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The Gentle Author’s Childhood Christmas

December 26, 2015
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 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.

51 Responses leave one →
  1. December 26, 2015

    I wasn’t able to tell you how beautiful this story is when you read it. It’s such lovely writing about the mixed emotions we have with family and Christmas. And still feel.

  2. Alex Knisely permalink
    December 26, 2015

    So much to shed.

  3. Gary Croft permalink
    December 26, 2015

    What is it with Christmas that us people of a certain age, have these feelings of emotion.
    My lot are quite unfortunately for them, quite disfunctional and better kept away from in the main but one does the ‘courtesy’ thing at this time of year, as your parents also did.

    It is the ‘done’ thing one is reminded and tradition must be adhered to…..

  4. Donald permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Gentle Author:

    If it wouldn’t be too embarrassing, can I give you a hug?

    Merry Christmas!

    Donald

  5. Geraldine Moyle permalink
    December 26, 2015

    On Christmas Eve you wrote: “Several years ago, when my last last relative died and I no longer had any family left alive . . .” And more than a few readers noted that you have made a family of affinity on this blog. People who read each day’s posting avidly, greet its arrival over email with high anticipation, most often find a little jewel of insight or observation they would otherwise not discover. For myself ~ & perhaps for others, too ~ Gentle Author, thank you for the trust implicit in this disclosure of a private world. And happy Boxing Day.

  6. Toni Bracher permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your family story. I really was drawn into this – lots of emotions there.

  7. December 26, 2015

    A moving story, well told! Valerie

  8. Blandina permalink
    December 26, 2015

    This is such a moving story, filled with humor, feelings and nostalgia. A sweet way to start Boxing Day, thank you.

  9. December 26, 2015

    Bloody families!
    ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
    As always, a very interesting story GA :)

  10. December 26, 2015

    Ah, Gentle Author, you wield your pen (or keypad) so stealthily.

    I feel sorry for your mother suffering under the unkind lack of affirmation from your grandmother and all that social standing nonsense. But saddest of all is your uncle, robbed of dignity and manhood, unable to defend his house.

    May you prosper despite their lack and be blessed in the new year beyond such loneliness.

  11. paddy kerr permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Ths was quite heartbreaking to read. Your grandmother was cruel and selfish and I wonder if you are not more angry with her than you say. I know I would be and I feel angry on your behalf. No wonder your mother ran away from her! That was an act of self preservation and I admire her for it. I wonder why she felt she had to go back and bear these ghastly Christmasses with a woman who took pleasure in humiliating and upsetting her. Maybe it was to give you a ‘good’ Christmas as your parents were too poor to put such of a spread on the table – and yet you remember the Christmas drinking hot water in your kitchen with your parents on their own, and no malicious influences around you, as the best Christmas of all. I would not revisit your Grandmother with tender thoughts in your heart – she does not deserve that. You are entitled to be angry both for yourself and your parents – it strikes me as the more authentic and healthier option.

    Have GREAT 2016 Gentle Author. Is Mr Pussy still around?

    Paddy

  12. Bob Gladding permalink
    December 26, 2015

    A brave piece to write and vivid to read. It must prompt parallel, if far less dramatic, recollections for many of us. Thanks GA.

  13. Maggie permalink
    December 26, 2015

    That was a sad story but within it all there were smiles and a universal truth about all of us. We love our families for the most part – but not always. Yet we are always drawn to them, especially at Christmas.
    The picture of your adult mother, worried about her own mother’s inspection and devastated by the harsh welcome when her hair didn’t ‘measure up’ will resonate with so many of us, no matter how old we are.
    Your father sounds quite someone, and I now have a picture of a man who had the courage to do what he wanted in his life and presented such a contrast to your poor Uncle, whose life was wasted.
    Thank you for sharing your memories.
    I hope in your quiet Christmas this year you have realised how many people have thought of you, and wished you well.

  14. James Mackay permalink
    December 26, 2015

    On the eastern edge of Dartmoor, there was a hamlet called Murchington. We could never go there, as all the roads to it had ’1 in 5 or steeper’ double arrows on the map, and such steep hills were beyond possibility in my parents’ old Rover. Merry Xmas, Happy New Year. JM

  15. annie s permalink
    December 26, 2015

    A moving post GA, I do hope you have had a good Christmas this year – very best wishes for 2016

  16. December 26, 2015

    You made me cry but a great story.

