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Healing the Ghosts of Christmases Past: An American Holiday Story

Shaped like my father by the American mythos that the past is something best left behind, I fled home as fast and as quickly as I could. But as Dickens so well knew, family ghosts have a way of haunting the present.
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Traumatic memories, a study recently revealed, can be encoded into a kind of genetic memory that influences future generations. This finding surprised me not in the least, as growing up the holidays of my Missouri childhood were haunted by the ghost of my paternal grandfather, George Carroll, and the tragedy that befell him on Christmas day, 1935.

Pieced together from fragments told to me growing up, by other family members, and by things my father said as he was dying, the story goes like this: In 1934, when my father, Joe Carroll, was twelve years old, my grandfather had a stroke. With one side of his body paralyzed, Father Carroll was forced to leave his job with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Bedridden, he spent his days secluded in a curtained bedroom on the second story of the family's Altoona house. Sometimes, as my father remembered on his own deathbed, his mother would ask him to take a tray of food up to his father.

"I couldn't, I just couldn't do it. I was too scared to see him. He looked terrible, and I stayed away from that room," recalled my father with a bodily shiver--even as he himself lay dying and disfigured from cancer and alcoholism. "He had changed so much. He didn't look like my father. I didn't recognize him."

But on Christmas day 1935, when Joe was thirteen, my grandfather seemed to take a turn for the better. Though advised by his doctor to avoid any over-excitement, George Carroll felt well enough to come downstairs to share the afternoon holiday meal. The rest is as familiar to me as the Nativity story itself. Each scene, repeated to me over the years, is engraved on my memory -- a series of bleak Christmas cards reminding me of the Norman Rockwell family my father never had. In this tableau, my father sat next to my grandfather. Happy and high-spirited, young Joe joked around, patting his father on the back, urging him to take second and third helpings of the Christmas meal. It was the Depression, and such meals were rare.

Suddenly, with no warning, my grandfather's skin went clammy. His face turned white, he drew a harsh breath, then froze. At exactly 1:20 pm, as his obituary records, his head dropped forward on the table, and stayed there, still. That night, George Fields Carroll's body was laid out in the parlor. No one but my sister and me remembers this part of the story: how my father's older sisters took Joe by the hand and brought him before his father's dead body. In the gloom of the parlor, as my father used to tell us, they blamed him for causing the death of the family patriarch, for thumping his invalid father on the back and encouraging him to eat more. "They were mad at me about Dad's death," was all my father would say in later years. My mother remembers that it was Joe's mother, not his sisters, who Joe felt had blamed him.

Yet because life is a force equal to death, it wasn't long before the seven Carroll brothers and two sisters moved on with their lives, going to war, and starting jobs and families. But as I discovered while researching my father's life story, each year during the Christmas holidays in the decades that followed, in Carroll families around the country, the brothers and sisters turned as one to alcohol to blunt the shock of a memory that refused to die.

"Daddy never celebrated much," recalls one of my cousins of her father. Once, she said, "He was so drunk, he went outside and put a fifth of whiskey in the trunk of the car of my Catholic school principal and Sunday school teacher" who'd come to visit. "Christmas was hell," recalls another cousin of his childhood with his Carroll father. "It just exacerbated his alcoholism. It was a time of intense conflict between all the Christmas carols, wonder, glory, happiness, love -- and then the sheer horror of it all with the drinking and the poverty." From the time he was five, my older cousin tells me, he began reading his father's cheekbones from behind "to tell whether he'd been drinking or not, because I had to know how things were going to go."

How I knew that feeling, and how I knew it especially at Christmas! For most of my childhood years, the hours leading up to Christmas morning were heavy with tension. As Christmas Eve approached, with cooking smells wafting through the house, my father would begin to drink. Huddled in the big farm kitchen, I'd confer with my mother. Yet again, the story of how my grandfather died on Christmas Day would be taken out and recited, our family's version of "The Night Before Christmas."

