It’s Beginning to look a lot like Christmas! A memory of Grandma Thom.

I am not a young thaang! (Sorry about the bad slang) but conversely, I am not as old as dirt. While my children are teenagers, when my grandma was my age, she had four grandchildren ages 6, 4, 3 and 1 (I am the one year old). We would be the only grandchildren she would have; as my mom’s only sibling never married. Since there were only four of us and we lived six blocks from them (six blocks is about 1/2 mile), we saw my grandparents a lot.

I loved my grandma probably more than any other relative I had/have. She made me laugh, cry, think, but mostly grow as a person. I think of her almost every day. And I definitely miss her. Even as I write this my eyes fill with tears and I think of the empty spot in my life. I know that she watches over me and sees what I have done in my life, but my children never met her. They never got to eat her Christmas cookies or learn how to separate an egg or just sit with her and share stories. You see, she has been gone 20 years this December 26th.

I have to tell you that the tears are really flowing now and I don’t know why. I thought I was finished grieving. It has been three Christmases since last I cried while singing “Silent Night” at our  Christmas Eve service. Maybe because I have never written about her; never put my grief to paper that the tears are flowing.

I have written about traditions and many of those traditions came from Grandma (and Grandpa) Thom (Thompson). Our Christmas tree went up on Christmas Eve because when my mom was growing up, the tree went up on Christmas Eve and Santa Clause decorated it. (We didn’t leave the decorating to Santa, we did that on our own). When I was older, I found out that the tree going up on Christmas Eve was all about the 12 days of Christmas because it always came down on Epiphany (Day 12).

On Christmas Day, we always had dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s. We would have the same meal: bone-in ham, creamy mashed potatoes, fluffy Jello salad, homemade Christmas Pudding (Plum pudding) and mincemeat tarts with Hard Sauce. And as my Grandma was a tried and true Methodist *, the Christmas Pudding and Hard Sauce were not made with alcohol.  Our evening meal was ham sandwiches, Ruffles Chips, cheese always homemade cookies with English Tea (English tea is made with milk and sugar).  So many memories… (* She told me, at the end of her life, that the reason she did not drink wine was that she was worried she would like it too much!)

Grandma taught me how to iron. I will never forget the low ceilinged, dark basement where she ironed. She would sit with the ironing board at a low position, the green 7-Up bottle filled with water and the sprinkler attachment on the end to sprinkle the item to be ironed. She would have the old vacuum-tubed television on, with its Rabbit Ears, watching “A Secret Storm”. We would talk about the characters on the television, or what was happening at school or any crazy thing that entered our minds.

She started me on my grandpa’s handkerchiefs. When I mastered those, I graduated up to trousers and then dress shirts. To this day, I love to iron. I always start with handkerchiefs, then I move my way to dress shirts. Do I iron that way because that is the order I learned? I don’t know but it is always how I iron. My husband likes the fact that I don’t grumble about ironing, because he does like his things nicely pressed. (And please no grumbling about my domesticity. I do these things with a smile on my face. Anyone who knows me knows that I am my own woman and not a domestic slave. I learned those things from my mom and grandma. I can “bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan…” {Enjoli commercial from the 70’/80’s})

Grandma Thom was a fabulous cook. She was an artist at Christmas. Her baking began in August because she had so much to do that she had to begin that early to get it all done. She was famous for her “Christmas Cards”. These were Santa Cookies that she made for over 30 years, some years making 750 cookies to share as the Thompson Christmas Card. There were always enough for each of the grandchildren to give to their school classmates and friends outside of school. We would place our order and she would package them up to make sure we were taken care of first. Our family was known for our Santa Cookies and, even now, those cookies are remembered.

As well as taking the time to make the coconut bearded, raisin-eyed, royal icing covered cookies, she made peanut brittle, pecan brittle, divinity, 3 kinds of chip cookies, many old English favorites, popcorn balls and probably 30 other treats. She was amazing and such an inspiration. My grandpa made a Christmas Tree that would hold some of her scrumptuous gifts from the kitchen, all made with love. We looked forward to that tree appearing and were always sad when it had to be put away.  You can see that she used Spode Christmas Chinain the photo and the tree was always a short needled fir.

