! The remembrances and the spirits remained the same, exactly the same. They had just switched substrates, from the God-supported afterlife to the lives they still continued to lead, animated and remembered in my own head.

Ballsy to presume that I was capable of that, but you know, aren’t we all? Isn’t a memory simply an assembly of other remembered minutiae into some whole that we identify, remember, replay in our heads?

I felt lucky—and proud—to be the owner of those memories, to bring them out when I wish, or when they demand it. To keep and to share and to inform those who’d missed out on those beautiful people who’d brought so much happiness to my life and to others.