Essay Non-Fiction posted November 30, 2008

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Holiday Memories Come in All Sizes and Shapes

A Medley of Memories

by Annmuma

When I entered this contest, I was sure I knew what story I wanted to share, but the more I thought about it, the larger the quandary.  In the end, I decided on a Medley of Memories, pared down to three that I hope are large enough to cover the unique ambiance of  Holiday memories.  The first of these comes from the recesses of my mind. 

It was December 22, 1956, a chilly Saturday afternoon.  John, my younger brother, and I sat on the front porch steps as we talked about Christmas.  Mama was dead less than sixty days, and we were not feeling festive.  Indeed, I was still angry about the whole situation, especially at God.   I prayed for months that my mother would recover or die before her birthday; her suffering was more than I could bear.  At my age, just a few days shy of thirteen years, I believed He chose to answer my prayer with her October 26th death.  She was robbed of her forty-sixth birthday on December 2.   The unreasonable guilt I carried was eased only slightly by the fury I felt.

John and I were back in school and were surviving rather well.  Daddy didn't seem to be doing that great.  Either he was at work or he sat on the front porch crying, an activity I found less than productive.  There were days I was so tormented that I wanted to shout at him: Geez, Daddy, get it together!  We could use a little help here.   Of course, no such comment was made.  John and I teamed up a bit closer and figured out how to make it work, but the Holidays were a challenge.

At Thanksgiving, we went for dinner at Grandpa's house.  Tons of relatives were there, all speaking in hushed tones when we entered the room or their area of the front yard.  Everybody hugged us, shed a tear on our behalf and muttered some words I knew they meant to be comforting.  My resentment and outrage at the circumstances in which we found ourselves did not allow me to benefit from their kindness.  I just wanted to go home.  Daddy was too nice, behaving as if he actually liked turkey when every other year he complained that turkey was too dry. I wished we were home, eating a hen by ourselves.  The day was interminable, but we got through it, and now Christmas stared us in the face. 

On the Saturday before, December 15, Daddy handed each of us a ten-dollar check from the Guaranty Bank Christmas Club.  He told us we could use the money however we wanted, and that Mr. Merrit at the grocery store would be happy to cash the checks for us.  

"Have you cashed your check, Olevia?"   John asked.

"No." I replied.  "Have you?"  

"No.  I don't know what I want to buy.  Are you buying presents?"

"For who?"

"Well, Daddy, I guess.  And each other."

"John, we don't even have a tree!  It's three days to Christmas, and I bet Daddy's going to work on Christmas Day.  He's done it before.  It's double time."  The sarcasm dripped from my words.

John looked at the ground, and I knew he was making sure he didn't cry.  We had a pact: There would be no crying.   Crying served no purpose as far as I could see, and besides, Mama had asked us not to.  She had asked us to always remember her death meant she was painfree, breathed easy and watched us from afar.  Almost as if she spoke to us, we had the same idea simultaneously. 

"Let's get a tree!" we said in unison.

"Can you cut down a tree, John?"

"Sure.  It can't be that hard.  Let's get the axe outta the barn."

As we walked toward the barn, we continued our conversation.  

"What do you think Daddy'll say?"  John wondered.

"He won't care.  He'll probably be at work."

"I bet he stays home this year.  I think we need to be sure he has a present under the tree."

"John, just think about how we are going to get the tree, okay?"  I was trying hard to keep my grief carefully clothed in impatience.  "Let's walk down to the trestle to look for a tree."

The trestle was only three-quarters of a mile or so, and we talked all of the way.  We remembered how much Mama loved decorating the Christmas tree, but how she would cry when we took it down.  I know now that taking down that tree was a reminder of one more Christmas used up, but then, we couldn't make sense of it at all.   We puzzled aloud, discussing many causes for her tears, all except the real one.  

Mama had a soft heart.  Maybe the thought of throwing away the tree made her sad.  Maybe she remembered when she was a little girl and that caused the tears to form.  Maybe she just loved Christmas and didn't want it to go away.  

In no time at all, we were in the pine grove surrounding the trestle.  We examined tree after tree, looking for the one most perfect.  It would stand in a corner of our living room.  Still, we wanted it to be perfect.  After a half-hour or so, we found the right tree, about five foot tall, what we called a Louisiana Pine, short-needled and full.  The base was about four inches in diameter and looked as if it would be easy to cut.  

