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A Child’s Christmas in Devon

December 25, 2011
by the gentle author

Over successive Christmases, as I was growing up, I witnessed the disintegration of my family until today I am the lone survivor of the entire clan, the custodian, charged with carrying the legacy of all their stories. Where once I was the innocent child in the midst of a family drama unknown to me, now I am a sober adult haunted by equivocal memories of a conflict that only met its resolution in death. Yet in spite of this, whenever I examine the piles of old photographs of happy people which are now the slim evidence of the existence of those generations which precede me, I cannot resist tender feelings towards them all.

I was an only child and, though I wished for playfellows occasionally, I do not regret it because the necessity to invent my own amusement gave me my life as a writer. Since there were just the three of us, I had quite separate relationships with my mother and my father, and I never perceived us as a family unit. My father’s parents and my mother’s father died before I was born, and so it was only when we went to visit my grandmother at Christmas that we were forced to confront our identity as part of a larger tribe.

Even the journey to my grandmother’s house, a forty minute drive over the hills, was fraught with hazard. As I lay in bed surrounded by my presents newly-unwrapped on Christmas morning, I could hear my parents in the kitchen discussing which was the greater risk – of skidding on black ice on the upland roads or getting washed away in floods surging down the valleys. Though, throughout my entire childhood, we never encountered any mishap on this journey, even if the emotional dangers of the visit were immense.

In the week before Christmas, my mother would have her hair “done” in hope of passing her mother’s inspection on Christmas Day and as we climbed into the car, even as she closed the door, she would be checking in the mirror and repeatedly asking, “Do you think my hair looks alright?” Complementing my mother’s worry over her hair was my father’s anxiety over his engine. As the owner of a series of secondhand wrecks bought on the cheap, he was reluctant to undertake any journey that involved an incline, which proved to be something of a problem in Devon. We would always arrive as late as my father could manage and, parking in the old yard in the back of grandmother’s house, pass through the wooden garden gate and walk slowly down the path in trepidation to arrive at the kitchen door.

Inside the house, my grandmother would be discovered at the scrubbed wooden table, beating something vigorously in a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon, still dressed in the fur coat and velvet turban she wore to church that morning. One memorable Christmas, she cast down the kitchen utensil as we entered. “You look a fright, Valerie! What have you done to your hair?” she exclaimed, advancing and running her fingers through my mother’s hair to dishevel it. My mother ran through the hallway, up the stairs and along the passage to lock herself into the bathroom, as she re-entered the emotional drama of her childhood in the house where she had grown up.

My grandmother had her reasons. The youngest daughter of an declining aristocratic family, without any inheritance, she married a bank manager yet hoped to reassert the fortunes of her noble line by marrying my mother off to local land-owning gentry. She felt it had been churlish of her daughter not to co-operate. Instead my mother escaped, climbing over a wall at night and fleeing from the typing and secretarial college where she had been sent when the possibility of university had been denied her. Running away to the nearest market town, my mother took a room in a lodging house, found employment at the local library and married my father, who was the centre-forward in the football team and worked as an engineer at a foundry.

My mother’s marriage was the death of my grandmother’s social aspirations. And since my grandfather gave up his position as a bank manager to go on the stage, pursuing an energetic career as a conjurer in vaudeville that led him to an early grave, she became a lone sentinel of her class. Naturally, she kept no photographs of my mother or my father or me in the house lest visiting Rotarians might see them, but once a year she invited us over as an act of Christian charity. The truth is that we were the poor relations. My father laid out the bills next to his pay packet each week and often wept in helpless anger when his meagre earnings were insufficient to cover even our modest expenses. Yet at Christmas, we wore the best clothes we had and, maintaining solidarity, did our best to keep up appearances and resist my grandmother’s insinuations.

Once emotions had subsided and I had persuaded my tearful mother from the bathroom, we convened in the drawing room for an aperitif. My uncle Richard would be arriving back from the pub full of cheery good humour after drinks with his friends in the amateur dramatics and the cricket club. Seizing this moment, “Would you like a glass of sherry?” my grandmother announced, filling with sudden enthusiasm, before adding with a tactful glance in my father’s direction, “I think I have bottle of beer for Peter.” Impoverished by the early death of my grandfather who indulged her aristocratic spending capacities, “We’ve had to cut back this year, I haven’t been able to do as much as I normally do,” my grandmother would inform us, catching my eye to indicate that I should not expect too much from her.

With saintly self-control, my father would take a seat by the fire and do his best to maintain silence in the face of this humiliation. It was only after his death that I discovered he had been born the illegitimate child of a house maid, a source of such shame that he never revealed the truth even to my mother. “None of these people have worked a day in their lives,” he would repeat to us in the car, every year on the way home, venting his vituperation and drawing further tears from my mother. In spite of the tensions of the day, she was always reluctant to leave her childhood home that held so many happy memories buried beneath the recent conflicts.

