To the Ghosts of Christmas Past

ray, clifford, atticus, whit, honea, marana, arizona, az, ed, wynema, grandpa, grandfather, great, grandson

The holiday season is not only a time for celebrating what we have, but also what we had. And who.

We would see my grandfather every other Christmas, maybe once in the summer, and his house was layered with dust and memories. He was at a loss for loss, and the slowness in his step was only matched by the quickness in his aging. The days were cruel and settling.

He was haunted by the notches on his timeline–nightmares of storming beaches and fallen soldiers, siblings lost and losing still, and the death of my grandmother that lingered in every corner of a mind much sharper than he wished it to be.

We would sit in the living room and watch him place prunes in his mushroom soup. He would joke about his reasons, and when someone else came in he would make the joke again. He had much humor when he wanted it.

There was a lot of yelling between us, but no anger. We disagreed on many things, but the only words we shared were about the things that would bind us: the local basketball team, my boys, and the Arizona weather. The words were shouted so that he could hear them, and then repeated upon request. The tenderness was not lost beneath the volume.

He spoke of the kindness of my father every time my dad left the room. My father helped to provide the daily assistance that my grandfather needed, not because he was incapable of caring for himself, but because he was incapable of caring. My grandfather started each day by declaring his impending doom, and he slept each night against blankets warm with cotton and disappointment.

Every day my dad would show up, and every day my grandfather would go again through the motions.

When my boys entered the room they were ghosts of me, and my grandfather hugged them with a joy that I can barely remember. They were good with each other, and between my boys and my grandfather there was an understanding that I was somewhere in the middle of, thick with tasks and worry. Together they were bookends of past and future, and they met in the present like it is the only thing that matters.

They would each part with parts of the other, my grandfather’s eyes were suddenly younger and alive with glimmer, my boys somewhat sullen and sweetly serious. The lumps in my throat left me to nodding and losing myself in the shadows cast by sun-smudged windows. Someone made a joke, and then they said it again but only louder.

We would sit there in silence, his a cruel twist of time, and ours a tribute to it.

“I sure do miss her,” he said so soft that I wondered if he knew we could hear him, or if it was just the echoes of his mind falling lightly through an accidental opening. Then he said it again, shook his head and looked deep past the nothing. We all smiled because we missed her, too. We missed her terribly.

“Merry Christmas, Grandpa,” I yelled across hugs and a lifetime. Then we faded into the doorway, and the days that waited ahead.

That was last year, a late December day that started in my grandfather’s living room and lingered down the highway until I was well into another state and tired and ready for bed. He died a few months later. As far as last words go, there are worse endings than Merry Christmas.

I will say them again, and this time all the louder.

A version of this post first appeared on Honea Express

Image: Whit Honea

About Whit Honea

Whit Honea is the editor of the Dads & Families section on The Good Men Project. His book, "The Parents' Phrase Book" is now available from Adams Media. He currently resides in the greater Los Angeles area with his wonderful wife, two amazing sons, and a couple of silly dogs. His personal blog is called Honea Express, because Honea sounds like pony, which is actually quite clever when you think about it.


  1. sabsam789 says:

    very moving piece of writing.
    i lost my granddad almost 1,5 year ago, so i rely on this.
    my grandmother kissing the picture of my granddad every evening before going to bed, and talks to him, once the door of her bedroom is closed.
    so moving and well written, thank you.

  2. Great article, Whit. I wish my own sons had been able to meet their great grandfather, but I’m eternally grateful that my grandmother survived long enough to meet and hold them both.

    Your comment on how there seemed to be an understanding between them that you were part of hit the nail on the head. The first time we took my eldest to visit (other than when he was an infant) It amazed me that my normally shy son immediately walked over to my grandmother, grabbed her hand, and walked with her into the kitchen. It was like he had known her his entire life, already. I remember being that little boy and implicitly trusting her, as well.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    • I appreciate the kind words, Sean.

      I think there is a wisdom that comes with being on either side of this crazy ride, and we tend to lose it for a bit in the middle. I’m glad I’m not the only one that has noticed it.

      Merry Christmas, indeed!

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