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Memories of Christmas 1991

Three Christmas gifts remained unopened. Gifts Mom began for her grandchildren, my daughter, son, and niece, but didn’t finish. A sudden heart attack had ended her life in April.

Six months later, Dad sold their home and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. This Christmas was even sadder as our family sat cramped in a small living room – so different from Mom and Dad’s home.

Dad looked at his grandchildren and said, “Those gifts are for you from your grannie.” My brother and I and our spouses sat nearby. Alicia and Sarah, age 17, and Eric, age 15, frowned. “She was making something special for you this Christmas,” said Dad. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

I said, “It’s three almost identical gifts.”

“It’s something you can use now, and Grannie hoped you’d keep and maybe even pass it on to your kids,” said Dad.

“How do we know which gift is ours?” asked Eric.

“By numbers. The way Grannie always did. Susan has folded papers numbered 1, 2, 3, and the packages have numbers on them,” Dad explained.

Alicia, Sarah, and Eric held their gifts. Silence filled the room. After quickly ripping into other packages, now they were silent and still on the floor beside Dad’s chair. “Go ahead, open them,” Dad said.

They paced themselves to see their gifts at the same time. “A quilt!” Sarah and Alicia said in unison. Eric stood and wrapped his quilt around his shoulders. The girls did the same, hugging their quilts close to their bodies.

“I love it!” Sarah said, “But Grannie always said that she’d never make a quilt.” She pulled her white and navy blue patchwork quilt tighter.

“But she made clothes and stuffed animals,” Alicia said. “Our quilts are exactly the same,” she said to Sarah. Alicia looked at Eric’s quilt. “Yours is the same, except dark red where ours is blue.” Each quilt had white rectangles and calico fabric.

“Grannie made lots of stuff, but this is the best,” Eric said. Alicia, Eric, and Sarah sat wrapped in their quilts. No one spoke. We wiped tears and breathed deeply.

Dad rubbed his eyes, then said, “Grannie wanted you to have something you’d keep. You’ll be going off to college soon. You can take your quilts. She began cutting and sewing about two years ago. She was determined to finish them for this Christmas, but…” Dad’s voice faltered.

I continued. “She’d finished one, was quilting the second, and had pieced the third. Dad and I found a woman, Mrs. Horst, to finish them.”

“Aunt Susan, do you know which one Grannie really made?” asked Sarah.

“I’ll answer that,” said Dad. “She made them all. That wonderful lady stitched for your grannie. We were led up the dirt road to her house. She’s a godly woman. She told me she said prayers of blessings as she quilted and hoped to make such beautiful quilts for her children.”

Mom’s quilts covered beds in college dormitory rooms and then apartments when each of her grandchildren married. And now they are on great-grandsons’ beds.

Mom’s quilts were gifts to keep.

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Nativity is Always Here

The cardboard Nativity was stored in a cardboard Christmas card box. When I was a child, I set up this scene of Jesus’s birth. I unfolded the three-section base to lay flat on top of Mom’s small living room chest with drawers. I raised the many one-inch tabs to make sure they stood straight. The hardest part was to stand the three-sided stable in the slits cut in the tabs. Thru the years those slits wore out and wouldn’t hold up the stable that was about 6” tall and 10” wide. So it was propped up in the back with a skinny jar of jelly that Mom said no one saw. The two landscape desert scenes leaned backward, almost touching the wall.

Then I placed the people and animals in slits on the tabs as labeled. Baby Jesus in a cradle in the center of the stable and Mary and Joseph beside him. A shepherd boy, two sheep, a donkey, a cow, and three Wise Men all had their places. Now, six decades later, those tabs are much more tattered and the dessert scenes and stable are propped with toy wooden building blocks. And it’s okay if anyone notices.

In another Nativity, one Wise Man’s crown is chipped. It’s shorter on one side so this Wise Man stands behind the other two. A dab of gold paint covers the crown’s white jagged ceramic edge.

For 47 years, this Nativity, that Husband and I bought the second year we were married, has been part of Christmas. Most of those years, baby Jesus slept in his cradle between Mary and Joseph and the three Wise Men stood outside the wooden stable. But when Daughter and Son were young and placed the figures, the Wise Men stood close to Jesus. Closer than the shepherd boy and his sheep. Closer than the cow and donkey. The Wise Men carried gifts and Daughter and Son thought they should be closest to the newborn baby.

