A few years back instead of sending a regular Christmas card to my family, I wrote a short story and created a sort of Christmas Card booklet. I’m thinking it was before the advent of Shutterfly and Blurb because I printed, folded, stapled and put a cover on it myself. It’s probably not a New York Times bestseller… but it snowed yesterday and now it truly looks like Winter. So I’m taking a chance and sharing it with you and I’m sending you courage to send me your memories, recipes and photos too.
A Kaseman Carol
Much later they realized someone was watching them.
It was eight, maybe nine, years ago during one of those very cold Decembers. The snow was so dry it was easily shoveled into banks high along sidewalks. It was weightless and weighty at the same time.
A new year was coming whether anyone wanted it, or not.
This family gathered in Aunt Alice’s basement was no different than most, related by blood or marriage. They did not initially come together for consolation, but usually gathered once a year for Christmas. The unexpected blanket of comfort felt this particular night from being with each other was a gift.
Life is life and there are no exceptions. Time had passed for this family as with every other person on earth. The weddings, births, baptisms and confirmations had stilled for a time between the generations. In the beginning the brothers and sisters married and there were celebrations. With the birth of each child, confirmations and graduations there were celebrations. Next came a time when children married and the cycle continued. Once the grandparents were gone, life seemed to settle like dust on each family as they went about their own business. Christmas had become the one occasion to stay in touch, catch up and compare notes on matters of health.
It was always dark by 5 p.m. when guests arrived bundled in long woolen coats with matching scarfs and mittens. The house was always warm and lit with candles. The walls of the large room in the basement were lined with antiques. It was narrow enough for everyone to feel a certain kind of closeness. An old high-back piano at the bottom of the stairs filled most of the wall opposite the door and away from the to-the-ceiling shelves lined with vintage crockery, china and yellowed linens.
That old piano met with everyone making his or her way carefully down the stairs balancing plates of food and Styrofoam cups of coffee in each hand. The final destination was one of two long tables with metal fold-up chairs. The edges of the seats were different colors from people sliding off and on over the years.
The few souls gathered there that evening began to eat dinner in ones and twos, the sounds of silverware and sipping hot drinks served as conversation for the lack of things to say, or perhaps the need to not say anything. After all family was family and whether one owns up to it or not there are intrinsic similarities shared by common bonds of blood.
After dinner, one of the aunts volunteered to play the piano. It was not a usual occurrence at any of the parties; at least not for a long, long time – maybe never. But no one objected as the evening took on a rather dreamy mood from that point on.
The only visible music was a worn black hymnal – placed strategically as part of the piano’s adornment, no doubt a discard from an old country church.
Within the gold-edged finely thin pages of the book were familiar Christmas songs. Hymns of church services past. Regular worship was important to the culture of these Germans from Russia.
Each ivory key pressed in turn by the skilled hands of Aunt Laverna sent shivers to the back of the age-worn instrument. In silent darkness, those vibrations carried through the air, past the Baby’s star in the east.
Those notes filtered by below-zero air sounded pure, like angels’ singing. It may have made a difference to this impromptu family choir to know someone was listening to their songs and to their hearts.
Decembers in North Dakota are not always cold, and it doesn’t always snow, but it is always dark. Days begin to lengthen only after the winter solstice. But, after that the real weather sets in. Januarys in North Dakota can be sometimes quite bitter. Eventually, it rubs off on people. We anxiously await spring.
Christmas, however, gives light to Decembers. To celebrate the coming of the Light of the World, houses are outlined with starry yellow and white twinkles. In the dark, the houses look like lighted connect-the-dots pictures in a child’s coloring book.
North Dakota is not known for its abundance of trees. Pine or spruce trees in people’s yards hang onto the green color of life, prairie trees are blown bare by harsh north winds early in the fall. But in the dark, in December, lights woven through naked limbs appear to be aimlessly suspended in the sky, held by some unforeseen force in random patterns, resembling the distant Milky Way against the night sky. It’s a beautiful sight – endless to the horizons.
Then, when it snows, the houses look like Christmas card paintings, peaceful under a fluffy down quilt. There’s never a guarantee that Christmas will be white on these rolling plains west of the 100th meridian. Not enough moisture. One can really only count on December days growing consistently shorter and many times colder.
In reality the fields seldom disappear completely beneath the snow. When snow does pile up, the Alberta Clipper does its best to push aside, pressing it hard into sharp scalloped edges along the fences and roads. There’s splendor in the wind as it sculpts snow along the fence lines; sunrises and sunsets painting purples and pinks.
