October 22, 2020

Our First Christmas With Grandma

The writer in the family is my wife, Denise. She’s a professional editor, heads our school publications operation and writes a bookful of creative ministry material every year. I can’t get her to blog, but if I could, this is the kind of gold you’d be reading.

You can write denise at denisespencer@mail.com

Our First Christmas With Grandma by Denise Day Spencer

It is our first Christmas with Grandma.

She came to live with us two months ago. Eighty-three years old, increasingly frail, almost completely blind, she needs us now. She’s a great Grandma. She’s a great mother-in-law. I love her dearly.

And I’m still adjusting.

The day after Christmas, we must return to our hometown to move Grandma out of her apartment. We have a plan. We’ve rented a truck. We’ve told her countless times how it will all go down.

Grandma doesn’t believe us. She keeps saying things like, “If you ever get me moved out,” and “I don’t know how on earth you’re going to do it.” The other day she flatly told my husband, “I just don’t think you can do it, Mike.”

We’ve told her which day we’re going, how many days we’re staying, and when we are returning. Then we hear her on the phone today telling her brother. “I don’t know if we’re going or not. We might go next week. I just don’t know.” Excuse me?

We all know better than to bring up the subject of the move around Grandma. But this morning, at our special Christmas Eve breakfast, I do the unthinkable. I not only bring up the taboo topic, but do so in a way that makes my husband feel that I, too, have no confidence in his ability to handle this situation. Michael is angry and hurt. I apologize. I’m a jerk.

I spend most of the day cooking. I don’t mind; it’s a treat for me. But Grandma frets about how hard I’m working, and the fact that she can’t help. She feels compelled to come into the kitchen and look around, one eye blind, the other barely seeing. If she notices something she doesn’t recognize, she wants to inspect it, handle it. Years of being the mom, the grandma, the cook have left her with an irresistible urge to do something in the kitchen, even if it’s just checking to make sure I’ve turned off the coffeemaker, or tucking the tin foil just a bit tighter around the plate of cookies.

Now I’m one of those cooks who wants to be left alone. Offer to help me once–not because you mean it, but strictly as a courtesy–and then go take a seat on the couch. I’ll call you when it’s ready. But Grandma wanders in and out of the kitchen while I cook. She always stands in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, so that anyone wanting access to either area must ask her politely to step aside. Then she stands in front of the refrigerator. And I need eggs. And butter. And milk. You get the idea.

Utterly unable to learn from past mistakes, every Christmas Eve I forget just how early I need to have supper on the table to allow us to have a leisurely meal before going to church. And every Christmas Eve it takes me considerably longer to get the meal ready than I think it will. So by 6:00 Michael is looking at the clock and getting worried. Now he’s hanging around in the kitchen with Grandma. Too much help. Too little time.

I set the table, opening the china cabinet to get out our best dishes. Grandma, sensing Michael’s uneasiness, tries to be helpful. “Oh, I wouldn’t get all fancy if I was you, Denise.” “But you don’t understand!” I want to say. We always use our good china on Christmas Eve. It’s our family tradition. Just like we will use her white china for Christmas breakfast and my grandmother’s dishes for dinner on Christmas Day.

Grandma inspects the turkey, fresh from the oven. I’ve baked and basted it 15 minutes longer than the instructions stated it should be cooked. She wiggles one leg. “It might have to be cooked more,” she says. “If the leg doesn’t move it means it’s not done enough.” I want to say, “Well if it’s not done enough we’ll just all have to get food poisoning, because I don’t have TIME to cook it any longer!”

I finally get the meal on the table. I’ve dumped too much milk and too little salt into the mashed potatoes and they’re runny and tasteless. I didn’t have time to make gravy. I nearly burned the rolls. We rush through our family Advent readings and gulp down our meal so I can get things put away.

How I long to be like my mother, who began doing the extended family holiday dinners when she was my age or younger. At 72, she can still whip up a full meal for 13 with seemingly no effort. I can barely feed my family of five. Oh, I hope my kids don’t give me grandchildren any time soon. I’m so not ready.

It’s off to our Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols. We must take drinks and cookies for our after-church refreshments, the orders of service, my piano music, my lap dulcimer, my purse. And Grandma. Too much stuff. Too little time.

Maybe Christmas really is a humbug.

Hurried and hassled, I still need to practice my dulcimer song one last time. As Michael greets the visitors I steal up to the dark balcony. I need a few moments to be sure my fingers can still find the frets.

The service is beautiful. It’s the biggest crowd our tiny church has ever had except for a wedding or a funeral. But at the piano, I manage to bungle some part of each and every one of the nine carols. Well, why not? I haven’t practiced. I’ve been cooking all day.

The service ends with communion. As I hold the bread and grape juice in my hands, I bow my head. I feel drained. Too much food eaten too quickly is still sitting on my stomach like a brick. My cooking was mediocre at best. I made my family choke down what should have been a delightful holiday meal. My music was unpracticed. I was unloving and disrespectful to my husband. I felt impatient toward Grandma.

As a wife, daughter-in-law, mother, Christian…I’m really rather pitiful.

I look at the bread and juice. Despite all my failures, He came for me. Despite all my sin, He came for me.