As Daughter and Son got older, the Nativity characters often moved. Mary and a Wise Man switched places or the cow and donkey disappeared – hidden away. My children laughed about how long it took me to realize something was amiss.

A few years ago my oldest Grand said to me, “You know, Gran, the Wise Men weren’t there when Jesus was born. They shouldn’t be close the stable.” David said the Kings should be across the room until after December 25. “So maybe you could start moving them closer about a week after Christmas.” And that’s what happened.

A few days ago, four-year-old Jesse stood with his elbows propped on the table in front of the ceramic nativity. My Grand’s chin rested inches from baby Jesus. “Gran’s had that a long time. It’s always here,” Jesse’s big sister Lou told him. “Don’t play with it, but you can touch and move the people and animals.”

Lou is right. The Nativity is always here and it can be touched.

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Surprising Teacher Gifts

“Open mine next! Mama said you’d like it. Is that your favorite color? Mom said everybody needed what I got you.” My students sat on the floor at my feet, and they were excited while I opened the pile of Christmas gifts on my desk. And often, they were just as surprised as I was by the gifts they gave.

During my teaching career, I taught third, fourth, and sixth graders, and parents – usually mothers – purchased gifts for teachers. So when children shouted, “Open mine next!” it was because they wanted to know what they were giving.

When I taught, poplar teacher gifts were Christmas pins and tree ornaments. I have ornaments, with students’ names written on the back, that I still put on my tree each year. And I’ve kept some pins, but the ones with the words ‘Best Teacher Ever’ were quickly stored away.

Some gifts weren’t typical teacher presents. A 3rd grade boy hung his head as he handed me a wrapped package and told me his mother had picked it out. It was a Teflon pie pan. I thanked Steven, hugged him, and assured him it was a great gift because I didn’t have a pie pan like that one. My assurances didn’t help. The other children had beamed when I held glittery red Christmas ornaments and pinned one more pin on my red sweater. This little guy couldn’t be consoled. Later his mother told me that he’d wanted to give me a sparkly Christmas tree pin, but she wanted me to have a pie pan like hers. This was a lesson. Years later, I wanted my own children to like the teacher gifts they gave.

Sometimes students told me about the cost of their gifts. When a girl gave me a store-wrapped package with gold paper and a red bow, I knew where the gift had been purchased and most items there weren’t typical teacher gifts. It was tree ornaments – a pair of beautiful green-feathered birds. As the students and I oohed and aahed, the gift giver said, “I picked them out and momma said you’d better like them because they cost a lot.” For the past twenty-five years, these two birds have decorated my tree and I still like them.

One boy was really proud of his gift and said his mother thought every teacher should be able to use it and it’d be different from everyone else’s. She was right – no one else gave me a photo album and I did use it. When I thanked him, he said, “Momma got a really good deal on it. It was on sale for half price and she had a coupon.” And then he told me exactly how much the album cost.

Students taught me that the gifts they give should be something they like, no matter what the mothers and the teachers think or the cost. Children give from their hearts.

Christmas Then and Now

That tree, the one in the middle of the field, looked perfect. Not too wide. Just the right height. Except when we got close, we saw bagworms. This wouldn’t be our Christmas tree. When I was a child, my family went to our farm to cut a cedar tree. Sometimes Mom stayed home and baked sugar cookies and made hot chocolate, using Hershey’s cocoa and sugar, and sometimes she went with Dad, my brother Roger, and me.

Dad drove the tractor, a red International Cub, and I sat on the seat with him so I could steer, but Dad kept his hands resting on the steering wheel. Roger and Mom walked beside the tractor unless it was really cold and then she drove the family car as far as it was safe on the dirt road.

We passed the white wooden house where Dad’s grandparents had lived and where he was born. No one lived in the dilapidated farmhouse in the late 1950s and the tobacco base and pastureland were rented to a neighboring farmer.

