Tag Archive | Christmas

Christmas Trip, Part 2: Ritual and Tradition

Every other year, all through my childhood, we spent Christmas in Ohio with my mom’s family. (On alternate years, my dad had to take his turn as the on-call anesthesiologist.) I looked forward to those family Christmases so much, I think I started counting the days in September. The big family tradition was a Christmas Eve potluck, the whole clan coming together at my Uncle Fritz and Aunt Ellen’s house. I fondly recall my cousin Betty’s delicious pies and singing Christmas carols all together and Uncle Fritz dressing up as Santa to hand out the presents. I remember, as my generation grew up and started having kids, how crowded that little house became — tables laid end to end from the kitchen all the way to the front porch — and how full of love and laughter it always was. I remember falling asleep on Christmas Eve next to my cousin Susan, with her brother camped out on the floor beside the bed so my parents could have his room. “Shhhhh!” he would say. “Did you hear that? It sounded like sleighbells!”

Until this year I hadn’t been back to Ohio at the holidays for over two decades. The torch has been passed to the next generation, and my cousin Frank and his wife are now the hosts for Christmas Eve. Over the years the exchanging of gifts has evolved into its own ritual. Everyone brings one gift and they are passed around the circle as my cousin Robby reads The Night Before Christmas. It was fun to see him in that role, to watch him be Uncle Rob to a whole new generation of cousins.

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After the story and the gift exchange came the carol singing, which has always been my favorite part of Christmas Eve. Songbooks were handed around and, as I heard my family’s voices raised together in song, I realized just how much I had missed being a part of that. I got a lump in my throat when, on a lyric about Mary with the babe in her arms, my eye fell on my cousin with her toddler daughter sleeping on her lap.

I think my favorite moment all night, though, was when the group skipped “O Christmas Tree.” My cousin Shellyn, sitting next to me, tried to insist that we sing it but wasn’t being heard… so I just started belting out “O Christmas Tree.” Shellyn and her sisters joined in, and we drowned out the other song until everybody was singing “O Christmas Tree.” For a few moments I was a teenager again, instigating with my cousins.

Mom loves the singing, too, and she loved seeing the whole family at once. And Betty’s pies are as good as ever!

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Me, Mom, and my Aunt Alice – Christmas Eve

 

I’m a big one for rituals and traditions, always have been. It makes me melancholy to consider that my particular branch of our family tree ends with me, that there is no next generation to whom I can hand down the boxes of my mom’s old family photos or into the toe of whose Christmas stockings I can place the traditional tangerine. But my cousins on Mom’s side are keeping the family tree healthy and I think our traditions are in good hands.

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No News Is Good News

It’s been very quiet on this blog because there’s been nothing significant to report, and for that I am grateful. Mom is still feeling good, getting around well with her walker, enjoying the company at the care home.

She spent a couple days with me at Thanksgiving and a couple days with me at Christmas. We attended the early Christmas Eve service at her church, drove around looking at Christmas lights and then had a quiet dinner together at my place. Christmas Day we slept late, had brunch with a friend, then opened our stockings. She watched holiday movies on TV while I cooked our Christmas dinner, and after that we opened the presents around my little tree.

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In short, it was a perfectly normal holiday. At the start of 2014, I would hardly have dared to hope that such a thing would be possible again. Quiet and low-key as it was, every minute was a treasure.

Now that the hustle and bustle of the holidays are over, as I look to the year ahead, I realize that I need to take advantage of the “break” her current state of wellbeing affords me and focus on my own health and career while I can.

So it may continue to be a bit quiet here, but no news is good news.

So this is Christmas…

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun…”

Many years those opening lines from John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” have haunted me with a sense of a wasted year. Another year over and no closer to writing my memoir or getting out of debt or accomplishing any of the other goals that I set for myself at the start of the year.

Not this year.

What have I done this past year? I moved my mom out of her apartment and into assisted living in January. I took on the responsibility of having her power of attorney, managing her finances and being her healthcare advocate. With the help of my brother and sister, I cleaned out her storage unit. Then I found her an assisted living facility close to me and, again with my brother’s help, moved her from Arizona to California. I think I can confidently check off “be there for my mom” on my list of resolutions for 2013. Done and done.

So, for once, it’s with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that I look back on my year.

With so much going on, and especially with my mom being ill most of November, I’ve had a hard time getting into the holiday spirit this year. I never got around to sending cards or putting up any decorations. But last night I had the opportunity to do a small thing that filled me with holiday joy.

While shopping for stocking stuffers for Mom and me at the drugstore, I saw these soft fleece throw blankets on sale 3 for $10. I bought three, one for each of my mom’s table mates at the retirement community, and I also picked up some chocolate truffles for each of them. I delivered the wrapped gifts at dinner last night, telling the Muslim couple with a smile that I understand they don’t celebrate Christmas so they can call these “Happy New Year” gifts. The woman looked in the bag I handed her and exclaimed that it was too much. No, it’s not, I told her. They’re just little things, to say thank you for making my mom welcome here. Her husband smiled at me across the table and said “Thank you, habibti” (Arabic for “sweetheart”). I was touched by the endearment and he seemed pleased that I knew what it meant. They put the gifts aside to open when they visit their daughter.

