At the end of this article, you'll find a special announcement concerning Harry Chapin's song, "Cats In The Cradle" and its position on my list of all-time most hated songs.
This story was originally written for my Grandmother's 75th birhtday in 1995. I updated it to read at my Grandma's 80th birthday party, which was on December 23. Her entire family and many of her friends were there, and everyone had a great time. Grandma, I hope you had a Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Family traditions change, but slowly. Like a species of animal, a tradition evolves as time goes on. Eventually, a tradition adapts to the ever-changing circumstances of a family's life. These are my memories of the traditions in our family.
There was a time when Grandma French, her six children and their significant others, and her two young grandchildren would gather in her home in Upland, Pennsylvania every Christmas Eve, which just happens to be Grandma's birthday. While my memories of these times begin around the time I was six or seven years old (1971/'72), I have discovered recently that I have something in me--I guess you could call it an intuition of a memory--that contains the spirit of my grandfather, who died in 1966. I don't explicitly remember him, but I do have a feeling of him, and this feeling has only come to the surface in the last few years.
That feeling, and the subsequent memories I have from that era, center on that house in Upland. In my memory, it was huge. It had three floors and big rooms. A big staircase led from the first to the second floor. Maybe the house really wasn't that big, but my little kid mind thought it was gigantic at the time. I believe I was in that house when I found out that I had a brand new little sister.
Christmas Eve at this house was always very exciting. The living room floor would be covered with stacks and stacks of presents. Christmas and birthday presents for Grandma, of course, but plenty of tantilizing packages for the rest of us as well.
Once everyone arrived, we would feast on traditional Christmas Eve dinner fare (hoagies) until, usually at my insistence, everyone would make their way to the living room and the present opening would begin. Grandma would start by opening her birthday presents. I was always fidgety while she did this, which just proves that you do have some of your glory taken away when your birhtday falls on or near Christmas. Eventually, Grandma would finish and Lisa and I would tear into our packages with unrestrained happiness. That's how I remember those nights. I'm sure the Christmas gifts Grandma and Uncle Bill and my aunts gave me those nights were quite wonderful, but they were nothing compared to the beautiful gift of memory I have of those holiday nights.
It's been two decades since those Christmas Eves of my childhood and much has happened since then. First of all, Lisa and I were the only grandchildren back then. We have since been joined by Michael (born in 1978), Jennifer (1982), Emily (1983), Suzanne (1983), Sarah (1984), Natalie (1984), Elizabeth (1985), Jonathan (1986), and Timothy (1987). Grandma's children now live in Houston, Atlanta, Kansas City, Downingtown and Boothwyn. For years, the possibility of the whole family being in the same place seemed quite remote.
Then, in 1994, an amazing event took place--the entire family gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the first time Grandma French, all the children and their spouses and all her grandchildren were all together at once. Everyone had Thanksgiving dinner together, then headed over to Opryland to see the park decked out in holiday lights and "the largest nativity scene in the world." The following day, everyone poked around Nashville, and Donna and I even got a chance to sneak down to Memphis to see Graceland on Saturday. It was a wonderful trip and seeing everyone together over those few days in November six years ago reinforced how deeply I feel the connections I have to my family.
Amazingly enough, we did it again over Christmas, 1995, when we all gathered in Boothwyn to celebrate Grandma's 75th birthday. Christmas has obviously always been quite special to the French family and Christmas 1995 seemed to bring everything full circle. We gathered together for dinner, where everyone looked at the souvenir booklets we created with contributions from Grandma's children and grandchildren, and listened to special tapes I made that combined Christmas music with some of Grandma's favorite songs through the years. I was inspired to include Loretta Lynn's classic, "Happy Birthday." Although the song is a kiss-off to a cheatin' no-good husband, the chorus, "Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year," was too good to resist for Grandma's Christmas Eve birthday. Fortunately, Grandma loved the song and has told me so several times.
Again, much has happened since 1995. On November 9, 1997, Grandma became "Grandma Great" when our son Jimmy was born. Just this year, Michael graduated from college and Jennifer from high school. And now, we are all gathering to celebrate Grandma's 80th birthday.
As the oldest of the grandchildren, I want to take this opportunity to say, "Hapy Birthday, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, Grandma French" from all of us. Not only that, but I want to say "thank you" from all of us, and from Jimmy too. Thank you for all the love and affection you've shown us, from 1965 all the way up to now. Thank you for being such an important part of all of our lives. And, finally, thank you for simply being you. We all love you, Grandma French!
At some point I will write more about Grandma's 80th birthday party and the subsequent "ugly Christmas ornament exchange," held at my parents' house, that followed the party. At the moment, I'm still too exhausted from our holidays (the busiest we've ever had) to say too much more this week.
However, I do have a special announcment: I am removing Harry Chapin's "Cats In The Cradle" from my list of all-time most hated songs! I'm not simply removing it from the top spot, I'm totally taking it out of the list, and replacing it with Andrew Gold's quite heinous "Lonely Boy." I'll explain this in more detail another time, but I must credit one Sarah Raffel for this decision.
(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2001 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)