Looks can be deceiving!  I held the tree while John chopped.  Then he held the tree while I chopped.  Finally, it was lying on the ground, and we pondered how to best take it home.  In the beginning, we both carried it and the axe, but within a quarter of a mile or so, we found ourselves taking turns dragging it.  We were lost in conversation as we took our tree home.

We remembered presents we received in years past, and we talked about how much Mama liked the glass candy dish trimmed in gold.  I bought that dish for her the year before, at Merrits, with my Christmas fund, and John filled it with chocolate-covered cherries.   We wondered if Daddy would hang stockings this year and fill them with fruit as Mama had done.  Kumquats were my favorite, and my stocking was usually half-filled with them.   John liked the Brazil nuts and tangerines.  We talked about the year the peppermint candy got wet somehow and stuck to everything, including Daddy's socks.  It seemed as if only minutes had passed before we again stood at the front porch steps. 

"Okay, John, before we take it inside, let's stand the tree up to see which side is best."

Together, we stood the tree, shook it firmly and could not believe our eyes.  One side was totally bald, not one needle remained and even the limbs were scraped free of bark.   We each stood there speechless for several seconds, and then we began to laugh and laugh and laugh.  We laughed so hard that the tree hit the ground, tears ran down our faces and the whole world seemed brighter.  It was the first time we had really laughed a from-the-heart, "it's-just-so-funny-I-can't-stand-it" laugh since Mama died.

Christmas went fine.  We stood our tree in the corner, decorated it and surrounded it with gifts bought from Merrits.  Daddy not only did not go to work that Christmas, he surprised us with Christmas morning fruit-and-nut filled stockings.  We stopped by Grandpa's house for dinner, and were encouraged to tell our Christmas tree story, lightening the mood considerably.  Even Daddy laughed.  If I had to pick just one event that convinced me Mama was still active in our lives, it would be that one.  She loved to laugh, especially at her own foibles, and John and I got a glimpse, real or imagined, at her still at work in our lives.

And perhaps my second story is further proof that she lives through memories in my life and into my kids' and grandkids' as well.  This past Wednesday night, Mary, my middle daughter, came over to help in preparation for Thanksgiving.  Holiday dinners are at my house.  The kids, their families, grandkids, their families and sometimes a friend or two make for a nice gathering.  This year there were twenty-four of us.  I love preparing the meal, and I enjoy the special time Mary and I have the night before.  My granddaughter, Jessie, joined us this year.

As we made the dressing, stuffed the eggs, and set up the tables, we talked.  I told them my Christmas tree story, and we touched on various Holidays in their lives.  They mentioned several that made an impact on them, and as we discussed first Holiday memories, we realized my youngest granddaughter, Savannah, who will be six in March, may well have this Thanksgiving as her first Holiday memory.

On Thanksgiving Day, everyone gathered around one o'clock, except Ray and his family who arrived as the last amens were said.  Tony, Savannah's dad, fell asleep in the recliner.  Everyone teased Mary and me about needing some time in separate rooms as we playfully sniped at each other in the kitchen, and people were everywhere. Lighthearted teasing and passing of the telephone to say "hi" to someone's out-of-state in-laws added to the chatter.  A five-month-old was the youngest among us, hogging all the cameras.  My eighty-year-old, widowed-less-than-a-year uncle was the oldest.  Laughter, old stories and new ones filled the room.   Kids and step-kids, grandkids and a couple of friends all met on a family playing field to enjoy each others' company without any prejudices or preset expectations.  About six o'clock, everyone began to leave.  Some had other obligations, my son and grandson went to the deer lease, and several decided a movie was in order, as is the tradition.  I agreed Savannah should stay with me.

"Savannah, would you like to lie down in my bed and watch a movie with me?"

"Yes."  She ran to my room, shed her shoes and scrambled under the covers.

"Sponge Bob, Grandma.  Can we watch Sponge Bob?"

"Sure."  I found the movie and then crawled in bed with her.

"Did you have fun today?"   I asked.

"Yeah.  I like playing with Sarah.  She's nice."

"What about dinner?  What was your favorite thing for dinner?"

"I don't know, Grandma.  My tea was too sweet.  You did it on an accident."  She added that last part to be sure my feelings weren't hurt.  

I laughed.

"Well, Ms. Priss, next time you can sweeten it yourself!"    

She giggled.  And so the conversation went.  We talked about everything and everybody.  We completely lost track of Sponge Bob as we reveled in each other's company.  Eventually, the discussion turned to Santa Claus and Christmas.  I told her the story of a young boy and girl who learned to laugh again on a Christmas long ago.  As the conversation drew to an end, Savannah spoke words that warmed my heart.

