Death and the holidays don’t mix. I imagine death and her cool shadow thriving in the doldrums of January or in April, during tax season, but she should leave the holidays to the living. As the calendar flips over to November and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” takes over the radio, my thoughts usually start simmering with images of big family dinners, thoughtful gifts, too much chocolate, and great conversations with friends.
For me, Christmas and Thanksgiving are about stories, food, and laughter. I celebrate the holidays as a season of rebirth, the light in darkness, the long nights bundled in the arms of a lover. But the year after both my grandmothers died, the holiday love-light dimmed out. That first Thanksgiving and Christmas without my grandmothers, death transformed my colors, making light into darkness, red into blue. I remember both sides of my family scrambling to compensate for the loss of their matriarchs. Everything was off-kilter, shifted, parched.
Mame, my mom’s mom, reigned as the archangel of Thanksgiving. She ruled over the kitchen at the family’s beach house in Oxnard, orchestrating the food. She allowed her four children and their families to relax and talk as she wielded her home-ec prowess over the lavish meal, working in the kitchen for hours. Of course no one could replace her. No one tried. Instead, an uncle who never usually hosted the meal volunteered to hold the feast. But Mame was too much with us, as our thick memories of her dried up the turkey and soured the cranberry sauce. I didn’t feel like eating that first Thanksgiving meal, which was untouched by my incredibly generous grandmother’s hands.
I can still see her. I see her red-brown hair smoothed and curled gently around her smiling eyes and kind mouth. Mostly, I see her hands. How they touched and made everything in my world, from clothes to cookies, hand-caned chairs to homemade curtains. I inherited her hands and turned them into the hands of an artist, a painter. Now, nothing I make is without her.
I can still see my father’s mother, too, who died about seven months after Mame. Grandma Liz is the angel on top of our family’s Christmas tree. Sweet and sharp, like a strong glass of port, she raised her six children to enjoy cooking, conversations, and books, and to respect the careful manners of her Southern childhood. In exchange, she gave her family an overabundance of love and joy. When I think of Grandma Liz, her voice echoes out from the void, the subtle lilt of her Alabama drawl still detectable. I hear her asking, with care and polite delicacy, about my life.
Both of my grandmothers died after prolonged struggles against the diseases that would ultimately kill them. I see it like two large and beautiful ships sinking silently into the ocean void, after taking on water for years. I knew it was coming, despite my attempts at denial and foolish optimism. I was in my senior year of high school at the time and had no real context for the dying. I knew enough to feel depleted, exhausted by sadness, but I had no idea how to mourn.
Christmas Day that year played out like a slow-motion disaster. The pattern of time-honored traditions was disturbed by the chaos of sadness. That morning, my newly widowed paternal grandfather called us crying during my immediate family’s ritual of opening our gifts while listening to “Blue Christmas.” “It’ll be a blue Christmas without you,” Willie Nelson crooned. For the first time, the lyrics hit me: If Mame was the goddess of Thanksgiving, then Grandma Liz was the patron saint of Christmas. Her celebration of the holiday was completely over the top, with mounds of rich Southern cuisine and heaps of presents that dwarfed the Christmas tree.
For her, it wasn’t about expensive gifts; it was about sheer abundance-as if by showering the family with wrapped presents, she could prove her love for us. And she did. I knew every year that she would send a giant box from Texas for my brother and me, filled with Christmas surprises, even carefully wrapped stocking-stuffers from Santa (signed in her scratchy scrawl). The first year without the box and the call from Texas on Christmas Day, I felt miserable. The only gift I wanted that year was for Grandma Liz to magically reappear.
But not even Santa can bring my grandmothers back. Instead, I have tried to figure out the holidays without them. Creating new traditions has helped, but I found the most solace for my grief in a giant Christmas tree in Carpinteria. My mom told me about the tree, decorated by Hospice of Santa Barbara, and several years after my grandmothers’ deaths, she invited me to the organization’s “Light Up the Night” ceremony. Hospice had helped Mame and our family during her last dying days, and my mother had sponsored an ornament on the tree in my grandmother’s honor.
Carrying the load of my grief during the holidays, I always felt lonely and isolated. But as I walked toward the giant tree on Linden Avenue, I saw about 100 people clumped together in the night. We were all there to remember someone we’d lost. I found my mom and leaned into her, listening to speeches. Covering every branch on the four-story tall tree were white snowflake ornaments marked with the name of someone who had passed into the underworld. I felt my grandmothers looking down from above the tree, above the crowd, in the stars. Surrounded by the ghosts of the living, I watched the tree become haloed by radiance as the lights flooded on. We stood, our eyes glassy with tears, reflecting back our gifts from the dead in our eyes. In me, my grandmothers still live, in my DNA, the recipes they’ve handed down, the rocking chairs they gave me, and in their love that still blankets and buffers me and continues to hold me to this world and keep me warm.