My grandmother’s house was a great source of wonder to me with its old silver, arts and crafts’ oak furniture and seventeenth century Dutch paintings, and the attics filled with stage properties and conjuring tricks. Once I could slip away upstairs, this was where I spent the hours after Christmas lunch, playing alone in the dusty chill until it was time to leave. My uncle never left his childhood home. He never worked, but lived for cricket scoring and collecting jazz records, and my grandmother waited upon him until she died, knocked over by a swinging coalhouse door one Winter night when she was eighty-four. He did not know how to make a bed or boil a kettle and, after she was gone, he grew so fat that he could not bend over to reach the floor, living ankle deep in rubbish. The last time I visited the drawing room, I discovered he had worn a path in the carpet through to the floorboards between his armchair and the television. In his room on the first floor, he had worn the mattress through to the springs and, entering the next room, I found he had done the same in there too and in the next. I remember telephoning him with the news that my father had died. “Well, I never did like Peter,” was his immediate response. Eventually, thieves broke in and stripped the house – when he could no longer get out of bed – and he lay there helpless as they carried the family heirlooms out to the truck.

There was only one childhood Christmas when we did not visit my grandmother. It was the year that a particularly virulent form of gastro-entiritis struck. My mother, my father and me, we were all afflicted with flu and lay in our beds on Christmas Day. Yet at three in the afternoon, we convened in the kitchen in our dressing gowns, clutching hot water bottles and we drank a cup of hot water together. I think it was the sweetest drink I ever tasted and I cherish the memory of that day, isolated together in our intimate cell of sickness, as my happiest childhood Christmas.

When I grew up and left home, I always returned for Christmas. Now that I live in the city and have no relatives left alive, I have no reason go back. Yet I miss them all, I even feel nostalgic about their fights and their angry words and I cannot resist the feeling they are all still there – my parents in their house, and my grandmother and my uncle in their house – and I wonder if they are having Christmas without me this year.

41 Responses leave one →
  1. paul permalink
    December 25, 2011

    They’ll all be missing you.

    Love and be Happy.

  2. HLM permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Love’s an odd thing, with strange ways of showing itself. Thank you for this, and for everything you’ve written. May the ghosts of Christmas past grow gentle.

  3. jeannette permalink
    December 25, 2011

    the class system there is very hard for americans to understand; this is an almost perfect explication of how it affects people’s lives.

    this is very powerful solstice stuff, GA — you know the bridge between the worlds is shorter these long nights and teems with spirits. uncle richard helpless in his bed as the thieves stripped the house of its status markers. gallant parents. gallant child. i feel strongly having let their stories out upon the general ether of cyberspace what remains of them is happy and peaceful tonight.

    peace.
    love.
    thanks.

  4. Emily permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Merry Christmas, Gentle Author.

  5. Phong permalink
    December 25, 2011

    That feeling of warmth and coldness all wrapped up can only be Christmas in the UK.
    Currently travelling in Asia and missing home and its familiarities.

  6. December 25, 2011

    You don’t know me but I turn to your writing every morning when I wake up. This morning I have woken up early, perhaps with instinctive memories of Christmas mornings when I was little. I wish you a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful year ahead. Thank you for all you write.

  7. Susan Lendroth permalink
    December 25, 2011

    This is my first Christmas without my parents, who passed within a day and a half of one another this summer. I, too, am missing our mixed bag of “traditions” — Mom with a large trash bag for us to throw out the wrapping paper right away after gifts were opened; Dad giving us all money in envelopes with corny messages; Mom stressing in the kitchen over the turkey or the stuffing; and sometimes even chestnuts roasting on an open fire just like the song. It may not have been the lush, Victorian Christmas of cards and films, but it was family all the same.

    Thank you for sharing your own childhood memories.

    Merry Christmas to you and Mr. Pussy and all your friends — your extended family — in Spitalfields.

  8. December 25, 2011

    this story provided me with quite a chuckle on this frosty christmas morning in one of the bleakest chrsitmases of greece’s contemporary history

    as i read your story, i got that filling-in-the-sandwich feeling which i have not felt in a while, since the death of the dysfunctional members of my own family

    there are many others – albeit a select few of us – who have lived in a similar manner, watching everyone around us lead themselves to self-destruction, while we continue to support and nurture them, constantly worrying about their sanity, instead of looking after our own

    bless you gentle author, we havent had our fill of your stories
    χρόνια πολλά (season’s greetings) from my little corner of the world

    merry christmas

  9. Sparkle permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Such a moving recollection – I’m sure they’ll all be missing you too.

