Triggered by a ’50s Christmas like theirs

As we step across the hallway from an 18th century parlor into a mid-20th century living room decked out for Christmas, I freeze in mid-stride. Not simply because of the contrast between the dimly lit, austere Puritan chamber we’ve just left, where Christmas would have had no place, and the gaudy materialism of post-World War II America we’re entering. This self-guided museum tour is supposed to be a re-creation of history in a neighborhood of Colonial and Victorian houses and stores in seacoast New Hampshire. How is it that Candlelight Stroll, this panorama of New England antiquity, so unexpectedly drops me into my grandparents’ living room in Ohio, 872 miles west-southwest, a half-century before?

On that dressed blue spruce has bubbling colored glass lights the shape of small candles identical to theirs, as is the television, with its black-and-white program. “Howdy-Doody,” as I recall or perhaps imagine afterward.

Now that I think of it, Grandpa and Grandma were the first we knew to replace theirs with a color TV set, but that would have been a few years later than this display from the heart of the Eisenhower presidency. As would their aluminum Christmas tree, seemingly all tinsel, illuminated by the revolving plastic disc of colors in front of a light bulb; who knows what happened to the old bubbling decorations after that?

Circling slowly in the room, I keep repeating to my wife and daughters as much as to myself, I’m not that old. I’m not historic. This scene mirrors my own childhood, tinsel and ribbons and all, my own lifetime. History is what comes before us, at least after the last of a generation is buried and preferably much earlier.

In reality, Grandpa and Grandma have both been dead a quarter-century by this time, and that house sold after her death and his remarriage.

What I don’t voice as we pass through the room is my vague, underlying apprehension. No sense of warmth is stirred by encountering these objects from my childhood – no, “Oh, look!” accompanied by memories of comfort or affection, much less any impressions of individuals brought vividly back to life. If anything, that room represents something I’ve spent most of my adult life dodging.

But what, exactly, prompts this reaction?

As I’ve discovered, genealogy research leads to far more than names, dates, and places.  It connects bone and blood over centuries.

Part of this puzzle could involve the Christmas celebration itself. My mother insisted that when I was a small child, the mounting excitement in anticipation of Santa’s arrival would typically have me coming down sick before the holiday. (So who was fueling this anticipation, Mom?) But from high school on, I have rarely felt joy in the approach of the holiday. Rather, all ongoing activities – personal and public – seem to break down under a mounting stress as a deadline of duties to be performed approaches. This pressure hardly has anything to do with the birth of Baby Jesus and its message of salvation. Asked to choose between the two side of that duplex Colonial house, I would have preferred the Puritan winter, where Christmas would have been journaled pointedly as “an ordinary day,” rather than the garish electrified decor across the hallway.

But why am I reacting to Grandpa and Grandma’s, more than my own childhood household? Perhaps those particular lights, and their contrast to our own bargain strands, provoke me. Or a sense that the gifts around its trunk seldom contain anything my sister or I actually wanted. In either household, for that matter. More likely, it was something they thought we needed. (And probably did.) Or maybe a feeling that obligation, rather than love, was more apparent. We had to go there sometime during Christmas, for sure. (A sentence with shifting emphases: We HAD … to GO … THERE … SOMETIME … during CHRISTMAS, of all times.)

Had we been scolded not to touch those lights? To keep our distance? I don’t think I ever examined them up-close, much less been encouraged to view them with wonder. How do those bubbles form? How do they keep percolating so endlessly? See how the light refracts through the liquid – the room and its occupants reappear there! There’s Grandma, upside down! Or are we merely to keep our distance?

As I return to these memories, something remains hollow.

Am I somehow carrying an anxiety of my father? (My numbness, especially, when it comes to so many emotional issues.) Or my mother’s bubbling aspirations and resentments?

The mystery also invokes idealized images each of us carries. Under the immediate events of a holiday or going to one’s grandparents are archetypes, and our own expectations of them. Just which kind of Christmas do we envision, after all – Victorian or old English, German or French, Scandinavian or Greek, where the presents come days later?

And then there are those memories of grandparents themselves; even the names we apply reflect rudimentary differences: Grandmother, Grandma, Granny, Gran, Nana, Omi, Yiayia, and so on, or Grandfather, Granddad, Grandpa, Gramps, Papi, Yasou, etc. – each with its own gradations and heritage.

