I never met Ralph. He was 5 when he died and yet his life has impacted so many. Particularly at this time of the year.
His parents when Christmas shopping that one day in December. It was the late 40’s and Jimmy, Eva & L.A. were babysitting while they were gone. Jimmy was only 9 and thought he would impress his neighbor friend by showing off his daddy’s gun.
The neighbor kid got excited, the gun went off and Ralphie died on his mommy’s pillow. Jimmy, Eva and L.A. were left, all less than 12, to find out how to contact their parents, what do you do with a little one who doesn’t have a head anymore and what to expect when daddy comes home. See, daddy “spanks” with chains. Yes, chains. There were no phones in their 3 room house and they lived out in the country. The neighbor boy ran home and that’s the last I ever heard of him. Although he most definitely lived with that moment for the rest of his life. Where ever he may be.
The parents came home, the baby boy was buried and the pastor came to visit the grieving family. I use the term pastor loosely because the ill-intent and cruelty this man exhibited is beyond anything I can imagine.
He sat in their house and said their little blond boy died because they were Christmas shopping. He said Ralphie’s death was G-d’s judgment for their sin.
Now, in my opinion, that should have been when Daddy jumped up and kicked the shit out of Brother so and so, but well, he didn’t. They didn’t. They bought the lie and enforced it on all six of their remaining children. There would be no Christmas. No presents, no candy, no lights, no tree. Nothing. Christmas was evil. We would pretend it wasn’t happening.
Five years ago Jimmy, Eva, Paul and Everett sat down by their mother’s bedside and exchanged gifts for the first time in almost 60 years. Did it bring healing? Was it the moment they were all waiting for? Probably not. Their children grew up never celebrating the Christmas season with extended family and didn’t get or expect gifts from the grandparents. Simply wasn’t done.
How long does a mother hold on to grief? When Ralphie’s mommy died this last September, Paul’s wife found baby booties and a cap wrapped in tissue paper a nd tucked carefully away in the bottom of her dresser. It somehow didn’t seem right to bury her without those small momentos she’d carried all those years.
That’s when Eva found where Ralphie was buried and for the first time in over 60 years, sat at his little marker and thought about the little boy who wasn’t ever growing older.
Christmas. It’s a mish-mash of emotions for so many. A time of gimme and grabbing, of celebrating and too much champagne. A time of sharing and family. For many.
But for many, my family included, it has often been a time of shame and despair. A time where you struggle simply to go through the motions without ever having the hope of the elaborate celebrations we saw all around us.
We didn’t spend lavishly on gifts. One singular year I got hairspray and a toothbrush. There wasn’t a lot of money to go around. $5 max on gifts. The trees were leftover from after school broke for the holidays. And once we even decorated a gigantic sage brush. Have you ever seen a 8′ flocked sage brush with Christmas lights on it? Yeah. Amazing.
Eva, my mom, never seemed quite comfortable with the whole Christmas thing and was especially anti-Santa. You do know Satan and Santa have the same letters, right? Perhaps she thought if we could just get it right G-d wouldn’t be mad at us. Perhaps she was trying to regain something she’d lost so long ago.
When my boys were born we had the opportunity to make our own traditions. I still couldn’t make Christmas be the Big Deal it seemed like it was supposed to be. Residual guilt from Grandma?
Perhaps that’s why it has been such a relatively pain free decision to observe Hanukkah and let Christmas go. Don’t get me wrong, we still remember the birth of our Messiah. We remember His advent around October during the Feast of Tabernacles. But now, when we celebrate the Feast of Dedication and as we give gifts and have family time, there is no taint of Christmas’ past.
It’s difficult to lay Ralphie to rest. But it is vital to see his death for what it truly was. A tragic accident. A horrible, incalculable loss. An unforgettable event for so many who have had to pay year after year. Over and over again.
We have all paid. All 100+ of us within the close family tree. And you will continue to pay until you learn to choose not to but to try to comprehend. We can’t ever understand on this plane. But when we can comprehend what truly happened, then we can, soberly, move on.