Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

The last time I saw The Nutcracker was December of 2007.  I was delighted with the production, and it unexpectedly brought back memories, which I blogged about at the time.  Here’s what I wrote:

…I recollected a part of myself yesterday afternoon, while sitting in a darkened theater watching a splendid production of the ballet, The Nutcracker.  An especially lovely segment screamed for applause, and I began it…and there she was.  Right beside me, grinning with delight at the magic of the performance and with satisfaction at being “old trigger wrist”–her cupped hands like gunshots echoing.  Mom. Except of course she wasn’t there, couldn’t be there.   (more…)


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So Dennis went out to K-mart’s after-Christmas sale with a mission: get the cheapest artificial tree available.  He came home with a slender tree, under six feet tall, which had set us back a whopping $18.  Wonderful! That should get us through a few holiday seasons.  We enjoyed filling it was a combination of snowflakes and Sunday school decorations, along with all the ornaments we received as gifts. With colored lights and gold tinsel, it was a lively hodge-podge.  Before too many years had passed, its small size meant we had decorations left over when the branches were all filled.

Fast forward ten years.  Our tree is getting a little tired. It has lived in four different houses, and it’s looking decidedly puny in our large living room.  Meanwhile, we’ve been home to Massachusetts in 1998 (about which, more in a later post) and we’ve seen the family tree again.  It’s been 13 years since I’ve been home at Christmas.

“Mom, what happened to the tree??”

“What do you mean?”

“Someone took all the bottom branches!”

“No, it’s always been like that.”

“No way! It looks like an umbrella.”  (Maybe this is not the tree I saw last time I was home. I’ve never seen anything so goofy.)

“It will look fine with all the presents under it.”

And with all of us home, it did.  In fact the presents for ten people not only filled the extensive space under the tree, but spilled out in a knee-deep pool at least ten feet toward the opposite wall.   The next year, however, without my family or my brother David’s, Mom finally decided she was sick of the umbrella tree.

Being a world-class shopper for high value and low price, it took Mom some time to find just the right replacement. But the next year she reported that the new tree was gorgeous, and promised to send pictures.  I think she even bought some new (red and gold) ornaments.

In September of 2001, America was jolted out of her complacency and life as we know it changed.  In October of 2001, my family was jolted personally. Our beautiful mother, who looked fully ten years younger than her 61 years, who exercised faithfully and glowed with health, was diagnosed with cancer.  Life as we knew it would never be the same.

Mom and Dad spent that winter in Florida while she received treatment. I visited them at home in Massachusetts in June. In October they returned to their winter home.  Mom left this world on November 11, 2002.

Christmas that year was sober, wistful.  I didn’t give much thought to our tree, except to think that it looked more tired than ever.  But to my jaundiced eye, everything seemed dull, cataract-cloudy.

In June we made our last trip to the family homestead in Lee, Massachusetts.  There we all helped Dad clean out the house and we divided up the things that he didn’t want or need.  There in its nearly-new box was the Christmas tree Mom had used once.  It was nearly seven feet tall, too big to be of use to my brothers with their smaller homes, so they graciously offered it to me, along with some of the ornaments.  Later that summer, Dad and David rented a truck and delivered furniture and boxes to all of us.  My new tree went into the basement to await the season.

Our tree, 2008

Our tree, 2008

Every year since 2003 I have enjoyed putting our tree together (even though it has the prickliest artificial needles I’ve ever felt, and I need to wear gloves while putting the lights on).  I think of Mom, so carefully selecting this tree, not knowing she was choosing it for me.

In order to honor her (and, OK, to satisfy my own aesthetic sense at last), I decided to switch to all white lights, and to put away the children’s handmade ornaments.  Careful shopping of my own netted me some beautiful things…mostly gold, I noticed with amusement.  I discarded the old tinsel garland and made huge bows of wired fabric ribbon, and was pleased with the results.  I think Mom would approve of our tree, even if it’s not all red and gold.  Thinking of her at Christmas, as I look at the lighted tree, gives me one more reason to smile.