But the real joy came when my mom’s other table mate, an Italian gentleman I’ll call Dominic, chose to open his gifts right there at the table. He opened the truffles first and told me that he loves chocolate and he would save them to eat on Christmas Day. “I’ll be here alone,” he said, “having a cold sandwich or whatever they send to my room. And now I’ll have chocolates for dessert!” A little piece of my heart broke hearing that. Dominic was alone on Thanksgiving, too, and I don’t understand why he doesn’t spend the holidays with his family. He has a wife and a daughter, and I’m pretty sure that the wife at least lives locally. Dominic has to be in assisted living because he has Parkinson’s Disease and his elderly wife wasn’t able to care for him anymore. Bad enough that they can no longer live together, but to be apart on Christmas? To me, it’s just unthinkable. When he opened the fleece and felt how soft it was, he looked across the table at me with his eyes just shining – deep wells of appreciation and surprised pleasure – and he must have thanked me a dozen times.

As we all got up to leave the table, Dominic told us that he was going back to his room to wrap up in his new warm blanket and watch TV. After wishing the other couple a happy holiday, Mom and I followed him out of the dining room – patiently waiting as he struggled with tremors and made slow progress with his walker. At the door to his room, he turned to wish us a Merry Christmas and to tell me he wished he could reciprocate with a gift. I smiled and told him “Dominic, the best possible reciprocation is to see you smiling and know that my little gifts made you happy. Merry Christmas.”

I still hate to think of the poor gentleman alone on Christmas day, eating a cold lunch in his room in front of the TV. But when I bring Mom back to the community on Thursday, I’ll bring Dominic a plate of leftovers from our Christmas dinner. I think he’ll like that.

And so happy Christmas
We hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones,
The old and the young…

Christmas Past and Christmas Present

Watching “A Christmas Story” on TBS today, I started thinking about everything my mom did to make Christmas special when I was growing up. I can’t remember a single Christmas of my childhood when what I wanted most wasn’t under the tree on Christmas morning. She encouraged me to believe in Santa Claus, even buying (and hiding) separate wrapping paper after I commented innocently at age four, “Mommy, Santa uses the same wrapping paper you do!” We baked Christmas cookies together. She rarely baked, but once a year she made a special Christmas bread with candied fruit and nuts. (I keep hoping I’ll find her recipe for that bread as I go through the kitchen things.) Christmas dinner was always something special – turkey with dressing, or occasionally ham or Cornish hens, fluffy mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, and at least two kinds of pie – all made from scratch. The rest of the year she took shortcuts in cooking and was all about convenience, but not at Christmas.

Every other year we went to Ohio to spend Christmas with Mom’s big extended family. I remember Christmas Eve dinners at my Aunt Ellen’s house, a happy chaos of noisy kids and Uncle Fritz dressing up as Santa Claus. I remember watching The Waltons Christmas specials and calling out to each other from our beds on Christmas night, “Goodnight, Mom. Goodnight, Susan. Goodnight, John Boy.” I remember the year that my cousins and I snuck out of our beds in the pre-dawn to inspect the gifts that “Santa” had left under the tree and the year that we finally deduced, beyond reasonable doubt, that our mothers were really Santa Claus.

The years in between, when we spent Christmas at home because it was my dad’s turn to be on call at the hospital, Mom went overboard with the presents. She’d wrap up silly things like packs of gum and packages of cookies just so there would be a mountain of wrapped gifts beside the tree. There would always be a tangerine in the toe of my Christmas stocking – a tradition left over from her childhood in the Depression, when tropical fruit was a rare treat.

No matter where we were, my mom made Christmas magical. Now it’s my turn to make Christmas special for her.

Last night I took her to the Christmas Eve service at her church. Singing “Silent Night” I put my arm around her shoulders, felt her arm slip around my waist, and then the tears were streaming down my cheeks and I could hardly sing the second verse around the lump in my throat. I was keenly aware how precious this time together is, how blessed I am to be sharing this Christmas with her.

I planned a traditional Christmas dinner. I had to take some shortcuts because, with Mom moving next week, it didn’t make sense to buy all the ingredients to make things from scratch or to have leftovers for weeks. I bought a ham steak instead of a whole ham and a pre-made pecan pie. But I went to three grocery stores looking for Yukon Gold potatoes to make the perfect mashed potatoes. I finally settled on something called Klondike Gold potatoes, thinking they would be close enough. I was wrong. When they turned out gluey instead of light and fluffy, I could have cried. This may be the last Christmas dinner I ever cook for my mom, and I so wanted it to be perfect. But she ate them anyway and she raved about my candied sweet potatoes. And when we said goodnight, she hugged me tight and told me that Christmas was special because of me.

I love you, Mom. Merry Christmas.

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