Footprints

christmas_tree_decorations_200943It is December and Christmas magic is rolling in like fog across the ocean.  Secrets are whispered behind loved ones’ backs, bells and ribbons are pulled from the attic, and the aroma of pine and cinnamon send shivers down the spine.  The brown soil that November left behind is covered with fresh snow.  It is a time of peace, good tidings and joy.  Everyone is happy.  

Almost.

I came across my nephew’s post on Facebook tonight;

“The world has grown cold now that you’ve gone away, Constance Madison.”

It was followed by comments from my niece, my sister, and my daughter.  They shared the same sentiments.  As I read, the lump that I keep stuffed deep in my throat reminded me that it still lives.  My eyes threatened to spill the hot tears that I blink back whenever my heart longs for my mother, and I thought, “It has been almost four years.”  

It has only been four years.

Almost immediately, I thought of a Christmas carol I learned long ago.

When I was a child, my mother had a beautiful book of Christmas sheet music.  Each carol was meticulously illustrated with angelic children with blushing cheeks and curls gilded with glittering gold.  The pages were as much a delight to peruse as the strains of the noels it contained.

It was from this book that I learned all the traditional carols, from “Silent Night” to “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.”  My mother pounded the keys of our old upright piano, while we children clustered around her, eagerly chorusing for yet another favorite.   Some of the keys stuck. Some didn’t play at all, but to us it was music of the gods.

One of Mom’s favorite carols was “Good King Wenceslas.”  It’s not one of the more commonly sung carols, and I’ve never understood why, but I know why Mom loved it so.  

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither. “
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

I remember my mother wearing the same old coat every winter.  She lived in a house with threadbare rugs and holes in the plaster walls.  But she never hesitated to give a portion of what she had to someone who was in need.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

I remember putting my small feet into my mother’s slippers when I was a child.  They were big and flopped from my feet.

“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

“In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.

The slippers still held the heat from my mother, and warmed my icy toes.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

I think it is time to walk where my mother stepped.  To take up where she left off- to christmasmirror her love, and kindness. To give a little more and hold on to a little less. 

I close my eyes, and remember her smile, and the world is a bit warmer once again.

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‘Tis the Season

carly xmas card0001

Photo by Sarah Swan Photography, courtesy of my friends, Carly and Jeff Gartside, whose two little boys are more often full of smiles than this image suggests.

I love Christmas.  I love the surprises, the planning, the decorations, the food and the time spent with family and friends under the glow of twinkling lights.

But not every Christmas is a Hallmark moment, especially when kids are little. White Christmases, filled with late night television specials, trips to the mall and holiday concerts often produce sniffling noses and melt-downs in the line to see Santa.

We experienced one of those years when my children were little.  Abby was to sing in her first Christmas cantata at our church.  I had sewn a cheerful red plaid dress with a white collar and bought her black patent leather shoes for the event.  For weeks she rehearsed with the other children from our church, until she knew every word and every note.  Her father and I were excited to experience our first-born’s debut as a choral singer, and looked forward to the performance the day before Christmas.

The morning of the cantata was bitterly cold, but it was warm in our apartment as I brushed Abby’s long blond hair and helped her dress. She looked a little pale and tired.  “Perhaps she had been up a little too late the night before,” I mused. “I’ll get her to bed early tonight.” Usually she was ferociously hungry for breakfast, but today she refused the eggs I had cooked.  “You have to eat something,” I coaxed.  “How about a little yogurt?”

Abby shook her head, but I insisted.  “You cannot go to church without eating breakfast!”  Reluctantly, she spooned some yogurt into her mouth, and I turned my attention to Elizabeth, who had her own new plaid dress, and Gabriel, who needed help with his white shirt and tie.  Finally they were dressed and as I sat back to admire all three in their Christmas finery, their dad arrived from gassing up the car.

“Time to go!” he called as I buttoned Elizabeth’s coat.  I hustled the children to the front door of the apartment building, shivering in the icy wind.  Gabriel stood by his daddy as he buckled Elizabeth into her car seat, and I turned to Abby, still standing on the front stairs.

Her big eyes met mine, and she blanched a deathly white, saying, “I can’t do this!” With that she promptly vomited her breakfast, which immediately froze on the brick steps.