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If there was one thing I was adamant about, it was having a real Christmas tree when I had my own household. Having endured an artificial tree for over half my life, I was eager to return to the sincere and old-timey ambiance of a freshly-cut evergreen.

Our first married Christmas, 1983. No tree.  Not even I was ambitious enough to haul a Christmas evergreen up four steep flights of stairs.  1984 found us in the Berkshires with my parents, and in 1985 we moved to Los Angeles. Somehow we managed to swing the airfare to fly home…so again, no tree.

So it was not until 1986 that we could finally deck our own halls.  We were only one flight above ground, which was less daunting.  We had just returned from our first trans-Atlantic trip (our belated honeymoon in Great Britain) and the funds for frippery were rather low.  But I insisted that I’d waited for a real tree since 1971, and I was willing to string it with popcorn and cranberries, if that was all we could afford.  So Dennis and I went out in our ’72 Vega wagon to look at trees.  Hmmm. A bit more expensive than I’d realized, but we found one we liked. Now to get it home.

It occurs to me that I have written myself to a point where you are anticipating a hilarious story…it’s cruel of me to set you up and then disappointment you, especially at Christmas. But such is life–we have such high expectations, and then they’re dashed.

I was sure that a real tree would restore all the magical lustre of the season for me, even in hot, smoggy, crowded, claustrophobic California. (Did I mention hot?)  But after wrestling the tree in and out of a small car, up a narrow flight of stairs, including a sharp turn, sawing the bottom to make it sit level, and then forgetting to water it several times…the bloom was off the rose, as it were.  I made crocheted snowflakes that year, and they were the nicest thing about the tree…somewhere I’d gotten some nylon thread, and so they floated on the surface of the branches like suspended animation.  I also found some little wooden curlicue ornaments in a gift shop, and they were country-ish and sweet.  For the rest, the popcorn refused to be threaded without breaking, and who can afford that many cranberries?  One bag made a pitifully short chain. What were our ancestors thinking?

In spite of my disillusionment, which I kept trying to squelch, we had real trees in 1987 and 1988 (the year we were expecting Paul’s imminent arrival).  In the fall of 1989 we moved back home to Indiana, and our little family of three could barely afford popcorn, much less a tree.  Just before Christmas we found a small one on sale.  On Christmas eve, I was putting Paul’s very first presents under the tree, and–shriek of intense pain!–impaled my open eye directly on a needle which felt like the sewing kind rather than the piney ones.  Later inspection of the dastardly shrub revealed that it had been spray-painted green by an unscrupulous tree lot.  The needles–all equally lethal–fell off and managed to get into every room, including the bathroom, and refused to leave for several months.

“That’s it!” I said. “We’re getting a fake tree.”  I hated to admit it, but my mom was right. Old-timey ambiance is over-rated.

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anonymous decorator tree

anonymous decorator tree

Charlie Brown’s tree led me to thinking about my own trees, past and present.  I didn’t even know anyone who had an artificial tree back when I first saw that Peanuts special. The different-colored aluminum ones seemed like a joke…who would ever buy one of those?  (My mother-in-law, as it turns out…but we’ll let that pass.)

All the trees I remember until I was 9 years old were the fragrant, asymetrical kind that you can drape with icicles and egg-carton ornaments from school.  We had glass balls–my favorites had silvery indented sections–and strings of big fat lights in blue and red and amber and green.  I loved those trees.  My mother grew to hate them.  Both aesthetically and practically, they were painful.  After our first Christmas in Fort Wayne, when she and Dad dragged the dead tree up from our lower-level family room, scattering needles everywhere, she announced that we would henceforth have an artificial tree.

At first I was horrified.  No wonderful smell?  No trips to pick out a tree?  But Mom’s new tree was lovely and I enjoyed helping her to choose the new decorations…for she decreed that this tree would go in the living room, which meant it had to be perfect.  She chose a red and gold scheme:  every ornament, every garland, every light was red or gold.  Gold angels floated amidst red apples and gold tinsel garland. Golden glittery balls sparkled.  My brother David and I will lie under the tree listening to the Christmas records, looking up through the branches at the twinkling lights.  We loved our tree.

