For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, offered a holiday story published in place of my former newspaper column. That tradition now continues on the web.
– Arthur H. Gunther III
By ARTHUR H. GUNTHER IV
The year had passed quickly, always too quickly. And here it was December. Here it was Christmastime, once again. Instead of simply putting up trees and hanging ornaments, instead of searching for gifts and holiday parties, there was this. There was the old house to clean out. Charlie hadn’t grown up there, but it was definitely home to him. It was inevitable that one day he would have to sort through the memories that lived in all the corners and hallways of the old place. It just seemed odd that it was happening now, at Christmastime. It wasn’t that his grandfather didn’t celebrate the holiday. He was always there, in the background of photos, sitting at the dinner table. He gave out presents like everybody else. It just wasn’t a holiday that was synonymous with the man. Birthdays, Father’s Day, Halloween, sure, but Christmas, no. And now this year his grandfather had no choice. He was the focus of the season.
It wasn’t as if Charlie’s grandfather was irreligious. He definitely exuded a sort of naturalistic morality. It just wasn’t formalized. His being didn’t seem to stem from any printed set of rules. The way he went about his daily life was less about the lessons of organized religion and more an appreciation of being alive and all that it implied. Christmas didn’t seem to hold any special place in his grandfather’s heart. So as Charlie went through boxes in the attic and cleaned out drawers, it was easy to forget that the holiday was just a few weeks away. Charlie supposed that he could wait. There was really no rush, but he couldn’t bring himself to put the job on hold. If there was one thing his grandfather was not, it was a procrastinator.
So Charlie would stop by the old house each day, his task there bookended by his job and getting ready for Christmas. He cleaned out the basement and then stopped by the firehouse to get his tree. He went through drawers in the bedroom and wrote out Christmas cards that same night. He weeded through the attic only to go straight to shopping that evening. The weeks passed and suddenly it was Christmas Eve. Charlie had just a few odds and ends to finish in the kitchen and the job would be complete. He unplugged the refrigerator, cleaned out the coupon drawer and took one last look around the house. Charlie was just about to head out the door when he noticed the small picture frame that hung to the right of the staircase. He hadn’t even noticed it. The frame had been in place for so long that it was more like wallpaper to Charlie’s eyes by now. It had a rather simple photograph of the outside of the house in it. Strangely enough the frame hung in the corner where his grandparents used to put their Christmas tree, back when Charlie’s grandmother was alive. Now that he thought about it, he was pretty sure his grandfather had not gone to the trouble of putting up a tree since. Charlie reached up to take down the 5×7 frame. He’d keep it. At least he’d have a picture of the old place to remind him of the memories. As Charlie took the frame down, he noticed the backing was bursting off the metal frame. Before he could figure out the reason, the cardboard popped off and out spilled a pile of photographs onto the floor. Bending down, Charlie saw that they were all the same pose, taken in the very corner of the house he now stood. Each photograph was of a Christmas tree. There were several with just his grandmother, looking like she was in her early twenties, right about the age when she married Charlie’s grandfather. Then there was one of his grandmother pregnant. What followed were pictures of his dad and later his uncle at various ages, all with his grandmother, all in front of that year’s Christmas tree. Eventually it was simply his grandmother and the tree again … in the last one she looked about the age she was when she passed away. There must have been 30 pictures, all told.
Charlie was stunned. Christmas must have meant a little more to his grandfather than Charlie gave him credit for. The man had kept all these photos right here, exactly in the place where he and his wife placed their Christmas tree every year. Charlie wondered if his grandfather took down the frame now and then and looked through the photos, looked over the memories. Maybe he did it every Christmas. Charlie guessed it really didn’t matter. For the first time that year, it felt like Christmas was here. Charlie packed the photographs back into the frame and turned off the lights, shutting the door behind him. It was Christmas Eve and now Charlie had one more present to take home.
The writer is a school teacher in the South Orangetown, N.Y. district. He lives in Upper Nyack, N.Y., and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org