Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas to All

I rose in the darkness this Christmas Eve morning.  After the utter exhaustion of caring for my three little ones for long days this week as they struggle with the crazed anticipation of pre-Christmas, I am thankful that my daughter-in-law is hosting Christmas Dinner tomorrow.  For almost forty years, Christmas dinner has been at my home, with numbers ranging from ten to twenty family and friends, and although I cherish the memories of those lovely Christmas gatherings, it is time to pass the torch - 

Today my "to-do" list is long, but manageable.  I will be wrapping some gifts, putting together a casserole and preparing sausage stuffing, simmering a delicious soup for my daughter to take to work for her 3:00 shift on Christmas Day, and trying to fit in a short nap to re-energize myself for Christmas Eve mass, and a late-night gathering at my nephew's house.

I love Christmas -- the music, the decorations, the warmth and love of this special season.  However, as deeply as I have enjoyed Christmas past, I have very few specific memories of gifts given and received.  There is one Christmas, however, that stands out from all others.  When I was growing up, we were quite poor -- not the poverty of so many today who cannot afford heat and food, but still with much less money than the average suburban family of the 1950's.  My father worked twelve hour days and still money was tight.  While my parents made sure that Santa always brought us gifts, there was no money left over for my parents to exchange gifts.

My parents had a good marriage, and gifts were not necessary for them to express their love for each other.  This love was expressed on a daily basis with kindness, understanding, and comfort as they faced the struggles of life.  However, there was one Christmas when my father excitedly drove my sister and me to Montgomery Ward one Saturday afternoon.  Montgomery Ward was a large department store near Albany, the shopping hub long before Colonie Center and Crossgates Mall changed the "shopscape" of our area. 

 I remember that long ago afternoon clearly -- my father had some extra money and he was buying my mother a Christmas gift for the first time in my memory.  He knew exactly what he wanted, and we went first to the jewelry counter where he bought her a lovely gold bracelet watch; then it was on to the clothing department, where he picked out a leopard jacket (of course it was fake -- and I don't know if it was in style).  Our final destination was the cosmetics counter, with its enticing scents, where he picked out a bottle of my mother's favorite perfume, Tours Ju Moi (sp??).  My father never stopped smiling that afternoon, and on Christmas morning, my mother was overcome with joy and appreciation.  He placed the beautiful watch on her wrist, and she lovingly caressed the leopard jacket.  I was so excited that my mother finally had gifts to open.  Today, that well-worn bracelet sits in a little wooden jewelry box in my bedroom.  From time to time I open the box and hold it in my hand, feeling the loving spirit in which it was given and worn.

As the Christmases in our lives come and go, we find that some are very special and some are best when they are over.  Sometimes the decorations, the food, the gifts, the gatherings and the spirit are perfect, and other years we are left with a vague feeling of disappointment.  Sometimes our families are all together and harmonious, and sometimes we are grief-stricken with the loss of one more well-loved face at the table.  Christmas is really about the birth of Christ, but to many of us, it also has become about the gathering together of our loved ones.  We look forward to the traditions, the gifts, and the love.  And, once or twice in every lifetime, there is a Christmas that will touch our hearts so deeply that its memory remains clear -- I still can summon the scent of my mother's perfume, and the huge smile on my father's face as he held the soft leopard jacket in his calloused hands on that long ago Saturday at Montgomery Ward.

May this Christmas bring loving memories to you all --

Friday, December 16, 2011

Away in a Manger

I was moved to tears as I watched the little angels, shepherds, sheep and wise men gather around Baby Jesus, bringing the age-old story to life for an audience of parents and grandparents.  Both Alivia and Luke attend the Bethlehem Community Church Preschool, and today was their last day of classes before Christmas.  The Nativity Play performed by the four-year-olds was an example of the hard work and love that permeates this preschool all year.  My grandchildren are so fortunate to attend this school -- they are gently nurtured in the ways of the world and the Lord, as they learn basic educational concepts. 

The Christmas season has always been my favorite time of year.  When my own children were young, I cherished the traditions we created.  The weeks before Christmas were filled with cookie baking, decorating, choosing and cutting down a fresh tree, Christmas Eve services in our candlelit church, 5:00 AM  awakenings on Christmas morning, and a large family dinner.  And now, in this latest stage of life, I am reliving the magic of Christmas through my grandchildren's eyes.

My grandchildren are very fortunate that they have large extended families who work very hard to celebrate both long-time and new traditions.  We all realize the tremendous gift of family, and work together to strengthen family bonds.  One afternoon this month, I cut strips of red, green and white construction paper so Luke and Alivia could make chains for their Christmas tree.  We made "family love" chains, writing the names of people they loved on each link of the chain.  They each had so many family members they wanted to include that we had to start doubling up names because we were running out of paper.  And, as a testament to the closeness of our combined families, they aren't really sure which cousins, aunts and uncles belong to whom.  How wonderful to love so many people!!

Lucas and Emma's "other grandmother", Nana, and I planned a cookie baking afternoon last week for Alivia, Luke, Emma, and their cousin Mia.  We had lunch together, and then sat the three older children at the kitchen counter to cut out cookies and decorate them, with little Emma sitting in her highchair to watch.  It was a little crazy for the grandmas, but will be a lovely memory for the little ones.  Next week we are planning another day together.

Alivia's "other grandmother", Nanny, has been a dear friend of mine for over thirty years, and two weeks ago we enjoyed a special Sunday together with Alivia.  First, Alivia helped me create a little tea party for the three of us, with Alivia using a teacup which belonged to her Great-Grandma, whom she never knew, but whose spirit was certainly with us that day.   Then we went on to a pottery painting shop where Alivia painted a ceramic bunny with the help of her artistic Nanny.

While much of Christmas for children is about toys, the long term memories they will carry in their hearts will be the memories of family -- the special, private traditions of their immediate family, and the larger, sometimes crazy memories of their extended family and friends.  They most likely will forget the toys they receive this year, but the love and warmth they feel will fill their souls forever.

This afternoon when I was talking to my daughter-in-law, Lisa, about the nativity play, she told me that when she attended the same preschool twenty-some years ago, she played Mary in the play, and she still remembers it.  I hope Alivia will remember today -- she played an angel, and she certainly looked like an angel to this grandma who sat in the audience with tears in her eyes and love in her heart.