When I awake, I am still with you.
My grandpa, my mom’s dad, used to write Christmas letters. I found them in a red album with gold trim many years ago, on the top shelf of the floor-to-ceiling wall of bookshelves in our living room. The album is full of family genealogy, crinkled black and white photos, printed out maps of a long ago Dutch island homeland, lists of relatives from Pella, Iowa, and explanatory notes from my grandmother. At the end of the album, in protective plastic covers, lie originals of the Christmas letters my grandfather faithfully wrote from 1970 to 1995, though really it was my grandma who typed that final letter. I was four years old when he stopped writing the letters.
The reading of these letters has become a ritual of the holidays, or even on days when I feel homesick at college. I barely knew my grandfather. His name was James Bremseth. I called him Grandpa Jim. He was born in North Dakota and became a medical administrator. These are all facts I would come to learn from my mom. He went into the nursing home when I was only seven and passed away from complications to pneumonia (and the continual onslaught of Alzheimer’s) when I was twelve. My grandfather wrote nearly all of these letters on a typewriter of some sort, the last a tan and bulky electric monster.
When I was in late middle school, not too long after first finding the letters, I attempted to write a Christmas letter like Grandpa Jim did. I pulled out my own dear baby blue typewriter that my mom had given me on my twelfth Christmas, found a piece of stationary that had dolphins swimming along the bottom, and tried to write about the goings-on of a family of six in a single year. I respected my Grandpa’s skill at being able to say a lot in a single letter, and yet remain concise. I gave it up after one try. The letters are the way I’ve tried to get to know my grandfather, if only a hint of him. I try to find some sort of connection in the love of words. It’s difficult to try and remember someone you never got to know.
The quintessential memory that I have built up in my mind about Grandpa Jim comes from the opening of his 1974 letter, a cozy holiday image, a warm hug on a cold winter day:
Tonight I’m listening to Christmas records (mood music) as I start ‘the Christmas letter’. Ginny is sewing in the family room, finishing semi-surprise gifts for the kids. Patty is with the folk group at church decorating the House of Philoi (friendship house). Steve is a junior at the University of Illinois – finishing this semester’s classes and preparing for finals, which he will complete before he comes home for the Christmas and semester break. These all mean for us that Christmas is coming. It also means that this year will soon be gone. The Christmas letter is a useful excuse to indulge in ‘the remembrance of things past’.
This is my grandpa, in print, preserved forever in a comfy chair in front of the typewriter. I imagine Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or Bing Crosby singing Christmas carols on the record player in the background, accompanied by the whirring of the black and gold Singer sewing machine my grandma once owned.
I think a lot about memory, the hopes and worries of keeping it or losing it. Both of my grandfathers had Alzheimer’s disease. My Grandma Ginny - my mom’s mom - has dementia. She forgets more and more every day. She remembers that I have a boyfriend. She forgets that she asks me if I’m planning on getting married anytime soon and so she ends up asking twice. I answer definitely not, twice. She is happy now, bragging to the nurses about her granddaughter, but I don’t know for how long she will remember that I called her on her eighty-fifth birthday.
There are some things that Grandma Ginny would like us, and maybe even herself, to not remember. She only has one eye. She’s had one eye since she was two and fell into a rose bush while playing with another little girl, or so the most commonly told story of the accident goes. I didn’t know this until I was in high school. She is ashamed that she has one eye, but now because of the dementia she forgets to take care of the glass one. She’s lost it twice. The first one went rolling down the drain of the sink like a marble in a funnel cup. The second one had a similar fate. She cannot choose what to forget and what to remember any more. The rest of us can do nothing but stand back and watch, and hope that a few good things catch and stay for awhile.
Why do we remember what we do? Do we choose what we think is important? We believe we have a hold over those dearest memories that we hope we will never lose. Photographs are a relatively new invention in the history of humanity- before we had these images to record our favorite moments, we had only words, spoken and then written.