In that  instant, our holiday plans changed.  It was not long before Gabriel joined Abby on the couch, barf bowl by his side.  The cantata took place without us.  We bowed out of the family Christmas celebration.  Fancy dresses and ties were hung in the closet, exchanged for flannel pajamas.  And instead of the turkey dinner I had planned, we ate broth and toast.

Our experience was not unique.   Most families will have some holiday horror stories to report.  Every year I hear blurry-eyed mothers remark that they can’t wait for the holidays to be over.  Parents are so stressed from trying to fit in all the parties, plays and concerts that they spend most of their time wishing for some quiet time.  We listen to our children sing constant choruses of “I want, I want, I want!” so we stretch our budgets too far. We buy and buy, and then we are overwhelmed at all the wrapping to complete before the children rise on Christmas morning.  We chastise our little ones, warning them that Santa may not stop at our house, or the Elf on the Shelf is watching, or “If-you-do-not-stop-teasing-your-sister-this-very-minute-I-will-return-everything-I-bought-to-the-store!”

The Christmas of the stomach flu taught me a few things.  First, it taught me if your child looks pale and doesn’t want to eat, chances are she shouldn’t.  But more importantly, I learned that as much as the Jinglebells of Christmas- the lights and sparkles, noise, parties, commotion and concerts- are fun, a Silent Night is sometimes the better choice.

It’s not by accident the birth of Jesus was in the quiet of a stable.  Yes, there were angel choruses.  And no, I don’t think that all the commotion that we associate with the holidays is bad.  I just think that sometimes we need to take a step back.  Breathe.  Turn off the television specials and say no to some of the activities. Limit our rich foods and our running around and our spending.  Cuddle the ones we love and tell them that we will love them forever, even when they are sick or cranky, or tone deaf, or disobedient. birth

Because really, all this craziness-all the singing and the parties and the gifts, wrapping and decorating- all this celebration is because a small child was born in a desolate location, heralded by a single, noiseless star.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

The Christmas Gift

wrapping paperIt is December, and is time to wrap the gifts I’ve carefully selected for my children.  A few evenings ago, I rummaged through the attic in search of paper and ribbon and came across a box marked “Sentimental Stuff.”  Inside is a music box with a dancing clown.

In the late summer of 1982, I window shopped at Johnson’s Bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts with my husband, Paul.  Johnson’s was an amazing store with rooms upon rooms of books, toys and art supplies.  We browsed for hours, leafing through pages, and dreaming of giving the beautiful dolls, books and teddy bears to our unborn child.  On a shelf were small shadow boxes containing jointed paper clowns that danced when the music box on the back was wound. I was immediately taken by them, but I knew my practical farm-raised husband would not recognize the value in such frivolity.  Besides, in those lean years, our pennies were carefully counted and reserved for bare necessities, so after a few moments of watching the paper clown dance, I turned and left the store.

That December as the holidays approached, we struggled to pay for food and oil.  We kept our heat only high enough to keep our pipes from freezing, and heated water on the stove for dishes and bathing.  Our finances were grave, but our mood was bright.  It was Christmas, after all- the celebration of our Savior’s birth.  Christ was born into poverty with the sole purpose of dying for all mankind.  And yet, there was no bitterness in His birth.  The heavens rejoiced, and so would we.  We decorated a small tree and settled in front of the fireplace to discuss our gift giving budget.

After a long conversation, we settled on rules for our yuletide celebration.   We would each have ten dollars to spend on each other.  There would be no cheating, no borrowing, no allowing anyone else foot the bill.  Everything under the tree would have to be something we made ourselves, or bought within the ten-dollar budget. 

During the following weeks, I stretched my sweater over my growing belly and concentrated on knitting wool scraps into mittens for my husband.  I used my ten dollars on wool socks, a flannel shirt, and Christmas goodies to fill Paul’s stocking.  A few days before Christmas, I finally finished the mittens.  They were pieced together in stripes- tan, rust and brown, all from yarn left over from my mother’s past projects, but the stitches were tight and they promised to keep his hands warm when he shoveled our long driveway on snowy mornings.  I carefully wrapped them, hoping they would fit his hands, and wondering if he would like them.

Christmas morning dawned and we feasted on eggs, homemade muffins, and coffee.  We prayed our thanks to God for the amazing gift of His son and sat at the foot of the tree to open gifts.  Paul was pleased with his. The shirt and socks fit and he promised me that he loved the mittens and would wear them often.  Then he handed me a small box.

