Elmer Nesteby Family Christmas Card cropped for Facebook

Another Blue Christmas

The Christmas holiday is supposed to be a joyous time of year. Families gather to give gifts, share stories, delight in children, and be merry through the darkest days of the year. Unfortunately, the past several years haven’t been so merry for our family.

Nesteby family Christmas card, 1957 or 1958. My wife’s late grandmother Martha Nesteby Van Loy is seated front and center.

Many a Blue Christmas

On Christmas Eve 2010, we were at my in-laws’ house when my parents called to tell me my grandfather had collapsed and might not make it. We changed plans, drove six-and-a-half hours to Grand Island, Nebraska, and were at my grandfather’s bedside when he died at 11:30 Christmas Eve. Not exactly the gift Santa was supposed to bring.

Last year my aunt died suddenly the day after Christmas. She was just 61. Once again, our holiday plans changed. New Years weekend was spent not with friends and champagne but rather attending her funeral in Sioux Falls and helping my cousins clean out her house. The deaths of my grandfather and aunt mean Christmas will always be tinged with sadness, especially for my dad.

We made big plans with both sides of our family this year. Our daughter is two, so this is the first year she’s old enough to get super excited about Christmas. Everyone was looking forward to it. We were going to spend the days before Christmas with my wife’s family in Mankato. On Saturday the 23rd, we would all drive to tiny Lucan, Minnesota, (pop. 180) to celebrate Christmas with my mother-in-law’s family. My wife would get to see her ten aunts and uncles, many of he first cousins, and Grandma Martha, matriarch of the family. Martha just turned 84 on December 20th, so it would be a double celebration. Then we would spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my immediate family. Finally, the 26th would be a day just for us. My wife and I were excited to have a day off without our two year old. We intended to see the new Star Wars movie.

Unfortunately, the holiday curse struck again this year, and with a vengeance. First, on December 21, my grandmother’s brother Pat passed away. My grandmother is 92 and has a failing memory. The death of her only sibling has been quite hard on her. In a terrible cycle, she forgets it happened and then learns about it all over again. It’s really disheartening.

Then the next morning my mother-in-law called to tell us that my wife’s grandma Martha had died suddenly overnight. We were planning to spend time with her in Lucan the very next day. The family still go together in Lucan on the 23rd, but it was a somber Christmas gathering as Martha’s 11 children arranged her funeral instead of working on plans for the family reunion that had been scheduled for next summer in honor of her 85th birthday. Christmas itself was still fun (that’s the purpose of two-year-olds), but the joy was tampered by shock and emotional exhaustion. On the 26th, instead of seeing Star Wars, we drove back to Lucan for Martha’s visitation. The funeral and burial took place on the 27th, a frigid day as we awoke to a temperature of 14 degrees below zero.  And of course, our two year old came down with a fever. (Par for the course at this point.) At least our car started.

Look for the Silver Lining

I have tried to find silver linings in this seemingly endless series of unfortunate events. For one thing, Christmas is a time for family. Deaths too bring families together. It is as if the deceased knew their families would be better able to grieve together and to support one another because they were already planning to be together for the holidays. Indeed, by making us think about losing a family member, all of these Christmas deaths set our holiday priorities in high relief. It’s easy, especially with children, to get caught up in the excitement of giving and receiving gifts. But Christmas is about family first and gifts a distant second (or, for some people, God first, family second, gifts a distant third). Yes, we get nice things for Christmas, but they mean little without the important people in our lives.

That was Martha’s philosophy. Martha’s greatest gifts—and she would have agreed—were her children and grandchildren. She has 54 living descendants and another one on the way (the baby my wife and I are expecting in April). When you add in her five siblings, a dozen nieces and nephews, and all of the spouses and in-laws who spent time with her, you see how many lives she touched. It’s a pretty remarkable family for such an unassuming woman from Lucan, Minnesota.

The final silver lining I draw from deaths around Christmas is this: The holiday is supposed to be one of hope—the birth of a savior, anticipation of the longer and brighter days of spring, hope for the future embodied by giggling children. We find hope when we look not at the life we lost, but at those still living and yet to be born. In Martha’s case, that’s a lot of wonderful people.