Monday, December 26, 2005

The rhino in the manger scene


This is a legendary picture in my family, the picture of four generations of MacNairs. The man on the left is my grandfather, A. Stanley MacNair Jr., in the center is my father Richard MacNair, and on the right is my great-grandfather Arthur Stanley MacNair Sr. The little boy at the bottom is me. The picture was taken in 1971 on the occasion of a joint birthday party for myself and Great-Grandpa Mac- I was 5 and he was 90.

We have a lot of traditions in our family related to Christmas. My grandmother published an annual Christmas newsletter for 50 years. It was a way for her to catch everyone up on what people in the family were doing; it was also a way for her to give us a not-so-subtle nudge when we hadn't written for awhile. If you found your name in the sentence "I haven't heard from _____ lately," you knew that you had better fire off a letter toute suite.

Every year we looked forward to what became affectionately referred to as the "California box." My grandparents and my aunts Evelyn and Barbra lived in the same area of California, so they would send all of their gifts together. It wasn't really Christmas until that box arrived. Sitting on top would be "the envelopes." No explanation was needed. My grandmother had written some checks.

At different times in my life the gifts and form of celebration took on different forms. Somebody was getting an assortment of cheese and sausage from Swiss Colony or Wisconsin Cheeseman. For several years my grandfather and father delighted in getting each other the most difficult jigsaw puzzles they could find. My grandfather could be counted on to add a rhino to the manger scene. When Christmas Eve arrived we would each get to open one present. As a kid I spent the previous week planning my strategy. What would I open? Would I go for the biggest gift, or the one I was pretty sure I could identify?

Christmas morning came early for us kids. We would wake up to find our stockings on our doorknob, and we spent the hours until our parents woke up unwrapping crossword puzzle magazines, pencils and candy. Breakfast came and was always the same- shoo fly pie. Oh man, if you haven't had shoo fly pie you are totally missing out, man! Once that was out of the way the present opening extravaganza began. This wasn't some paper-flying free-for-all, oh no sirree. One present at a time, order determined by age. This wasn't a big problem when it was just the six of us, but on the rare occasions when the extended family was able to gather together, to my young mind it was torture. And my grandmother always insisted that we peel the tape slowly in order to save the paper. Present opening would easily last four or five hours.

December 26th may have been Boxing Day in Canada, but in the MacNair household it meant only one thing- thank-you notes. My father kept lists of who got what from whom, so you had no excuse for not writing a thank-you note. I did it but I hated it. When I got older I procrastinated more and more, until some years came and went without my writing a single one. Later on I realized that the act of saying "thank you" wasn't the sole reason my grandmother wanted to see those letters arrived. She wanted to hear from us. For most of my live I have lived on the opposite side of the country from my California relatives, so they didn't get to see us very often. For my grandmother in particular, family was the most important thing in her life.


Christmas time reminds me that death really sucks. My Great-Grandpa Mac died in 1979. I always felt proud that I had the chance to know him, even though I didn't know him well. In 1996 my Grandpa Mac died, and that really hurt. Even though my grandmother and two aunts were still there in California, some things would just never be the same. But my grandmother carried on. She still wrote the newsletter; she still sent the envelopes and the cheese and sausage; she still looked forward to the thank-you notes.

My Aunt Evelyn died in 2001 of two heart attacks. Another empty space in my heart. This one hurt even more than my grandfather's death just because Evelyn was not only my aunt but one of my best friends. She gave me permission to dispense with the "aunt" title when our relationship changed from "aunt-nephew" to one with more equality. My grandfather was old, he had been ill for a couple of months, we knew at a certain point that his death was imminent. Evelyn was 49. I came home from work to receive the news that she had had two heart attacks, and within the hour got the call that she had died. Crap crap crap crap crap.

All of a sudden my grandmother, a dynamo, independent before it was cool, a bundle of energy, working as a part-time secretary on into her 80's- she got old. When I got off the plane to attend Evelyn's memorial service and Grandma Mac picked me up I thought to myself that she had aged quite a bit. The only time I saw her cry was at a family gathering when she said that parents aren't supposed to bury their kids... and she trailed off.

It was the last time I saw her alive. In 2004 she had a stroke. Being the feisty woman that she was, she battled through therapy and a lengthy hospital stay, and progressed to the point where she got to move back home. Not long after she suffered a second stroke, and all the fight drained out of her. She decided that it was her time, and after a period of a couple of weeks in which she refused to eat, she died. I spoke at her memorial service and said that things would just never be the same now.

And they haven't been. We can attempt to carry on the old traditions, but some just need to be carried away on the winds of time. No more Christmas newsletters, no more big boxes delivered by UPS. It's time to carry on with our own traditions. My parents are Grandma and Grandpa Mac now; in fact, they are great-grandparents now. I don't take inventories, I don't even care about what I get; I care more about my kids getting the lion's share of the spoil now.

But some day, when my wife and I can live in a house and have room to put up Christmas decorations, somebody is going to look at the scene of Christ's birth, and out from the straw they will see two grey rhino horns, and wonder who in their right mind would think of such a thing...

...And Grandma and Grandpa Mac will be smiling.

1 Comments:

Blogger Sonal Chouhan said...

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manger scene

5:40 AM  

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