By REBECCA SCHWAB
OBSERVER Staff Writer
My Christmas memory doesn't stretch back too far - just last year, the Christmas of 2011. It was the best Christmas my family has had, as a family, in 20 years. That's because 20 years ago, in 1992, my mother died unexpectedly, within months of both my grandmothers, though their deaths were not so unexpected. A family with six kids and no mother is like a ship in open water with no navigation system, no land in sight, no radio contact. In the day-to-day struggles of keeping the household running and all the kids safe and accounted for, Christmas just got lost.
Until last year. My sister Kristin, my brother Eric and I decided we'd had enough sullen, sulky Christmases. No more Christmas Eve at Denny's, forking dried up chicken fingers into our frowning mouths. No more eating friends' donated cookies and pretending we didn't miss making them with our mother. No more sitting awkwardly at holiday gatherings we were invited to only because people knew we didn't have our own. We were still a family, and if anyone was going to resurrect Christmas from the grave we buried it in along with our family's matriarchs, it was going to be us. We're Schwabs, after all, and aside from hockey game heckling, knowing the words to '90s hip-hop songs, and turning any party into a dance party, we know how to rally.
But we couldn't do it without the Schwab Mob Godfather - our dad. Though we've tried his patience time and again, he still loves us, and he was on board. First things first - we needed a party space. Since our mother died, our family dining room hadn't been used for much dining. None, actually. Mostly, it was used as an office of sorts, with the good furniture replaced by filing cabinets and a typewriter desk. This stuff had to go. Dad emptied the place out, and the transformation began.
The to-do list started with stripping the old wallpaper. Not an easy task when it's been on there for 50 years. Next, hand-spackling and sanding. Hours and hours of fixing the old lath and plaster, skinny arms above my head, muscles aching. Previous owners had wallpapered the ceiling, and like Dad says, if it's worth doing it's worth doing right, so we spackled that, too. I had help here, from my fiance Joel, my dad, and Eric. Good thing Schwabs are tall. Then we repainted. Here I got more help, from extended family Lindsey and Devon Dolce. The three of us had that room painted a rich caramel brown in less than two hours. We moved furniture back in and took off the dust cloths: an antique sewing machine table that holds the telephone and a picture from my sister's wedding, my Grandma Schwab's buffet, and her carved wood desk, that we turned into a bar (sorry Grandma). A beautiful, dark wood highboy with a mirror displays a model of the U.S.S. Constitution, the drawers full of vintage tablecloths and our grandmothers' good chromium serving pieces. The dining room table and six chairs followed, along with a Studebaker record player.
The kitchen also needed a little love. The oven my parents bought together in the 80s had stopped working. OK for a single man, maybe, but it wouldn't do for Christmas cookies. We found one for sale in Jamestown. My older brother Dan took us to get it, volunteering his truck and his muscles (he won the Grog Challenge at work, but that's another story. The point is, the guy's a machine). I "supervised" while Dan and Dad (still a force at 70 years old) moved the broken stove out and the new one in, and Dad hooked up the lines. We were in business. Or at least, the cookies would be.
Christmas was a week away. What about decorations? I steeled myself for the necessary trip to the creepy attic. From there I dug out bags and boxes that had sat unopened for more than a decade. I picked through the ornaments and decorations, throwing away the ones with water damage, the electric lights that no longer looked safe, and salvaging what I could. I found ornaments made in grade school by the six Schwab kids: beaded candy canes, cotton ball snowmen and clothespin reindeer. The Dolces came back over, this time accompanied by their sister Melanie, and we got to work turning my dad's house into a place where family and friends felt welcome. Lindsey had donated her old Christmas tree, and this we assembled, in between drinking wine and shoving my dad's entire supply of chocolate-covered almonds into our faces by the handful (sorry Dad). The crocheted ornaments that didn't fit on the tree went on the vines of the giant pathos houseplants strung across the archway between the living and dining rooms. The weird baby in a birdhouse windchimes went up on a hook among the vines, a little rusty but no less puzzling in its design. The elf on a shelf took his seat on the corner of the television, and flying Santa assumed his position on the end of the curtain rod. Melanie put together the new futon I'd bought, while Lindsey and Devon and I strung up garland and hung stockings across the mantle. Then we sat down with my dad and ate takeout ... at the dining room table.
My sister came home from Georgia a couple of days later with her husband Richie. How hard she laughed when she saw all the old decorations made the trips to the attic worth it. Two nights before Christmas, Kristin, Eric, Joel, Richie, Eric's girlfriend Jenna and I got together to make cutout cookies. This was the night we solidified the new tradition of making "Un-Christmas Christmas Cookies." We baked and decorated cookies shaped like dinosaurs, fish, polar bears, teapots, and feet. Most of them were neon and sparkly. Aside from colorful, this experience was also musical, because I'd bought Kristin and Jenna and I jingle bell bracelets, which we wore and shook with relish. I'm not sure others at the homestead are fans of these accessories, but they're coming back this year. We rock those jingle bells.
Christmas Eve came, and we couldn't have been more content. Kristin and I made pulled pork, chili, and scalloped potatoes. The dining room table strained under the weight of my mom's best dishes piled high with food and desserts. We got out the gold-rimmed Christmas glasses, setting them on felt coasters I'd found that say "Christmas is Happiness." Dan and his wife Denise brought their family, and the kids lined up on the new futon and stuffed themselves with un-Christmas Christmas cookies. Krystel, Cindy and Jake, my nieces and nephew, sat around the tree to open presents. After the kids were taken home to await Santa, Dad, Kristin, Richie, Jenna, Eric, Joel and I sat around the table and played Balderdash. I can't remember who won, it may have been Richie, but the competition was fierce. This time I'm going to try to take the title.
This year's holiday is shaping up to be just as good, if not better. My oldest brother Larry is coming home from Virginia with his kids Kaitlyn, Anthony and Timothy. Dan and his family will come again. My sister and Richie - who had their first baby, an amazing little being named Mary Katherine Rebecca - are doing everything they can to make it. I've bought some new cookie cutters, but I'm keeping their shapes a secret for now. Eric and Jenna will be there. Dolces are invited. We've promised Dad some new "snazzy" shirts. We're planning a "Guess what Bart is" raffle, where $5 buys you a guess at what breed makes up the majority of my dad's sad-eyed mutt, AKA Biggie, Eeyore, and Snowshoes, who was adopted from NCCR. We'll get a DNA test at the vet's, and the winner takes the pot. My money's on St. Bernard; Dad says Walker Hound. I've already started stuffing the dozen or so stockings strung along the crowded mantle. The tree has been decorated; Dan and his kids put it up on Thanksgiving. One of these years I'm hoping my brother Jeff can make it, too. He lives in Florida. The six of us haven't been together in one place since my sister married Richie in 2005.
Last Christmas was a turning point. My family came together to shake off the dust of 20 years' collective grief. Along with our old handmade ornaments, we dug our childhood memories out of those boxes and worked through the pain of remembering them. Leaving Christmas traditions locked away in the likely-haunted attic was no way to celebrate the family our mother worked so hard to make with our father. Our dad's house feels full and bright again, busting at its corners with my dad's rumbling laughter and the music from our awful and awesome Best of the 90s CDs. In a way, my mother is still there, too, traces of her left behind in the glass cactus ornament she bought in Arizona, in the unsettling windchimes I blame her for acquiring, in the rooms she walked through, and in her children and husband, those Schwabs who may have been surprised to find that they did not in fact die with her, that they are still here, ready to once again love and fight and cook and eat and shake their jingle bells together as a family.