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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.”