Amongst the cornucopia that comprises our extended families we surely have more steps, halves and exes than most. Many of the reasons why we have so many steps, halves and exes happened long before my beloved and I were married and rather than chew over the ancient history of how we reached this point, I try to use the mantra 'speak as you find'. Not always easy but better than looking back at things that happened so many years ago.
Family gatherings therefore can be rather challenging and although we were married nearly thirty years ago, I can still remember the machinations and negotiations that went on to achieve an acceptable order for the receiving line at our wedding. Christmas can be challenging for the same reasons.
Christmas has occurred here for almost all of the twenty five years we have lived in this house. When the children were little I never wanted to drag them from their newly acquired and rapidly unwrapped presents to go somewhere else so we made Christmas a celebration in our own home and anyone and everyone is invited. Tradition demands that it is always the same and only a few minor changes in the dramatis personae are permitted.
Christmas dinner takes place at teatime and with most of the family already staying, we only await the arrival of my beloved's mother and stepfather for the feasting to begin. So, early on Christmas afternoon, the other granny (not the intrepid one, obviously, as she will have been in residence for days by then) and Uncle John, her husband, arrive. The terms 'uncle' and 'auntie' are used for special people in our children's lives - too special just to be called by their christian or surnames and John is certainly one of these. He is the nearest thing to a grandpa that all but my oldest can remember. Both my father and my father-in-law died in very quick succession over twenty years ago and aside from Uncle Ernest (yet again, not an uncle or relative of any kind) who used to be the gamekeeper, then gardener and then just came for coffee every Friday and who also died quite a few years ago, Uncle John is almost a grandpa to the four children.
My beloved's mother will arrive swathed from top to toe in either pink or red, frequently including a hat and always sunglasses which she wears regardless of the weather and will not be removing even though she is inside. Behind her, hovering in the doorway is John, in a supporting role as ever, and waiting in our rather cramped hall whilst granny decides what clothing she will remove. I always wait for John, take his sheepskin coat and he'll say 'Hello, love,' in the same familiar rasping drawl.
During the cracker-banging, shouting, laughing cacophony of the meal, at some point John will find his way to the kitchen, glass of red wine in hand, and offer to help. I never let him but he'll stand and chat and for a few brief moments it will feel like we are brothers in arms. We'll chat about books or tennis or, latterly, golf - things we have in common, and although we could talk about a million other things, I know that's what it will be and I will also know that, perhaps more than anyone else, he will appreciate not just the lengths we have gone to today, my beloved and I, to make a lovely Christmas celebration for them, but all the preparation that has gone on before. And that will be a special moment amongst other special moments on my Christmas Day.
I don't think he'll be here this Christmas. Nor any of the Christmases that lie ahead. But I shall remember him. His rasping drawl, his sheepskin coat and his kind words. We often wished that he would raise his voice, to stand up and be counted. But that wasn't John and his way was the quiet one. 'Bye, love.'
PostScript: I wrote this a week ago. Last night, Christmas Eve, John passed away on the stroke of midnight. We will miss his quiet thoughtfulness. A sad Christmas for us this year.