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People

A wealth of holiday stories

November 17, 2011
by Paul Miller

When I was growing up with my four siblings in Ohio, my parents would fill our creaky house during the holidays with friends, relatives, neighbors, and the kid up the street with no home to speak of. We were a motley lot, a Norman Rockwell tableau as envisioned by Mad magazine. Add a menagerie of animals, stir vigorously, and watch the walls bow outward.    

By the time I was a teenager, I graduated from being a pest underfoot to an entertainment medium for the nieces and nephews springing up everywhere. While the house drifted on scents of roast beast and homemade applesauce – the ancient, tilted apple tree out back is still there – I’d upend a niece and have her walk on the ceiling. She’d giggle so hard her funny bone would warp. Before long, four other imps would be tugging at my legs, begging for turns.  

Full house

Then the doorbell would ring, and my father’s good friend Bill would stride in, filling the kitchen with his Santa Claus presence, although it was only Thanksgiving. “Schmidt!” my father would shout, a nickname I can still hear ringing out. Schmidt was a big man, but he moved with ease, perfectly at home in his own skin. He was a retired air-traffic controller like my father, and both were glad to be out of that insane business. They’d drink beer in tall glasses, then Schmidt would draw father off to the side to tell a joke nobody else could hear, their laughter rolling like kettledrums.        

Bill’s wife, Ruth, would be sitting close to mother, the two touching and talking together. Grandmother Grosh, a lifelong teacher and benign ruler of whatever 500 square miles she was inhabiting, would sit nearby. I’d marvel that, since her birth in 1891, she’d watched the world move from horses, to cars, to walks on the moon. Coaxed by us, she’d recite family birth dates, dozens of them, without error.

Empty chairs

Soon enough it would be time to notice Giggs, father’s older brother. His given name was Géza, a Hungarian name. He’d been born with various physical and mental maladies that never were diagnosed, but he could speak – sort of – and walk, albeit at an odd angle. When he was young, one of my father’s duties was to shepherd Giggs in a wheelchair all over Akron, going from one quack to another trying to find some cure.

But in our home over the holidays, far removed from the pain of those early years, Giggs would settle his thin frame into a chair and be content watching the family and waiting - as we all did - for Thanksgiving dinner, a magnificent, elbow-knocking, drink-spilling banquet.

In my eyes, though, our family hasn’t had the same kind of feast in many years. Schmidt, Ruth, Uncle Giggs and my grandmother all are long gone. My father, who died in 2007, is an especially difficult chair to see empty at our gatherings. He was quick-tempered but fair, a short but strong man who filled every corner of the room. For most of his generous life, he told tales and laughed with his head thrown back, but his later years were marked by poor health. He could do nothing more than sit and gaze out the window, and that’s when I realized our robust family wouldn’t escape the changes that rule all of existence.

A wealth of stories

My mother, the matriarch of all she surveys, still lives in the old house where I grew up. She’s 93 years old this year. In our small kitchen overlooking a watershed of aging trees, she holds forth about life with my father and all the generations that move through her memory. She speaks with authority and sometimes at length, and in this way she’s telling us that soon the family stories will have to be told by someone else. 

But before long, Thanksgiving will break open like a champagne cork exploding, and I’ll cast about for some wriggling grandniece to tease. My mother will sigh at the shenanigans, and with the house slowly filling with old friends and new babies, she’ll begin another story.

Paul Miller is an editor, writer, and alumnus of CSU.