At the foot of Huddleston Knob in Pickett County, cedar trees were plentiful, but choosing the right one took time. Like the one with bagworms, other trees appeared perfect from a distance, but closer they were much too wide or had a gaping hole with no branches. Dad traipsed from tree to tree holding out his arms to gauge a tree’s width and standing tall to his full 6’ 2” to estimate a tree’s height.

When we finally chose one, Dad and Roger chopped it down and we carried it home, a few miles away, tied to the top of the car. One side of the tree was always thinner with fewer branches so that side faced the living room picture window. Because Mom wanted the metal star placed at the treetop to graze the ceiling, Dad cut an inch at a time off the tree’s trunk until it was exactly the height she wanted.

My two oldest Grands, ages 11 and 13, went to their family’s basement last week and lugged a cardboard box to their living room. Elsie and Samuel opened the box and unpacked the sections of their 8’ tall artificial tree. They lay the pieces on the floor to determine which one had the longest branches and would be at the bottom of the tree. They and their parents stacked and secured each section to build their Christmas tree.

Then they adjusted the long metal branches so that they looked like a tree that had been cut in the woods.   And the whole family fluffed the pine needles on each limb, unfolding and ruffling the small plastic twigs that have been squashed in a box for eleven months.

I cherish the memory of cutting a tree in the woods. But, you know what, my Grands will cherish their memory of putting up their Christmas tree too because they’ll remember family time. Time together – that’s the happy memory.

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The More I Love Christmas

Every December I reread a Christmas card Husband and I received in 2009 from Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh. The front reads ‘The older I get, the more I love Christmas’ and inside a poem begins with these words: The older I get the simpler my holiday preparations become, the closer I feel to old friends as I write my Christmas cards, the more fondly I remember Christmases past.

To give credit to the poet I googled the beginning lines and found that same card is available from Walter Drake, but no credit is given to the writer. The words inspire me to step back, away from the hustle and bustle of Christmas, to appreciate Christmas moments, past and present.

Our Christmas tree is a memory tree. Each ornament tells a story. I love the plastic Santa astride a white horse that hung on my family’s tree in the 1950s. I cherish a plastic lantern, with a sprig of plastic holly, that was tied with a red bow onto a big white box Husband gave me in 1968. Inside that big box were smaller boxes and inside the smallest box was my engagement ring. I treasure the paper ornaments that Son and Daughter made in kindergarten. I hang many teacher ornaments that students gave me through the years. I remember a 6th grade girl handing me a wrapped box and saying, “Mom said you better like these. They cost a lot of money.” Now, thirty something years later, I love those birds more than the day I opened her gift.

Last week two Grands, ages 6 and 8, wore their mother’s red dresses and sang in their school Christmas program. As Elaine and Ruth sang Away in a Manger with their classmates, half my heart was in the past when Daughter wore those dresses. She was seven and a second grader when she wore one and sang Silver Bells at a Northeast Elementary School program.

As I drove Ruth and ten-year-old Lou across town a few days ago, they laughed at the music on my Christmas CD. “That’s sounds so old-timey,” one said and burst into a jazzed up version of Joy to World. I turned off the recorded music and we sang. I joined them in White Christmas and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. And my Grands laughed because I sang off key.

There’s no other time of the year that friends and acquaintances greet each other with such enthusiasm. We hold hugs a little longer. Shout Merry Christmas. Smile bigger. And there’s no other time that I enjoy opening mail more. I love Christmas cards. Greetings from friends and family, from across town and across oceans.

I look forward to Christmas Eve candlelight service. The tradition of worshipping and hearing the birth story from the book of Luke and holding a single lit candle while singing Silent Night. Celebrating the miracle of Christmas.

The older I get, the more I realize Christmas is a matter of the heart.

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Tis the Week After Christmas

 

images  ‘Tis the week after Christmas, and it’s time to take down, put away, and clean. To me, this week between Christmas and New Year’s Day seems like a whole week of Mondays. A time to start new, a beginning. On Mondays I am eager and have energy, and I think I can accomplish anything and everything. My day’s to-do list is long and usually morphs into my week’s list.

The giftwrap has to go! All those Christmas gift bags have multiplied and there’s a mess of paper and ribbon. Sort, trash, and pack away! And the sticky kitchen floor has to be mopped. How much honey and sugar was dribbled on it?