I wonder how deeply we consider any of these in our initial encounters: Christmas is just Christmas; the grandparents just those we have. Yet, over time, we address and reconcile the universal expectations and our own particularities.

I can’t say, for example, that my sister and I were ever spoiled by our grandparents and then sent home for the night. Or that they made any great fuss over us. Still, to say “grandparents” in my presence, these two are the images that come first to mind, plus Gran – our mother’s stepmother.

*   *   *

Reflecting on this, I see a sense in starting with the Nativity. Christmas is a celebration of not just one baby, but of all babies and their potential. It exalts children and childhood and even extends to the animals of the barn and fields.

I was born on a Friday the 13th that included a blizzard. Came home from the hospital, by default, in a taxi. Or so I was told. When Grandpa and Grandma first saw me a few days later, she said to Mom, “We were hoping it was going to be a girl.” This, about the baby who was named in honor of her husband.

They already had a granddaughter, who always seemed to be their favorite, or at least that’s what Mom insisted. Not that I blame them. Hey, I worshiped my cousin, for good reason.

*   *   *

Nearly a quarter-century later after that childhood, around a Christmas dinner table in the inland desert of Washington state, I’m asked what holiday traditions my family had. Or, for that matter, whether we had any particular traditions at all. “None that I can think of,” is the best I can respond. My upbringing had been a homogenized, middle-class, middle-brow, middle-American experience in what’s become known as the baby boomer generation. I had always assumed, from conversations in Dad’s side of the family, that all of his ancestors had been in our quarter of Ohio from its earliest days. We were Northerners, Yankees, no doubt about it. From everything I could see, just an ordinary family. Or maybe not ordinary enough, if you listened to whispers from the sidelines. We didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, didn’t gamble. It was all about plain, clean, Christian living – at least in their understanding of the faith.

In contrast, my mother had been born in Missouri, with ancestors who had fought on both sides of the Civil War, yet her family, she would insist, was at least equally pure, claiming founding members of that state’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Much later, I would see these families were nothing alike. For starters, hers were Democrats.

Even so, playing Bing Crosby 78s of holiday ditties hardly counts as a tradition in my book. Nor does a candlelight service at 8 o’clock on Christmas Eve, rather than midnight. For me, traditions would have to be more organic, and more longstanding – an expression of folk culture or, better yet, the fine arts and refinement.

What I didn’t realize was that our very lack of outward traditions was a consequence of family religious identities stretching back at least into the 1600s. Paradoxically, when I was asked about our family customs, I had already embraced one of the two primary denominations in that past, yet had no knowledge of that history or its impact.

As I’ve pondered my emotional reaction to the museum’s tree lights, I realize that for all of Grandpa and Grandma’s familiarity – after all of the times we were together – I didn’t really know them. Certainly not with the warmth or depth you might expect.

In fact, there was more affection and delight around this Christmas table in the desert than in any I remembered from childhood.

Only later, in the interlude after returning to the Midwest and before moving on again to the East Coast, would I begin chancing upon enough clues to begin investigating Grandpa and Grandma’s roots. In doing so, I quickly deduced they had turned their backs on the very faith and practice I was now reclaiming. In effect, I kept leaping over Grandpa, especially, and coming to know and admire his father and on back.

We had possessed traditions, all right, but none I would have anticipated around that Christmas dinner or in Grandpa and Grandma’s bubbling strand of tree lights.

In the end, after tracing Grandpa’s surname ancestry back to the 1500s in Cumbria, England, by way of northern Ireland, I chanced across a few crucial details that would finally allow me to know and appreciate my own grandparents.

The process would require many of the same techniques I had already applied in genealogy, as well as comments and profiles from those who had participated in that research. But this time, I would be able to draw on the recollections of the two remaining individuals who would have known them closely: my dad’s youngest sister and a first cousin his own age. What they remembered – or didn’t – under questioning is itself revelatory. It also allows a triangulation to occur, augmented by photos, letters, notes, and newspaper clippings. In a sense, this project examines the liquid nature of memory itself as well as emotions, expectations, identities, and fairly recent history. In all of it, a single detail placed in a context can spring a host of buried memories back to the surface. A strand of Christmas tree lights, for starters.

And what Grandpa himself had dubbed Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber.

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