The Xmas decorations went up last Sunday.
They’re kept in a series of boxes, more like oversized Tupperware containers, in an unfinished room in the basement. We call it the Dirt Room because of the dirt. It’s some place you’d never go into until less you were intent on retrieving something.
I pulled out the artificial Douglas pine with pre-attached Christmas lights, the box filled with trinkets and tchotchkes of snowmen and miniature reindeer and the 1960s tinsel tree with matching spinning color wheel stored neatly in a half-century old laundry soap box. It’s a decade plus worth of Xmas decorations my wife and I have collected. It’s funny to look at considering we’re not much for decoration, and yet we have all of these things.
It looks good when it’s finally put up.
Because December comes but once a year, I forget which boxes contain Christmas decoration and those filled with random stuff we’ve collected through the year. Bringing up every box, we found Frosty and Santa and the glittery Rudolph. But between the stockings and antique Kris Kringles, I found something that I thought was long gone—or at the bare minimum, long forgotten.
My grandparents, Tom and Hazel Devlin died about 8 years ago. It all went south fast for them. I guess when you’re in your 80s, you better recognize every day is important. Tom Devlin was a special man. I’ll talk about him at another time. I don’t much feel like revisiting what an amazing man he was and the impact he made in my life. My mother’s mother, Hazel Ann Mitchell Devlin, was as close to a saint I’ve ever met. She was the perfect grandmother for any child and I was lucky enough to call her mine.
Born in Ely, Nevada, a long time ago, Hazel found her way to San Diego when my great-grandfather, Ralph, took his young family for one of his many cockamamie get-rich-quick schemes. I don’t know how it worked out, but my grandmother was a poor, first generation Irish woman with more problems than solutions growing up. Against the odds, she became a nurse—a damn fine one at that. She survived the Great Depression and met a smart, handsome, devilish man named John David Mitchell, my biological grandfather.
I never met John David Mitchell. He died five months before I was born. That must have been hard on my mother and my grandmother. I think about this a lot.
I heard stories about my biological grandfather. I heard that he was rich, he was a cad, he wasn’t risk adverse. He might have been a great father to my mother and her siblings, but he might not have been the best spouse. This is forgiven, not because I never met him, but because he died way too young at 54. Any pain he inflicted upon other was paid to him a thousand-fold. To add insult to injury, he didn’t really die—he succumbed. He spent the last years in his life weakened and immobilized from the destabilizing effects from a stroke.
Irish folks have a way of poisoning themselves with alcohol and avoiding heart health and saying fuck it simply because any day alive is better than being in the grave. I never met John David Mitchell, but I repeat his mistakes. I try hard not to repeat those mistakes too often.
John David Mitchell is fresh in my thoughts because of those damn boxes I brought up from the Dirt Room. Years ago, after Grandma Hazel passed and her possessions found their way to all corners of the Mitchell family, I took home boxes of photos, papers, birthday cards, simple notes and other collected items. I never felt like I was worthy of taking all of these items, I just knew it was important for me to protect them.
And because they needed to be protected, I never really looked at them. They remained safely secured in boxes, hidden from light in a room that I rarely go into.
Until last Sunday.
On a whim, I took the boxes into my basement office and opened them up. Inside was a flood of memories. It was filled with photos of me as a kid. Pictures of my dad and mom when they were young, in love and still married. There were notes my Grandma Hazel wrote me when I was too young to read and the program from my mother’s high school graduation. There were 8mm film canisters with movies I have no idea what’s on them, sketches I made before I could handle anything more than a crayon and pictures of my mother’s older brother, John, who died way too young.
There isn’t a day I don’t think of my Uncle John. He was the smartest, most decent, damaged and lovely person I’ve ever known. Subconsciously, I try to befriend anyone who reminds me of John Mitchell because guys like him are rare. He died when I was 22. I never said good bye to him or told him what he meant to me.
John Mitchell is worth his own story one of these days.
Through all the memories was my grandfather’s family trust. Dated 1945, it listed his assets and final decrees. It took care of grandmother, provided for his children and even made special considerations for Uncle John. John suffered from epidermolysis bullosa, a painful genetic skin condition that causes blisters and cracks in the skin. It made Uncle John’s life a living Hell but that never stopped him from being the best-read man I’ve ever met.
I really do miss Uncle John.
The trust was detailed. My grandfather’s assets were extensive. There is a subhead of securities he owns for over $47,000, in 1945 dollars—that’s over $500,000 in today’s dollars. The list was every aggressive stock from the 1940s. $32,00 here, $19,500 there. You do the math. It goes without saying this is why my grandparents could afford the nicest, coolest home I’ve ever seen in El Cajon, California. This was a long time ago, but it’s better to have it than not.
Tucked into the trust was something beautiful. It was ten stock certificates. Ten stunningly designed stock certificated dated from 1960 with my grandmother’s name on them, Hazel D. Mitchell. These documents were issued by the California Mineral Company. I don’t know anything more about them with the exception that they are very pretty and very old. Older than me by 14 years. Something to think about. I sincerely doubt they’re worth more than the paper they’re printed on.
Thanksgiving is when we’re supposed to give thanks to those that impact our lives. I like Thanksgiving. I like thanking those that make my life better. Christmas is more complicated. I like the lights, I like the traditions and frankly, I like that we’ve been putting up the same silly decorations for over a decade. Traditions are good.
Christmas is the time to struggle over giving gifts, sending out the right cards and cocktail parties. I’m glad I like cocktails. Probably because that’s in my DNA. Damn Irish blood. Think about those that made you better by Christmas and maybe start your own traditions. Over time, you’ll be happy you did.