December has come and pretty much gone. The month was filled with holiday festivities and to-do lists. And finally, Christmas came.
Christmases of late have been different. Not bad, just different from childhood and youth years. The absence of grandparents, the aging of aunts and uncles, the additions of cousin in-laws and babies galore, and the state lines separating each and every one of us has continued to re-shape my family.
Not to mention, the past two Christmases were incredibly different for me due to my livelihood and my need to remain local the entire Christmas season.
This year was different. But felt more like the way things used to be.
I received a Facebook message from a cousin in California a few weeks before Christmas. She wrote asking if it would be possible to connect for a short time in Minneapolis – her layover was almost 4 hours long and she’d love to grab breakfast. Like any good daughter, I relayed the message to my mom and we set up the entire ordeal. The pop-up backseat of my dad’s SUV was utilized and I rode with my parents to the airport super early on Saturday morning. My cousin, her husband, and their two kids jumped in and we headed off to eat breakfast in the dark early morning. The last time we were all together was when my cousin’s kids were toddler and preschool age. They are now thriving in the middle of elementary school and the beginning of high school.
We ate breakfast and talked. About everything. My cousin’s high school daughter and I discussed books and movies – quoted movie lines and recommended book series to one another. My mom and cousin caught up on medical stories, work life, and the balancing act called motherhood. My dad and my cousin in-law talked about war movies, my grandpa’s journey in WWII and other manly things. The mid-elementary cousin stretched out on the booth and enjoyed movement without the confines of an airplane.
As our short visit drew to an end, we grabbed a nearby diner to snap our photo. In true Minnesota fashion, I commented on his UND Fighting Sioux hat. Of course, that started a whole conversation on hockey and his grandkids.
Before we knew it, we were back at the airport saying goodbye to my California cousins and planning trips out West.
Shortly after we left the airport, I packed up once again for a long road trip with my mom and dad. We drove straight north to my parents’ hometown (the kind of hometown where eating meals with former and current D1 hockey players is just another day in Minnesota).
Our first stop was to Grandma’s nursing home room. A room where she was sitting in her wheelchair, looking out at nothing. I try not to cry every time we visit. It’s hard to think of what her life is like day in and day out. Something about this trip, this season, where I’m at in my life, caused me to make this a trip worth remembering. Not because of the lack of connection with my Grandma, but because of the connection. I didn’t try to set my hopes too high, I just started talking. And didn’t stop. I asked my grandma about everything. Told her stories. Reminded her of my dad’s childhood stories. I said things to her I would never have said had her mind been solid and strong. I confessed that I hated eating gum at her house because I thought it was hard and gross. Can you blame me? She took it out of the freezer!
I talked to her about the 60th wedding anniversary we celebrated for her and my Grandpa out in Colorado. I was barely 12 at the time, but remember eating out, going into the mountains, spending time together as a family. I showed her the picture of our family from that event and told her we threw her a big party. Through the cloudiness of her mind, she looked at me and said, “Well, thank you!” And I took full credit for the entire affair (I later confessed to my California cousin via test so she could inform her mom who undoubtedly planned the event). I asked questions upon questions to my Grandma. The minute I was done asking a question, another would pop into my head.
Apparently, I asked too many questions because at one point my Grandma looked right at me and said, “You sure ask a lot of questions.” The twinkle in her eye and smile on her face brought tears to my parents’ eyes as they looked on. Grandma barely utters more than two words and in the first 45 minutes of my visit, I’d gotten full sentences out of her. Sentences that made sense with the context of the conversation.
I kept talking. Going on and on. Not wanting to stop.
I eventually quit talking long enough to say goodbye and “see you tomorrow, Grandma! I’ll come with more questions. You think of more answers.”
I left the nursing home happy. A feeling I don’t think I’ve ever felt after being in that lonely place.
From the center, we drove to my cousin’s house filled with cousins and their kids. It was kind of like old times. I hugged everyone and immediately joined in the fun and games. I sorted LEGO pieces for a truck and chatted with cousins and aunts.
It was like coming home. Being with cousins who were there all those Christmases ago. Our lives are completely different now. They remember when they were my age. I remember when I was their kids’ ages. I enjoyed the lively conversations. But most of all, I was real. I told my cousins that this past year was hard. Really hard. And they listened and knew what a toll it took on me and my family. I struggle sometimes to explain my emotions. I don’t always let people know when I’m struggling. When I’m weak. Yet, with my cousins, I shared it all. And it was safe and reassuring.
Our night together ended with the arrival of another cousin and his family. All the way from Alaska.
The reunion at the front door was pretty spectacular. Cousin A’s brother, Cousin AA, picked me up and hugged me. He claimed I wasn’t must bigger than one of the kids. It was like we were little kids ourselves. He’s the cousin who always looked out for me. He is like a giant teddy bear. And reminds me so much of my Grandpa (in the best way possible). The miles that separate us are many. And I truly miss having him “nearby” (in the same state!).
After my Grandma’s funeral (5 years ago), I had to say goodbye to all my family. I remember being completely shaken by the loss. When I hugged Cousin AA goodbye, I burst into tears right there next to the hotel pool. He consoled and comforted me like always. And that and a million other memories together have stuck with me. Reminders that I have some of the best cousins in the entire world.
On Sunday, I went to church with my parents and sat with cousins. It was something we did as kids, but this time their children sat between us. My aunt passed out Smarties to quiet the kids and I remembered the passing of gum and LifeSavers when I was a kid sitting next to my cousins. We said goodbyes right after the service.
Before going to the nursing home my parents and I grabbed a bite to eat at the local Hardee’s. There we ran into more “family” (my dad’s sister’s husband’s sister and her daughter and family — did you follow that?). We ate our fast food and chatted away about life and hockey.
Then we headed over to the nursing home once more to see my Grandma. I kept my word and asked her millions more questions. I talked about my dad’s childhood dog. She smiled when I said his name. I mentioned cousins and specific events in our family’s history. And then I asked her who her favorite grandkid was. I encouraged her to say my name. Then I asked if Grandpa had a favorite. Her response was something to the effect of, “We didn’t discuss those things.” A response. I got another great response from my Grandma. My often silent Grandma talked to me. Answered my questions. Smiled when I shared stories. And quite possibly joked with me. I decided that I was indeed the favorite.
Our Christmas visit with Grandma was more than I could ever have imagined. I felt like I had hour long conversations with her. I don’t know what she remembers from our time together. Probably not much. If someone asks her who I was and what we talked about, she won’t be able to answer. But for those brief moments that she talked to me, we connected. And I know that she knows how much I love her. And I know that if she were able, she’d tell me she loved me, too.
Time at “Grandma’s” came to an end, but my parents and I made one last stop up north.
We went to my aunt’s house to see more cousins.
Again, I joined in the craziness of kids running around the house. And I stopped to talk to my adult cousins. Cousins who used to run around with me and do crazy things like burp in my ear and play hide-and-seek at Grandma’s with me.
I received hugs from little cousins as they vied for my attention. Attention I was more than willing to show each kid. Because I remember when I was there age. And my cousin’s were in high school and college. It made my Christmas if all they did was think my one story was “cool.”
The laughs and the hugs and the Hallmark moments of my Christmas could fill an entire journal. If I could explore every emotion and thought that entered my mind, I’d need a month off from work to pour out my heart. Because my heart is full to the brim from this Christmas.
It’s a feeling I feel so rarely in my adult years. My childhood and youth with grandparents and cousins have faded into my mind. I play those images when I want to remember those times.
And like so many Christmases past, this Christmas will be tucked in right next to those. That’s what happens when you have a Christmas just like old times.