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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Ghost of Christmas Presents

When I was growing up in the ‘50s, Christmas Eve looked no different from any other night of the year in our small suburban house near Chicago. Unlike our neighbors’ festive decorations, there were no lights adorning our windows, no life-sized Santa Claus or manager scene on the front lawn, no twinkly Christmas tree in the bay window.

We’d eat dinner as always, then later that night, my father and I would be off to midnight mass at the nearby Catholic Church, where I sang in the grade school choir. My mother would be home—she being a loyal Lutheran—likely still wrapping our Christmas presents. As for my brother, I imagine he’d be off with friends, telling our father he’d make mass at one of their churches (wink, wink).

It was exhilarating being allowed to stay up so late—usually nearing 1:30 am and just home from a joyous service that had welcomed love back into the world.

My brother would be back from whatever mischief he’d been up to, and we’d each be allowed to open just one Christmas gift from our relatives “back East,” those aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived in Philadelphia, the place my parents had left in the late ‘30’s.

Then it was to bed, and to awaken the next morning to see our house transformed, as if in fact Santa Claus had been there in the middle of the night, to drop off huge stacks of presents along with a fully decorated Christmas tree.

But there was no need to believe in Santa by this time, of course. We knew who’d made the magic happen, who’d starting buying gifts in July, who knew even without a list what would cause each of us to yell out with surprise and pleasure when opening them: the shiny bracelet, the record player, the plush sweater.

And not to be forgotten were the current pets who called our house home, thanks chiefly to my mother who, over the years, had rescued, adopted, or simply opened the back door to any number of stray dogs and cats. They, too—Fawn or Tawny, Taffy or Stranger—would have their own gifts of catnip toys and chew bones.

Years later, my father once told me that every year he’d beg my mother, “Marian, please go easy on the gift giving this year.” That was just one of the major differences between them: he held his money close, she threw it around.  In fact, there were those Christmases, when days later, my mother would discover a gift for one of us hidden in the back of her bedroom closet.

I wish I could remember that last Christmas with my mother. It was 1963, and she was less than six months from dying.  I’ve no doubt she put on the same show, though by this time my brother was married and living nearby. And the decorating was done before Christmas Eve. And the tree was likely one of those flocked things.

But she still would have generously welcomed holiday visitors to the house—the nearby neighbors, all of our friends. She would have gotten in plenty to eat and drink, likely even had bought each person a small Christmas something from the local five-and-dime.  She would have played lots of Christmas songs on the organ, while everyone stood around singing loudly though mostly in tune. Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, and my favorite, O Holy Night.

What I remember about the next year, 1964, was that my father, bereft, had no idea what to do for Christmas with her now gone. She was Christmas, he knew that, we all knew that.

But on Christmas Eve, with not a present under the fake tree, the doorbell rang. In walked my brother and sister-in-law, my father's emissaries, each smiling broadly, a St. Bernard puppy nestled comfortably in their arms. They carefully placed her on the floor, not far from where I was now standing, eyes unbelieving. Then I noticed the bright red ribbon around her neck, a root-beer barrel piece of candy tucked in the middle just under her chin.

"Merry Christmas, Carol."

I can still see her, that precious puppy, the most irrational choice my father could’ve made. He did not even like animals, had lived with them only because my mother wouldn’t live without them.

But what else could he have done? How else could he have welcomed love back into our broken world?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ghosts of Christmas Past

I went looking through old photos the other night, in search of specific ones to give to my friend Jerry. He’s writing his “coming-of-age” story for the kids and grands, and the people who figure prominently in that story are, in addition to his wife, his two best friends from that time: my first love, Eddie, who I didn’t marry, and my second love, Philip, who I did.

Jerry wants to include their photos in his manuscript, hence my search.  I found only a handful—I’m given more to written than photographic records, but each reminded me of what a tumultuous time that was in my life, in all of our young lives.

And it could’ve been even more so. For instance, I might’ve married Eddie after Philip and I divorced in 1971, but he’d been killed in Vietnam in 1969, when he was just 24.

But, that’s a whole other story.

Among the other photos I scavenged were many from family Christmases past, including those from the early ‘60s when my mother was still alive. She was pretty mellow by then, in spite of having had a mastectomy just a couple years earlier.

Or maybe she was mellow because of it. The real possibility of dying, as Samuel Johnson noted in another context, concentrates the mind. And maybe, too, the heart.

In these photos, my mother is the most smiley faced of the bunch, which included myself; my older brother and his new wife; my father; and my father’s uncle who came to live with us after my paternal grandmother died. That uncle rarely smiled.

