Once again, this year I was able to teach Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” as a mentor text for my students to write their own winter narratives. The full lesson plan is available on Moving Writers. I am sharing one of my own Christmas Memories here. The assignment encourages my students to use both their written and literal voice, so you can listen to my recording of this post by using the above audio player.
Christmas morning always began with my sister and I in brand new Christmas pajamas, unwrapped the night before, waiting to come down the hall until Mama and Daddy were both ready. Rachel’s hair would be a tangled wild mess and she would nervously ring her hands as she approached her spread of Christmas gifts. Our gifts were always displayed under the tree—never wrapped— and it would only take a glance to figure out which side was hers and which was mine. I would have 90210 pajamas, a crimp iron, and a keyboard, while Rachel gazed at hockey equipment and roller blades.
Once we began to explore our gifts, and Daddy would search for a screwdriver and batteries for various presents, the doorbell would ring. Papa. Ours was a house that did not get a lot of doorbell-ringing-front-door-traffic. Most people just knew to come in through the garage into the kitchen. Papa would ring the doorbell once a year, (years later, this would be the sound that I would most miss on Christmas mornings when Alzheimer’s dissolved his memory, so he could only recall scraps of his own childhood). He would make his way to our house after visiting Jordan and Caitlin at the top of the driveway and admiring their Transformers and baby dolls.
In his button down plaid shirt, work jeans, and cap, he would tease us about all of our gifts when we should have just gotten a bundle of switches. And then announce that we should “come on down to the house.”
As we arrived, Nanny would be busying around her kitchen stirring a milky oyster stew. Her deft fingers would flour and fry oysters that were a family tradition passed down from Papa’s side. She was what we would call a soft grandma who provided cushy hugs with plump upper arms from her 5’3” frame. We would cram into the eat-in kitchen with an extra card table snuggled in beside the buffet against the wall. The entire surface of the buffet was covered in a Dickens Christmas village that she enjoyed so much (and I am sure was such a pain to box up and haul to the attic space) that she just removed the fake cotton snow and left the village up all year.
The breakfast would be enormous including (but, certainly, not limited to) the traditional oysters, biscuits and gravy, eggs, and homemade jelly. A new jar would be sent for down the uneven steps, past the naked light bulb, and beside the enormous stockpile of wood.
After breakfast, we would follow the sloping floor to the front living room that housed the Christmas tree and other breakable items. This was the room that we never went into, mainly because it was never heated. On Christmas morning, it would still have a vaguely icy chill but was quickly heated up by Papa’s blazing wood stove in the basement. A few years later, I would sit in that room with friends who came to pay their condolences after Nanny’s sudden stroke. Despite the August temperatures, the room still felt cold, but it was because she was no longer there.
My dad and uncle would jockey for positions to place their enormous camcorders on tripods in the corners of the room to record the ripping open of gifts, smiles, thank yous, and laughter. As presents were handed out, Nanny’s would slowly pile up by her chair while she made sure that everyone had all of their gifts from her and Papa.
Papa would use his pocket knife to “peek” into his presents—handkerchiefs, new crew neck white under shirts, peanut brittle—and barely even look at them. He didn’t want to mess up the good paper. One year Papa finally came through on his promise to get us all switches after years of promising, bundled carefully with a red ribbon. He loved to fret us.
I suppose I thought these traditions would last forever, but of course they didn’t as Nanny passed on and then Papa. We still have oysters on the same Christmas dishes. We still crowd together, but not as tightly in my aunt’s roomier kitchen. As we have gained spouses and children to fill up the seats, we have three missing faces around the tree and table—Nanny, Papa, and Jordan—who can never be replaced, but can always be remembered.