As long as I can remember,’what I want for Christmas’ has been the first and most paramount question of the holidays. It starts to rise up from the subconscious shortly before Thanksgiving and then blossoms full blown in my mind sometime after the turkey-fueled lethargy wears off and pumpkin pie is offered. It is an ageless question, one of the oldest in my memory and continues to bloom in my thoughts even as I enter my 59th year of life as though I were Ralphie from ‘A Christmas Story’ insistently being asked to write that timeless theme.
There have been many answers down through the years, most of them involving specific toys, spaceship models, bits of what are now obsolete technologies but which at the time were shining and bright. In truth, I can remember only a handful of the ‘things’ that I received over the decades … things which seemed so important and vital at the time but which are now past memory. After nearly six decades of holidays, I think I have finally settled on my answer.
What I want for Christmas … is to be my grandfathers.
Christmas time at the Sam Hickman house was a magical time for my brother and me when we were growing up. As much of our extended family as possible would gather at the home of ‘Grampa Sam’. It would be cold with snow in that farming community but the home was lit with Christmas lights to guide us in and there was warmth in the windows. My father had grown up in this house. The toy drawer in the hall had always been there. The back bedroom had always been without heat, the rock walls making it the temperature of a meat locker and might have been uninhabitable if it were not for the enormous four poster bed, a mountain of thick quilts and the hot-water bottle for our feet.
‘Nan’ or ‘Nammy’ was what we called my grandmother and I would be nearly in my teens before I was aware that her given name was ‘Alta.’ I principally remember Nan in her kitchen, a domain where she was both Queen and Sorceress. It was here that we would gather to ice the Christmas cookies. It was a place of light, warmth and unimaginably wonderful smells from the nearly constant cooking, basting and baking. This is where I hear her voice. This is where I see her smile and the twinkle in her eyes. She was a short woman but I can only remember her best through the my childhood eyes, looking up to her.
What I remember from those Christmases is my brother and I ranging through that house with my cousins. We would chatter and play and roll around like puppies, occasionally channeling that energy into nearly creative pursuits. Our parents, aunts and uncles would gather around either a bridge table or in the living room or around the kitchen table where the stories occasionally got ribald. As children, we knew the rules: if the parents were laughing around the kitchen table then we children could only enter in the case of an honest to goodness emergency.
My Grampa Sam was always bigger than life. President of the local bank, white mane of hair neatly slicked back from his forehead and a slight paunch in his later years, he was the benevolent patriarch of our clan. I cannot recall a single instance where he didn’t have time for me at any time in my life. He always listened to me and gave me his time whenever he could. My father looked up to him. My brother and I were in awe of him. We all were.
Every Christmas Eve, it was the tradition in our home to have our holiday dinner together, followed by our Christmas Program. Everyone — Grampa, Nan, Uncles, Aunts, Nephews, Nieces, brothers, sisters and cousins would gather and each contribute some talent to the festivities. My Uncle Gordon might play the accordion. My Aunt Estelle might sing. Poems were recited and everyone — from the youngest child to the oldest adult — gladly gave their part.
One year, in particular, my brother and I decided to get all the cousins together and do a puppet show. We chose ‘The Littlest Angel’a book by Charles Tazewell as our text. We ‘acquired’ a cardboard box, cut it into a proscenium puppet stage, and set it on what we believed would be an unused card table covered with a ‘borrowed’ table cloth. We then made our puppets by draping large handkerchiefs over our little hands, making arms out of it by wrapping rubber bands around our thumbs and middle finger then sticking a playdough sculpted head on the index finger to complete the illusion. We even, as I recall, rehearsed it once.
That night, I narrated from the book while my brother and the rest of our cousins acted out the story. Grampa Sam, Nan, my parents and the rest of the family sat on the couches and chairs about the room to take in the performance. Then, in the middle of our show, one of the playdough heads came loose, rolled across the stage and onto the carpet in front of the stage. It was, I must now admit, the most entertaining part of the performance.
Everyone laughed, but loudest of all was my Grampa Sam. We had delighted him.
To this day, when I want to hear my grandfather’s laugh, I think of that moment.
My other grandfather I also knew as Grampa although most people thought of him as ‘Park.’ George Arnold Parkinson lived with my Grandma Park, Aretta, in the farm home about four blocks to the east of the Hickman home. It was here that my mother was born and grew up. I am told that I look a great deal like him. He was an enormous man with a generous heart to match. It was not until years after he was gone that I learned he used to put on a Santa Claus suit on Christmas Eve and with my Grampa Sam go out delivering presents to the needing in that community.
What do I want for Christmas?
My son Curtis called me up a week ago and wanted to know when we were getting together to decorate cookies and make caramel popcorn balls. Laura and I checked the already full calendar and said that the Sunday before Christmas would be perfect. Laura and I were in the Christmas Program at church that day but Laura managed to make two crock-pots full of homemade chicken noodle soup in our kitchen. One, notably, without noodles because of some of our grandchildren’s allergies. Fresh rolls were rising in the oven.
Everyone gathered at our home about the same time that afternoon. Laura — who is called ‘Nanny’ by our grandchildren as a title of honor — had purchased a battery-driven stuffed Santa toy that rolled around the floor chasing the grand kids. Squeels of delight erupted at once. My grandson William found my Nerf gun as was ranging around as though he were Red Rider himself. My youngest grandson Max busied himself with taking out all the items in the one drawer in the kitchen not locked down from his eager hands. Our children (there being no distinction between those we raised and those they married) gathered around our kitchen table, talking eagerly with each other, laughing and playing games.
The cookies were frosted, movies playing on the television in the background. I stood at the stove making the caramel for the popcorn balls. As always, a double batch. We poured it over the popcorn in the large pots and, with buttered hands and cold water in bowls nearby, eagerly set about forming the traditional Hickman treat. As my daughter Angel exclaimed, ‘It just isn’t Christmas without the opportunity for third-degree burns.’
As I stood in my kitchen, I thought of my own ‘Nan’s kitchen. I had been the children that were now dancing around my feet, reaching up for me with their little hands and pressing their faces lovingly into my shoulder when I pick them up. My parents had laughed around their parent’s table just as mine children were laughing around my table now.
My Christmas wish had come true; I had become my grandfathers.
I had peace, love and joy in my home because my grandfather had taught my father how to do the same. And my father, in turn, had taught his children how to have that same peace, love and joy in their homes as well. That is why our traditions of family — especially at Christmastime — are the most important and lasting of the gifts my grandfathers and my father have ever given me.
And, God willing, I hope I pass that gift on to my own children and grandchildren. I hope one day for my grandsons and grand daughters to stand in their own kitchens, hear the sound of their own grandchildren, and feel the joy that I felt in my family last Sunday.
Christmas is coming but I’ve already most gratefully received the greatest present anyone can possibly give me.