Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Last night - with the wine in crystal goblets glistening in the light of the green candles running the length of our Christmas table - we remembered those who couldn't be with us.  Like my dad.  My dad and his brothers.

I was a pallbearer this year in Salt Lake City for both of those brothers, my uncles.  Two men I loved, the last direct link to my father.  The last people who could answer the questions I still have about their childhood, about growing up in the coal-mining town of Hiawatha, Utah.

Salt Lake City was beautiful both times I flew there in 2013.  Beautiful but sad.  First in early May, then in October.  And now it's already Christmas - the year nearly over.

This time of year always finds the picture rails in our front room lined with holiday cards.  One of the first we received was the Christmas card from my Aunt Ursula.  Aunt Ursula whose husband, my Uncle Pete, died in April.  Inside the card:

Dear Family Petrulakis, she wrote.

I hope all your wishes come true, she wrote.  Have a happy and healthy New Year.

She continued, of course.  How could she not?

I am missing Pete something awful, she wrote.

We spent 45 years together on Christmas, she wrote.

I put the Christmas decorations up just like he liked them, she wrote.

May his memory be eternal.

Love you all.  Ursula.
Tony in front, Dean behind him, then Pete.
Circa 1944

And the enormity of her loss almost became plain.  I knew at the funeral how much she missed her husband, my uncle.  At the next funeral, for my Uncle Dean, Ursula was beautiful in black, and missing her husband, my uncle, something awful.

So - on one very superficial level - I understood how much Aunt Ursula must miss her husband, my uncle.  The same way I know how much my mom misses my dad.  How much Judy misses her partner, my Uncle Dean.

But I still don't really understand, right?  The degree of the loss?  Of spending 45 Christmases with someone, and then not?

The love that leads you to decorate your home with Christmas decorations because he - her husband, my uncle - loved it so?

When my mom walked into our house yesterday, the first thing she saw was the grand rocking horse she bought my Elizabeth for her first Christmas in 2004.  My mom stopped short, looking at our mantle, at the horse there, and then turned, her eyes already wet.

Is that...? she said.

She'd never seen it displayed before.  The last time she saw it was when we opened it at our house, the largest package under our tree that year.  I hadn't put it out before because - though beautiful - it's full of sharp angles and so heavy that little toes under the horse's treads could be hurt so easy.  Then a few years later Kristina came along so we continued to not display the horse because of our caution, our worry.

The rocking horse stayed in its box, in our garage, Christmas after Christmas.  Until this year when we were again hosting my family on Christmas Eve and I thought, even though we'd have two visitors even more little than our own - thanks to my brother Dean and his wife, Laura - maybe I could finally display the rocking horse if I put it up high, on our mantle.

Is that...? my mom said.

It is, I said.

And with her eyes getting more wet my mom said she remembered seeing that rocking horse on display at Keller's in Modesto.  It was too dear, though, too expensive to pick up on a whim for her first grandchild.

When my dad came home from work that night she told him about the rocking horse, the rocking horse that played Silver Bells, and he asked where it was.

Oh, Andoni, she began, ready to explain why she hadn't bought it that afternoon.  But before she could get past the words, Oh, Andoni - my dad interrupted.

Anna, he said, smiling.  Just go get it for her.

My dad who had so much love for my mom.  Who adored her so much.  Who had realized so quickly how much he loved our Elizabeth.  Elizabeth named for his mom, my YiaYia.

Anna, he said, smiling.  Just go get it for her.

As we sat around the table last night, remembering those who are no longer with us, we realized, Karen and I realized, that the rocking horse would be on display every Christmas from now on.

Just like he liked them, Aunt Ursula wrote.  Just like he liked them.

Merry Christmas to everyone near and far - and to those who aren't with us.  Set out a plate, or a glass, and remember how they liked it.  How much they liked it.

Merry Christmas.

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