Papa Danced With Us This Christmas


Dearest Friends, Christmas has once again swept by us, so many dry leaves kicked up in a passing car's wake. I'm not quite finished with it yet, however. I refuse to give up the ghost. As many of you saw on Instagram, I'm curled up in the theater with my soft little editors, listening to the ultimate Christmas album: Little Women, composed by one of my very favorites, Thomas Newman. That gentleman can paint emotions on 88 keys in a way that can't be taught, only felt...known... colors to an ear, timbres and tears.

I spent my very first Christmas with his family. Of course Blue Eyes and I have been together for more than one Christmas, but this is my engagement ring's first holiday season, and for reasons written in a moment, we felt it inarguably right to see both families on Christmas Eve, even if it meant that we two spent most of our day in a car, traversing the several hundred miles between us and them, his and mine, theirs and ours.


I was braced for discomfort. He was married before. They were together for 16 years. That kind of end isn't oft welcomed by a family that's lost a member. I've spent a lot of time with all of them save for his mom, as expectations and moms go, I just didn't know...

His mom welcomed me into her home. She showed me a lot of old photos of art she used to sell and gingerbread houses she was famous for around their small midwestern suburb.


She told me stories and we laughed, the eggnog was poured and poured again, and as the little ones I'm about to inherit as my own nieces and nephews filed in from the waterfront yard, grass-stained and candy-cheeked, we all gathered in the living room, encircling 100 or more wrapped presents, exploding from the green fir center in a whirl of golds and greens and reds, soft and vibrant all at once.

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We went deliberately around the room in a semi-organized circle, each opening one of our presents being distributed about the crowd one by one in small hands.  I got a really nice Crock Pot and some Christmas jammies, a bracelet for the honeymoon, and assorted other sweet touches of wrapped affection.

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I felt that warm, traditional family element that is so different from my family's singing, dancing, coquito-drinking and Spanish-music-playing take on Christmas, or Noche Buena as we call it. "Mucho Fiesta!" if you ask my uncle.


When we arrived at my uncle's large, white bricked house for a late dinner, the crowd was there, the C9 bulbs were strung about all of the oak branches, and the air was cold and Christmassy at 47 degrees. The large tree stood twinkling in its position next to the fireplace ablaze, the music poured out the open windows, the scent of Mangie's cooking close behind, I'm fairly certain there was even a conga line with a newly-walking little girl as the caboose, yet... something wasn't right. The colors were off.


The pork and yucca con mojo couldn't mask the forlorn burn that filled the great room, from the exposed beam ceiling to the Mexican Saltillo tiled floor. It wasn't hard to see what was missing.


My Papa was missing.

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Very poor quality snap shots from last year's celebration before I learned how to take a proper photo in manual.


Papa and Mangie on their very last cruise.

Last spring he left us much too soon. He was the youngest 83 eighty three ever saw. He and Mangie went out dancing each and every weekend. They went on cruises several times in any given year. And they were so full of love. For each other. For us. I loved him so much and I know we all lose grandparents and it seems ok and expected until  it's your Papa and he's dead. He would have lived another 10 or 15 years easily, and instead he tripped on a line divider at a store, hit his head on the white waxed floor, and bled to death.

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How can someone so alive, the absolute definer of life in your eyes, just be dead? My heart still can't understand it. How can I get married without my Papa there to dance with me? To see his "princessa" in her white dress, give his blessing that was never less important than her father's?


Now he just doesn't exist anymore and this scene was a kind of mourning, it was right there, just below the surface, underneath the warm garlic and uptempo salsa melody. Mangie hugged us as we came through the door, and her smile didn't touch her eyes. But we went on, because Papa would have wished it so. He wouldn't allow us to dwell on the darkness, even when he lived. If he could see us all now, holding back tears, he'd hiss at us in his own special flavor of English "Tsssst! You better don't do that! It's Christmas! Ehhh!" and he'd laugh his booming laugh, get us all out on that makeshift dance floor, and grab a tambourine.

And so we did. We shook that tambourine for him.


My dad got out his guitar as each year before, my uncle grabbed the tambourine from atop the piano. My cousins all tucked themselves into corners by the fire, and he played, and we sang, and we danced joyful and free upon that Saltillo tile floor, our toes finding the baked in prints left behind by dogs, chickens and barefooted children while the tiles lay drying under the Mexican sun.

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We sang and danced and played until the smallest hours of morning, and as we faded one by one towards our beds, it was almost as if by our rumpus, Papa was lured back to us, and I'd swear I heard the rustle of a second tambourine, and his smiling voice calling "goo' nigh'!" out into the hall as I drifted off into the calmest of slumbers, warm against the frost under the arm of my love, as the fire light slowly died next to us...


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In the morning, we all rose and enjoyed the traditional sweet breakfast. Fresh coffee from the burr grinder. Orange juice squeezed from just picked backyard citrus courtesy of the tree outside the living room window. Apple strudel, panettone,  wheat toast and fruit preserves. Even the resident peacock attended, dressed in his finest colors.

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As we began to pack our things, and ready for the 5 hour journey home, Mangie asked that we come to her house on the way out. She had some things she wanted to give to us, things she'd forgotten to bring last night. When we walked through the door two hours later, she went straight to her bedroom and came out with both hands cupped together. She then dropped two rings into mine. Beautiful antiques purchased in 1949. The diamond engagement ring that Papa proposed to her with and her wedding band.

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She said to me "These rings are good luck. They brought me and your Papa 63 years of marriage, and we loved each other just as much on the day he died as the day we married. Wear them at your wedding, and Papa will be with you, and your marriage will be as long and full of love as ours was. These rings have Papa's energy. They're yours now."

I've yet to take them off.

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This year was hand-in-hand the happiest and the saddest Christmas I've yet had. I saw the birth of many new family traditions, and cried a tearful wail at the bedside of those I knew were dying.


But isn't it meant to be that way? Beauty and pain, sadness and glee? We'd be more plastic than human if these things weren't sometimes hopelessly knotted together. I think that's what makes it perfect.


And through it all, I had the gentle hand of my blue-eyed boy wrapped tight around mine. His is a warmth that melts glaciers.


Papa, if you're listening, I know you'll always be with me when I need you. In the meantime, we'll be down here, shaking your tambourines for you.


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