  17. gioconda permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Each unhappy family unhappy in its own way..as Caroline noted above. Yet there’s something about being an embittered fallen aristocrat that makes living with one so difficult. I know.
    I hope your father knows that his struggles were appreciated, and that a poverty of funds is not as hurtful to a child as a poverty of caring.
    And like Donald above, I’d like to give you a hug for portraying your family with honesty and love.
    Give my love to Mr.P. Enjoy your holidays together!

  18. Sarah Lily permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Happy Christmas, one of my all time favourites!
    I now read your stories from across the Atlantic. I to was an only child for years and I think this gave me my imagination.
    Sarah Lily

  19. December 26, 2015

    As you know, I love your posts and many have moved me greatly but it’s the personal ones, so few and far between, although you are there in all your words, that really hit at the core. You are brave to be so revealing but it will resonate so much with so many. I concur with Giaconda, the many pains of mixed class marriages. A happy new year to you and Mr. P. Thought of you both recently when I read Colette’s short story, The Cat XX

  20. Chris F permalink
    December 26, 2015

    You should use you talent for writing and turn these recollections into a TV play/drama. If Nigel Slater can do it then so can you… I could visualise the whole thing as I read your words. The business with your uncle being robbed made me reflect on how universal that problem is… Hardly a day goes by when we are not presented with stories of the elderly having their treasured possessions stolen by carers or avaricious relatives, or their bank accounts drained by crooks, carers or family members. However, rather than reflect on this aspect of the human condition, can I wish you, and everyone who follows your blog, a very merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year and assure you that regardless of being the last of your line, through your writings you have created an extended family of hundreds of individuals from all walks of life and from all across the globe who care about you, love you & look forward to your daily posts and if there is a higher power looking down on us all, may he or she grant you and Mr Pussy a long, healthy and trouble free life.

  21. December 26, 2015

    How harsh your grandmother seemed but you uncle was really tragic, stuck in his bed when the robbers stripped the house. On a lighter note, your description of your grandmother’s clothes reminded me of my great aunt, Eliza, and that I should try to write about her. She wore hats in the style orf turbans and had a fox stole with the head attached that fascinated me as a child. I realised years later, when I saw my first ever fox, that it must have been a very young fox, as the head she liked to drop across her collar was small.
    Thank you for sharing your memories, which are not only was wonderful to read but are inspiring.

  22. December 26, 2015

    A very fine Christmas-Story!

    *** MERRY CHRISTMAS! ***
    *** FROHE WEIHNACHTEN! ***
    *** JOYEUX NOËL! ***

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  23. NICholas permalink
    December 26, 2015

    wonderfully written

  24. December 26, 2015

    Such echoes. I particularly liked your description of families of only children: “I had quite separate relationships with my mother and my father, and I never perceived us as a family unit.” Nor did I. I thought it was just me and my family! A wonderful post and thank you.

  25. December 26, 2015

    As I am an only child, your story of childhood Christmases really resonated with me. You painted such a vivid picture that transported me to your grandmother’s house. I sm so looking forward to attending your workshop next year. Wishing you all the best for 2016.

  26. Heather Rohrer permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Ditto what Joanna Biddolph said. I think that being an only child with
    parents who could not show love is the very reason I could not find
    love in either of my marriages … I never saw it or felt it and so
    could not recognize it. Like peas in pods, there must be millions of us
    ‘onlys’ living loveless lives well into our dotage!
    Merry Christmas one and all!

  27. December 26, 2015

    I’d like to join with other readers and thank you for this post. Just reading the words “only child” reminded me of how fortunate I always felt to be one; although I will confess that my family background was quite different than yours. But, if I may say — One “only child” to another — that I believe have our solitary time as children had a lot to do with our life long dedication to creativity. I’ve been able to make a living as an artist my whole life (never easy, but do-able……) and I bless the quiet hours of discovery as a child that provided the foundation for that.

    I frequently forward your postings to others, and they are always so appreciative. Your legacy
    is strong, and wider than you will ever know. Keep it up. Happy New Year.

  28. December 26, 2015

    There’s something simply magical about this quiet morning after the bustle and bright of Christmas, and stumbling into your door via Chronica Domus’ delightful blog is a lovely, unexpected gift.