I slowly opened the red and white paper and to my surprise, discovered the dancing clown music box clownfrom  Johnson’s Bookstore. 

My eyes filled with tears.  “You cheated!” I accused, knowing the music boxes cost far more than our budget had allowed.

“No- really,” he protested.  I kept looking and looking but I couldn’t find anything I liked that I could afford.  I went into Johnson’s and this was the only one left.  It was stuck in a corner and was a bit dusty.  There wasn’t a price tag on it, so I asked.  The clerk couldn’t find a price, so he offered to sell it to me for ten dollars.” 

“I saw how much you loved it last summer,” he said softly.  “I wanted to get it then, but I couldn’t afford it.”

My eyes filled with tears and I hugged him as tightly as my swollen belly would allow.  We placed the clown on a shelf where it served as a reminder that young love can overcome the tightest budgets and the toughest obstacles.

Somewhere in the years that followed the music box stopped working.  Perhaps it was wound too tightly, or maybe its Christmas magic just ran out.  But the clown stopped dancing, and the music stopped playing, and eventually the marriage ended.

But in December, there is no room for bitterness. Although we are no longer a couple, I still remember that Christmas with great fondness.  Even though we cannot live as husband and wife now, the love we shared on that day, and for many more was real and true. 

I carefully put the clown back in its box and closed the lid.  Then, taking a deep breath, I grabbed a roll of paper, turned out the light and shut the door to the attic.

My Favorite Things- or at least a few of them…

It’s only late October and I’m already in full Christmas-preparedness mode.  I’ve dusted off my sewing machine and started the search for special gifts for special loved ones.  Whenever I spy something unusual and special- the kind of thing that I know one of my children would love- I hear tiny ensembles play Jingle Bells in my head.  If the gift sings to me, I know it is a keeper.  If not, I leave it behind.

Today I snagged a one-of-a-kind catch that makes me so excited that I can barely keep it a secret until the yule log blazes.  Scoring such an item got me thinking of my family’s favorite things, and thinking of those things led me to think of my favorite things.  Most of these are not items that can be wrapped in colored paper or stuffed into a stocking, but at my age, there isn’t a bunch of “stuff” I want or need anyway.  However, if you want to join me in a little mental vacation, smile through the following list with me.  And then, make one of your own.

                  Twenty Favorite Things

  1. The smell of percale sheets that have been dried outside on a cold blustery day.
  2. Drinking my first cup of morning coffee under the covers while I watch the morning news and check my email.
  3. The sound of my children laughing when they don’t know I am listening.
  4. Turning up the car radio so it’s one decibel below the point of breaking glass.
  5. Watching someone I love open a gift I made especially for them.
  6. A long hot shower on a frigid January morning.
  7. Dinner with as many family and friends as can be crowded around one table.
  8. Toasted homemade bread slathered with melting butter.
  9. An August breeze that smells of newly mown hay.
  10. Catching a wave in the Atlantic Ocean and riding it all the way to shore.
  11.  Finishing an entire crossword puzzle without cheating.
  12. Dinner and a margarita on a sunny deck after work.
  13. A ninety minute massage by a therapist who doesn’t want to chatter and ask questions.
  14. The memory of my parents laughing at Johnny Carson while I lay in my bed.
  15. Kissing the head of my newborn baby.
  16. Trying on a pair of pants and finding that they are too loose.
  17. Comfortable shoes.
  18. Standing next to my brothers, or anyone else who towers over me, so for once in my life I do not feel like a giraffe.
  19. Hitting a harmony so the notes hang in the air as if they are crystalized.
  20. Knowing that I get to live another day to enjoy numbers 1-19.

The Perfect Christmas Snap Shot

Earlier this week I listened to friends say that they couldn’t wait for the Christmas season to end.  Their kids are over tired and over stimulated.  They are overwhelmed with baking and decorating and buying and wrapping.  I empathise with them, but I do not agree with them.  I love Christmas.  It is the season for making memories.

I thought about this later when my son and I returned from some last-minute shopping.  As we wrapped gifts and listened to music, he asked,

“Remember the year you and Dad bought us boom boxes?”

I do indeed.  We went shopping the week before Christmas, during a snow storm.  On a whim, we decided to buy each of the children a boom box, and finding that they took up the entire space in the car trunk, we returned home to unload and go out for a few more items.

