Thursday, December 27, 2007


CHRISTMAS EVE OPPOSITES. Childhood Christmases with the extended Hay and Sheffield clans were dramatically different. Christmas Eve would be spent in New Castle, Indiana. First, our family would go to Grandpa and Grandma Hay’s for dinner and a gift exchange; then we would drive across town to Aunt Willie Mae’s for the Sheffield gathering. The Sheffields--my mother’s side--were affectionate, warm and readily endearing. The Hays--my dad’s side--were guarded, stand-offish and halting in their familial exchanges. I would experience both on the same evening each year.

HOLY FOLK VS DRUG RUNNERS. I loved the Sheffield Christmas. I endured the Hay gathering. The Hay event was made all the more awkward by the opposite poles at which different households lived. At one end were the ultra-conservative holiness households. These reserved folk carried an air of spiritual pride and judgment. The women wore long dresses and no make-up or jewelry. These families kept their distance from Hays who lived at the other end of the spiritual spectrum. Suffice it to say that two of my fifty-ish uncles trafficked marijuana grown in Kentucky caves up to New Castle and exhibited most common forms of carelessness, recklessness and irresponsibility. In the middle was our bewildered family. All these people crammed into a little house for several hours each Christmas Eve. Talk about awkward!

WRAPPING PAPER MELEE. One year, we realized the terms of endearment. Amid long faces and feigned smiles and strained laughter, my dad wadded up the wrapping paper of the gift he’d just opened and playfully threw it at his alcoholic brother across the room. His brother picked it up and sailed it back. But dad ducked and the wrapping paper wad hit Grandma Hay in the side of the head. She, in turn heaved the wad at another family member. Within minutes, the room was snowing wrapping paper wads. And, along with them, genuine laughter. Heaviness dissipated, suspicion ebbed, judgment was temporarily suspended, and the evening ended in hugs and kind words.

DON’T STOP THE CHAOS. In the years that followed, the evening at Grandma and Grandpa Hay’s would begin with typical awkwardness. There would have been little, if any, contact with each other between Christmases. I would try to figure out the increasingly complex puzzle of who were my real cousins and who was related via divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, etc. But during the gift exchange, the wrapping paper would eventually fly. Even though it might have irritated her, Grandma Hay made little attempt to curb the chaos. Perhaps she knew that it was one thing--perhaps the only thing--that this disparate group of people with a common tie to her and Grandpa Hay would ever enjoy together.

GRACE IN A PAPER WAD. I hope it doesn’t take a wrapping paper wad battle to bring your household or extended family together--however momentarily. I pray it doesn’t come down to that. But if it does, so be it. I only wish I could have followed up that evening with some more frequent contact with my Hay relatives. That little opening, that endearing moment, might have led to real relationship, might have led to understanding, might have provided an opening to a future of grace. Grandma and Grandpa Hay are gone and the Hays no longer gather as family at Christmas. It’s been years since I’ve seen any of them. I think about that on our drive from Indianapolis to New Castle in anticipation of our gathering with the Sheffields each Christmas Eve. And I pray that, somehow, those moments of delightful Hay melee will not be completely lost for the grace they conveyed.

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