My earliest Christmas memory is one that I keep wrapped in soft gold tissue paper. It cannot be hung on the tree, or strung on a thread, or displayed like some vintage ornaments. Only I can see it. I can describe it to you as best I can, if you like.
Growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional family, Christmases were never the big, fun family affair portrayed on the television, greeting cards or in my story books. As a child, that was what I craved – normality. Christmases were a bleak affair, another reason for adults to drink too much beer, argue and end the day in tears. Christmas Day was a good day to walk off to the park, or visit MissElizabeth who was always closed on Christmas – but we could peek through the windows and spy the treasures. Christmas night was a time to hide in your room and stay very, very quiet.
No, that Christmas memory is not the one for tissue paper. But this one is.
When I was much younger, my maternal grandmother was still alive. She was a flamboyant woman, who drank sherry out of small decorative cups, had a laugh that tinkled and sang along ~ operatically ~ to Christmas carols belting out of her cassette player in the living room while preparing Christmas dinner in the kitchen. She wore flamboyant, gauzy floaty clothes that really spoke. She was tall, gorgeous and dramatic. She had presence, my Nanna. (She also smoked profusely, her cigarettes held in an elegant cigarette holder. In addition, she was very sick, and needed a constant supply of oxygen from tanks she carted everywhere on a mobile stand. He last few years were sadly comical – puff, smoke, wheeze, inhale, repeat. )
But Christmas time – oh, she went all out. Whilst we nibbled on sweets and pretzels served from small wooden dishes, she would wheeze and sing her way around the kitchen, her preparations peppered with the words “Fraa-ank!” and my GG would come running, ready to do her bidding. He adored her. It showed.
She made everything from scratch, I recall. Turkey, ham, cold meats. Salads, hot potatoes, vegetables, gravies. Cranberry sauce. Everyone helping themselves to a feast from her laminated kitchen table, sitting on various chairs around the house, as many as could fit the adult bottoms, kids on the steps. My mum’s sister, who we only saw at Christmas time, had 4 children. Then there was my mum and dad, my brother and myself. There was my Nanna and GG (our name for grandad). There was my ’uncle’ B (who turned out to be my brother, but that’s another story) often accompanied by a mate or two and his girlfriend, S. Throw in the dog and you had our family Christmas get together – one I only experienced until I was about 10 years old. To me, that was a huge family. We would spread out, eat our fill and get ready for the desert. My Nanna made the best pavlova in the universe. Nothing – I mean nothing – ever comes close. There was always plum pud and fruit cake and ice cream and fruit and chocolate hedgehog… but oh, her pavs.
After lunch, the adults would find somewhere to hide have a little nap, while us kids drove them bonkers to pull crackers, play with toys, open gifts (our ‘kid’ gifts were attcked the minute we arrived, pulled out from under the little plastic tree she had set up in her living room, decorated with silver baubles and felt elves and ‘Father Christmases’ wrapped in the obliging thin strand of silver tinsel). Then we would play and run and eat more icecream.
I was so in awe of Christmas. It was these Christmas days the only time I ever saw my family, all together, happy and ‘normal’. My Nanna’s house did not involve too much beer, harsh words or raised voices. It meant dressing up in good clothes and going ‘out’ for the drive from Mt Hawthorn to Fremantle which was a treat in itself. My Nanna’s house meant fun, food and play, a chance to be a normal kid, just like my cousins. Although I know there were several (but not many, or nearly enough) Christmases with Nanna and GG, they have been merged into one special, silver memory. It has been unwrapped many times in the past years, viewed from so many angles, replayed in my head like a seasonal sappy cinema production.
As an adult with her own family, of course I know now that Christmas is not so much the big, blousy affair of fiction and film. It’s about the people, the sharing, the togetherness.
But the memory of the glory day remains special, and I will wrap it in tissue once again and put it away safely with my other Christmas treasures. Merry Christmas Nanna and GG, I miss you. I thank you. You would have loved little R, he’s a lot like you both.