My dad looks just like Santa Claus. Besides his stubborn tendency to wear shorts and t-shirts even in the dead of winter, the resemblance is striking, actually. He has the same scraggly beard (except when my mom trims it), the same big belly (although abstaining from sweets has greatly reduced its size), the same jolly smile and the same twinkle in his eyes. And in true Santa fashion, he’s also extremely generous.
Year after year, he and my mom would work their magic and make our dreams come true. They’d pack us in the car and we’d head to my grandmother’s house in the mountains. And we’d hang our stockings from the chimney and examine the tree knowing that, by morning, it would be transformed. And we’d impatiently go to bed, willing the hours to go by ever faster so that Christmas could finally get started. And eventually dawn would break and we’d run from our beds to see what Santa had brought and we’d find the stockings so laden with gifts that they had become too heavy to hang and the tree so bulging with presents that they flowed like a mountain underneath.
And finally our chocolate calendars counting down the days until Christmas could be consumed once and for all because Christmas had finally arrived.
Over the years, the excitement and anticipation over the arrival of Christmas has become less defined by gifts but still is a prevalent feeling that makes December feel like a special time of the year. But something was missing this year. I couldn’t tell if it was because the commercials advertising the hottest new gadgets, the thinnest, lightest laptops, the latest cell phones that stir up a buying frenzy in the US were lacking in Spain. I didn’t know if it had to do with the fact that this was the first year in a long time that I didn’t have a full time job and therefore didn’t have staff parties and paid holidays to look forward to. Or maybe it was because I was home alone without internet or telephone and therefore forced to spend most of my days at the library – where holiday cheer was practically non-existent – as a result. Whatever it was, something just felt different.
And then on December 17th, I received a phone call. It was my mom. My grandmother – her mom – had passed away. We had just celebrated her 100th birthday in Toronto in June. The news came as a complete surprise. She had been in great physical condition then but a recent fall from a chair had broken her hip and required surgery. Her body couldn’t take it and, after a long, healthy life, she had passed away exactly six months after becoming a centenarian.
The funeral was being planned for the 23rd. Was there any way that I could make it? The time to arrange everything seemed too short and the distance too great, but then my sister provided the missing link. In such a situation, the airline that she works for would fly her family to the funeral. In less than 24 hours I made a plan. I was planning on going to Barcelona anyway to see Julie, my friend from college, so I would just fly out from Barcelona to Toronto. And because I would end up traveling on Christmas if I returned to Spain immediately after the funeral, I decided to continue on to California with my family to spend Christmas in the mountains with my dad’s mom. And if I left for Spain California on the 26th, that would give me just enough time to get back in time for my appointment at the immigration office on the 28th to turn in my papers for my residency in Spain. And suddenly, it didn’t matter that I had overstayed my visa and might not be let back in to the country. I would deal with the consequences if I had to. Attending my grandmother’s funeral and spending Christmas with my family and my other grandmother was my priority and I needed to get home.
After a 3 hour delay on the flight from Barcelona due to a series of mechanical problems, missing my connecting flight from NYC to Toronto, running to catch a cab between JFK and LaGuardia to standby on a later flight out of LaGaurdia, and having a run-in with the cabbie who gave me a warm New York City welcome by cursing at me because I wanted change from the $40 that I had handed over for the $32 cab fare, I got on the last flight of the day and was reunited with my family at midnight on the 22nd.
On the 23rd, I joined my aunts, uncle and cousins and we said goodbye to my grandmother and celebrated her long life. My cousin had made beautiful frames that illustrated a life well lived. There were photos of her as a gorgeous bride and a loving grandmother. Time had only changed her softly. Even at 100, she still had the same gentle smile and kind eyes.
That evening, my parents, sister and I headed to California. On the 24th, we drove up to Big Bear to be with my dad’s mom. And, as we all piled in her room, my dad read a passage that his dad used to read and that he now he reads from the Bible every year. And on Christmas day, I woke up early, filled with excitement, and jumped out of bed. But it wasn’t because I wanted to examine the presents that Santa had brought. I was just thrilled to be with my family.
I was the first one up but not the first one awake. I went to my grandmother’s room where she was waiting for her live-in caretaker to get her out of bed. She’s at the mercy of others to help her with everything. And, because of this, she suffers greatly, for, while her body has failed her, her mind has not. But, though she feels incredibly weak, she keeps the rest of us incredibly strong. She’s the perfect model of how one should live life. She’s has touched so many lives and is practically famous in her Big Bear community. Her generosity overflows and she’s faithful until the end. And she has an uncanny ability to remember birthdays, anniversaries and celebrations and keep track of the entire family’s happenings – a daunting task even for me. She’s at the heart of it all and, because of that, she keeps her ever-growing family of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren whole.
So, this Christmas, my mom’s mom reminded me of how important family is and gave me a reason to defy Spanish immigration and head home, my sister made sure that we all got to where we needed to be and enabled it all to happen, and my dad’s mom – with her beautiful spirit and her mountain home that contains so many childhood memories – made Christmas Christmas and finally brought back the feeling of anticipation that I had been missing.
And even though we’re all scattered once again – David and I are back in Spain, my brother’s in Massachusetts, my sister’s traveling in Cambodia and my parents are in California – we were all able to come together for a brief moment to celebrate life and family.
And that’s the best present that I could have ever received.