I remember waking up early on Christmas morning, eager to see what gifts were in our stockings. Then my parents, my sister and I would pile into the green Chevy Nova and drive to my grandparents’ house for Christmas diner.
The drive seemed to take hours and I’m sure my sister and I squabbled in the backseat. Once the car took a left onto the dirt road the excitement would begin to mount. There were two wooden bridges to cross and a sharp corner by an abandoned house. Then the white farm house would come into view. As we piled out of the car my grandmother would be standing in the screen door welcoming us into the house. As a child I thought she spent all morning standing there, now I realize she could hear the car coming across the wooden bridge.
My grandmother was an elegant woman with a friendly smile and a kind word for everyone. Her sense of beauty enabled her to decorate the interior of the house in a simple but welcoming manner. The table was set with nice china and a homemade centerpiece completed the Norman Rockwell look.
My grandfather was a preacher and dinner always started with a prayer. My sister and I loved to sit next to him because during the meal he would cause the table to thump and it would startle us. He would chuckle and my grandmother would scold my grandfather in a friendly tone of voice.
Once dinner was finished and the dishes cleaned up, everyone would enter the living room for gifts. There a beautiful wood stove warmed the room, while a grandfather clock kept track of time. The tree stood on the edge of the handmade braided rug in front of the window.
In December of 1978 the tree captured my attention. Dozens of paper sunbonnet baby dolls hung from the branches. Immediately fascinated I went close to the tree to examine the different patterns and designs. Even now my memory of the simple elegance of those decorations warms my heart. Tentatively I asked my grandmother if she thought I could ever make something so beautiful.
A week later my grandmother mailed me a copy of an article* with the pattern and instructions for the sunbonnet baby dolls. I don’t remember what the presents were that year, but I still have a copy of the article.
My grandmother passed away 17 years ago. At the funeral, I prepared a poem about how she would be waiting for us at heaven’s gate just like she had always waited for our arrival at Christmas. For many years I looked forward to seeing her again. This past year my journey has brought me from faith to atheism. I no longer believe in an afterlife where I’ll be reunited with loved ones. I felt I had lost my grandmother completely.
Recently my boss remarked on the elegance with which I had handled some recent job challenges. I almost cried. I knew without a doubt that I had not lost my grandmother, for her influence lives on in the fabric of my life. This holiday season I’m celebrating the richness of life and creating memories with those I love. I’m making and giving away sunbonnet baby doll ornaments. Now my life is richer as an atheist for instead of focusing on some future reunion I’m enjoying the memories now.
*Lorraine Wood, “Those charming Christmas tree cutouts,” NRTA Journal (National Retired Teachers Association) (November-December 1978): 24-26
Gwen Bradshaw is a business analyst, wife, mother and grandmother. In her spare time she enjoys acting with her improv comedy team and writing about her deconversion from Christianity.