Put away Christmas. The dried greenery goes out the door. No more holly berries rolling across the floor. But I really like our big gingerbread house and carolers, one for each of our Grands and their parents. Why hide them away? And the nativity set, the one that’s graced our living room for 48 years, why stash it in a box just because the calendar says January?

Then there’s the dilemma of when to take down the Christmas tree. It’s said that you drag all your baggage and bad luck from last year into the New Year if your tree is up when the bells toll midnight on December 31st. Our Christmas tree is the perfect backdrop for my early morning reading corner and I’m still savoring every ornament that reminds me of Christmases past. If it’s really bad luck to leave a Christmas tree up after the New Year, then 2017 may not be a good year for me.

I could be inspired by my friend Alicia who does the same thing every year during this week. She cleans out drawers, every drawer in her house, she says. She hates that Christmas is over and this task keeps her busy and is her therapy. She doesn’t say, but I know, that she is a super organized and she’s needs everything in place. And she has a garage sale every spring so cleaning out gives her a jump-start. I think I’ll skip Alicia’s therapy.

My to-do list is long. It spans from trashing dry holly branches to reading the most recent Jeffery Archer book. From mopping the sticky kitchen floor to looking at Christmas cards that were glanced at and stacked in a basket. From cleaning to developing pictures and writing.

It’s seems like a good time to go through those hundreds of pictures on my phone. Develop some. Put them in the Grands’ albums. It’s time to make notes of Christmas memories. How my eight Grands acted as if they liked the new house shoes I tramped all over town to buy. How they really liked my new game, Bingo.

The cleaning and putting away can wait. I need quiet and calm. Time to relish Christmas memories and read a good book. There’s always another Monday and a new to-do list.

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It Wouldn’t be Christmas Without….

screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-8-09-58-amWhat are the ‘musts’ for Christmas at your house? I threw that question out to Facebook friends and they commented. Christmas is about family, friends, church services, gifts, games, movies, carols, food, and the nativity.

Traditional food ranks high on everyone’s list. Anne said, “We have the exact same food every year. You can add, but you CANNOT take away. We tried doing something different about thirty years ago and it was a disaster. The kids love their tradition.” So do adults. Vegetable soup, shrimp, spinach balls, fruitcake, dried apple stack cake, coconut cake, gingerbread houses. And while most of my friends enjoy southern foods, two honor their family heritage by eating eat lutefisk and lebkuchen.

Christmas isn’t complete without watching movies. We laugh when we know that Raphie’s father in A Christmas Story won a prize. Laugh before we even see the lamp, shaped like a leg and wearing a fishnet stocking. We celebrate that miracles still happen on 34th street and that George Baily learns that his life really is wonderful and we listen for the angel’s bell.

Two friends shared stories about boxes. Mike wrote that in 1989 he bought an aquarium for his daughters and the filter box was the perfect size for a small Christmas gift. Every year since someone gets the ‘fish box.’ It has continued to be passed around from person to person.

Jo’s story goes back to 1965 when her future mother-in-law wrapped a gift in a Texas Instrument box. After Jo married into the family, she learned about the box and always thought it was fun to see whom Grandma chose to get it. The family grew, and Jo never got the box. It went around the family over and over, and Grandma recorded the year and the box’s recipient on a paper she kept inside the box.

Jo writes, “I have to admit, I knew she loved me, but she never gave me the box and I couldn’t understand why. It was just a box, but not to this family, and you knew you were in if you got The Box. I gave up, but not without heckling Grandma, when she gave the box to my new son-in-law. Then, lo and behold, the last Christmas she was with us, before she died in the spring, I got the box.”

Jo’s family took pictures while she squealed and hugged and carried on like it was a golden box of treasure. The gift inside was a pair of old pillowcases from the 1970s, but never used. Jo says, “The perfect gift for the old box that carried so much clout, and now, I am in charge! I get to pick whose gift goes inside the box.”

I love the stories that friends shared. Myra said it best. “While we may have different rituals and traditions, we find such comfort in the power of consistency. It connects us with those no longer with us.”

That’s exactly why I make dried apple stack cake. Mom did.