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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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In Between Week

What are you doing this last week of 2017? I threw out this question to Facebook friends.

I see these days as Mondays, kick-start days for tasks and chores. But I thought some people might say the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is down time, a time to kick back and do nothing. Daughter said she’d take a big nap on the 26th and then get back to me. Amy works a demanding job and is taking life easy until the end of this year and then start out strong in 2018. Peggy is resting up for an upcoming adventure in January.

Some people travel. “Get out of town,” Sherry said. Mary is travelling to NYC for shows, museums, the Downton Abby exhibit, and taking in Saks’ windows displays on Fifth Avenue. After a few days with family, Chuck will fly to Buenos Aires, and Mikey is fishing in Costa Rica where life is easy and warm.

Some hit the exercise mode and take on new classes. Michael gets back on his walking program this week with the goal of 500 miles in 2018. Jan is ready for the gym and workouts. Crystal rides her bike. Together Cousin Mike and his thirteen-year-old daughter start a beginner’s tap-dancing class that runs for four months.

Some people take on tasks. Marilyn is going through Christmas decorations and sorting them. Linda begins the decluttering that lasts through February. “It is a tradition,” she says. Crystal and her husband who are in the process of downsizing will begin to declutter. (I’ve done that. They have my sympathy.)

Some set goals. Kristy, the mother of a toddler and newborn twin babies, will make a game plan for simplifying her life and said, “So I can better take care of my now family of 5!” Alexandra will write her vision of Thrive with Hope’s Growth in 2018.

Some spoke of looking forward. I appreciate their optimism. Move toward 2018 with hope, love, faith. Look forward to new friendships, new opportunities for self-development, spiritual growth and personal well-being.

Almost all planned to spend some of this week with others. Time with family and friends tops most people’s list. Grandparents are enjoying grandbabies. Parents treasure having grown-up kids home. Out-of-towners are visiting everyone they can.

Many friends inspire me. They remind me to be in the present and count my blessings. Reminisce about the past year, the good times and the hard times, thanking God for seeing us through.

This week is like no other and I like it. I’ll do a few tasks. I’ll pack away most Christmas decorations. But not the carolers, one for each of our children and Grands, which will decorate the china hutch until Valentine’s Day and the nativity so the Wise Men can join the celebration sometime in January.

And I’ll get out my 2018 calendar and jot down planned events. And I have a new jigsaw puzzle to complete. But I’m convinced this week is a time to rest and enjoy being with those we love. I hope you do the same.

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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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.

Christmas Moments

Version 2Eight Grands. Five, age 4 and under.   Four adults, the Grands’ parents. We had a full house for three and a half days last week when Son brought his family across country to celebrate Christmas and Daughter’s family came from across town.   As I reflect, those days were filled with moments to hold close. Some moments when a camera wasn’t close or couldn’t be captured in a picture.

Eight-month-old Annie lay on the floor when her four-year-old cousin, Elaine, first saw her. Elaine ran and stretched out on her tummy, just like Annie, with her nose inches from Annie’s. Both giggled and squealed, kicked their feet, waved their arms. Then Elaine gave her little cousin a nose-to-nose kiss.

Neil, age 2 ½, sat in the small rocking chair that was his dad’s and hummed to the Cabbage Patch doll he held tightly. Four-year-old Grands, Elaine and Dean, lay side-by-side playing with the Fisher Price playhouse and garage, toys that their parents once played with. These cousins parked cars and lined up the little people and disagreed about who had what first.

While playing in the bathtub, Neil named the three rubber ducks: baby, big brother, momma and hid them under washcloths. Dean held the biggest one, ten inches tall, and said, “This is biggest rubber ducky ever!” (The duck someone left on my front porch a few months ago. Thank you, whoever you are.)

More food crossed our kitchen counter than Husband and I eat in a month. Young to old voices recited the prayer I learned as a child: “God bless us and bless this food.” Every minute preparing and cleaning up messes was rewarded by Neil’s comment after one bite of sweet potato fries: “YUM! This is really good!” And the Grands declared Husband’s ice cream sandwich cake the best dessert.