I have some photographs of my Grandpa Jim that show me what he looked like, a little bit of what he did. You can get some sense of a person in facial expressions but when you barely know much about the person at all, you have to imagine more than you can know from a photograph. The way I’ve been able to really get to know Grandpa Jim (and in a sense, get a “full picture”) has been in reading the Christmas letters that he wrote. I find what he hoped to remember and preserve in typewriter ink.
Grandpa Jim was in a coma for two days before he finally passed away. My mom took my brother and me to visit him on one of the days, though I don’t remember which. It is hard to describe what it is like to say your final goodbyes to a person you’re supposed to know, but don’t. He looked sunken, skeletal, lying on the bed in the nursing home. Will and I were scared to get too close, weren’t sure how to act around a dying person. We stood at the foot of the bed, just staring for awhile. Then when we had whispered, “Goodbye Grandpa,” our mom led us out of the room and the nursing home, back to the car and home. It wouldn’t be until much later, when I had finally come across the Christmas letters, that I would finally know who exactly I had said goodbye to.
I wonder if that will be me some day, the old woman lying on the bed, who lived a long life she now can’t remember at all, with people she no longer knows saying their goodbyes. When three members of my family have memory problems, I cannot help but wonder if it is passed down generationally. Will my mom or dad have dementia, or perhaps my brother and I? I watch carefully for signs of forgetfulness in my mom, seeing if she starts forgetting what she’s doing, or someone’s name, or the reason why she is supposed to know someone.
It starts with those times when you walk into a room and forget what you’re doing. For me, it’s usually the kitchen, and when I forget, I always have this tendency to open the fridge, like I could find the answer in between the milk and eggs and vegetables and leftovers. I worry that one normal forgetful moment will begin a landslide of abnormal memory loss.
My mom tells this story of my Grandpa Jim that is very dear to me. I picture the two of them walking down the autumn leaf decorated hallway of the nursing home where Grandpa had now been for several years. The disease has taken a great toll. My mom holds his arm as they walk.
She talks as if he’s never forgotten a thing, though I don’t know how many times she’s had to repeat the same sentence. He takes small, wobbly steps, unsure of his own feet. His focus and his gaze are not all there but he nods and smiles, because he loves my mom. He still remembers his little girl most of the time.
She is telling him about me and my brother, how we are doing in school, how we are dealing with the recent divorce. Then she tells him about Kevin, how he asked her to marry him. How she is very happy after a very long time. And then, just for a moment, he really remembers. He remembers that my mom was married before, that there was a lot of fighting, a lot of anger. He remembers that his little girl is hurting a lot.
He stops suddenly, turns. He looks her straight in the eye and the confusion is momentarily erased by strength and confidence. “I know you are going to be very happy,” he says. Somewhere deep inside, he still knows, he still remembers what is going on. I like this story because it means that though my grandpa forgot my name, forgot the reason why he should know me, he was still there. Not everything was lost.
Christmas letters were a way for Grandpa Jim to remember the happenings of almost 25 years of personal and family life. I wonder if at any time along the way he imagined ever losing his grasp on those memories, and being grateful for the written records. It struck me how much he emphasized memory in many of his letters, especially his 1979 letter, when he wrote “As we look back on the last decade, there are so many memories. Some are sad, but there are also many happy ones.
Among those happy memories are the joining of our lives in a shared experience. Remembering our relatives and friends at Christmas time keeps alive those memories.” The idea of the “shared experience” is one that gives me some relief in all my worries about forgetting or being forgotten. Though a memory disappears, not all is lost. Our lives are intertwined and though one person may begin to forget, another might still remember. We keep holding each other up in our memories, our photographs, our songs, and our stories that we share every year around the holiday dinner table.
This essay was originally published in the Wheaton College literary magazine, Kodon, during my senior year. Other than adjusting some of the paragraphs to better fit an online format, I have not made any edits to this piece. While I have very fond memories of writing it, I can't help but wonder how much I would change if I were to have written it today. How has your voice and style changed in your own writing over the years?