Fast-forward a few years. I’m an adult, I’ve discovered my own taste in home decor, color schemes and…yes…Christmas trees.  Now I look at the family tree and, well, it’s…boring.  A few years later, it’s downright comical (more on that tomorrow).

I think part of “putting away childish things” is releasing the notion that whatever one’s family has always done is the best or only way to do things.  Sometimes this feels like betrayal.  I’ve needed to work towards appreciating things that I don’t agree with anymore.  Knowing that my parents loved me and made their own best choices lets me smile on a lot of things that I would not choose myself.

Congregations need to learn this lesson, too. Perhaps governments do, also.  Just because our forefathers handled something a certain way doesn’t make it right for us today.  But pray for the wisdom to know what is an absolute–was Jesus born of a virgin, born in a stable?–and what is subject to change, like a Christmas tree.

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charlie-brown-xmas1He has a round head and a knobby nose, his dog wins more contests than he ever will, and even his friends all call him a loser. He talks through a megaphone but no one listens to him.  And when he chooses a “sincere” Christmas tree, everybody laughs.

I know I’m not eccentric or even unusual in naming A Charlie Brown Christmas as my all-time favorite televised holiday special.  I was probably six or seven when I saw it for the first time.  Having followed the Sunday Peanuts strip since before I could read, the characters felt to me like old friends.  Watching the annual telecast became one of my most-anticipated Christmas rituals.

Snoopy was hilarious, Lucy was exasperating and Linus both wise and kind. But Charlie Brown’s inept sincerity was painful to watch. He made me weep.  I so wanted him to be taken seriously.  Even at that young age I knew the misery of being misunderstood and the frustration of failure.  If you’d asked me, I’d have told you my favorite superhero was Underdog…really.

I got chills the first time Linus stood in the spotlight and spoke the words of Luke 2 into the empty auditorium.  And when the Peanuts started to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” after beautifying Charlie Brown’s tree, I burst into tears.

As a child, it was the loving gesture of decorating his tree, transforming it, that moved me. As an adult, what speaks to me is the larger act of restoration: a community restoring a brother, reviving a broken life.  I understand now that the tree is a metaphor for the boy himself, awkward, unwanted, unappreciated. When the unlovely is made lovely, Charlie is affirmed.

Jesus came to seek and save the unlovely (that’s all of us).  And He has made us ministers of reconciliation.  We are transformed so that we can take part in His ongoing work of transformation.  Is there a Charlie Brown in your life?  Is there a tiny tree that can be restored and made lovely this Christmas?

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Foster Park, 2008

Foster Park, 2008

It’s snowing tonight, the first of December. A lovely way to begin the Advent season.  So many Christmas memories seem to be tied to snow…snow we got, snow we wish we’d gotten…in this hemisphere, at least.

In one of my earliest memories, I am looking up, up, up at mountains of snow which stretch skyward on either side of me.  Snow falls in the haloed light of streetlamps as I glide along.

It is the still-famous blizzard of 1966 in upstate New York. Sixty inches of lake-effect snow fell in the Syracuse area in a day. Our little ranch house sat at the top of a steep hill, and the garage was on the basement level, the driveway slanting down into it from the road. When the garage door was lifted that morning, a wall of snow nearly to the top greeted my dad.

He took an appliance box (washer?dryer?) and nailed it to a sled. Then he and Mom pulled me down the hill and into our little town of Phoenix (population 6,000–tops).  I stayed there with my grandmother while Mom and Dad walked home and spent the next several days shovelling.

I’m sure my dad’s memories of that week involve bone-deep aches and pains, numbing cold.  Mom was worried about me, I’m sure–it was her number one job.  I don’t remember anything about my stay with Dad’s mother.  I only remember that endless white towering over me as I huddled in the bottom of a moving box.  I felt safe inside an enchanted castle, and I only remember the magic.

Isn’t that one of the great gifts of childhood?  Too young to bear the weight of events, we enjoy life without shadows and without guilt.  Learning to trust is learning to recover this old art: To sit in the magic circle of my Father’s protection and watch the snow with no worries…to become as a little child.

