It is no secret to anyone who knows me that Christmas is a hard time to be me. I can’t hear It Won’t Be Christmas Without You or It Won’t Be the Same This Year without tears springing to my eyes. It wasn’t always that way. I grew up in a close extended family that spent not only Christmas, but most holidays together, gathered at my paternal grandmother’s house in Harmony, North Carolina. My dad was one of ten kids and I am one of twenty first cousins … just on the Cartner side, so those gatherings were often upwards of fifty people.
My Grandma Cartner’s house was filled with love and the wonderful aromas of dinner in the oven. She had a big table for eight in the middle of her country kitchen and there would be so many luscious dishes prepared by my grandma, my aunts and uncles, and my mother that I wondered sometimes if it would collapse. I looked forward to Aunt Ann’s Green Rice and her lemonade, Grandma’s melt-in-your-mouth chicken pie, and my mama’s Goodie Bars so much that the pre-lunch prayer seemed like it went on forever. We would squeeze ten or twelve around that table meant for eight, then the overflow would eat on the closed in back porch or from plates held on their laps on the sofas and chairs surrounding the Christmas tree in the living room . When I was about twelve, several uncles got together and closed in my Grandma’s carport. We would back her car out and fill the space with six or seven eight-foot tables and a couple of space heaters so we could all gather together in the same space.
I didn’t know anyone else in my life growing up who had such a large and close family and I was (and am) proud of being a Cartner. Kids today don’t know who The Walton Family was when I mention them. What a shame, I always think. Those of you who are old enough to remember them will know what I mean when I say that, to me, we were The Waltons. We loved being together, fellowshipping, catching up on each others’ lives. As all of the cousins got married and started having families, we were still almost always there on the actual day. In-laws just had to understand and work around Christmas at Grandma’s.
For the first thirty-four years of my life, I only missed being at Grandma’s on one Christmas Day when I was sick. And then we lost her on July 5, 1999 to breast cancer. For some reason I had never realized that she was the glue that held our family together. Nearly every one of us would have stepped in front of a train for her. I didn’t know that, once she was gone, we would lose the tradition of gathering together as one big, happy family. I believe we gathered the first Christmas she was gone at Aunt Willa’s house, then the next at Aunt Nancy’s. Then no one made the effort to plan a get-together on year three.
Grandma had only been gone two Christmases when I lost my mother on August 12, 2001 when I was thirty-six and she was not quite 62.
I think it was because she grew up with very little and in a dysfunctional family that my mother, Joan, loved Christmas. I can picture her now, up at dawn, preparing food to take to Grandma’s. I can see her as she decorated the tree just so and hear her singing Pretty Paper as she perfectly wrapped gifts. Oh, how I miss Christmas shopping with her every year! Mama often started shopping in the summer for Christmas. She took her time and picked out gifts that were thoughtful and just right for the recipient. Mama’s gifts were never generic. She taught me about the joy of giving and that is still in my heart to this day. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a smile when someone opens a present from me and lights up. I see YOU, I know YOU, I love YOU … that’s the message I hope my gifts transmit. I feel like I honor her by carrying on that tradition.
I’ll never forget the Christmases gathered with the Cartner clan at Grandma’s and I’ll never forget the Christmases at home when mama spoiled all of us with way too much under the tree. I’m so grateful for those memories but they are also difficult to live up to. Every Christmas after 2000 has been just plain hard. I’ve longed for things to be as they were growing up and they just aren’t. My favorite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote “The presence of that absence is everywhere”. That is the most succinct explanation of how I feel that I have ever heard. The day after Thanksgiving I drag out the dusty boxes containing my Santa collection (in honor of my mother, the world’s best Santa) and display them. I struggle with my nine foot artificial tree because she would want me to put it up if she were here. I listen to as much Christmas music as Darryl will live with because that’s what filled our house from November until New Year’s at home, growing up. I make my Mom’s and Grandma’s recipes and I mail out cards to aunts, uncles, and cousins like they did. I honor the two women who shaped me in every way I can imagine. And it brings me little peace. I still miss them both like they went yesterday. I miss them most this time of year. Reynolds Price wrote, “I felt the shape of your body being cut out of me like a live paper doll –– a shape that was leaving me less than I need to live on.” I get that. I’ve often said that, when she went, my mom left a mom-shaped hole in my heart. The same is true of Grandma Cartner.
This year in particular has been a challenge on so many fronts. It has been hard not to give up at times. I’ve had more conversations with God in 2020 than in all but two of the previous years of my life. I debated even acknowledging Christmas this year. This morning, right after I prayed for some relief from my annual Christmas sadness and grief, as I was thinking about all that I have lost, it struck me that I hadn’t thought about God’s loss, his sacrifice, his Son. I hadn’t, in so long, thought to focus on that, to feel grateful and to thank Him for His sacrifice. Wrapped up in my own feelings of loss, I had all but forgotten the reason for the season we find ourselves in. Instead of focusing on the material things and the people I have lost, I’m determined to try to focus on what I, as a Christian, gained on that first Christmas. Instead of empty chairs, I’m trying to picture a babe in a manger, the ultimate gift to the world.