"Know what, Grandma?"


"This was the best Thanksgiving ever!"

What an honor it would be if this last Thursday, Thanksgiving 2008, were to really be Savannah's first Holiday memory!  I may only know that someday when I, too, watch from afar.

The third stanza in this three part medley came to mind only this morning as I picked up the newspaper.  On the front page was a story about Reverend Kathleen Baskin-Ball, a United Methodist minister who played a part in Denise's life.  Denise is my youngest daughter, and in high school she became friends with a girl who worked as a volunteer in a West Dallas community center.  Through that friend, she met Kathleen, who had founded a ministry there, complete with bilingual services and money raising events to cover her salary and improve the lot of her parishioners.  Denise began attending Kathleen's church, and it was Kathleen who performed the marriage ceremony for Denise and Mike.

Kathleen is dying.  She's only fifty years old, has a five-year-old son, a husband and terminal Neuroendocrine carcinoma.  The cancer was first discovered two years ago, and I faintly remembered someone mentioning that to me.  The newspaper article told of her entering an hospice this weekend and of her beautiful life, every minute spent in love and service for someone else.  One of her fellow reverends said, "She's still in the ministry mode."  The article spoke of her many and varied accomplishments and how she is helping her friends and family deal with her approaching death.   

She preached two Sundays ago and comforted those who love her by reminding them of her faith in a loving God and an afterlife free from suffering, where light is going to have the last word.  One of the things most touching in the article was a reference to encouraging people not to ask the "why" question, but to ask the "how" question instead.  She was making a point that death is a natural part of life, and the most important question is how we live this life.  As I read those words, I remembered a Christmas Eve service at which Kathleen officiated.  It was and is one of the most memorable of my life.

For the last forty-six years, the Christmas traditions in our family involve attending a Christmas Eve service somewhere.  We've been to midnight masses, six o'clock Christmas plays starring our grandkids and everything in-between.  We go as a family.  First there is Christmas Eve dinner and then church.  For several years, we attended Kathleen's service. She was known as a hugging preacher because everyone who got within reaching distance got a hug.    Love and caring oozed from her services, and every Christmas Eve, I heard a new and different slant on the first story of Christmas.  One in particular left an indelible mark on my heart.

Kathleen had been assigned to a larger church in North Dallas, but she still worked with her West Dallas ministry.  She drew upon that experience to make the Christmas story, and the birth of Love in our world, come alive in a unique manner.  She spoke of Mary as an unwed, teenage mom in an unfamiliar setting.  Yes, she was to be the mother of Jesus.  Yes, she was chosen above all others to give birth to our Saviour.  But on that first Christmas Eve night, she was to all around her, a young, maybe fifteen-years-old, pregnant, unwed, teenager.  

Kathleen talked about how Mary may have been ostracized by the elders in her community, backstabbed by her teenaged friends and in a place where she felt so alone.  She compared Mary to the least among us, those we may not consider less than us, but those we simply do not take the time to offer a hand up. Mary personified the people about whom we are likely to say: She made her bed. Let her lie in it.  She made Mary come alive for me in way I had never considered, a real, breathing, frightened, teenage girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders that night.  I saw her as strong enough to accept her calling, but also weak enough to know she needed a spiritual arm on which to lean.  

Kathleen left that church and was assigned to another, one she built from six hundred members to fifteen hundred.   I haven't attended any of her services in a number of years. and other than hearing about her every once in while, haven't given her a thought until I picked up this morning's paper.   I  wondered how many other people read Kathleen's story and were reminded of a special time in their lives or some interaction with her.

It prompted me to remember my life is woven of the fantastic, too-good-to-be-true days, the good days and the not-so-good days ... much as everyone else's.  Life is a never-ending wheel, but the plane on which we live changes. The Holidays call us to reach out to all those around us, especially our families, not only to share in their joys and their sorrows, but to share our own with them.

It's important to remember we are one on the most basic of levels, and the only time in which we can act is now.  We owe it to ourselves and to those we love to make this Holiday Season someone's best ever! 

Holiday Story contest entry


This is a contest entry requiring a story about a Holiday memory or emotion. My memory bank is so full, I ended up choosing three to share! All criticism and suggestions welcome. The contest suggested 2,000 to 3,500 words; this entry has 2,712. Thanks for reading. ann
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