The bushes in front of our townhouse were aglow with white lights that glittered in the falling snow.  Struggling to hold two of the large boxes, I stood on the stoop as Paul searched his pockets for the car keys.  Through the front door, we could hear peals of laughter coming from the living room.  Paul stopped looking for his keys and we stood there for a few moments, watching the snow and listening to the music of our children’s laughter.  It was a perfect Christmas snapshot.

Most of us have a favorite Christmas memory.  I have many.  The smell of a new doll brought by Santa.   Tearing wrapping paper to reveal the glitter of Sparkle Paints.  Lying in my bunk bed until midnight, listening to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” through the earphone on a new transistor radio.  The trip we took to see the lights at Constitution Plaza, where my brother Eric discovered that he could stand on a bridge and spit on the cars speeding along the highway below us.  “Frosty the Snowman” performed by the Ray Conniff singers.  Assembling toys at two o’clock in the morning, and hoping we would be finished before the kids woke up.  Singing “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” at midnight mass.

Some Christmases were a bit more challenging.  The year Gabe was a baby, all four of us got influenza.   Another year, we had only thirty dollars to buy the children’s Christmas gifts.  The year Abby was five, I made her a beautiful plaid dress to wear for her first Christmas cantata.  On the way to the performance, she turned a ghastly white, said “I can’t do this,”  and threw up all over the porch steps, and her new dress.

And there was last year, when I spent Christmas afternoon sitting in my mother’s empty room, wishing for just one more chance to hear her read aloud, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

For most of us, Christmas is a kaleidoscope of glitter, color and noise.  It is family, and laughter and foods too rich to eat more than once a year.  It is a riot of gifts, carols and crimson cheeked children watching for Santa’s arrival.  But mostly, it is about hope.  Hope that the special gift we found for that someone special will convey the love in our hearts.  Hope that our children will stay healthy and happy and not tell Aunt Polly that she has a whisker growing from her chin.  Hope that through the birth of a small child in Bethlehem, we are redeemed from our sins.

With that hope to guide us, the things we do will make the memories we so badly want for our loved ones.  When our children are grown, they will remember how they felt on Christmas morning.  They will remember the thrill of finding treasures left by Santa, the aroma of warm gingerbread cookies, and their favorite ornament on the tree.  They will remember opening gifts in their pajamas, and laughter from the children’s table, and hugging a new teddy bear as they drift off to sleep on Christmas night.

This year, my family is making a new holiday memory.  On December 24th, my firstborn will dress in a gown as white as fresh snow and pledge her love to the man who makes every day feel like Christmas morning.  There will be laughter. There will be tears. It will be forever etched in my heart as a perfect Christmas snapshot. 

I hope you and your family will share in the hope of love and light this Christmas, and that your holiday season will be full of new and wonderful memories.

Christmas Tribute

This morning, my very large family filed into Immaculate Heart of Mary Church to say a final farewell to our mother.   The last several days have been filled with tears, laughter and embraces, and although my heart is still too tender to do much writing, I wanted to honor her by posting the eulogy I delivered at her funeral.  Here’s to you, Connie Madison.  I will love you forever.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.                                                                          First Corinthians 13: 1-3

The reason I chose verses from this chapter of scripture is because it is commonly called the “Love Chapter, ” and it is impossible to speak of Mom without mentioning love at the same time.

I often thought that God created a special mold when He formed Mom.  One with big feet to keep her stable when she carried her babies.  One with broad shoulders to bear the burdens of people who would sit at our kitchen table and pour out their troubles over a cup of coffee.  One with large hands to knead several loaves of bread- some for her family and some for a neighbor.  One with a mind that searched and questioned and taught her children and grand children and great-grandchildren to do the same.  One with long arms to embrace many- to draw them close enough so it is hard to know where they begin and she ends. One with a heart that beat a constant cadence of love and acceptance and inclusion.

We grew up feeling as if there was nothing Mom couldn’t do.  She could sew just about anything- from a snowsuit cut from Dad’s Navy uniform, to flannel shirts for her three sons, to wedding gowns for her daughters, and quilts to keep her grand children warm at night.  Her garden grew like her family- plentiful, large and robust.  She knew how to read music and do math in her head- skills that to this day still escape me.  She was strong enough to wield a hammer and gentle enough to put a cool hand on a feverish forehead.  She wasn’t afraid of lightning storms, didn’t faint at the sight of blood, and she had the compassion to adopt a mange-covered puppy and make her a life long companion.

