The Gentle Author’s Childhood Christmas
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 to 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.