    Much love and hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

  10. Robert permalink
    December 25, 2011

    I like the sentiment to appreciate what you have now as they will be soon gone forever. I’m a new reader of spitalfields life. But I’ve enjoyed reading the charming and thoughtful blogs as they have enriched and widened my understanding of Spitalfields, as I was born and lived for a while as a child nearby. Thanks.

    Merry Xmas.

  11. December 25, 2011

    The blogosphere is ankle deep at the moment in decorative vignettes and tinselly bonhomie. I am guilty of similar myself and put it down to busyness and laziness. This is the ‘realest’ thing I’ve seen around these parts – all those tangled family webs, all those strung-out twanging emotions. Thank you.
    PP

  12. Annie permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Perhaps. But they are alive with your memories and that is enough.
    Love to Mr Pussy and the Gentle Author

  13. Ruth permalink
    December 25, 2011

    The noise & chao of a Christmas with small children receded while I read this lovely piece. Your writing has that rare quality Gentle Author. Happy Christmas.

  14. Ruth permalink
    December 25, 2011

    My own family are disintegrating as we speak, a result of generations of disfunction with similarities to your description. Never mind, I have a happy gene and so do you… able to find huge pleasure in the enormous spectrum of human experience. I love reading your blog, so beautifully articulated. You have created your own special family of characters around you and they have found family in you. Have a happy Christmas, and bring on the New Year!!!

  15. Anne permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Thank you for this wonderful, touching post, Gentle Author, and a Merry Christmas to you.

  16. December 25, 2011

    Thank you very much for the recollection. During holiday that is often buried in syrupy sweet sentiment, such honest expressions are a great reminder of what truly makes such times memorable and valuable to us, whether currently in lean or abundant situation. It is a nice addition to this blog series which regularly finds true sweetness even in the difficult and bitter in life.
    Again, thank you, and Happy Christmas.

  17. jo watts permalink
    December 25, 2011

    what a special read including all the responses, a day of reflection for many, myself included :)

  18. Wendy permalink
    December 25, 2011

    I read this with complete fascination …. it is a vignette of a very interesting life that I wish I could read more about! Happy and sad at the same time. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas & Happy New Year. Look forward to your daily posts.

  19. Helen permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Such a poignant, moving post. Love to you and Mr Pussy from the west cost of Ireland.

  20. December 25, 2011

    Since I discovered Spitalfields Life just a few months ago I’ve really enjoyed it and look forward to it dropping into my mailbox each morning! Thanks for all your wonderful stories, other writings and interviews with local folk. Have a wonderful festive season.

  21. Ree permalink
    December 25, 2011

    WOW…Such a moving story…As an indie film maker…I saw it unfold as a movie…I’m down to my two sisters…So I can relate to shrinking families…But marvelous friends help to fill in…
    I so look forward to your great posts…Brilliant…
    Best Wishes to you and your furry friend…

  22. Betsy Rubin permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Thank you, gentle author.

  23. T Eakin permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Fascinating blog. I’m sure those memories were not easy for you to record.

    Two thoughts:

    * We can choose our friends but not our families.

    * We can change the future but not the past.

    Hope you have a very merry Christmas.

  24. Chris F permalink
    December 25, 2011

    There are the bones of a brilliant book in this post…. and anyway, you aren’t alone… you have a huge family… You just haven’t met us all yet… Happy Christmas…..

  25. Adrienne permalink
    December 25, 2011

    Another beautiful piece…the only blog I read. Hope you had a lovely day.

  26. December 25, 2011

    amazing piece of writing gentle author
    its all there , how you became who you are , your love of those who walk the lonely path of the outsider ,the dignity of your dear parents in the face of ridicule …..ooohh I nearly cheered when I heard that a coal door killed granny , she was a dose and and a half as we.d say in Ireland.Your uncle richard , straight out of grey gardens, a path worn through between the tv and the chair,and the family silver being carried out as he lay in bed ….you couldnt make it up.
    It was only when you all had to stay at home that you were saved the ritual and even though sick , you could just be ….
    Gentle Author , I salute you , your writing and thank you once again for your gifts that you share so poignantly and so intelligently .
    All good things for you and mr.pussy x

  27. Sarah Lily permalink
    December 26, 2011

    Dear Gentle Author I have been reading your posts for a year now. Last Christmas I stumbled upon On Christmas Eve in The City…Reading you from Istanbul airport on my way to Sweden. Happy Christmas -Thank You

  28. December 26, 2011

    Very vivid and moving, especially sharing the hot water. Looking forward to more stories in the new year…

  29. December 26, 2011

    A wise and moving reflection on times past and a wonderful antidote to the joyless cheer surrounding us at this time of year. You write superbly well, Gentle Author. Best wishes.