There were a few things that Mom never could master. She never learned to like asparagus.  She never learned to call her children’s names out of birth order.  (all together now- Martha, Garrie, Robin, Scott, Teri, Kevin, Ricky, Missy.)  She never learned to save her money instead of giving it away.  She never learned to say no if somebody needed her.  She never learned to put herself first.  She never learned to feel sorry for herself.

Mom took an old house with crumbling plaster walls and made it a safe haven for anyone who entered its front door.  It was a loud house- a symphony of children running up and down the stairs, music from the hi-fi, and a washing machine that was constantly running.    There was always room for one more person at the dinner table, always a cup of hot coffee for a visitor, always time to help with homework, always a moment to kiss a boo boo or mend a broken heart.  And there was laughter.  Lots of laughter.

Mom didn’t keep her love inside the confines of our house.  She was a favorite teacher who could find something loveable in every child she taught.  They felt her acceptance and I remember many occasions where I would walk into her classroom after the last bell had rung to see a ragamuffin kid that no other teacher wanted snuggled by her side while she helped with a difficult lesson.  They would lean into her, and she would embrace them, no matter how dirty, how smelly, how unruly.

I saw one of her best examples of her acceptance shortly after I graduated college. She and I were walking on Main Street in Palmer, and a dirty, disheveled man came toward us. His eyes were rimmed with red and he staggered a bit.  As our paths began to cross, Mom recognized him and called his name.  He realized who she was, and she gathered him close and hugged him like a long lost brother.  They spoke for a few moments and he smiled, wiped a tear and went on his way.  I was aghast.  I had no idea who this man was and why my mother would hug him.  She explained.  He used to bag her groceries at the old A&P, which had closed many years before that. She said that he never complained about the many bags and he always helped her load them in the car.  She wanted him to know how much she appreciated his help and valued his service. We went on about our business and she didn’t give it a second thought, but I learned a lesson about love that I will never forget.  Love is not selective. It is to be given liberally and freely and without expecting return.

During Mom’s last days, we talked a lot about love. She reminded me over and over that all people need to do is love one another, and the rest will fall into place.  She asked me to pass on this message.  It is her legacy.  The reason for her life.

A lot of people have remarked to me how sad it is that Mom passed during the Christmas season.  But I think it is one of her most appropriate acts.  Christmas is the time when we celebrate God sending His only son to earth so He could die for us.  It is the ultimate act of love, and she based her entire life on it.  When we celebrate Christmas, we acknowledge love in its purest form and we encourage ourselves and each other to mirror this love in our daily walks.  We honor God and we honor Mom each time we speak a kind word, or soothe a troubled soul, or help a wounded stranger.  If we loved Connie Madison, and I know everyone here did, we will carry her message of love, and teach it to others. 

For if we have not love, we are nothing.

Look at it This Way

One of the lessons my mother taught me was to look at things from a positive perspective.  Whenever we were down in the mouth, she would begin with, “Look at it this way…” 

Me: “My car broke down and I had to walk a half mile to a phone.”

Mom: “Look at it this way.  You wouldn’t have taken the time to see what a beautiful day it is.”

Or, Me: “I lost my job.”

Mom: “Look at it this way.  Now you have time to finish that sewing project you are working on.”

You get the point.  It is with that attitude that I have begun to see the Hospice House where my mother is staying.  You can look at it as a place where people go to die.  Or you can recognize it as a place where people celebrate their last days on this earth.  I choose to see it as the latter. 

Tonight while visiting my mother at the Hospice House, I ask her if she is afraid.  Her shaking hand takes mine, and she nods her head.

“Sometimes,” she says.  “Last night everything was very dark, and I got very scared.  But Eric, the nurse who was on, came in.  He sat by my bed and held my hand. He goes to my church, you know, and I think he was praying for me.”

I have come to think of Eric and the other nurses and staff at the Hospice House as angels.  I have never seen them grumpy, have never heard them complain, or act unprofessionally.  They comb her hair and help her to the bathroom, and when they change her sheets, they coordinate the colors, so her room looks fresh and pretty.  They are kind and attentive and cheerful, and during this past week, they have come to know and appreciate my mother.  They tell me that they enjoy taking care of her and I love them for this.