    How your words sing from the page, kindling memories (albeit of far-from-yours locations in the hot-Christmas South of the USA) quite similar-and-opposite to these. This has been an absolutely mesmerizing moment, and I have not the words to tell you how marvelous your gift, how magical your manipulation of the language to tell a tale.

    Just the paragraph which begins “My Mother’s marriage . . .” is everything—as complete and as round as a shining apple presented on a palm. How you must nestle into your talent, like shrugging into a beloved soft coat. I’m just at a loss, here, for the way to say how splendid this is, though my own opinion must be so far down the list of praise that we ain’t within shoutin’ distance, as they say “back home.”

    Having just spent two weeks with three (and sometimes four) of the eight GRANDS in the house, with all the attendant flurry and fun, with prospects of their imminent return to finish out the holidays, I PROMISE to you that every day, I strive to be the very best Grandmother (Ganjin) that I can—it’s simply who I am, and what I do well, and it’s one of my greatest blessings. And just from this, how I wish for you to “be a child again, just for tonight,” amongst our rowdy, raucous crew, delighting in the fun and hugs and cocoa and books. I so wish that for you—just one memory like that. If all I ever did was create good memories for the children, that would be overflowing enough.

    My very best thoughts for a lovely Christmas season to you—you’ve given me one of my nicest gifts this year, and I look forward to dropping in in this bright New Year.

    rachel

  29. Liz L permalink
    December 26, 2015

    O Gentle Author! This is so sensitively written; a story of complex emotions that many of us can relate to and empathise with. Thank you for sharing it. I am the last of my family and look back wistfully about how things were and could have been for us all under different circumstances. But as the years pass I feel a greater understanding of my family’s foibles – although this time of year does seem to highlight them too. Know that you are not alone. You are much appreciated for your wonderful posts. You bring a lot of joy to many every day. Thank you and good wishes to you for 2016.

  30. December 26, 2015

    Such an emotional story shared with a objective distance that makes the reader think it fiction–and yet know it is not.

    I read this just after listening to the fine CD of Dylan Thomas reading his “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

    I can well-imagine you, GA, doing such a reading of this story (I agree with the commenter who spoke of your Christmas story being fleshed out and filmed.)

    Holidays–can always be counted on to bring back some of the best and worst of our family histories.
    I hope your wonderful friends shared a wonderful Christmas with you.

  31. Kassie permalink
    December 26, 2015

    This brutal yet extraordinarily tender story is a treasure for me to read; I shall print this and put it with my Christmas decorations so that I will find it next year. So very moving.

    I wonder if you have ever encountered Truman Capote’s ” A Christmas Memory.” This reminds me so much of that.

    Thank you for these moments I have just
    spent with this story. I am so grateful.

  32. Anthony Wayman permalink
    December 26, 2015

    My word, does that tale bring back memories. So I wasn’t the only one to be a poor relation.
    The stupidity of ‘social grandeur’ and affectation can be quite damaging which is why I married beneath me many years ago and never regretted doing so, and still don’t. As a very distant
    Romanov it was not quite the thing, you know.

  33. Pauline Taylor permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Like one other reader I am so thankful that I was an only child, and that I did not have to be part of Christmas celebrations in my grandparent’s house. As soon as lunch was over, in the room dominated by an enormous Victorian dining table and surrounded by Victorian ornaments, paintings, and various musical instruments including one piano and a harmonium, I would be banished to the ‘parlour’ to play on my own. I was allowed to play Grandma’s second piano, a special treat, but mostly I played with the silk fringe on the bottom of the chairs. Nevertheless happy memories!!

  34. Jane Pearce permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Heartbreakingly lovely

  35. Donald Carlton Burns permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Splendid writing: lovely story, both sad and yet warming. Merry Christmas, Gentle Author.

    Donald

  36. Sue permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Dear GA,
    I’m a little late reading this today but it’s a posting I will not ever forget. You write it so beautifully, full of emotion and I believe a lot of people (including myself) will be able to relate to with their own family dramas.
    Sending you warm wishes for over Christmas and New Year.
    Suzanne x

  37. Sue permalink
    December 26, 2015

    What a touching story. I look forward to your emails every morning.
    Best wishes.

