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David McGrath: How my grandmother revealed true meaning of Christmas

Wednesday December 30, 2009

news-press.com - I was 19, had my first serious girlfriend, the keys to my father's car in my pocket, and Christmas cash in my wallet.

I felt like Superman.

My plan on Christmas Eve was an early exit from my mother's annual Christmas Eve celebration.

I planned to show my face but then melt outside during the buffet, and then pick up Marianne.

I had bought her a gold chain, and I wanted to take her downtown where we could look out over the water under the stars, and I would put the chain around her lovely neck.

But while I was standing in line alongside the aluminum folding table filled with plates of turkey and boiled sweet potatoes, my mother came up with that something-is-wrong look in her eyes.

“David, would you do something for me?”

“Sure. I suppose.”

“Pick up Grandma. She changed her mind — wants to come regardless of the cold weather.”

There went my plans. Now there would be no time to go downtown, not to mention that Grandma was a lumbering, slow, asthmatic Polish lady, and there better be some other volunteer to take her home.

If I had been a girl, I would have screamed.

Grandma answered the door wearing her coat and a babushka, and she gave me her customary kiss when I walked in, which would have been fine, except that her Parkinson's made her head shake so that she kind of kissed you all over your face.

On the ride back to our house, she asked me about school, and were there good jobs out there for someone with my major, and whether or not Marianne was part something else and not all Irish.

I was used to Grandma and her questions, but I wasn’t feeling all that companionable under the circumstances. I think she got the message and grew quiet the rest of the way.

When I opened the car door for her, she rose with effort and took my arm.

She was wearing this full length black woolen coat, all buttoned up, that smelled musty in the clear cold, and the pair of black Red Cross brand, three-quarter heel shoes that laced up, which she always wore.

She must have felt shaky on the curb, I judged, by the surprisingly hard grip she had on my elbow.

We had only taken a few steps toward the house, and Grandma was already wheezing pretty badly.

“Wait, David. Rest.”

I stopped. She kept hold of my elbow and leaned against me. I wondered if she might have a heart attack.

“Gram, why don’t we just sit back down in the car, and I’ll go get Mother.”

“No. It would be too hard to get back up, ain’t it?” she said.

And she laughed. At least it sounded like a laugh between gasps.

I told her I’d be willing to take her back home if she wanted to change her mind, if she was not well enough for the party.

But before I finished talking, she was shaking her head. She moved her shoulders, just enough to look up at me, her chest heaving.

“The eyes,” she said, smiling in spite of the elements. “I need to see their eyes.”

She meant my little sister and my young cousins.

Their eyes shining with innocence and wonder, with the joy and novelty of Christmas.

The happiness and hope contained in their young lives, not yet battered and withered by the winds of time.

A sick old woman braving the elements to see the children’s eyes on Christmas Eve.

All she had endured for 80 years, all that she had seen and known, and this is what she wanted. This is what it is all about.

We resumed walking up to the house, and I decided I’d stay awhile, really see what she was talking about. And maybe I would ask Grandma some questions, for a change, about herself, and what it was like years ago.

And I was glad that there was still time.