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holly1 One of my favorite pastimes as a preschooler was to listen to records (LPs…those huge round things you have to put on a turntable, and listen to one side at a time). My mom bought many “spoken word” albums and I would act them out. But at Christmas, she would put stacks of records on the spindle and let them drop one by one…Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Robert Goulet.  Compilation albums with Diahann Carroll, Perry Como,  Eugene Ormandy’s orchestra, Julie Andrews singing “The Bells of Christmas”…

And what did I do while all this glorious music floated over my head?  What I remember doing is kneeling…a blanket draped on my head, my hands folded over my heart, I gazed down on a baby doll wrapped in flannel and lying on the red leather camel saddle/hassock my dad brought back from his Navy tour of duty in the Mediterranean.

When I was five, when I could convince Mom to cooperate, I’d kneel by the little seat cradling my conveniently-small baby brother, David. He was four months old, and far too fat to be the newborn King, but he was a live baby and too good a prop to pass up.

I’m sure there must have been more to my role playing than just the endless kneeling…but that’s all I remember.  Did I pretend to travel on camel back? Did I “cry” when the inn was full?   I’m positive I knew nothing about giving birth, so there was no delivery in my story.  I imagine the kings visited from time to time, and we received their gifts with dignity.  But what I recall is being on my knees, gazing downward, reverent.   A good way to spend some time today.

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holly My earliest Christmas memory: I am  perhaps three or four, stereotypically awake before dawn and tiptoe  into Mom and Dad’s room.  Mom is under the covers and I whisper to her,

“Is it time yet?”

“Not yet, Lor.  Climb in here with me…you wouldn’t want to let Santa know you’re up. He might not leave anything if he knows you’re awake.”

Breathless, I burrow down and cuddle up.  My little ears strain for the sound of harness bells or booted feet, and as I listen the white noise of sleep takes over.  When I wake again it’s full light, and the living room proves that Santa has indeed been here.

(What I don’t know for years and years is that Daddy went out looking for stuffed animals for me, and even then was wrapping, wrapping, wrapping…)

This memory always reminds me of the story Mom loved to tell, about her first Christmas memory.  Her Daddy took her to the tiny second-floor balcony and pointed to the hoof-prints of eight reindeer…how they could have landed on that postage-stamp space is a question Mom never thinks to ask.  She is enchanted, and so am I by the telling.


These memories leave me feeling ambivalent now.  My husband and I are not big fans of Santa Claus and find the magic of the season in a stable instead.  Our kids didn’t lie awake listening for sleigh bells or worry that the chimney was too small.  Did we cheat them?  We wanted to spare them the disillusionment of unmasking the untruth, and the skewed image of God with which we struggled for years before meeting Jesus personally.  We always made much of Advent, lighting candles, decorating and baking, counting down the days with a paper chain or a special calendar.  We always read them “The Night Before Christmas” before bed on the 24th, but it was just a beloved story (and the pop-up version my mom gave us still delights today).

Is there a Christmas memory for you which is bittersweet now?  What did you do differently than your parents did, and are you glad as you look back on that decision?  I wouldn’t change the way we celebrated Christmas when the boys were little.  I wonder how they feel about it now, both nearly grown, or if they care. I wonder what they remember as special, and I hope we’ll get a chance to talk about that…maybe this Christmas eve.

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Full Circle

We sit on the piano bench, Angela and I.  She has been my surrogate niece (along with her four siblings) for at least five years now, neighbors-turned-family.  She’s been my piano student for about six months.  Seven-year-old Grace looks over our shoulders as we play a duet, “O Come All Ye Faithful”.

“It’s just sticks and dots. How can you read that?” asks Grace.

I am five, and sitting next to my Aunt June on the piano bench.  Her old black upright has always fascinated me.  She is playing “Jingle Bells” and I’m looking from the page to her hands and back again.  Sticks and dots…what possible relationship exists between those shapes and the black and white keys?  How does she make such wonderful sounds?  I want to learn…

It is a strange sensation, not quite deja-vu. As if a cog had slipped into place after forty years.  And someday Grace will play a carol, by the twinkling lights of a holiday tree, and a little girl will stare in wonder at the music…

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