There’s another picture, from around the same time, of my brother, his wife, myself, and three of our friends sitting in a circle on the floor, right in front of the fake Christmas tree, playing some fun card game, maybe Hearts. Everyone is concentrating mightily, a faint smile on my sister-in-law’s face as she tries to anticipate my brother’s next move.

That sister-in-law, number one of two, died just this year at 72, from cancer. The second sister-in-law died nearly 25 years ago, at 43, also from cancer.

My favorite family Christmas picture is of me and my mother sitting next to each other on our living room couch. We’re both doing the smiley face and each caresses one of our two pets: my mother holds an unhappy looking black-and-white cat in her lap (whose name escapes me), and I have my arms around our rescue dog, Tawny, who sits at my feet.

That picture is dated 1962. I’m still pretty much of a chunk at that time, having topped out at nearly 180 lbs just a year earlier. Two years later, in 1964, my mother would die and I’d lose 50 of those pounds not long thereafter.

Which is why I probably look pretty damn good in the picture taken with Eddie in 1965, the year he came to my house for Christmas, just months after we'd started dating. We’re both smiling up at the camera while seated on the very same couch my mother and I shared three years earlier.

Ghosts, they are haunting me this holiday season, as is their wont: my mother and father; two sisters-in-law; a first love; an ex-husband; many dogs and cats. These ghosts invite me back to share again in their lives—and to help me understand how they live still in mine.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Choosing Gratitude

My father was well past 80 when I first heard him express something resembling gratitude. Before that, his free-floating anxiety had kept him hostage in the Worry Zone, a difficult place to feel gratitude, let alone express it.

We—my step-sisters and I—had recently moved him and my step-mother into a pretty nice retirement facility near Chicago. Seated in their living room a few weeks later, my father, son of working class people who barely made it out of grade school, enthused, “I feel like I’m living in the lap of luxury!”

Of course, he was never completely free of the Worry Zone, needing to visit it regularly, especially when it came to money or the condition of my mortal soul. (He apparently felt his was in slightly less danger.) But I think as he aged he may have tried harder to recognize how truly fortunate he was.

It took me somewhat less time than my father to achieve gratitude as an active pursuit: in my mid-50’s, finally acknowledging the full weight of growing up in an alcoholic home, I started attending Al-Anon meetings. It was there that I learned that gratitude was a choice, an “attitude” I had to purposely court and inhabit—even, and especially, in the darkest moments, that it was gratitude that would help me climb out of those moments.

And while I didn’t become a regular at Al-Anon, I am forever grateful for what I learned at those meetings about gratitude, which I try to express daily: while sitting down for a meal; on my frequent walks; while falling asleep and especially on waking; for the work I’m privileged to do; and for all those friends—some lifelong, others recent—who make my life so meaningful.

Then there’s gratitude on the grand scale: for this life, for this now quite long life. 

I still have miles to go to catch up to my father’s final years—he made it to 95—but I am grateful for one of the lessons of his long life: Better late to the gratitude table than never.


For more on choosing gratitude, read this great piece by Arthur C. Brooks in the New York Times,
"Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier."

First, an excerpt from it:

It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” In the slightly more elegant language of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has.”

Monday, November 23, 2015

‘Tis the Season To Tell Stories

I heard about a StoryCorps project—The Great Thanksgiving Listen—on NPR several weeks ago, then recently posted the link to it on Facebook.

Here’s the project’s description from the website*:

“This Thanksgiving weekend, StoryCorps will work with teachers and high school students across the country to preserve the voices and stories of an entire generation of Americans over a single holiday weekend.

“Open to everyone, The Great Thanksgiving Listen is a national assignment to engage people of all ages in the act of listening. The pilot project is specially designed for students ages 13 and over and as part of a social studies, history, civics, government, journalism, or political science class, or as an extracurricular activity.”

It’s a great idea, of course, getting young people to listen to the stories of the old people in their lives, and especially to record them.  And what better time to do that than the one day a year our extended family is gathered around the Thanksgiving Day table.

Or not.

This great project assumes many things, including that our significant elders are still alive and functioning, which is more likely the case if you are 15 years old.

But what if you’re well into adulthood yourself, with parents, grands, aunts and uncles no longer living?  How will their stories—many of which we may already know—get “listened to,” then passed down through the generations?

You know the answer: It’s up to you to write them down, to do the good hard work of capturing the stories of these past generations. A legacy project, I call it.  And you can make it easier by using yourself as the starting point, describing those elders as you personally experienced them.