In January of 1992, my grandma went into exploratory surgery. I was at the hospital when the word came out that she had ovarian cancer and that it had metastasized to other parts. We were all devastated. There were many tears, but we all forged on and did the best we could for her.

As time went on, she found that the Chemo did not work and it made her feel awful and not herself. We all tried to spend as much time together as we could. In late November/early December, my sister and I went to Grandma’s home to bake. We wanted her to have those same Christmas-time smells. She was unable to be in the kitchen; she was too weak. Individually, we would go to the Living Room and spend time alone with Grandma. My sister and I both told her that she was so important to us but she needed to take care of herself and that it was not selfish to let go and be where she could be healed, where she could be whole again.

You see, she was a very faithful woman and we knew that her dying was not the end for her. She had stopped being that happy, always there for a smile and a laugh, lady. And she was a lady. She never wore pants in public, never swore or said a bad word about anyone. If she could find someone to drive her to her destination, she would. She really did not like to drive. I knew that she did not like everyone, but never a cross word left her mouth. She was the epitome of grace. She is who I want to be when my children marry and become parents.

She went into the hospital in December. I was going to my in-laws for Christmas so on Christmas Eve, I went to visit her in the hospital, as I would not able to be there on Christmas. By then, she was semi-comatose. I sat with her and talked to her and did the best I could to hold it together.

I remember her saying, “Mmmmm, good apple pie,” as I sat with her. Even at the end of her life, she was still thinking about food. She was having good thoughts, comforting thoughts. It was very hard for me, but I had to leave. I told her I loved her and walked out of her hospital room.

The doctor was there as I left, tears beginning to fill my eyes. He told me that tests showed that her kidneys were shutting down and she had very little time left. He knew I was going out-of-town and this was his way of telling me that would probably be the last time I saw her. I made it to my car and totally lost it. The tears flowed; it was that ‘I can’t catch my breath’ kind of crying. I had to sit in that cold hospital parking lot, feeling alone and so sad, until I could gain enough composure to drive to work.

I drove the mile to work and when my boss looked at me, she sent me home because she knew that I was in no position to be at work. She also knew my family, well, and knew that this was a devastating loss. This was the first time our family had had a matriarchal loss in a long time. All of the other generational losses had been at such a young age that the “matriarch” position had not been established, or so late that someone else had stepped in.

My husband and I left for Christmas, knowing that it would be hard. We survived Christmas Day but decided to leave earlier to get back home, just in case we could make it back before Grandma dies. We left on December 26th and drove to Kent’s grandmother’s home to spend the night. Almost as soon as we walked into Rubye’s home, the phone rang. She answered the phone and said the call was for me. My heart sunk. I took the phone, trying to prepare for what was going to be said. It was my dad. He had to be the bearer of bad news probably because my mom was inconsolable.

It didn’t take long for all of us to realize that my grandma was in control until the end. Christmas was her holiday. She prepared for this holiday for months. No other Christian holiday received as much time, joy and love as Christmas. While she could not control how her cancer progressed, she controlled how it would end. She was not going to die before Christmas, as we would be thinking of how sad we were instead of the anticipation of Christ’s birth. She definitely was not going to die on Christmas Day. She held on until the day after.

While I still mourn her, it was because of her death that I am who I am today. She never met my children. In 1992, I was told by my Ob/Gyn, that I would probably never have any children. Because of that, she and I had great conversations about her struggles. She would say that she could get pregnant, but being pregnant almost killed her. After my mom was born, she was told never to have another child. She went against the doctor’s orders and had my uncle. She did stop after that. I don’t think I ever would have known that if she wouldn’t have known her time on this Earth was coming to an end.

I still love her and this writing has been very cathartic for me. Today, many tears have flown and many memories, good and sad, have been shared. I thank you for letting me share this with you and I hope that it has helped you remember someone who has had a lasting impact on your life who is no longer with you on this Earth.

It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas and it has nothing to do with the decorations at Target or the advertisements that are beginning to air. It has a lot to do with memories of Grandma Thom.

Written in loving memory of Jessie V. Thompson  (photo of the Thompson family)


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