  30. Nilly permalink
    December 26, 2011

    Thank you for this post. I admire your courage in telling this story and applaud it’s lack of sentimentality. After another slightly disfunctional family Christmas gathering yesterday I try to reassure myself (yet again) with the thought that oddness, eccentricity and worse may be the price we pay for human imagination and creativity.

  31. Rowena Macdonald permalink
    December 26, 2011

    Happy Christmas, Gentle Author. This post was fascinating; clear-eyed and unsentimental yet humane. Families are fascinating. The class clashes. The expectations and disappointments of parents and children. Am reading this on Boxing Day from the soulless bar of the Best Western Hotel in Preston en route to Blair Atholl in Scotland to visit my boyfriend’s aged great uncle Donald, a former gamekeeper to Lady Coleman’s (of the Coleman mustard family) country estate. Your post felt very relevant to my mood, thinking about both mine and my boyfriend’s family and the families of friends enjoying and also gritting their teeth through their own families’ peculiarities at Christmas. Happy New Year!

  32. Denise Hoffman permalink
    December 27, 2011

    Another great piece of writing, GA! I love to read your daily journal, and after grabbing my first coffee of the day, quickly go to read it. This recollection of your early family life during Christmastime was a wonderful piece to read! It is amazing what “secrets” our loved ones take with them when they pass away, and then sometimes we, the loved ones left behind, happen upon some of those secrets. Most times, the discovery of such, makes us realise why so and so behaved in such and such a way. People are so very interesting…. Thank you so very much, for sharing this very personal account. I think most people can relate to at least one member of their family as a kindred spirit to your uncle, or your grandmother. These people are everywhere, and they are sad, sad people. But, we need people like them in our lives to fully appreciate and not take for granted, those other people that truly matter. The journey of life is a funny one though. I suppose, at the end of our journey, we can measure our life’s worth, by looking at the many people we have met, the friends we have made and grown to love, and the hearts we have touched. GA, be assured, that you are a wonderfully rich and worthy person, who by such beautiful daily writings, has made many many friends around the globe. Thank you so very much for all you do, and for being so giving of your time. I love being one of your gentle readers. Happy New Year!

  33. December 27, 2011

    I wish you lots of new adventures for 2012 and thank you for sharing them with us and especially your touching and truthful Christmas day post.

  34. December 28, 2011

    i still laugh every time i read this story – it must be the tenth time already
    gentle author, you have inspired me to write about my own dysfunctional members of the family
    http://www.organicallycooked.com/2011/12/bludger.html
    they were never part of greek aristocracy, but they liked to create it for themselves
    they do not differ much from the rest of greek society; again, greeks are in league of their own here

  35. Jared permalink
    December 28, 2011

    Thanks for all the stories GA. I began reading your work last Christmas with the Sidney Street stuff. Fantastic.

  36. Anne Forster permalink
    December 29, 2011

    Read and understood GA, just returned from being away with what is left of my family, but unable to be with my daughter.

    You may be alone now but you’re certainly not lonely with all your avid followers eager and waiting for what you have written that day.

    More power to your pen.

    Much love

    Anne

  37. Robin permalink
    February 18, 2012

    Thank you G.A. for this post.I too spend Christmas with ghosts of happier days.My mom passed in early december of ’97 and my dad the day after my birthday in Jan.’2000.We were a close family and my mom lived for Christmas.My dad lived for my mom…need I go into detail of the joy Iwas lucky enough to have had.Sadly,Christmas season has not been the same.
    Your trip to your grandmother’s was similar to our pilgimage to my Pop-pop’s .There we would find a small tree with an ancient manger on display under an equally ancient painting of the Virgin.Part of this memory was the drive home; cold snowy winter’s night with old fashioned strings of lights criss crossing the streets,blowing in the gusts.Weary colours of reds,ambers,greens,and blues..tired looking,forelorn.Yet when those memories come back,it’s always with warmth and love…and meloncholy for those days long gone.

  38. Libby Hall permalink
    August 2, 2012

    Christmas: emotionally so extraordinarily complicated.

    These so beautifully described memories will now stay with me as long as my old mind keeps functioning – incorporated into all….all….. the memories of Christmases past.

  39. Sally Baldwin permalink
    September 2, 2012

    Exquisite post, from last Christmas. Thank you, Gentle Author. I’m so glad of you.

  40. Katya permalink
    December 25, 2013

    Dear Gentle Author, guided by the wit and elegance of later years, your pen captures beautifully the ability of children to observe life as it is: unclouded as yet by experience, but with keen eyes that understand well the joy of small comforts and the disappointment of deprivation. Thank you from one of your many friends.

  41. Ladkyis permalink
    December 27, 2014

    I bet you’d find some cousins if you started to climb that family tree, and probably discover that Grandmother’s roots were not quite as aristocratic as she would have you believe.
    I love your writing. Thank you

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