Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Keeping Christmas

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Christmas traditions and why we break our necks each December to make the same cookies, place the same ornaments on the tree and get to the same houses to celebrate.
It all started a few days after Thanksgiving. My husband, Reggie, brought in our Christmas tree from under the carport, where it had stood for a few days to air out after a year in storage. He and I started to fluff out the branches, starting at the top and working our way down to the bottom. By the time I was working on the longest branches near the base, I started noticing a peculiar odor. I knew right away what it was. It was the unmistakable stink from where a cat had sprayed our tree. At first I thought it was confined to one branch, so Reggie cut it off. But I was wrong. There was more to it, and the longer the tree stayed in our warm house, the more offensive the smell became. I called a friend who has a small family of adopted cats. We talked about my options, and I tried cleaning the tree with disinfectant wipes. But it didn’t take but a few swipes across the brittle green needles to realize we had an unfixable problem.
So I did what any stressed-out, overworked, emotional mom would do. I cried. Sobbed, actually. At no point in that breakdown did I rationalize it was time for new tree anyway. We had used this same tree since 1995. Mama and I had gone shopping after Christmas the year before. She bought one, and I bought one. We were determined to no longer buy a live tree because I was allergic to them and so was my son.
I loved this tree, and I wanted this tree to decorate my home again this year. In fact, I wanted everything exactly like it had always been. Exactly. But in my heart — and even my mind this time — I knew that wasn’t possible because this is our first Christmas without Daddy.
I knew December would be hard, but I had no idea just how much I would cry and remember.
Not only did I cry when my tree had to be tossed to the sidewalk, but I cried when we took out the ornaments and started decorating. I’m a sentimental fool, and my childrens’ construction paper ornaments from their preschool days made me yearn for a simpler life when our biggest concerns were which toy they’d take to school for “B” week or if I had a pretty hair ribbon to match my daughter’s Christmas dress.
I cried again this past weekend when I ran across my recipe for coconut cake that I made for Daddy at Christmas each year. And I cried when my husband so lovingly remembered helping my dad deliver boxes of food after our church Christmas program.
My sister and I talked about the holidays and made plans — a promise really — to make things as special as we could for our children. We wanted to serve Brunswick stew for Christmas Eve dinner and visit with Mama’s family as we always have. We wanted the children to sit in the den at Mama’s Christmas morning and to empty stockings packed full of wonderful treats. We wanted to be together.
Then a wrench was thrown in our plans. Mama, who has Alzheimer’s and is very frail, fell last week and fractured her pelvis. How could any of us bear to watch her suffer? And how could we possible celebrate Christmas if she were still in the hospital? I could feel the sadness settle into my chest, into my very soul.
I know I was gloomy and negative, but my very wise 15-year-old daughter set me straight as we were sitting at Mama’s side Sunday evening. “We’ll just bring the poinsettia down here to decorate the room and bring our stockings and have Christmas here.” Ah-ha! I thought. Maybe we don’t have to make everything exactly the same. Maybe these wonderful grandchildren are more adaptable than I thought. Maybe they are more adaptable than their moms.
Over the last few months, I’ve told myself quite often that I have two options: I can mope around and be sad that the days shared with my parents are over or I can be very thankful to have memories of our shared lives and pass along their wisdom, their traditions. I am very thankful, really I am. I realize not everyone has the same charmed childhood I had or the same loving, devoted parents who raised me. But it’s very hard not to be sad, not to cry because I’ll no longer discuss N.C. State basketball with my dad or see his distinctive handwriting on the envelope he handed me each Christmas morning.
I know the grief subsides, and I know I’ll cope better with each passing month. But it’s just so hard, especially at Christmas when traditions and memories are so much a part of our celebration.
With any luck, Mama will be able to come home for a few days at Christmas, and we’ll all be together in the house she and Daddy made so many memories in for 50 years.
At our house, there’s a new Christmas tree. It’s very pretty decorated with the trinkets I’ve collected since I was a young girl. There aren’t as many ornaments this year — Reggie and I decided to leave off the more fragile ones that might tempt our granddaughter’s busy hands — but it’s still beautiful, and it makes me smile.
There’s also a new photograph, framed in red and placed beside a candle I like to light when I’m home. The photograph shows Daddy, sitting straight up at his spot on the couch and very alert, holding his new great-granddaughter, Sora, on Christmas Day last year. She’s very tiny and sound asleep in his lap. Her first Christmas and his last. I look at that photo every time I leave the house and think of the promise of a new life and the wonderful memories of a life well spent.
I’ve made a promise to myself to share those memories and those traditions with that precious baby, who will have her own stocking to open Christmas morning at Grandma Helen’s house.

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