Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Is For Memories

Steph just posted on her blog that Christmas is for stories. ( here  ) I have a slightly different take on the holiday. To me it's all about the memories of Christmases past, what happened through the years, both as I grew up and watching my family grow up. Or not. It's the one time of year that many of the memories are tied to, when I can say "this is when it happened."

From the early years of childhood I can remember the ornaments on the tree, the lights back when they were huge, or better yet, bubblers, stringing popcorn or cranberries, painting and putting glitter on pine cones, hanging tinsel carefully from every branch. Bags of peanuts and candies, maybe a popcorn ball were given out to us kids after church. Presents tended to be modest on the family's post-WWII budget, like a chunk of modeling clay the size and shape of a quarter pound stick of butter.  Perhaps a doll. 

The biggest present, my most asked for, was an Easy Bake oven. The family tradition was always to delay present opening until Christmas morning, the timing to be determined by our parents who thought a good night's sleep was important. I couldn't wait that year, so in the very wee hours when the family was still sound asleep and the house totally dark, I slipped down without turning on any lights to give me away, and opened the wrapping paper as carefully as I could to see what that big box for me really was. The problem was that some of the letters in the name were black, and others red which meant that they were also black at night. So I still wasn't completely sure until the next morning, when I pretended the tape was still tightly affixed so nobody would suspect my nocturnal sneaking, that my present was the much hoped-for oven.

Music was always a big part of the holiday. There were the carols sung in church, heard over the radio, played on records, tapes, CDs, in stores or elevators, even sung once out caroling through a neighborhood with a group of other single adults needing something cheery for their holiday. Concerts were sung by different generations, some a bit more musical than others. New songs became popular, some tug the heart. I learned harmonies to some, long ago forgot lyrics to others. My one choir solo ever was in the youth church choir of a Mexican Christmas Carol, never to be heard anywhere again.

When it was time to form a family of my own, the memories changed. Some were good ones. Each year there was the selection of a new kind of ornament for the tree, building up a supply from none of our own to, finally, way too many to actually put on a tree. Once the kids came along, I worked on some new traditions, trying to make up for less than ideal conditions in the home. My favorite of these, one never in my own childhood, was The Nutcracker Ballet. I first took Steph, after buying and reading to her a book giving the story of the magic. She was two her (our) first time. While that was fun, something happened that year which made it really magical for us.

We were down in southern Minnesota at the in-laws family farm. Mostly I dreaded those visits, as alcohol played way too large a part in the social interactions. While the kids were too young - I deeply hoped - to understand what was happening, and in fact told me years later that they had no bad memories of those visits, they were ruined for me.  That year I talked the family into watching the new baby for a bit and took Steph and the farm toboggan out for a walk and a badly needed getaway down the driveway and back. It had rained that day, turning everything into icicles: branches, fence wires, everything. The rain had finally ended, freeing us up to finally get out, but it was now dark and a thick fog had drifted in. Between ice, fog, and the traditional farm yard light, the world became a magical place, one that reminded us of the recently seen Nutcracker. Down at the end of the driveway the fog was so thick we couldn't see traffic on the highway, though a muffled noise and passing glow let us know when someone was crazy enough to be out driving.

Other years there were more Nutcracker ballets, all the kids going finally, but never one as beautifully etched in memory.

Other traditions were developed. Pictures with Santa, homemade ornaments for the tree, homemade decorated felt stockings for each of us. But if the holiday sounded idyllic, it also became the worst holiday. Living down in Georgia for a few years (where I was astounded to watch the neighbor mow the lawn on Christmas Eve!), Paul and I were divorcing, and at my request we postponed the announcement and separation until after the holiday that year. Unfortunately, it didn't happen quite as planned. Paul couldn't wait to get out of the house, and the very second the presents were opened he gave us his final one. He left. Steph in particular was hard hit by that. I was furious at his timing but for the most part it truly was his best gift. The alcohol and the craziness became a rapidly diminishing part of our lives and mostly ended completely in a couple years.

Many years blurred together after that, though one stands out, and just remembering it made me cry for years after - still can. I had returned to Minnesota with the kids, and Paul had remarried and was living in Oklahoma. There was no contact. In fact, there was none again until his mother died after the kids were grown. This particular year the child support was faltering, and we were about to find out that it was not going to be paid again. My job then was low paying, the kids were growing fast, the application for food stamps had been denied because one very last child support check showed up with just the wrong timing. I didn't know how on earth we were going to have either a Christmas dinner or any presents for the kids.

The neighbor across the street found out what was going on, and her place of employment, a local hospital, "adopted" a family each year to give a Christmas to. We were that family. Food and clothing poured in, toys were provided, and we had one of our best holidays ever. I sent the hospital a thank you note, but I doubt I was ever able to express just how much that kindness meant. Then or still now.

Once our family economics improved, a new tradition developed of shopping for the metro Toys for Tots drive each year. Other kids needed help with their merry Christmas.

The worst years were when there was a missing family member, when drugs and life  on the streets took over, and the rest of us tried to celebrate as a family while not knowing even whether our missing member was warm, healthy, or even alive and not the subject of the latest news reports of "there was a body found...." Fortunately those days are behind us, and we are only separated geographically. 

Most recent years the traditions shrank down to presents and  turkey dinner for whomever of the extended family could attend. Now that we are in Arizona, it involves a tree some years, always with bubbler lights if one goes up, turkey dinner with few trimmings, a box or two of wrapped things sent north, and the annual Christmas card. Each year, at some point in the year, I look at my pictures and know just which of them is going to be the one on the card that year, some times even as I take it. Other than after our wedding, the cards have all been something I shot, not the usual family portrait on the card. There was a time I could chose my own wording to go with the picture, but for the last several years the choices have been limited to the couple dozen offerings the stores have programmed into their machines. Each year the offerings are different, and each year the machines are also a bit different. There has not yet been a year when I could put together my desired card without help from some store employee, and some years like this one, not even then. (If you've seen my card, the picture was cropped too closely and one of the quail's heads was chopped short. The machine refused to zoom out no matter how many times either of us tried to do so. )

I guess it'll just have to become the special memory from this year. That, and maybe all the wonderful chocolates.

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