This is a ghost story.
They usually haunt my house.
Right now, though, it’s quiet. It’s decorated for the holidays. The inside, much more modestly than usual. The white columns that separate our “double parlor” living room from dining room are not wrapped with candy cane stripes. The historic buildings that make up the downtown area for our elaborate Christmas village still lie in storage in the basement. Many wooden soldiers from the army of nutcrackers have been furloughed. I feel my mother’s ire from beyond the grave for neglecting to put up the Nativity set this year.
“Stephen!” I can hear her scold. “It’s the reason for the season!”
But my Catholic Guilt isn’t what haunts the old place. Not the only thing, anyway.
In the warm glow of the tree lights and candles in the windows—the table with its poinsettia runner laid out for no one—the Bing Crosby song crooning out for my ears only—the bar stocked with spirits that will last us a year rather than just a weekend—the thing most noticeably absent in my house this season:
My house (or to give credit to its owner, my father’s house) has always been the place where people just…ended up. Everyone has always gathered here. Good times and bad. Holidays, birthdays, after weddings, after funerals, baby showers, game nights, Tupperware parties, barbecues, movies. This house is most alive when it’s full of people.
In the somewhat-storied history of the house, built right at the turn of the last century, it seems to have always been that way, by all accounts. For whatever reason, it was just the hub of all activity.
I grew up here, mostly. I moved away, and after my mother passed away and my father remarried, I moved back with my wife. We’ve certainly made it our own—it’s a great deal different from it was when it was my childhood home. But there are ghosts. Memories of parties for any and every occasion. Memories of gatherings of friends on Monday nights just because. Memories of getting together to grieve. Or plan vacations. Or host special dinners. Or help with renovations or church festival planning or book launching. Memories of announcements of engagements, of pregnancies, of deaths. Memories of people, family and friends and strangers alike. Memories of, above all, love.
I can feel the ghosts, my mother amongst them, whenever the house is full of people. Whenever we host a Christmas Eve, or a Friendsgiving, or a Halloween party, or even just dinner with a small group of friends. The walls themselves seem to sigh contently. Satiated by the laughter and gossip and friendship and love within.
But the Ghosts of Christmas Past are silent this year. The only sighs from the walls are the creaks and groans of an old heating system. There is still laughter, even if it is from only my wife and I and Schitt’s Creek. And plenty of love. But it’s…different. As it is in every house, all over the world, this Christmas.
I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I can’t help but think of Meet Me in St. Louis. Specifically, that scene where the family’s house is packed up to move away, and Christmas just isn’t the same, and nobody knows what the future is going to bring. Judy Garland comforts her little sister in song:
In a year we all will be together,
If the fates allow.
We’ll just have to muddle through somehow.
If that doesn’t speak to 2020, man…
I don’t know. I don’t know if, in a year, all our troubles will be out of sight. It’s unlikely, frankly. But I do know that it will at least be better. My house will be full again. There will still be love, and laughter, and too much food, and enough booze to kill a middle school, and gossip. The ghosts will be happy. Until then, we’ve hung a shining star upon the highest bow.
Be kind to each other. Be safe. Wear a mask. And have yourself a merry little Christmas.