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For all of my children’s lives, thirty-four Christmases with the exception of just a few, we have gathered at their grandmother’s house in Galveston, Texas for the end of year holiday. For many years we drove the hard, long course from Colorado Springs to the Gulf coast in late December, counting road kill and armadillo sightings along the way. One year, the boys and I weaved through northwest Texas taking state highways, and came upon a 20-foot tall fiberglass cheerleader on the side of the road in a small town whose name we can’t remember. I made them get out of the car and pose with her and snapped their picture. We haven’t seen her since.
When the children became adults, they continued the pilgrimage to their grandmother’s house from wherever they lived — San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boulder — and they still do. Next week we will all land in Houston from our faraway posts, and together make our way down the Gulf Freeway, past Baybrook Mall and NASA and the smokestacks of Texas City, past bingo parlors and XXX-rated video stores and windblown roadhouses, past Bayou Vista and rippling wetlands dotted with feathered cranes poking around for a fish, across the causeway, to Galveston Island.
Once on the island, we survey the progress or degradation of the landscape depending on the previous year’s weather disasters, and take note of what still stands: Smitty’s Bait Shop, Leon’s Bar-B-Q, Happy Buddha Chinese restaurant. Gone are the magnificent live oaks that used to spread their curving arms across the four lanes and the median of Broadway, drowned in the 2008 hurricane, but the oleanders seem to flourish. Stray dogs roam the sandy alleyways. From Seawall Boulevard, we greet the sparkling ocean and ever shrinking spots of beach stretching between rock piers. Here and there, a fisherman or woman with an aluminum lawn chair and an ice chest squints into the sun, dropping a line into the sea.
When we arrive at my mother’s house, we know what we will find. Tables and shelves lined with photos of the grandchildren at every phase of their lives. Junior high school hair. First grade’s snaggle-toothed smile. Images of boys and girls in soccer uniforms, baseball outfits, prom dresses, and birthday hats, all preserved, framed, and dusted. A Christmas tablecloth on the oak dining table. And in every corner, gifts we gave my mother over the many years we’ve been coming here — windchimes from Hawaii over the kitchen door, a ceramic cat door stop, knick-knacks on the windowsills, objects whose age we gauge in proportion to our own.
When we arrived in Galveston last year, we expected it was for our last Christmas with my mother at her house. Two of the grandchildren had been with her at Thanksgiving and had watched in horror as she went into the hospital with pneumonia and a blood clot on her lung, weakened by chemotherapy and in debilitating pain. By Christmas, having decided to pursue no further treatment for her various ailments, she was at home with hospice care. We were watchful and quiet around her, protecting her nap time, hoping our last days with her would be gentle and as pain-free as possible.
Then we all went home and she lived for another year. This year we are celebrating the luxury of bonus time and another chance to gather in the house that holds our memories. She will prepare the dough and I will roll out and cut the biscuits. We’ll have sausage, especially flown in from Tennessee, at breakfast one more time, with glass jars of her homemade strawberry preserves scattered around the table. The boys will lounge on her comfy old couches and watch football with a running, sarcastic commentary, and we will nap on her sun-dried sheets, in her dark bedrooms, the sleep of our dreams.
It never occurs to any of us that it is too inconvenient, too far, too remote, or too costly to visit Galveston at Christmas, for her house is where we want to be, no matter where we live. We have not allowed ourselves the serious talk we should have about where we will go and what we will do when she is no longer there and the torch has passed to my sister and me. For now, we book our flights and imagine the salt marsh smell and wing our way to my mother’s house for Christmas. We will know we are there when we see pelicans overhead, their heavy wings spread, their dinosaur heads aligned in a perfect V, gliding over the open sea.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.