The first Christmas after my father dies is rough. Dead not even a month, all the usual trappings of the season have a hollowness in them. All the good will among relatives is sincere but tinged with loss and a sense of defeat, a sense that a door has been violently flung open and something allowed in that is unspeakable—for there is not talk of remember when, no he was a good man and did the best he could for all of us, no spoken love expressed or the ache of absence, and certainly no fifty-eight was too Goddamn young to die. And when eyes do meet, the acknowledgment of feelings and knowing all things have changed comes with a slight lifting of eyebrows, a slight tightening of lips in something less than a smile.
But we carry on and avoid the obvious and eat good food and talk of inconsequential things and do what we can for my mother, the bravest one in the room. It is when the keys to the old Volkswagen my father used for work—trips to and from the docks of the Exxon plant—it is when those keys are given to Dennis, the oldest grandson, that emotions begin surfacing.
The gifts I give my mother and brothers and their wives are 25 photographs of my father, three framed collages of his life: as the only child before his brothers are born held in the arms of Papa Cothern and him next to my grandmother and all three standing in the dirt yard in front of their farmhouse; photographs of my father as a schoolboy, a freckled Mississippi Huck Finn; of him older and lanky in a basketball uniform with a ball held high over his head; one of him and my mother posed in the side yard against the Bernardo Street house; a photo in a pith helmet in the wooden bateau he built, the 10 HP purple Mercury engine on the transom pushing him up the Amite River toward his catfish lines; one of him the previous Christmas in his recliner, his jaw cocked to one side as he opens a present.
When the Christmas paper is torn on the framed collages by all at the same time, when the rips are large enough to reveal some of the photographs, the emotions come with words from choked voices and there are no dry eyes around the Christmas tree and the white tissues suddenly appearing in the hands of my mother and sister-in-laws are flags of surrender.