There's an old Victorian house on Seminole Street in Okmulgee (pronounced oak-maul-gee), Oklahoma, just around the corner from the high school. My great aunt Betty lives there. It's a three-story white house with a big wraparound porch, and it's gorgeous. When I was a kid, we spent every Christmas there. We'd arrive on Christmas Eve, and Santa would come and "Ho Ho Ho" his way through every member of the family, including 101-year-old Aunt Myrtle, who sat on his lap. The third floor was a playroom—its shelves were lined with board games our parents played in the '60s like Sorry! and Perfection—and every Christmas Eve, my cousins and I slept up there to await Santa.
We haven't grown apart as a family at all, but we have grown in space. There are more of us now, further apart, and we haven't had a great Okmulgee Christmas in many years. So last month, Betty sent out the announcement: She wanted us all to come over before Christmas Day for a family get-together.
The last time I was in her house was the day of my grandpa's funeral on New Year's Eve 2008. My grandma, who now lives about an hour away in Prague (pronounced like the first syllable of pregnant), asked my mom and I to come pick her up and drive her over.
Mom and Grandma sat in the backseat, me and Bri in the front. We put on a Sirius XM station of Christmas classics: Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and for some reason, Seth McFarlane sang us along back roads through central and eastern Oklahoma. It was cloudy, rainy, and cold, and we started reminiscing about our old Christmases. The time I fell down the stairs and broke my collar bone. Aunt Myrtle sitting on Santa's lap. How much my cousins' KISS poster, right there on the wall next to the stairs leading to the third floor, frightened me. The time my cousin Andrew followed Santa outside, saw him getting in his car, and was traumatized.
Some memories are IEDs, and that last one—it blew up in my face. I started thinking about Andrew, who died almost two years ago, and my aunt Peggy, who died a few months before that. I thought about my grandpa, and my cousin Darin, who died in 1994, and Sirius was playing "The Christmas Song"—"although it's been said many times many ways, Merry Christmas to you."
I didn't want to upset my grandma. She's eighty-eight and in poor health, and we were trying to give her a wonderful, happy day, so I stared out the window, took a lot of deep breaths, and let tears stream down my face as unobtrusively as I knew how. I held Bri's hand. I cried until I stopped.
And we had a wonderful time. My niece and nephew got to be in the house where their dad and I have such magical childhood memories. We ate Betty's Christmas cookies. I shot the breeze with my cousins. We pontificated about OU football and looked at old pictures. I went in the bathroom exactly once and cried just a little bit more.
I don't know that this post has anything to do with faith, or identity, or any of the other things this series started off to be about. All I know is, my family means the world to me, and I so miss the ones who aren't here with us any more. I don't know where they are—no one knows what happens when we go—but I believe they are . . . somewhere. Whole. Watching. Waiting. Missing us too.
I hope your holidays were and continue to be wonderful. Epiphany is this Friday, and we'll turn off the tree and the outside lights and buckle down on a new year. In the meantime, keep warm and hug the people you love.