  38. Chris Wiseworlduk permalink
    December 26, 2015

    Blimey, lost for words!

    Best have a beer and a man hug!

  39. Barbara Hague permalink
    December 26, 2015

    ………families, eh! But even the awkward ones have a place in your life.

  40. Peter Holford permalink
    December 27, 2015

    Thank you for this account, GA. I can identify with so much of it. I too am an only child and grew up with virtually no relatives – my grandfathers were dead and one grandmother lived 200 miles away in Yorkshire. That was a visit I never relished. But as a child I never felt deprived because of the rich life in a community in a London neighbourhood. I guess we all try to make the lives we want and having seen what happens in some families I don’t really regret the absence of siblings now.

  41. Sofi permalink
    December 27, 2015

    Thankyou for sharing your memories.These experiences made you the person that you are.A kindly,profound soul.Wishing you all the best in the coming year.
    I look forward to your writings every day.Bless your heart.

  42. December 27, 2015

    I have not commented on here for a few years but have been an avid daily reader since you started your wonderful blog. This story is a masterpiece and touched me deeply.
    I wish you only good things for 2016.

  43. Nina Archer permalink
    December 27, 2015

    …… so interesting and sad and I especially love the phrase ‘ … playing alone in the dusty chill …’ – may all your Christmases be warm happy ones now Gentle Author, thank you for all your lovely daily writings – so much appreciated by all who read them ….

  44. jeannette permalink
    December 27, 2015

    for those of us who spend christmas alone as a matter of choice over spending it with our families, thank you. free at last. except perhaps of goose leftovers, much like dorothy parker’s ham. of which, it was the definition of eternity, two people and one ham.
    paradise.

  45. December 27, 2015

    I feel such sadness at the story of so many unhappy Christmases suppressed by another’s cruel ways, yet, a poignant joy in the one Christmas your family was confined at home through illness and thus discovered the kindness of a true Christmas afternoon together. So very sorry for the sadder parts of your childhood.

    As was written above, you are not without family. We are all your family now ~ people from all over the world, beguiled by the depth of the gifts you share with us daily. I am sending good thoughts and kind love to you at Christmas time. ~ Wishing you a Happy Christmas this year, Gentle Author ~

  46. Sheree permalink
    December 27, 2015

    Oh,how poignant and touching and so vividly told. I can visualise the faded images of these stories as you tell them so beautifully. They should be made into a call the midwife type of series. I hope you shared this Christmas with friends. Thank you.

  47. Dianne permalink
    December 28, 2015

    Dear Gentle Author, I hope you are able now to realise that you are no longer alone as I’m sure ALL of the many subscribers to your blog have you in their hearts. Just as your personal writings fill us with warmth then we send that feeling in return to you. An only child like you, I had a rocky relationship with my mother and no knowledge of one lot of grandparents and only a distant grandmother on the other side and I too am the last of my family. We can’t change what has been, we can wish they had been different and only come to terms and peace with the fact that they are as they were. As part of your subscriber family I am grateful to you for letting us into your life, for showing us so much of your London and for introducing us to characters we would otherwise never meet. I look forward to your daily musings for many years to come and wish you a peaceful and happy 2016.

  48. Joanne permalink
    December 28, 2015

    Thank goodness Mr Pussy can be relied upon.

  49. Sally Hirst permalink
    December 30, 2015

    This account resonated, not in the specifics of the experience but in the detail of emotions. I am an only child. Christmases were not perfect, jolly family affairs, yet they are my memories and, like you, I cherish them fondly.
    Thank you for another year of varied and interesting posts. We can rely on you and that’s rare. No pressure though – we will forgive failure!

  50. rosemry permalink
    January 6, 2016

    One of your best posts GA….and that is saying something. You are a great storyteller and your genuineness rings through.

    Too many people put a gloss on Xmas that may or may not be true – I think it’s time to tell it like it really is and connect in a new way on the 25th.

    Your reader from Downunder.

    R

  51. Jill permalink
    February 26, 2016

    A treasure as usual. I can so relate to many strands woven here, Victorian values are the only way I can put it into any perspective. Feelings were not allowed or encouraged to be revealed. More a seen and not heard sense of approval, more likely if one kept quiet! Reveal your true self only to be ridiculed. Sad but true and true love is forever searched for…

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