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Photographs and Memories

The ghosts of Christmas past are waiting in the closet.


There's a big plastic box in my closet on a shelf way up high that weighs as much as a corpulent reindeer and is perfectly capable of crushing anyone who tries to pull it down too casually. This box is filled with family photographs, all the way back from the time that we used to get prints made at the local Walgreen's, before the advent of digital photography. Now we can store a decade's worth of photos on a cell phone, but this box nearly qualifies for its own zip code. Every once in a while, especially during the holidays, I like to hire a Sikorsky sky-crane to lift the plastic box and put in on the floor where we can look at the pictures. This is my way of making peace with the Ghosts of Christmas Past.

There are shiny, fading photos of a family Christmas when I was about four or five years old. My father was stationed at a bleak Air Force base in the frozen wasteland of Dayton, Ohio, which pretty much meant that our family was stationed in the frozen wasteland of Dayton, Ohio. There are pictures of my brother and me in cheesy matching sweaters, ripping open packages, with my cousin and his family in the background. It looks like a little slice of Rockwellian America, with the ladies in their late-'60s faux-beehive hairdos and my uncle in a turtleneck. My dad isn't in the photos, however, because he was in a hospital bed with pneumonia for Christmas. It wasn't until I was older and less self-absorbed that I figured out that my dad nearly died, and that my cousin and his family were there to support my mom. All I remember is visiting dad in the hospital, where he was making balsa-wood planes to pass the time. The self-absorbed obliviousness of youth is a warm, protective blanket.

A month after we were married, my wife and I spent Christmas at her parents' house in Las Cruces. These photos are a veritable testament to the fashion mistakes we made in the mid-'80s, and every picture is filtered by the haze of cigarette smoke emanating from my father-in-law's recliner. Being a rookie at my husband role, I woke up realizing that I had done nothing to prepare a stocking for my bride. It seems that this is a responsibility of matrimony that I did not get a memo about. In a panic, I grabbed the car keys and frantically drove around, looking for any retail opportunity. The only place desperate enough to be open for business was a neighborhood convenience store, so I filled a paper bag with chewing gum, candy, a ballpoint pen, a magazine and point-of-purchase trinkets near the register. It made for a pathetic stocking, but it's a well-learned lesson on yuletide responsibility that sticks with me to this day.

Christmas and funerals don't mix, and I have the melancholy photos to prove it. When my grandfather passed away shortly before Christmas in the early '90s, our family made a sad pilgrimage to the homelands of my father in northern Illinois. My grandmother, a frail chatterbox who could regale you with obscure family history until your ears would bleed, was fractured. The morning of the funeral, just a day or two before Christmas, an ice storm covered the area; my aunt slid her Honda into a curb, and the pallbearers slipped around like a pack of addled penguins. I have a photo of grandfather's headstone on a mottled background of snow, ice and mud, an accidental study in black-and-white on color film. Christmas morning, we set up a small tree in grandma's living room, with a few token decorations and gifts. For the first time in front of me, grandmother broke down in tears, mourning the loss of her husband of over 60 years. Nobody knew what to do or say, but celebrating Christmas suddenly seemed frivolous.

Two years later, my wife and I celebrated our first Christmas with our newborn son, who was a clueless, babbling cherub of just four months. Christmas took on a new meaning for us, because it was our job to create all the magic and wonder that the holiday can hold for this small child. It allowed us to revisit the nervous thrill of Christmas that used to be the high point of our youthful years, to take part in perpetuating the traditions that we had recently come to take for granted. I was finally finishing college at the time, and was enrolled in a photography class. Unfortunately for my infant son, this meant a lot of ill-advised amateur-artistic photography, including one strange photo I took with him laid on a blanket, surrounded by strands of Christmas lights. In the picture, he is focusing completely on one of the bulbs near his face, lit up in a warm mini-bulb glow. He had no idea what was going on, but his small face was already etched with the wonder that Christmas is supposed to be all about.

The years continue to pass, and many of the photos share unintended similarities. My mom's living room remains timeless, and all the years of Christmas morning photos show that nothing has changed except for the people. Same carpet, same furniture, different hairstyles and aging faces. Far from being sad, I find comfort in this yuletide progression.

I have grown to embrace the comfort of the small family Christmas traditions, like eating a bowlful of posole on Christmas Eve or opening one gift afterward. Our traditions make us who we are, and pay tribute to the wisdom of time and the generations that have gone before us.

All these photographs are snapshots in time, a single crystalline moment of happiness when all was right in the world, and we were surrounded by the comforts of family, love and tradition. Every year, there are more photos to file away, whether in the big plastic box or in a digital file, and although we add to the compendium, we never replace what came before. This is the stuff Christmas is made of.

When I was younger, I wasn't sure if I believed in heaven, but I know I didn't believe in ghosts. Looking at these photos, I realize that although we may have our questions about heaven, there is no longer doubt in my mind about the existence of ghosts, particularly the ones of Christmas Past. Joyeux Noel, y'all.


Henry Lightcap hangs up his stocking in Las Cruces.


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