It’s sprinkling when we leave, but still warm for December. Grandma has really enjoyed the service. On the way home, my daughter reminds me–as if I need reminding–that because she’s getting married in six months this will be her last-ever Christmas Eve with us. I link arms with her and snuggle her to me tightly as my son makes us chuckle with an impromptu comedy routine.

Home again, I set on the kitchen table a beautiful chocolate pie given to us by a church friend. It’s covered in foil. From the corner of my eye, I see Grandma approach the table. “Not the pie!” I mentally plead. “Please don’t mess with the pie!” She reaches out with both hands and pats the mound of foil. Then she presses down, effectively destroying the lovely meringue swirls I know Scott has worked so hard to create. “WHY couldn’t you just leave it alone?” I want so ask. But I know. She just needed to do something. Satisfied, she ambles off to bed.

Michael, the kids and I sit down at the kitchen table to–leisurely at last–enjoy steaming mugs of Christmas punch and slabs of smooshy pie. No one has thrown up yet. Maybe the turkey really was O.K. We talk. We laugh. We are a family of four again for one, last Christmas Eve.

Maybe Christmas isn’t such a humbug after all.

As I look at my children’s eyes twinkling in the flicker of the Advent candles, I suppose that someday I’ll be living with one of them. Tottering around the kitchen, smashing meringues.

Then may I still remember. He came for me.


  1. Well, I think this is outstanding and I think Denise is exactly the kind of humble, well grounded sister that the church needs. I would encourage you not to expect too much of yourself. Taking in an elderly relative is one of life’s greatest challenges and generational gaps in priorities and worldview do not diminish with age. Our parents, like us, are a product of their upbringing.

    Wow, having a Christmas meal and church on the same night seems really challenging. If we were you, having to deal with services and music and so-forth, we’d be eating sandwiches. Tonight we had baked chicken and frozen veggies, for instance. Put Mike to work. Make him grill something.

    One of my most cherished recent memories is a visit to the home of the parents of some good friends. We met these folks when we were all in our 30’s and this was only the second time we’d met their parents, who are in their 70’s. Anyway, “we kids” were staying up late playing Scattergories, and yakking about the current political situation and whatnot. The mom was making a phone call, and the dad admonished us to “Hush now, when momma is on the phone”. I could not believe that I, a 40-year old man, had just been told to pipe down like a teenager. It made me think of Dave Ramsey’s “powdered butt” syndrome: Once somebody has powdered your butt, they don’t want to take your advice about anything.

    My parents both died before I was 30, and I’ve often wondered what it must be like to interact with parents as an adult child. To share the concerns of marriage, parenting, switching careers, etc. Please cherish it, or at least continue to bear it in the thankful fashion that you do.

  2. Denise, I very much enjoyed your story. My wife and I just finished our first Thanksgiving/Christmas since my grandmother passed away. We had cared for her for five years before her passing at age 94, and probably should have stepped in a bit sooner; but when the whole thing started we were 39 (me) and 29 (Laurie) and were really blindsided by it all.

    For us it was a very difficult time; my grandmother became quite paranoid and had numerous psychotic episodes…bitterness had been her closest friend for so many years. The memory I most cherish took place the night of a reception for my first photography exhibit last February. Things had come together in my life after a long period of struggle. My grandmother was able to attend and after a quick tour of the exhibit sat in a chair in the middle of the gallery while I met and conversed with visitors. At one point as I moved back and forth she waved to me “Kent, Kent…” I bent down to listen to her “…I’m so proud of you.”

    Two Saturdays later I received the call informing me that she’d passed away. The rush of the ensuing funeral services transitioned to the rush of a busy year and it wasn’t until I wrote our yearly Christmas letter that I reconnected with this memory.

    It’s a very good and hard thing to care for our elders.

  3. Well written, and so poignant.
    And yes, He came for us all.

    AMMMen, and AMMMen.

  4. Denise,

    Thank you for your thoughts; I’m seconding Mike’s nomination that you blog a bit more…is internetnun taken yet. Like you, I find myself every week looking at the bit of bread in my hands and marveling that he would die for sinners like me. I break the bread in my hand, reminding myself that I broke that beautiful, sacred body, as I crush the body between my teeth. But it is with joy that I wash that broken body down with the juice of Christ’s blood, knowing that it was his blood that has made me clean.

    And then I go out and act the jerk again…thankfully we celebrate communion every week, I need the reminder that often.

    On another note, why is it that Satan pushes our buttons right before we’re going to church? My wife and I have had some of our best fights on the drive to church! 😎

    Thanks for your message of humility and honesty, and thanks to both of you for being such good examples of those willing to care for their elderly parents. My wife and I are facing the prospect of taking in her widowed and unhealthy mother…of 54. Could be a long time of adjustment, but I’m glad to see people taking the responsibility for the elderly and needy that we all should.

  5. Denise, you are an encouragement. Keep writing.

  6. Boy, that was fantastic–not only a great message, but very well-written as well. I would love to see more material by Denise on the site (or perhaps her own blog?).

  7. Denise: Wondeful article. You all were always such a blessing to me and my family, no matter what stressors you felt or didn’t feel behind the scenes. So just relax! We love you just the way you are, as does your family.

    A great line: “Tottering around the kitchen, smashing meringues.” Good stuff!