Savoring Christmas
Christmas Writing Challenge #10: The Background of Photos

Christmas Writing Challenge #9: an Object that Triggers Emotion

I'm cutting it close, but as promised, here is the first of the last four of my Christmas writing prompts. Stay tuned for a new one each day until Christmas. Read about the first 8 here.

Writing Prompt: Write about an object of any kind that you associate strongly with the holidays.

Maybe it’s a holiday decoration of some sort—but maybe not. What object plays strongly in your memories of Christmas? How was it involved in Christmas? What does your connection to the object reveal about your life or holiday celebrations?

There are many things I could write about for this prompt. My mom’s nativity, the ornaments, the large glass tree my mom filled with candy and then left on the coffee table in the front room. But this December I’ve been thinking about something else: the golden stool.

Every Christmas, after we’d opened presents, had breakfast, admired our gifts, and gotten ready for the day, we’d go to my grandma Elsie’s house for dinner. My dad’s two brothers and our cousins would all be there. Even though we all lived within three miles of each other, we almost never saw our cousins. Sometimes for birthday parties, and when we were older we also started having a family Christmas party, but when we were young, it was just once a year.

Grandma Elsie—my dad’s mom—was…well, I don’t have just one word to describe her. I very nearly want to write “cold.” A cold woman, detached and unemotional. But I think, looking back on her now as an adult, she was a lot like me. She was a reader; she loved cats and literature and photography. She liked moving outside and went for a walk almost every day of her life. (I like to think that, were she an adult now, she’d also be a runner.)

Her marriage was an unhappy one and I wonder if it felt like a relief to her when her husband died at 48. She supported herself as a widow by working for AT&T as a switchboard operator. She kept every calendar she ever had, all of them featuring cats, so when she died her kitchen was plastered with cat images; all of the calendars were turned to the correct month. She was a fascinating woman—but my feelings for her are complicated. She wasn’t very affectionate and didn’t try very hard to build a strong relationship with us. In that family, my sisters and I were the children of the least- favorite son, the youngest who wasted his potential as a baseball star and ended up being the least successful. I often overheard my mom talking about her dislike for Elsie and the obvious ways she loved the other cousins better.

I had such a strong and vital relationship with my other grandma that I don’t know that this bothered me terribly as a kid. But it bothers me now. I wish I could know more about what Grandma Elsie was like, without the filter of my parents. I wish I could know—even if it was only to have my ugliest fears confirmed—how she really felt about us as opposed to how my mom thought she felt about us.

But family tensions aside, we got together every Christmas afternoon until I was a teenager.

the cousins with grandma elsie
(I think this was the Christmas I was five. Can you guess which decade this was?)

Grandma Elsie had what felt like, to my young eyes, the world’s largest and most elegant front room. The carpet was pale, the furniture cream-colored or gold. And a fireplace with a mantel! I always thought the room was so pretty. The crowning glory, to all of the cousins, was the golden stool. It had a gold crushed velvet cushion and an intricate metal back, also painted gold. It stayed in the corner most of the time, until everyone was there and we needed every chair possible pulled up to the dinner table.

Each Christmas, it was one cousin’s turn to sit on the golden stool during dinner.

Counting my family, there were twelve cousins. So it was, for some of us, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, sitting on the golden stool. (Although I suspected that my cousins, who went to my grandma's house for dinner far more often than we did, got to sit on it all the time.)

I remember the year my cousin Jamie got to sit on the stool. She is three or four years older than me, but that day she seemed so grown up. So lucky! And so beautiful, with her jet-black hair and confident smile. I watched how she laughed with the older cousins and felt myself seem more and more babyish. (I couldn’t put it into words then, but that was how my cousins made me feel: like a baby. Too silly and immature for their attention. If I am honest, that is how they still make me feel.)

A couple of years later—or maybe the very next year?—it was my turn to sit on the golden stool. I thought I’d feel the way Jamie looked, confident and happy. I ran my hands back and forth across the velvet cushion. I leaned against the golden wrought iron. I kicked my feet, sitting taller than I was used to.

I felt exactly the same as I always had.

I still couldn’t laugh and talk to the grown-up cousins. I still felt like a baby. I still felt homely and shy and awkward. I was sitting on the golden stool and yet Grandma didn’t look at me or talk to me any more than she had before.

Plus that stool was uncomfortable. The cushion was worn down to stuffing and the back was too short to lean against. A high stool pulled up to a dining table meant I could barely fit my legs underneath, so I spilled gravy on my new outfit.

The strangest part to me about this experience is how much I cherish it. Even though I was miserable, the Christmas I sat on the golden stool, I still love the memory of it. Maybe because it is a true memory, unembellished by nostalgia or fond emotions. It is one of the earliest times in my life I felt bitterness, but when I look back on it, it is a key (or one of them) to understanding some of my adult traits. It teaches me many things about the type of grandmother I hope to be one day, both how I want to create traditions for my grandchildren but also how I want them to go through their lives never, ever questioning whether or not I loved them. In the end, the golden stool is the perfect representation of the second half of our Christmas day: seemingly beautiful, but complicated and uncomfortable when you looked up close.

Photo Challenge: What object triggers emotion for you during the holidays now? Photograph it!

Comments

Janeal

This post made me cry because I have too many relationships with members of my immediate and extended family similar to the ones you had/have with your grandma and cousins. I wish family relationships were not so complicated! I wish I knew how to repair them. Thank you for putting into words the thoughts and feelings I have, but are so difficult for me to express.

Becky K

I don't remember that we took turns with the chair. But your description of it made me vividly remember it - the carpet-y seat, the uncomforable scrolled back. It's interesting how you describe Jamie - I always felt that way about you. I would go to the Christmas party and end up all sweaty and bedraggled from playing and then I would look at you and you would be all pretty and put-together. The cousins always seemed so aloof and glamorous and I couldn't imagine ever being as cool and confident and grown-up as they were (I still can't.)

Great post. Thank you for helping me remember something I didn't know I had forgotten. xoxo

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