The Christmas I Remember Least

But that the dread of something after death,
the undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of …

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 3, sc. 1, ll. 78–82.)

Shakespeare knew. He knew how hard it is to move into beginnings—even good ones. I guess that is why the Christmas I remember most is the one I remember least. The details about it are vague, gauzy, unreal—and yet that Christmas in 1949 erupts on my memory as central to everything before and after it. On either side of it lie two lifetimes, each as different as the ages they encompass.

That Christmas morning I awoke in the bed that had been mine all of my life—at least since I’d grown out of the pink-hooded cradle in Mother and Father’s room. For twelve of those early years I had shared it with my Grandmother Richards—my vibrant, olive-skinned idol whose black hair fanned the pillow beside me as she whispered me to sleep with stories of Indians, musicians, horses, and magic and tingled my hungry imagination with excitement for every tomorrow. Her cool, smooth hand rubbed the hurt out of an aching tummy or heart and caressed into quiet nights an assurance that life and people were splendid and that a very real Heavenly Father listened tenderly as she and I shared our prayers.

Each Christmas Eve, Grandma was late coming to bed, and I tried with burning eyes to be awake to watch the season’s secrets pour out of her closet as her pioneer efficiency deposited them by the tree. But I was always asleep before anything really revealing emerged, and so each Christmas morning dawned radiant with anticipation and surprise because, I was sure, Grandma had willed it so.

After Grandma died, her sister Katie, who had never married and had been forever a gentle, wispy, elegant guest at our Sunday table, became my Christmas Eve bedfellow. She arrived in splendor about bedtime, Father carting in heaps of her sensitive shopping, wrapped and labeled and even smelling somehow of exotic sprees into the impractical. My brothers and I could count on drafts of Christmas extravagance beyond our smilingest dreams, and on those Christmas Eves I lay wistfully talking with Katie about frothy ephemeral things, of her world of advertising, singing, and hostessing anything “virtuous, lovely, or of good report.”

On Christmas morning, Katie played the piano as all of us lined up and marched in exaggerated expectation three times around the tree before we could look. And then Father teased out the gifts one at a time while everyone watched and waited and glowed for each other.

I’m sure that Christmas morning in 1949 was not unlike those others. Except that I don’t remember it. And the others I do—in specifics. But that year Christmas came on Sunday and was celebrated in our home on Monday, and the day after Christmas was to be my wedding day.

That Christmas Eve I do remember. I remember lying beside my dear Katie not talking at all. I cozied in the familiar cool of my pillow and flung plaintive, silent farewells to the apple tree outside my north window, to my dresser with winged mirrors, to dinner in the kitchen, to dolls, to Christmas, and to home. Just as I had done on nights before birthdays, I did silly things like puffing my pillow and plunking down hard on it, thinking, “This is the last time I’ll ever do this before …” Only this time it was more than a birthday, and the changes that breathed on the morning were more than the easing into another year. They were the beginning of a new era in my life—and the ending of what seemed for the moment to be surely the best of my life.

Suddenly I felt about to be separated from everything secure, familiar, easy, comfortable. I was walking into an alien land with a man—no, with a formidable stranger whom I knew and knew I loved but whose Christmases were different from mine. I clung to my pillow and my childhood and drifted through the night and through a Christmas of unheeded tinsel and lonely preparations for a hesitant journey on the day after the day after Christmas.

Now, today, I look back on that Christmas as among the best of my life, remembered or not. On this side of that moment of reluctance lie Christmases of three furnished apartments; months of struggling student budgets; four lawns brought up from scratch; five daughters’ worth of giggles, hand-me-downs, playhouses, tennis rackets, violins, and lumps on heads and in throats; family togetherness in dishpans, programs, diapers, bicycles, boats, and heartaches; and years of shared glances, projects, and prayers.

My Grandma and my Katie are gone, as are my father and mother. And with them is gone the right to be childlike. My Christmases are hectically engineered by me, and my Christmas Eves are given to the anticipation of good things for those whose Christmases hinge on mine. And they are all lived with someone whose Christmas has long since been inseparable from mine—that stranger-become-husband-become-father-become-basic-to-family-Christmas at all.

So now I wonder in looking back to that Christmas of 1949 if some Christmas in the future will find me reluctant to abandon all this that is now so precious, hesitant to move to a new place, to celebrate in other ways—even with Grandma, Katie, Father, and Mother, and with the One who started the whole thing to begin with. Or, newly informed, will I be eager to “fly to others that we know not of” in a gorgeous new beginning?

[illustration] Illustrated by Larry Winborg

Emma Lou Thayne, a member of the Monument Park Third Ward, Salt Lake Foothill Stake, serves on the board of directors of the Deseret News.