The holidays remind us where we belong, who our tribe is. They also remind us who we will never stop missing. This Christmas, I miss my Gran.
It’s been six years since she died and the void hasn’t lessened. It stays gaping and hollow, no different from the day she left. Gran loved my family without conditions or constriction. There was never any question: She’d be there, when you needed her, however you needed her, no matter the reason why.
If you were sick at school, her white Mazda would arrive in minutes, waiting to take you home. If you were singing in a choir concert, her big Italian eyes smiled at you from the front of the audience. You could see the blush pink roses, waiting for you on her lap. And if you were feeling blue, she’d take you in, make you homemade Pastina soup and an orange cake for dessert. She’d let you sleep beside her.
Beside her, you’d also spend Christmas Eve. You’d rest your cup at the place setting next to her, claiming your spot. You’d admire her fuchsia scarf made into a headband, her hair in perfect silver curls. She’d laugh, call you by your first and middle names (for me, Lauren Marie), and tell you she’s glad you’re you. Around you, children, grandchildren, some years great-grandchildren, would devour her paprika-dusted deviled eggs, roasted turkey breast, pineapple ham, and zucchini boats stuffed with mushrooms, cheese, and breadcrumbs.
You’d open presents in one chaotic tornado of flying red tissue paper and gold bows. A hand mixer is her gift to you, to make her famous butter cookies with red and green icing. She’s shown you how. But you know yours will never be as perfect as hers. After Santa passes by on the twinkling fire engine, and you dash outside without your coat so you don’t miss him, Gran insists you admire her delicate placement of ornaments on the tree one last time. You do. You kiss her flushed cheek, gather your presents in a giant trash bag, and watch her soft silhouette standing alone behind the screen door, waving goodbye. You pull away.
Knowing you can’t go back is hard. When I hear Johnny Mathis’ smooth vibrato sailing through “The Christmas Song” in the grocery store, I know I’ll never hear it again on Gran’s clock radio in her kitchen. When I see my boyfriend’s kids circling our Christmas tree with white lights, I remember I’ll never again see Gran’s old-fashioned colored bulbs, radiating rainbows through her glass ornaments, fragile and filled with light.
The loss of Gran broke me open.
I hear her silence and see her absence, just as much as what I hear and see, here and now. Now that I know the hole won’t go away, how do I live with it?
What do we do about the people we used to have and love, whom we no longer can?
Maybe this kind of canyon that is forever cut wide in our lives, and is especially pronounced around the holidays, leaves room for something more.
We can fill it with things as ordinary and meaningful as Christmas cookies. Just the other night, I took out the hand mixer Gran gave to me. Twelve years later, it has a crack on the back and old cookie dough caked in the vents. I make the dough and the icing and when I’m done, I encourage my boyfriend’s eight-year-old to decorate his cookie any way he wants, just like Gran did with me. He piles on the icing and sprinkles, giggling at the sugary mess.
I write long messages in Christmas cards to my family. When my boyfriend’s kids come home from school, they ask me why I’m writing so much. I tell them that Gran did that for me, and I for her. And when she died, I found in her drawer a folder in which she saved everything, from when I was six to when I was twenty-eight. Now I have those messages again, hers and ours. I tell the kids their words are meaningful. That they have staying power.
When I peer over the edge and into my void now, its sheer openness is nudging me to keep giving it things, like cookies and cards. As if it’s a treasure chest. I do and I feel a little better.
Gran’s absence does not abate. But it can be adorned with tributes and new love and wholehearted attempts to give it what it needs.
In a way, I haven’t lost anything. In fact, it’s one ever-expanding gain, one that becomes longer and stronger with love. As we get older, these addendums, these additions, these beginnings, these new memories combined with the old are ever-accumulating, like winter snow that fell softly on Gran’s home as we drove away. Which reminds me, still. Yet still.
I wish I could take everyone I love, hold them with a hug, and travel back in time to visit the people I miss most. I know I’m not alone in my wishing.
We’d pass through the portal that leads to my Gran’s house Christmas Eve. She’d be so glad we could make it.
She’d see my boyfriend, Alan–who lured me away from my family in Philadelphia to live with him in Los Angeles–with a skeptical eye. But only at first. After they talked and she saw him with me, she’d see what is true–he makes me happy. She’d love his three children as her own, proudly adding their photos to her wall of grandchildren. They would see and feel what I saw and feel: Once someone loves you, at any moment in time, with everything they have, there is no better reason to love a void. The void means you loved well.
Lauren DePino is a memoirist working on her second book. Her agent, Dr. Uwe Stender, of TriadUs Literary, is shopping her first book to publishers. It is about heartbreak.