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December 19, 2009

Cody Mcfadyen: Holiday Memories and Books

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Cody McFadyen --- author of four thrillers, including THE DARKER SIDE and ABANDONED --- discusses some of his family's most cherished holiday traditions, and the one in particular that he knows will always continue.

We were poor when I was growing up. I’m not talking the "couldn’t get the newest iPhone" kind of poor. I mean impoverished. We ate spam and fried onions and all our furniture were hand-me-downs. This was back in the days when even the best TVs had rabbit-ears, and long before such a thing as the internet was available in the public domain. You tended to get your entertainment from two sources: life itself, and books, books, books. Christmas brought the two together.

We had all kinds of traditions. We each had a "special ornament." This was an ornament selected and given to each of the grandchildren by the grandparents. I got mine in 1976 --- a sterling silver Santa, with the year engraved on the back. It was hung by me on my grandparents tree for many Christmases, and was passed on to my parents when my grandparents were gone. It’s pulled out every year and has hung on one branch or another for thirty-three years. It’s probably the single longest running tradition in my life.

There was a complex gift-wrapping tradition amongst the men in my family. It was called "present disguise" (among other things, depending on how aggravated someone got), and consisted of packing a present in such a way as to make it impossible to guess the true contents. One memorable occasion: My uncle had gotten my dad a wallet. He put the wallet in a small box and threw in three or four marbles. That box was taped inside a bigger box. My uncle cut a hole in the bigger box and stuck the cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels about halfway through the hole. Then he wrapped the whole affair.

My dad picked it up and shook it carefully. He heard the marbles rattling around. He examined the strange, wrapped cylinder sticking out from the side. “Well,” he said, “based on the weight --- I’m going to guess it’s a wallet.”

Enjoyment of Christmas itself was the most sacred thing, but after that came the books. My family is a family that reads, and it always has been. I went through my parents' photo albums the other day and was struck by how many candid shots of someone caught reading a book I found. When we were poor, we used the library most of the time, but somehow I always got books at Christmas. I can only recall one Christmas where that wasn’t the case, and to be fair, that was before I knew how to read.

I have memories of curling up on my grandparents hearth, floor pillow at my back, book in my hands, certain that the world was a safe, secure and decent place. Safe enough that I could just let it all go and immerse myself in the world I was reading about. I know better now, of course, but those memories still sustain me. They keep me from lapsing into cynicism, which is possibly the primary purpose of good childhood memories.

A new Christmas is almost here and I have to sit back and compare. Things have changed, in that slow, living-of-life way that makes it all seem normal. My parents are senior citizens, and my grandparents are long gone. My cousin is in his early twenties and he just had his first child, a son of his own. I got that silver Santa from my grandparents almost thirteen years before he was even born, and I remember him when he was a baby, too. Mind blowing.

But here we are again, and one thing I can promise you hasn’t changed: plenty of books will be gifted.

You know, now that I think about it --- giving books at Christmas may actually be the single longest running tradition in my life.

As it should be.

Merry Christmas.

-- Cody McFadyen

Tomorrow, Eloisa James and Katrina Kenison each share stories of gratitude over their families and their shared love of the written word.