Gum in Your Hair

A blog for parents under the big sky.

Editor’s Voice

:: WRITTEN BY LEIGH RIPLEY ::  My father died when I was 9. Just 10 days after my birthday. I remember hearing the news. I remember the funeral and all of the adults broken, crying. But I remember the rest of that summer only vaguely. I do recall the first day of school – because I was “different” now. The other kids knew, but didn’t know how to deal with me. It was almost like they were afraid of me; and I had to renegotiate my place in the world. The rest of the year was pretty much a blur – until Christmas break.

My mother whisked my sister and me off to our grandparents’ house in South Carolina. I don’t remember traveling. I don’t know what we did for a week. But I remember that Christmas more clearly than any other in my youth…which is saying a lot because Christmas was OUR holiday.

Our family celebrated big, and en masse. We always gathered with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. On Christmas Eve we went to church and came home to open one present, new pajamas, before my sister and I spent a long night playing sock puppets and giggling as if we actually enjoyed each other’s company. Christmas morning we would race downstairs to see what Santa had brought – even when we were too old for Santa to bring us gifts. That was followed by a big, sweet and savory breakfast, adults diving into mimosas and spiked eggnog, and extended friends and family trickling in over the next few hours.

With a joyous, noisy, houseful of people we enjoyed a large Christmas feast, something that rivaled any Thanksgiving dinner. After dinner, as the grown-ups cleared the plates, the kids would make their way to the living room to sort all of the presents into piles…no, mountains. And we would stay there for the next four or more hours, opening gifts, laughing deep from within our bellies, being thankful – and grateful – not only for the presents but also for the people present. Christmas was sacred to our family.

So you can see why my mother didn’t want to try and recreate what we knew that first year after my daddy died. We were different. Christmas was going to forever look different. So what better way to usher this new way of being than in a totally new way?

I remember the matching pajamas my sister and I got that year. I remember staying awake with my sister in my Uncle Russ’s room that Christmas Eve, worrying that Santa would never find us all the way in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I remember waking up to the sound of Katydids (crickets), and grass and leaves on the trees; not snow. I remember walking into my grandparents’ living room, not mine, and finding the big red jolly guy had come in the night. I remember the Brenda Breyer horses and stable he brought me. I remember my grandfather, Poppy, sitting on the couch with a coffee in his hand, smiling from ear to ear as he enjoyed having young children in the house on Christmas Day again. I remember different aunts, uncles and cousins coming to the house for my grandmother’s Christmas dinner. I remember the sound of her portable, rolling dishwasher in the kitchen that evening as everyone sat around the tree and laughed, loved and opened presents. And I remember being really, genuinely happy.

That Christmas, which could have very easily been the worst of my life, ended up being one of the most vivid and treasured holiday memories of all.

I’ve kept a lot of holiday traditions alive from my childhood. I also added some new ones and adjusted when family dynamics changed. Because that’s the only constant: change. You can guarantee that with every year, your family will look different. From babies to toddlers; Santa being the center of it all to your college student coming home with her friend from school; the passing of loved ones; changes in health, marital and financial status; to one day possibly even celebrating at the home of your son and his family. It will always look different, but the one thing I can keep the same (and something I hope to instill in my own children) are the overwhelming and constant feelings I have for this holiday and the people I share it with: LOVE. GENEROSITY. HOPE. THANKFULNESS. And a good heaping dose of MAGIC.