Christmas is most often equated with warm memories of family gatherings, gifts given and received and the excitement of children.
That holiday has always brought about those same kind of warm fuzzies for me.
One Christmas, though, is as much a story about loss as it is anything else for me.
In 1988 – now 25 years ago – I saw my grandfather for the last time.
Maynard Farmer – we called him Papa – lived the hardscrabble life of a farmer in Southside Virginia, not too far outside South Boston.
That Christmas was much like every other as best I can remember. Grandmama and Papa, their four children and their spouses and 13 grandchildren gathered at my grandparents’ home on Christmas Day. We served our lunch on paper plates in the dining room – a space dominated not by a table, but by a great big, hot wood stove – and walked into the den, which doubled as my grandparents’ bedroom.
If there wasn’t enough room in there, we walked into the next room, a formal living room that never got used except during Christmas.
As soon as the last person had finished eating, everyone crowded in to the living room where the tree and the presents awaited. My cousin Steve always seemed to be in charge of passing out the gifts, and we all got excited when we heard our name called.
Within a couple hours of the gift-giving, people started to leave – first the Wilkesboro family because they always had the farthest drive home. Then my family. My other cousins lived close by, and they probably lingered for quite a while. As it turns out, I wish I had lingered that Christmas Day in 1988.
Two days later the phone rang in our kitchen in Wendell. Mama answered it and within just a second let out a wail. It scared me to death. Papa had suffered a heart attack while he was bringing wood in from outside and died right there on the farm he had worked so hard to build.
Mama and Daddy left for Virginia that night. My brother, sisters and I followed the next morning.
When we arrived, a huge crowd of people was packed into that formal living room again. I listened to my grandmother as she talked quietly to one of her sisters. I tried to stick close to Mama and Daddy. Mama especially. At the funeral, the church was packed more fully than I’d ever seen it on any Sunday morning. People I didn’t know talked about Papa and the things he loved: baseball, his farm, his church, his family. I was 22, but honestly, I was a little dazed by it all.
I’ve thought a lot in the intervening 25 years about the lessons I picked up from Papa. He worked hard. He played hard. And though his body had grown old, his spirit never did. I sometimes think his heart knew it was time to stop. He had just finished visiting with all the people he loved the most. They were happy. He was happy.
What better Christmas gift could you ask for?