Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve Day

It is quiet here. No presents to wrap for grandkids, since we only have a grandcat. No reason for a tree, for getting into the attic with our arthritic backs seems too much trouble. So what do we do to feel the glow of the season? We buy lots of colored lights. String them across the front porch and around the living room walls. They are turned on all evening and we remember Christmases past...

Our first child, J, on his first Christmas had a shiny new fire engine and a package of Play Do sitting on the fender. On that morning, he ran to the engine, picked up the Play Do and never saw the fire engine. We left it where it was near the small tree until he noticed he had a second gift from Santa a week later.

In my growing up family we opened gifts Christmas Eve, and celebrated the Day preparing the big meal. In my own, only two of the three children wanted to open gifts the night before. So we made a practive of choosing one gift. As they grew we felt less inclined to provide innumerable gifts for the sake of gifting. We usually bought one gift that cost about $25 and a few small ones that were in the $2-$5 range. That was in the 1960's. We attended church Christmas Eve, followed by the opening of one gift.

The practice of a few gifts (because we couldn't afford buying more) gave us a way of teaching our kids that Christmas wasn't receiving as much as giving. We finished projects to give to special neighbors, friends, relatives. I don't know how many enjoyed receiving soap with pictures under wax, hand painted wooden ornaments, tuna cans wrapped in colored cord--but the idea of making and giving was the lesson.

Our middle son was affected the most by not receiving electronic equipment like the other kids in his class...we explained that sometimes the meaning of Christmas was lost on some families, or something like that. But S had so little to tell his classmates when January classes began. Later I found out that he created his gifts to appear "equal" to them.

One Christmas we gave him a watch that costs $25 and came from Sears (we had a standing account there for over 15 years). However, we picked one that had an interesting name other than "Sears". That, along with a few shirts and socks, was all we could give. We had two others to think about. When S returned to school his watch was the hit of the class--it was classy, according to S. We smiled. To this day, unless he reads this, he's never known the origin of his watch.

For several days of Christmas my husband's mother would spend the night and welcome Christmas Day with us. Once we wanted a family picture, so R showed Eliz how to hold the camera. "When I say 1-2-3 Smile, you push the button." He turned to us and said, "Now smile, everyone," and CLICK went the camera. "No, no, Mother, let me say 1-2-3 first, then SMILE before you push the button." Again he said softly to us in front of the tree, "Smile, everyone!" CLICK went the button. By then we were laughing so hard we didn't think a picture would ever be made! A few more tries with Daddy giving us hand signals did Eliz push the button, preserving that moment forever. This is one of our favorite grandmother events.

Funny about this grandmother. She always said she didn't believe in giving gifts. That's ok we said, you don't have to give anything, but accept what we give you. She just couldn't relax when she opened her gifts. Either the powder wasn't her fragrance, or the dish not useful. The key later, I discovered, was to say the gift was from her son, not from the family! When she did give her only grandchildren gifts they were:

chocolate covered cherries to the oldest grandson, her favorite
a bar of soap for the second grandson
a tube of toothpaste to the only granddaughter

You can imagine the reaction of these 8-12 year olds. But Mom and Dad fussed happily over the gifts, later explaining the meaning of receiving. As Grandmother explained, "I like to give useful gifts."

Her gifts continued in the same vein until she died. I have to say as they grew older, their thankfulness to her must have made her feel truly grateful for having selected "useful gifts."

Decorating the tree was a hassle. (Isn't it in any family?) Who did what last year? The oldest just wanted to put the Snoopy ornament on the tree while the sister was hefted up to place the star at the top, and the middle son put on the icicles...

Oldest son J was always the earliest riser Christmas mornings, quietly reviewing the packages and trying to figure out which were his. I wrapped each child's in a different figured paper and they didn't know which was theirs until we were gathered around the tree with our cups of hot apple cider.

Christmas morning breakfast was blueberry pancakes...the early (7 am) snack was our hand-me-down recipe of crackers topped by a slice of cheese with a marshmallow on top, broiled until the cheese melted; this still the ritual today when we gathered, no matter the season...

Those Christmases linger in our memories. Our oldest son lives nearby and continues a few tradtions for us. Daughter lives in Maine and middle son this year is celebrating his birthday and Christmas in Morocco. No grandkids yet...


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Missing But in Action

I've not added an entry in a month. Too many obstructions, like getting out seasonal cards, making a trip to VA, preparing for the BIG LUNCH on the 25th.

However, my trip to Virginia was a lesson many sons and daughters of aging parents need to heed.

I volunteered to drive my frail cousin to her new home near Leesburg. Her daughter, unable to fly to Mississippi every time her mom needed someone, found an apartment near her home in Vienna, and the dread of leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar was enough to keep my cousin delaying for 12 months.

M's problem is one faced by innumerable older people who have to leave their homes. She had lived in a 4 bedroom, 3 bath home chock-full of furnishings and accessories that took 3 days to pack into the largest van I've ever seen. In the apartment complex, as the men unpacked, M began to fret. Where to put this, that, that over there? What to keep, what to move to daughter's basement? For hours the moving men worked steadily, men with patience and compassion for this little lady, until a path was made from one room to the other.

My job was to help M unpack boxes and make some semblance of a home for her. Be her companion for a week. We talked about family history, rehashing old stories passed down from parent to child, asking and answering questions about each of our parents. Her mother was my dad's oldest sister in a family of seven. We cleared family rumors, recalled visits as children...all those things that cousins talk about.

Within a few days M realized that once I left she had no friends and only her daughter, busy with her own life, to call upon when she needed company. An overwhelming grief and aloneness hit. I promised to call her often, visit her yearly on our way to New York. She may never feel comfortable, and this apartment will serve as a way station, a resting place until she dies. That thought alone made her feel her life shortening, although the average family age for passing is some 10 years away. There, in a strange conglomeration of apartment buildings she felt OLD. Yet, she has been one of the busiest, feisty ladies I know. She could do more in one day than I could accomplish in several.

No son or daughter in his/her prime of life rarely understands that one's own life must be put on hold when parents age. Not wanting to but needing to lean heavily on the only people these elders know, their children, comes unexpectedly. The parent cries out for a companion, listener, cook, traveler, and driver. How difficult it is to recognize that one can no longer do simple tasks without supervision. The stove becomes as dangerous as a loaded pistol; preparing meals alone becomes crackers and cheese one day and soup the next; making up the bed too much trouble, all the while one or more television sets blare in every room to dull the silence. Time is the propeller for accepting this new role in life.

I'm aging now with no need to leave the familiar for the unfamiliar. I hope my own children will find time to be my friend and companion.