If you can look past the cold, it’s stunning.
After the grandparents were gone, Aunt Alice assumed the role of social director. Her husband, Ed, was the youngest of the eight children – named after his father. Together they created wonderful suppers with traditional food and instigated a few new family traditions.
As usual, the invitation to gather came with their annual Christmas card. It always had a spiritual theme, but no family photographs until after the granddaughters were born.
Somehow, the appeal for an RSVP never worked. People showed up, or didn’t, without a reply. It seemed to not matter. This gracious attempt to keep the family together was truly appreciated, even if those thanks were unspoken.
Uncle Ed was a gardener like his dad. He practiced putting up cucumbers every fall in hopes of preserving his mother’s dill pickle recipe and, of course, his crop. Everyone enjoyed his attempts. Grandma’s pickles were the best and we missed her cooking.
Sometimes dinner was traditional for this tightly knit culture – flour-and-water based main dishes, sauerkraut and sausage-stuffed main dishes surrounded by vegetable sides and almost always Jell-O salad – all mainstays of ethnic celebration menus.
Uncle Ed baked Christmas cookies. Aunt Alice carried on a gift-giving tradition and made something for everyone. Lightly wrapped gifts of hand-painted Christmas ornaments or a clay-potted cutting from the wax plant that once belonged to Grandma K, as she fondly called her. For some reason, Uncle Ed had a green thumb that far surpassed any of the rest of the brothers. Perhaps it was just that he had a desire to make things grow. Grandma’s original wax plant grew around the entire entryway to the house, and bloomed once a year with little square-pink flowers. It may have been around Christmas time or maybe Easter.
One year, Uncle Ed, who was quite skilled with a wood saw, cut shapes that fit together like a puzzle to create a reindeer touting a red Christmas bulb nose, like Rudolph.
There had to be enough of those little tokens for everyone because on the good years, everyone was home for the holidays. The house was filled with newborn babies to the oldest of the great-aunts and uncles. The evening almost always included a conversation about who were the cousins and who were the cousins “once removed.” It got to be a complicated, unresolved topic that brought laughter and appreciation of family to even the youngest of the clan.
This particular year, now a distant memory, was an exception to the rule.
D-words are the ones we fear most. Death, divorce, despair, depression and denial are choruses that bring pain. The hurt comes from a place so deep that by the time it surfaces, it is silent. As if ignoring it will make it go away.
It’s hard to share silent grief.
In this family, it was just hard to share.
The gathering this year seemed smaller than usual, older than usual family painfully reduced in numbers by D-words. Sure, they talked and asked questions of those who couldn’t be home for the holidays, but mostly they ate and drank.
And then, perhaps for lack of any other ideas, someone suggested singing; or maybe Aunt Laverna felt like trying out that old piano. While that may not seem like such an outlandish idea in some families, it was something this assembly had never done before.
The music and the piano were turned over to Aunt Laverna. She played Sundays in church and later for a choir that sang in the native tongue. Because of the regularity of singing in church, no one needed words to the old familiar carols. They sang from memory to melodies learned largely within the walls of church.
They sang in German. They sang in English.
The voices were varied, and far from perfect. Somehow, for that brief time, the music carried the pain away. From that dark, warm basement, the sound drifted in wisps like smoke through the seams in the walls and out into the cold winter air.
Lifted by the wind, these liquid prayers traveled to the heavens to be heard by those who had gone before leaving this group of people behind.
All the grandparents, husbands, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, aunts and uncles, thought to be outside the reach of earthly bounds heard those Christmas songs that holy night.
And they smiled a blessing on that home and all who gathered there on earth, knowing that very soon all would be together again in Heaven.
If only this family, reduced in number by the years, had known they were being watched; perhaps their feeling of loss and sorrow would have been lifted sooner from their hearts – replaced with peace.
Several years have passed. Some of the pains have changed. Some old ones remain. Many have faded with age. There have been new additions to the circle of life through marriage and then birth – filling gaps in a most delightful way.
Enough time has passed to provide increased family reunions, baptisms and weddings as the grandchildren move into their roles as young adults, and we become our parents – grandparents, even great-grandparents.
The old piano may, or may not, be down the stairs and to the left in the large room of Ed and Alice’s basement. For all anyone knows, it may be have been sold, having served its singular purpose that cold winter night so long ago.
In Heaven, friends and family patiently wait on Christmas – ever listening for old familiar voices.