My Aunt Thelma, “Auntie,” was a second mother to me, from my birth until her death in May of 2000. She never married and I sometimes wonder if maybe I was part of the reason for her remaining single. Did she somehow see other relationships as disloyal? (I do remember a telephone call when I was three or four when I asked to spend a Friday night with her, as I normally did. She told me that she had a date that night and I seem to remember pouting about it for a time. Did she secretly vow never to let another man interfere with our standing Friday night sleep-over? She never mentioned another conflict and I spent almost every Friday night of my life with her until my teens when I found my own Friday night conflicts. I’m afraid I was not nearly as loyal as she was.)
Auntie was my guide to all things new, exciting, and different, my opener of new worlds. We went to movies together on Saturdays at the Melba Theater, or the Empire or the Alabama, all grand old movie houses in downtown Birmingham with neo-baroque pretensions and velvet curtains that parted or raised with a flourish just before the main feature. We enjoyed all the Disney classics together. Before she learned to drive, at around age 30, we took taxi cabs from her apartment in East Lake (in the near suburbs), the drivers of which all looked vaguely sinister. At Christmas time, our whole family would drive downtown, always with Auntie, to see the mechanically animated department store windows: Yeildings, Lovemans, Pizitz, Newberry’s, Woolworth.
Christmas itself we always spent at my grandparents on Sand Mountain in North Alabama. Auntie was a major contributor to Santa’s bag of gifts and she was as excited about it all as my brother, Stuart, and I were. I can remember sneaking into the cold living room of my grandparents’ small house long before daylight to find the big-bulbed blue Christmas tree lights providing the only illumination on the piles of presents Santa had left for us. We quietly, we thought, ripped into wrapping paper and whispered our oohs and aahs until all the adults stumbled in to join us, still well before daylight. My grandmother (we called her “Mom”) or Daddy would usually slip out to the kitchen to make coffee and then quickly re-join the grand opening. Once my brother and I finished uncovering Santa’s treasure, we’d all open our gifts to each other. As soon as the last gift was open and had been commented on, Auntie would declare, “Well, Christmas is over.” She would then commence gathering up the shredded wrappings while Mom fried bacon and Stu and I began the careful discernment of which of our new wonders ought to occupy our morning. The day flowered merrily, but Christmas was, officially, “over.”
I never really thought to question Auntie’s annual declarations of Christmas’s conclusion until we began the cycle anew with our daughters, Hannah and Emma. Very early in their lives, when all the toys were unveiled and Auntie had adjourned the ceremony, I gently reminded her that Jesus life in and around us was just beginning without regard to our experiences of giving and receiving. She agreed, of course, in concept, but Christmas was practically, for her at least, “over.” Years passed, Emma and Hannah grew up, Auntie persisted in her annual declarations, and I continued to gently chide to the contrary, right up to our last Christmas together…without my grandparents and at our house in Iowa in 1999.
This Christmas only Emma was home with with Cynthia and me. At Midnight Mass we all three assisted with the musical offerings. We stayed up till 3:00 AM, too excited over that great welcome at church to come home and go straight to bed. 9:30 was as early as any of us were ready to tear into our own small givings. Once we’d cleared out the great pile beneath the tree, somebody facetiously announced, in Auntie’s memory, “Well, Christmas is over,” somebody else responded, much more certainly, “No way, José!” and we all converged on Cynthia’s freshly made cinnamon rolls. Saturday we drove to Indiana to celebrate with my parents, my brother and his family. Hannah and her husband, David, will come down from St. Paul on New Years Day to extend our Christmas still farther. At this point we all begin to wonder if Christmas will ever end, and we’re all secure in the sure knowledge that it won’t.