Christmas at My Grandfather’s

This past Monday here in the U.S. we celebrated Labor Day. My paternal grandfather was a laborer. He was also a Bohemian immigrant. Those from much of eastern Europe were denigrated in ways 45 speaks of certain immigrants today. My grandfather was a “hunky.”

When he was sixteen, he lied about his age so that he could work in a Pittsburgh factory, Westinghouse Air Brake. Each work day until he retired he stood at the assembly line.

I once asked him, “Grampa, how were you able to do that day after day, all those years?” He thought for a bit and said, “Well, I’m not sure what you mean. It was only eight hours a day.”

Christmas at My Grandfather’s

The dark stab of pre-dawn
stings my grandfather’s wrists.
He grabs his lunch pail.
The mill still burns,
one shift moving
into the next, men
held to the air
by hunger,
home, the unrelenting
threat of sudden illness,
and the nag of hope
that one kid
might get out.
At Christmas, I remember
only the gift
of the day off,
my grandfather get up
at the same time,
dress, and turn
the tree lights on.
He’d sit in the dark,
stare at the tree,
drift into the branches,
let his mind take its place
among the ornaments
as behind him, over his shoulder,
the sun came up
through the window smudged
with soot and spray-on snow.

–Jack Ridl

First published in Artful Dodge.

Subsequently published in between (Dawn Valley Press, out of print).

Personal History Workshop
On Saturday September 29 from 1-3:30 at the Douglas United Church of Christ, 56 Wall Street, Jack will be offering a workshop on a variety of ways of exploring your personal history. If you want to sign up, and please be sure about it, send an email to Jack at, or use the contact link up there at the top of

Music and Poetry Happenings
On Friday at Uncommon Grounds in Saugatuck, David James will be reading at 7pm. Rob Kenagy and Ganges and Press Delete will be playing starting around 6pm and again after David’s reading. On Saturday, Kenagy, Ganges and Real Umami will be appearing at Virtue Cider beginning at 7pm, along with poet Peter Berghoef. These promise to be great good times for one and all!


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Visit Reader’s World in Holland, The Bookman in Grand Haven, and The Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

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12 thoughts on “Christmas at My Grandfather’s

    • Your telling me this, is a huge affirmation. It’s what I always try to
      have happen. A blue collar diction to get at what belongs to us all.
      My thanks are boundless.

  1. I have read this several times, Jack. Then I read it to Mitch. It made me think of so many people in our lives who worked so hard to make our lives better, easier. And, though I never thought it, I’m pretty sure my grandfathers and our fathers and so many others would also have answered by saying something like yours…that it was only eight hours a day. Or 10 or, from the farmers, dawn till dusk.

    I appreciate your putting it into the words you did and reminding us. Thank you.

    • Marcie you are so consistently kind to me. My thanks are endless.
      It was always so very clear to Julie and me that what lay behind
      your restaurant was a deep and respected and honored heritage.
      Yes, oh my yes and yes.

  2. I can picture your granddad sitting by the lighted tree in a dark room, his mind wandering through the ornaments, beyond the branches, and into Chrismases past. I do the same every year as I sit alone in our quiet living room, staring cross-eyed at our tree. Old times there are not forgotten.

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