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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ghosts of Christmas Past

I went looking through old photos the other night, in search of specific ones to give to my friend Jerry. He’s writing his “coming-of-age” story for the kids and grands, and the people who figure prominently in that story are, in addition to his wife, his two best friends from that time: my first love, Eddie, who I didn’t marry, and my second love, Philip, who I did.

Jerry wants to include their photos in his manuscript, hence my search.  I found only a handful—I’m given more to written than photographic records, but each reminded me of what a tumultuous time that was in my life, in all of our young lives.

And it could’ve been even more so. For instance, I might’ve married Eddie after Philip and I divorced in 1971, but he’d been killed in Vietnam in 1969, when he was just 24.

But, that’s a whole other story.

Among the other photos I scavenged were many from family Christmases past, including those from the early ‘60s when my mother was still alive. She was pretty mellow by then, in spite of having had a mastectomy just a couple years earlier.

Or maybe she was mellow because of it. The real possibility of dying, as Samuel Johnson noted in another context, concentrates the mind. And maybe, too, the heart.

In these photos, my mother is the most smiley faced of the bunch, which included myself; my older brother and his new wife; my father; and my father’s uncle who came to live with us after my paternal grandmother died. That uncle rarely smiled.

There’s another picture, from around the same time, of my brother, his wife, myself, and three of our friends sitting in a circle on the floor, right in front of the fake Christmas tree, playing some fun card game, maybe Hearts. Everyone is concentrating mightily, a faint smile on my sister-in-law’s face as she tries to anticipate my brother’s next move.

That sister-in-law, number one of two, died just this year at 72, from cancer. The second sister-in-law died nearly 25 years ago, at 43, also from cancer.

My favorite family Christmas picture is of me and my mother sitting next to each other on our living room couch. We’re both doing the smiley face and each caresses one of our two pets: my mother holds an unhappy looking black-and-white cat in her lap (whose name escapes me), and I have my arms around our rescue dog, Tawny, who sits at my feet.

That picture is dated 1962. I’m still pretty much of a chunk at that time, having topped out at nearly 180 lbs just a year earlier. Two years later, in 1964, my mother would die and I’d lose 50 of those pounds not long thereafter.

Which is why I probably look pretty damn good in the picture taken with Eddie in 1965, the year he came to my house for Christmas, just months after we'd started dating. We’re both smiling up at the camera while seated on the very same couch my mother and I shared three years earlier.

Ghosts, they are haunting me this holiday season, as is their wont: my mother and father; two sisters-in-law; a first love; an ex-husband; many dogs and cats. These ghosts invite me back to share again in their lives—and to help me understand how they live still in mine.

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