Home for the Holidays When Home Isn’t Safe
This year, like every year, our family celebrated Christmas Eve together. After worship, my children and their families settled into our house. Once the baby was asleep we told stories, downed our favorite foods, sang carols, tackled a topic or two, then rolled off to bed. We rose before dawn (with the baby's help), and met on the stairs—bed hair, pajamas, and all—to find small gifts tucked into the stockings our daughters have known since earliest childhood and their husbands have known since they joined us. No one has missed a single Christmas, and I never stop giving thanks: they want to be here, wrapped in blankets and hugs, in love and tradition. I praise God, for I know it could be otherwise.
Indeed, it was otherwise in my childhood. My father (who died eight years ago) was a church leader and a violent man. His wisdom and insight, his ability to connect with anyone he deemed worthy, and his capacity to help people who had the least reason to expect it let him become a surrogate father to a number of grateful people. Alas, he had threats, humiliations, and blows for his sons. About half of my earliest memories have beatings and cruelties as their centerpiece. And Christmas was often the worst day of the year. On Christmas Eve, he spoke of the night heaven came to earth, and on Christmas day he gave his family a chocolate sampler of hell.
When I left home at 16 I told myself I'd never spend another Christmas in that house, never inflict that on my family. I kept my vow, at a literal level, and yet, for about 15 years, we almost always visited my parents a few days after every Christmas. Why? Well, a brother might be there and my longsuffering mother wanted to see the grandchildren, sing songs, give gifts, find a little joy. And there was the groundless hope that he might repent, confess his sins, or speak a blessing over us. Thousands of times, when I was young, he told me I was useless, worthless, helpless, feckless, and always would be, but every couple years, I presented evidence that he was wrong: “Hey, Dad, thought you'd like to know I defended my dissertation a week ago. I'll be a professor in the fall.” Nothing ever changed, but I kept going home, even though home wasn't safe. The violence stopped, but his curses continued, and he inflicted small wounds on my children. For example:
One of my daughters was earnest about soccer in grade school. Since he'd played soccer, and since my mother hectored him to talk to his grandchildren, he sporadically asked her about soccer when she was eight or nine. Most conversations ended like this:
Grandfather: “Sarah, do you know how soccer was invented?”
Sarah: “Yes Grandpa, soccer was invented by Genghis Khan. After he defeated his enemies, he decapitated them and used their heads to play soccer.”
Grandfather (excitedly): “Yes! Right! He decapitated his enemies and kicked the bloody heads back and forth across a field. That's how he invented soccer! How did you know this?”
Sarah: “You told me, Grandpa. You told me lots of times.”