Gift opening time. Such chaos. Such smiles. Seven Grands sat on the floor. Baby Annie in her mother’s lap. Son and Son-in-law good naturally wore flashing Rudolph noses, treasures from their stockings; their wives donned oversized plastic gold glasses. Lou, age 8, hugged her Little House on the Prairie books and said, “Thank you! I’m so happy to have all of these! Now I can turn down page corners and a bookmark won’t fall out because these are my very own books.”

Ten-year-old David said, “Oh, look! What a surprise.” after he ripped paper from the Lego set that he had chosen months ago and told me, “This one, Gran.” Ruth, age 6, passed her turn to open a gift and explained, “I know what’s in the big box. I want to open it last.” When she did, she hugged Samantha, her first American Girl doll. Amid the ripped paper, ribbons, and open boxes, 18-month-old Micah, his arms stretched wide, ran to me. “Gen!” he said. He snuggled in my arms.

I almost let the biscuits burn while standing at the kitchen window and watching Son and his nephew, my 10-year old Grand, play basketball. Surely, it wasn’t almost thirty years ago that Son was 10 and shot balls through that same goal.

Then came the morning when Son and Daughter-in-Law packed to fly home. Husband and I walked with their sons to our backyard creek. Dean threw rocks in the water, and said, in a pitiful voice that only a toddler can master, “Gran, I sure wish my cousins would come play with me.”

Even my young Grand knows the best Christmas joy is people, not his new matchbox car garage that I thought was the perfect gift.

Merry Christmas from Husband and me to each of you!

Love, Janet

start_bg.ny One more Christmas card came in my mailbox today. A card from Huron, Ohio. From Janet Gordon, who became my aunt’s best friend when they were young housewives and raising children.

Aunt Doris and Janet and their husbands developed a friendship that emerged from living far away from their families and in the same neighborhood. It was the late 1940’s. Akron, Ohio. That close relationship continued even after Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh moved to Tennessee in 1962. The two couples vacationed together and stayed connected through Sunday night telephone calls.

As a kid, I played with Janet’s daughter while visiting Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh in Akron, and I saw the Gordon family a few times when they visited here in Tennessee. In more recent years, Aunt Doris had shared the Gordon family news with me. Of the four friends, only Janet survives. After Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh passed away within a month of each other in 2013, Janet’s daughter called me. She said that her mother needed to connect with Doris and Hugh’s family. Janet had talked with my cousin and her daughter asked that I also call her.

Janet and I talked about Aunt Doris keeping up with fashion and her determination to act young. We talked about a time that I played at Janet’s house when I ate too many marshmallows and had a stomachache. Janet lamented that she never thought she’d be the last of the four friends and declared that she was doing well. I hung up the phone and added her name to my Christmas card list.

Janet’s card included a copy of her Christmas letter. She wrote, “2014 has been a happy year for me. I accomplished most of the goals I set for myself. The goal that stands out the most is that I know if I put others first in my life, and try to encourage someone every day, I am happy and able to cope with living alone.” June 2014 was a special time because her granddaughter visited for a week and had a surprise 91st birthday party for her.

In March, Jane fell and required hospital care and caregivers during a three-month recuperation. She learned “to never underestimate what a fall can do to slow you down.” About a mild ischemic stroke that she suffered in November, she wrote “The Good Lord still wants me here as I had help immediately.” She spent four days in the hospital and continues to have speech therapy and the care of a home health nurse twice a week.

Janet ended her letter. “I am doing very well. I will start setting my personal goals for 2015. I wish you and yours joy, peace, and loving warmth as you fellowship with your family and friends. Have a safe, happy, and blessed Christmas. May you have a prosperous 2015.”

She’s 91 and lives alone. After two hospital stays in 2014 and a three month recuperation from a fall and while currently working with a speech therapist and receiving care from home health nurse, Janet is happy and doing well. She accomplished most of her 2014 goals and I’m sure she’s set 2015 goals.

I tucked Janet’s letter under my writing calendar. When there’s a day that I feel the least bit down in the dumps, I’ll read Janet’s words again. And be blessed.