"He's like this because your father's father died on Christmas Day, dear," my mother would say distractedly, peeling the potatoes at the sink, or standing at the ironing board as she pressed our clothes for Mass. "He blamed himself. He was taken in and raised as the rich foster son of the family down the road. His mother became their maid who cooked and waited on him. And then he crashed the convertible they gave him and never paid them back. And they put him through college, which is why he was able to leave his past behind and work for TWA. Imagine the guilt! I think that's why he never stayed in touch with his foster family after he left home. Too guilty."

As the oldest of four, it sometimes fell to me to keep my father sober enough to get through Christmas, especially the late night drive to attend Midnight Mass. Children of alcoholics hone sharp detective skills and over the years, I observed that, for intervals beginning on Christmas Eve, Joe would start disappearing into his bedroom. It didn't take long to figure out that he'd gone in there to steal sips from the bottle of Smirnoff's he kept hidden in his top bureau drawer. And so, keeping a valiant vigil over my father's sobriety, in and out of the bedroom I would go. I became quite skilled at this domestic maneuver, calculating the minutes after he had closed the door behind him. My interruptions had to be perfectly timed: long enough to allow him to take a sip or two; yet not so long he would get drunk.

Knocking at the door, I would yell out my questions. "Daddy, can you come out and watch TV with us, Frosty the Snowman is on." Or, "Dad what time should we feed the cows tomorrow morning? Before church or after church?" I developed a talent for soothing, for calming my father with a minimum of fuss or drama. I counted myself a success if Joe was able to ferry us all in our Chrysler station wagon along country roads to Midnight Mass, relatively sober.

After Mass, if our plan had worked, and my father hadn't nodded off during the service, we would stop for a late-night snack at the local Truck Stop. Over frosted cinnamon buns and hot chocolate, I could begin to relax. My father was clear and sober; my job was done. We could drive home beneath the stars in peace without wrecking ourselves on the side of the road. With any luck, Joe might even stay sober until Christmas morning when we opened gifts, and later, for turkey dinner. There might even be some warm moments around the television when, if a Perry Como Christmas Special was on, we all might laugh, as we sometimes did, when my mother swooned over the singer in one of his cardigan sweaters, accusing her of having a crush on him. Or so I always hoped.

Shaped like my father by the American mythos that the past is something best left behind, I fled home as fast and as quickly as I could. But as Dickens so well knew, family ghosts have a way of haunting the present. "The unconscious remembers everything," writes Jungian psychoanalyst James Hollis in Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts That Run Our Lives. "The detritus of our lives shows up in remarkable ways, linking us to . . . the people, the commitments, the hopes and oppressions consciousness has forgotten. But psyche remembers and, if neglected, will escalate into psychopathology. Psychopathology . . . means 'the expression of the suffering of the soul.'"

As Hollis infers, it is to heal and set right the present that we revisit the past. Families cause illness, writes psychotherapist Bert Hellinger in Acknowledging What Is, "not because the people are evil, but because fate takes a certain turn that . . . affects all those concerned. It begins with the parents, who have parents of their own and come from families with fates of their own . . . The ties ensure that the fate is carried by all."

Because my psychologically wounded, wandering father was never able to face his past, it became my task to better understand the family story of suffering I'd inherited as my fate. Welcoming my grandfather's exiled spirit into the foreground of my twenty-first century life, I grieved the loss of never having met him. I imagined the grief he must have felt during his illness; and the helpless sadness his young son, my father, and all his children, suffered as well. Taking up the detailed work of remembering -- framing old photos, visiting grave sites, learning about Ireland and the Pennsylvania Railroad, collecting and writing down memories from relatives, talking to therapists about my father's childhood trauma and his stigma of guilt, learning the dates of ancestors' births, deaths, and complete names -- I came to honor my Irish grandfather's place in our family story, and for his hard labor and physical sacrifice in helping to build the country.

Perhaps that is what all the ghosts of our past really want: to be loved and remembered for their lives, and how they shaped us. And while nothing can ever take away the tragedy of that long-ago Carroll Christmas in 1935, my grandfather's soul has, at last, been properly laid to rest. And so, I hope, has my father's.

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today. Adapted from my forthcoming memoir, American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country (Lantern Books).