While I sit next to my mother’s bed, my sister Teri sends me a text. “What is Mom’s favorite Christmas hymn?”  I know she is thinking of our upcoming meeting with a funeral director.

I ask Mom, and she thinks for awhile.  She can’t remember the name, and can only remember a few of the words, but she knows the melody.  She tries to hum it, but her voice is very weak, cracking and shaking, and I cannot follow it. 

“Hand me a pencil and paper,” she directs, and I obey.  She shakily draws a staff and begins sketching notes on it.  I desperately want to read it, but I have never mastered the art of reading music.  Then, I have an idea.  I pull out her laptop, the one she has told me will soon be mine, and I ask her to tell me the few words she knows.  A few moments on Google, and I triumphantly produce the lyrics.  Gesu Bambino.

“Mom!  I know this music!  I sang it in a pickup choir when Abby was a baby!” I tell her. 

I begin to sing it for her and she smiles and joins in.  She wavers, her voice barely above a whisper.  My voice cracks as tears roll down my cheeks and splash on the computer, and I can hardly hold the melody line.  We finish the song like a couple of old crows.  But to my ears, it is beautiful. 

I wish it were not this way.  I wish my mother could still sing in the golden voice that once held a spot in the alto section in her college choir.  I wish we were in our old house on Green Street, baking cookies and making plans to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child.  This is not my first choice.  But look at it this way:  for a few shining moments on a frozen December evening, I get to hold my mother’s soft hand and sing her favorite Christmas hymn. 

Oh, come let us adore Him.

Epiphany!

When I was a little girl, we celebrated Epiphany at our church.  For those who may not know, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus.  In our parish, we brought small gifts to a special Mass and laid them in front of the crèche.  It was explained to me that the gifts would later be distributed to “The Needy,” which to me meant anyone who didn’t get gifts at Christmas.  Usually, my mother would give me a dollar to buy something like bath soap or after-shave lotion.  I would walk to the drug store and search the shelves for something that fit my budget, carry it home, and wrap it in pretty paper.  Presenting my gift to the baby Jesus was exciting and heartwarming.  It was at that crèche that my social conscience began to bud.

The Christmas before my eighth birthday, the nuns urged us to consider “sacrificial giving.”  They explained that giving from one’s excess was not a gift at all; that a true gift was something of great value that its owner gave up for another.  True sacrifice, they said, would bring a smile to the baby Jesus.

As the day of the Epiphany Mass grew closer, I thought about this at length.  My childish ignorance made me unaware that my parents were already sacrificing in order to supply gifts for the Mass.  Instead, I wrestled with the concept of personal sacrifice, and how much I was willing to make this a reality in my own life.  I wanted to make Jesus smile.  As the January date approached, I knew I had to make a decision, no matter how painful.

The day of the Mass approached.  I had made up my mind.  Slowly, I wrapped my gift.  It was a stuffed bunny I had received that year from Santa.  Soft and yellow, with blue gingham ears, it had been my constant companion since I unwrapped it a few weeks before. I loved it as much as a little girl can love a stuffed animal. Eyes streaming, I took the bundle to my mother to put with the other gifts.  Realizing what I had done, my mother drew me to her lap, stroked my head, and explained that although Jesus would very much appreciate my gift, “The Needy” probably would make better use of the talcum powder on her dresser.  She asked me to fetch it and wrap it for her.

I now suspect that “The Needy” were people in nursing homes, who indeed had little use for a yellow stuffed bunny.  I wonder, though, if this was my mother’s way of sparing her little girl the pain of giving up someone she loved.  I kept my bunny, and loved it until the yellow turned brown and the blue gingham tore away from the fur.  But the seed had been planted, and the concept of sacrificial giving flourished.  I remember that Epiphany every time I consider what to donate to a food drive, or how much of my time to volunteer, or when I kiss a loved one goodbye as she leaves for a mission trip.  In the end, the nuns were right.  Sacrificial giving brings a smile to Jesus.  It makes me feel pretty darned good, too. 

A Gift for Christmas

Those who know me, know I love Christmas.  Like the tympani in a concert, the excitement begins around Thanksgiving and slowly builds as the weather gets colder.  By the time the first snow arrives, there is a distinct rumble in the distance, which grows louder and faster until its crescendo on Christmas morning.

