It wasn’t until this year, and I was facing the holiday season without three of my grandparents, all of whom I’ve lost within the last two years, did I realize how special my family was.
A five year old boy sees a six year old girl across the street. Twenty years later, there was a wedding. Five years after that, there was me.
I never realized how exceptional it was that my parents had grown up across the street from each other. It never registered that it was equally exceptional I was able to roam the houses where they had grown up as a child. It was not extraordinary to think that my grandparents had not just been neighbors, they were all friends– my grandmothers had been high school girlfriends, sharing classes and swapping stories.
It was my normal. It was not exceptional.
Growing up, I, like every other child, imagined that my world, in which I got to spend every holiday with both sides of my family, skipping across the street from house to house as I pleased, was how everyone else spent their Christmases and Thanksgivings. In fact, Christmas and Thanksgiving were hardly particularly special occasions– since everyone lived so close, I spent almost every weekend growing up in the company of my entire family. Every Sunday felt like a holiday– just sans Christmas tree and turkey.
My two worlds, though inseparable geographically, could not have been more different. My father’s mother, Thelia, was a self-sufficient, feisty, colorful divorcee, who would answer my knock at her trailer door with her raspy, smoker’s voice. On any given holiday, she would let me and my father in, and he would join his younger brother at the kitchen table, then we would all wait for my grandmother’s sister to wander over from her next-door house before we said prayer and ate.
Some days, I would hear my grandfather’s pickup truck rumble into the stone filled driveway; other times, my father and I would take him a plate, often finding him perched on the stone steps outside his front door, where he would greet us with a slow, gravely “Heeey, what’s happenin’?” sometimes, we never saw him at all. But without fail, for most of my life, at the very least, my grandmother, my auntie, my uncle, my father and I would sit down to Christmas dinner together, trying not to spill food on my grandma’s special white table cloth.
When I was through, and bored of the quiet, I would wander across the street. I could always hear the racket from my mother’s family as soon as I set foot outside, following the crescendo of laughter all the way to my grandparents’ doorstep. My mother was the oldest of six children, all of whom had children, and so my maternal grandparents’ trailer consistently held twenty people too many. My grandparents, the solid, stoic twin pillars of their big family, were industrious and hard working folk, and always opened their hearts and homes to not only to their children and couple dozen grandkids, but to anyone passing through. Entire families would come through for a plate or two and the matriarchs would squeeze past my mom and aunts, and crowd into the kitchen to “Holler at Dot” (my grandmother), and the men, after greeting the women, would wander outside to “Holler at Fred” (my grandfather), who was likely hiding from the merriment outside in his shed.
Over the years, holidays became sporadically festive occasions. There were years in which we spent Christmases in hospitals and Thanksgivings in nursing homes, before my mother’s father was the first to pass away in 2014. Despite the loss, my mother’s family rallied around my grandmother, who maintained her sunny disposition, and we filled her house to capacity each and every holiday, with more and more people, as my cousins grew older, got married, and had children. My grandfather might have died, but the warmth and laughter did not die with him.
A year later, the lights went out for the last time across the street at my grandmother’s trailer, and I could no longer slip away from my mom’s family, into the quiet, calm of my grandmother’s trailer. I could no longer hide in my uncle’s old bedroom, playing on the computer, until my dad was ready to collect my mom and head home. There would be no more creeping out from the back to see what my grandmother was doing when the house fell silent.
With my uncle moving to Cuba and then Key West in 2010, Christmases had already begun to shrink, and they felt less like the holidays, and more like a day of remembrance for our missing link. My father’s family might have been smaller, but we were equally tight knit. There has not been a single important event in my life that my grandmother missed. No birthday passed without a card in the mail. It might’ve been because I was her only grandchild, but she would’ve done the same if she’d had thirty.
It was these small gestures that hurt on my birthday when I received no mail, but stung even more on the holidays, when I wasn’t able to slip up the street and lay on the floor awhile, away from the real life version of Soul Food happening across the way.
Half of my world was gone.
And barely a year after that, the entirety of my dad’s was, too.
His father’s truck finally stopped rolling through his rural town, and we laid him to rest in June. Only in November, on Thanksgiving, did I truly understand that the world of my youth was shrinking, when I had no chain smoker voice to welcome me, no expectation of hearing the truck wheels on rock. I only had the warmth of my remaining grandmother’s house, and despite all of the people, I still felt alone.
Those two houses are empty or gone now, where my parents used to live– the houses where I’d also gotten to build a whole world and life that my future children may not get to know.
But on the holidays, I’ll always remember the town that made me and the trailers across the street.
Photo courtesy of Ian Schneider.