For instance, you might do a writing exercise about your favorite Aunt Mildred, beginning with those summers you spent with her and Uncle Hughie in Door County.

Or the Thanksgiving your Grandpa Teddy dropped the turkey while bringing it to the table where 15 of your relatives sat waiting.

Or maybe your 10th birthday party when your crazy grandmother showed up with the most amazing present you’d ever received?  (You remember that one, don’t you?)

You may no longer be a teenager surrounded by an idyllic extended family on this holiday, but you still have lots of memories of those people—idyllic or not—who once made up your family, and inevitably made up your self. 

There’s much we can learn about those dearly departed, and especially their influence on us, when we get their stories down. I hope many of you take the time to do that.


*For more information on the StoryCorps project, including some more writing ideas, click here:

Saturday, November 14, 2015

What Surprises Us Most About Aging

In late September, I sent out emails with the following request.  I also posted it on both this blog and my Facebook page:

Seeking Contributors 
I plan to do a blogpost w/ the title: "What surprises me most about aging," and am seeking contributions in the form of a list or a full paragraph. I will use first names only when posting, or "pen names," including Anonymous, and will edit for space and clarity those I publish. If you're game, please email me your list/paragraph at 


Now, I'm not sure what prompted this request; perhaps I'd been thinking lately about what surprised me most about aging, and wanted to hear what others had to say. I was pleased to receive the following responses, each of which opens a slightly different lens into what might be new--and timeless--about aging in the 21st century.

From Jerry
1. Time moves so fast. Days are much shorter. Seasons are much shorter. Years, too. A day when I was a kid was a week. When I was 21, it was three-four days. Now it's a very few hours.

2. Life is so short, just as the wise folks said. It seemed long going forward, but looking back, it's zoom. Yet I can remember everything.

3. Didn't expect to be so healthy at 71. When I started writing obits in the news business in the early 70s, most obit folks died in their 60's.

From Terri
Many aspects of aging for women are known, discussed, and were thus expected: flapping upper arms, thinning hair, slowing movement, forgetfulness. But what came as a surprise to me was how hard it would be to lose dear friends. Being warned would not have helped, though I can't be sure. I just know that I sorely miss many who have preceded me and somehow I didn't see it coming. Denial or thoughtlessness or our culture's reluctance to talk about death — maybe a combination of these caused a lack of anticipation.

As a religious, I've experienced sisters dying all my life. Other adults have died all along my life. But in both cases they were older than I. Having contemporaries die is different!

From Sharon
I just turned 60.  I expected it to feel oppressive and limiting, like the weight of a huge medieval door closing on me.  After all, I have spent the better part of the past four years mentally preparing myself for this crushing moment.  But much to my surprise, I feel buoyant and newly energized.  This moment is pivotal, unlike any other milestone birthday.  Something really shifted inside me.

When I turned 50, I said: “Look!  I can still do everything I did when I was 40!  Woo-hoo!”  I was on a single trajectory, looking back and comparing myself to earlier days on that same path.  When I turned 60, on the other hand, I looked forward at an infinite number of paths.  I do not know how many more years I have left with good health, mobility, and clear thinking.  

So how can I make sure that I fill the remainder of this lifetime with what is important to me?  I have been seizing moments with much less fear than ever before.  I no longer weigh the pros and cons of every action with debilitating caution and slowness, to the point of not doing what I really want to do.  I feel like I am stepping into myself, and into my life, like never before.

From Jo
The most surprising thing for me has been the difference in how I experience time. At age 88 anything and everything was "yesterday."  When in middle years people spoke of "30 years from now" that seemed a lifetime away.  But from today's perspective that was a blink of an eye. I'm not just making a rational statement.  I'm talking about an internal feeling, an awareness. The internal image of time has been turned on its head.  

From Mel
The thing that surprised me most about aging was (and is) the recognition that I am as mortal as all those who came before me.

From Anonymous
What surprises me most about aging?  One aspect of my life that surprises me is that my life did not turn out as I'd always dreamed it would: being married, having children, living in a huge mansion, making a lot of money, and having numerous friendships.

Instead, I am single and have no children (but enough nieces, nephews and other children around for the experience).  I have a lower-middle income, live in an apartment, and am a caretaker after work hours for my elderly mother.  I have many acquaintances, but only a few close friends.  I suppose God had a different plan for me, although I do on occasion wonder how things would have been for me today if I had only chosen other directions. 


I'd love to do another of these "What Surprises Me Most" posts, so if you are so inclined, please do email me your response, in either list or paragraph form.