Although I am by American standards, a conservative holiday spender, the weekends preceding Christmas are usually spent searching for the perfect gift for my loved ones.  I love nothing more than to surprise someone with a brightly wrapped package that contains an item that will warm his heart. Sometimes the gift is homemade, like the flannel pajamas I sewed for family and friends last year.  Sometimes it is a costly treasure, never dreamed possible by its recipient.  Sometimes it is small and inexpensive, but tugs at the heartstrings and brings tears to the eyes.

This year has been different.  Although I usually hear silver tinkles of “Jingle Bells” in my head as soon as the kids go back to school, this year I heard nothing.  I wandered around a few stores earlier in the fall, but I just couldn’t get excited about gifts.  I was trying to adjust to the idea that for the first time, we wouldn’t be all together. We’ve had other holidays with family missing, but not Christmas.  I knew the time would come eventually, and I thought I was ready, but I was not. 

As parents, our goal is supposed to be to get our kids to a place where they can fly alone.  We strive to teach them independence.  We help them to walk, and to pedal a bike, and then to drive.  All these lessons teach them to move away from us.  It is part of the Master’s plan. But there is nothing in the handbook about the hole that is left when they are gone.  How do we have Christmas without us all together?

Then, Elizabeth had an idea.  “Let’s forgo gifts to each other, pool our resources, and fly Gabe home from England for Christmas!” she suggested.  It was a brilliant plan that after several Skype dates and emails was finally executed. Tonight at 6:20, his plane will land in Boston.

No, there won’t be packages to unwrap. No ribbon on the floor, no trips to the dumpster to get rid of tissue and packaging.  No surprises and shrieks of “Just-what-I-always-wanted!”  There will be no last minute stuffing of the stockings.  No midnight wrapping of gifts.  There will be no whispers behind closed doors, no shaking of boxes, no searching for scissors and tape.

But this Christmas, our home will once again be warm and full and cozy.  We’ll be together, if only for one more year.  And all will be bright.

Elizabeth

I picked up the phone today to hear a soft voice from across the Atlantic. 

“Momma!”

It is Elizabeth, my daughter.  My youngest child.  My baby.

 

She is Christmas to me. Her voice tinkles like a silver bell.  I envision her elfin face; eyes that dance with the excitement of being alive. Ears that ever so slightly move when she smiles. She is tall and willowy; strong and fragile at the same time.

 

When Abby and Gabe were little, they couldn’t wait to grow up. In their imaginary play, they were teenagers and adults. 

 

Not so with Elizabeth.  Although the battlefields of hospitals and exam rooms catapulted her into an adult world far too quickly, her response was to hold on to her childhood with both hands, willing life to slow down, so she too, could languish in carefree afternoons that only the young can afford.

 

She delights in play and mischief.  One day at the beach, goaded by her aunt, she swam underwater and grabbed the ankle of an unsuspecting stranger. 

“The poor woman could have had a heart attack!” I scolded. 

She could not hold back her laughter.  Neither could I. 

 

In the hospital when she was eight, she threw a rubber spider on the nurse who was changing the bed linens, evoking a scream and shaking hands.  She and one of her doctors snickered at their secret name for her stuffed animal- “Diarrhea Doggie.”

 

Nothing excited her more than a night time ride in the car, while wearing pajamas. I still see her sitting beside me, bundled up to keep warm, her skinny legs sticking out straight in front of her.  She would put her little hand on mine, to help me shift. 

 

She tells me her favorite memory is of sledding near our home with her brother.  Day had turned to night.  Everyone else had gone home and despite the warning of “Come home when the street lights come on,” they decided to make one last run on the moonlit path. Gabe stretched out on the sled first, Elizabeth on his back. They threw out their arms like wings on an airplane and soared to the bottom, cold and breathless.

 

Now she speaks to me of academia and dancing in pubs.  International travel and foreign study have given her confidence and sophistication.  I listen to stories of her professor, who smells of coffee and crumpets, of her travels to Bath, Stonehenge, and how she wept at the sight of the Magna Carta. 

 

“Momma, I miss you,” she says suddenly.  I reflect upon the child speaking from the mouth of the woman.  Like Christmas, the child arrives only at rare, fleeting moments.  Like Christmas, she comes with fanfare, spreading kindness, and warmth, and fun.  Like Christmas, it is the gift of herself that fills all who know her.

 

Hurry home, Christmas.  

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