By Harry Welty
Ghosts of Christmas Past
Every December 25th my brother, sister or I would retrieve the poster board
containing the lyrics of the Twelve Days of Christmas from high atop my
Grandfather Marsh's secretary. We would wipe a year's worth of dust off and take
our places with other family members in a circle around the living room. Before
we could open presents my Father always insisted that we sing the damned song.
Every person present, no matter how tone deaf, would have to solo on at least
one of the verses from days six to twelve. Mercifully, the first five verses
from the partridge to the five gold rings were sung by everyone.
That tradition petered out a few years after my Dad's death but its memory lives
on just like the memory of "Old Fezziwig" lived on in Ebenezer
Scrooge. This summer I relived those memories when I brought the secretary to
our home after my Mother relocated to an Alzheimer's care residence. Last week I
visited her and found myself singing the Twelve Days in the lobby of her new
home. Other residents suffering from the same twilight of remembrance joined in.
Music it seems lodges even more deeply in our minds than the recollection of
With much of our family dispersed and or committed to work this Christmas my
wife and I were tempted to skip town. Inertia and a summons to jury
duty intervened so we will remain at home instead. I don't really mind. We've
put up the tree and other yuletide decorations and have been playing our holiday
CDs. The music has put me in the mood to ward off oblivion.
I've been revisiting my family's ghosts for the past two weeks. That's when my
sister called to tell me that she had just found a cardboard box that my Mother
had secreted away in the basement. It was full of old photographs and family
memorabilia. As the oldest child in the family I've always been something of the
family's historian. I've recorded some of my folk's stories to paper and acted
as a repository for mementos.
My sister had sifted through the box and found one item which particularly
charmed her. It was a laboriously handwritten note from the six or seven year
old hand of my Father to his Mother. In it he assured Grandmother that she would
never have to spank him again because he loved her "more than a pupy."
His Mother saw fit to save the note and so did my Mother. Should my children
ever want to learn about their Grandfather I too will preserve the note for them
to chuckle over.
I've bought a few hundred plastic "reference sheet protectors" from an
office supply store for the contents of the box. Each sheet will slip into a
three ring binder. At ten bucks per hundred I can protect the yellowing
newspaper clippings, letters, diplomas and certificates for ten cents each.
That's a small price to pay for such treasures as my Father's promise to love
his mother more than a puppy.
Children are often too preoccupied with the present to show much interest in
their family's history until one or both parents pass from the scene. I don't
want to give my children the chance to lose that history. I intend to take this
Christmas holiday to tidy up and organize the contents of that box. I'll also
put some order into my own collection of documents. A few years ago I took a
pile of stuff lying on the attic floor and put it into plastic bins. Over
Christmas I will put the evidence of the lives of our family ghosts into
chronological order and include a few notes for context.
I also intend (and intentions are the paving stones to hell) to put some
captions by the old photos in our family photo albums while I can still remember
what was going on in them. Without family historians the people in the
photographs are no more than crystals of silver chloride.
It's ironic that photographs which have made documenting the past so easy have
also made it easy for us to take the past for granted. Who among us hasn't
wondered who the people in our family photo albums were? Once, long ago, these
ghostly presences were important enough for someone to commemorate with a
camera. One picture may be worth a thousand words but most pictures become
complete mysteries without a caption.
Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com