A French proverb declares that gratitude is the “memory of the heart.” It is with gratitude, the memory of my heart, that I remember Mom and Dad this holiday season.
For many of us, it’s customarily the season we draw family close, spending time together, making new memories. Each family has their own unique traditions, which bind them together into their clan or tribe. As part of our heritage, these rituals are often passed down from generation to generation.
This week, I’ve been daydreaming about my own birth family’s traditions, in an attempt to awaken new memories from my childhood. Both my parents are gone now, so memories are all I have left. As there are few surviving Christmas pictures from that time, I’ve been searching through the cobwebs in my brain for memories, in an attempt to bring Mom and Dad closer to me and keep their memory alive, if only in my own mind.
Our rituals were in most ways traditional. But, what made this time of year special for me is that decorating was one of the only times during the year I remember Dad actively participating in our home life.
The Christmas tree arrived home in Dad’s old 1949 Ford delivery truck, typically a sparse Douglas fir tree. Dad was in charge of stringing the lights, although with Mom as the overseer, that may not be altogether true. I still remember my tree favorites: the bubble lights, which when warm, displayed bubbling colored water in a tube supported by a candelabra base. After the tree decorations were hung, it was time for the tinsel. Dad literally spent hours hanging those silvery strands, one at a time. I thought it would be much easier to simply throw small globs of the tinsel at the tree. After taking matters into my own hands and trying out my theory, I quickly learned “why not.” Appropriately reprimanded, I was then delegated to the position of watching.
The silver cardboard banner with letters cut out announcing Merry Christmas was hung across the fireplace mantel, just above my stocking, the hand-knitted one, made by my aunt. All these many years later, I still have the red, white and green stocking, the white yarn, yellowed with age. Two of the only other remnants of that time that I bring out each year to set on my dining room table are two ceramic angel candleholders…I’ve no idea what happened to all the ornaments and other decorations. Some of my lost memories of those times were once tangible, not solely in my mind.
I remember the first year in our small town’s history that stores along our short Main Street remained open until 8 pm the Friday evening before Christmas week. Even though it was bitterly cold, the snow piled deep, everyone came out to experience this novelty. While Christmas music rang out from a loudspeaker, we shoppers strolled along the street, peering into stores with golden auras, bidding us enter into their warmth and light. I have vivid memories of gazing up into the clear night sky and noticing all the stars. It seemed so amazing and progressive that we were allowed to shop at night.
Dutifully each year when I was little, I wrote my letter to Santa, and then heard it read aloud by “Santa,” along with other children’s letters, over the local radio station’s airwaves, in the weeks before Christmas. When at last Christmas Eve arrived, our little family attended the candlelight service at church, before going home to open our presents. After all the surprises were unwrapped and before going to bed, I set out the milk and cookies for Santa. Later, lying awake in my bed, I was much too nervous and excited to sleep. What if he delivered the wrong present or worse, no present? What if he got stuck coming down our fireplace? It seemed much too narrow for that fat, jolly man. Eventually I fell asleep and before I knew it, Christmas morning had arrived. I tiptoed out of my bedroom into the hallway, but was too anxious to peek around the corner into our living room to see what Santa had left under the tree. It never failed…each and every year when I was little, Mom had to coax me into the living room. While I never remember being disappointed, I do remember my trepidation and fear of the unknown, standing there alone in our hallway, afraid to look.
Christmas afternoon, as I played with my new toys and inhaled the delicious aromas emanating from our kitchen, all our nearby relatives began to arrive for the big turkey dinner, prepared by my stressed-out mom. Only in retrospect do I realize we opened presents on Christmas Eve so she had enough time to prepare for the crowd on Christmas Day. I contemplate how hard she worked to prepare everything and conclude that’s why she was often grouchy. Of course, at the time, I had no clue or appreciation of all that she did. The meal was served mid-afternoon, with grown-ups at one table, the kids at another. Most can relate to the post-dinner stupor we all felt after having eaten too much!
Every year, there are fewer people from that time still with us, reminding me that time chugs along, eventually leaving all of us behind, memories cast out the train window, lost along the track, dissolving into the past. I’ve realized that memories of relatives preceding my parents have now all been left on that track. There’s no one left to tell the stories. Our stories make us human, and connect us with our past. My parents lost their memories along those tracks while they were still alive, slowly but steadily, as the tentacles of dementia squeezed and pinched off all they held dear.
Now is the time to tell your stories! Write them! Speak them! This season of time when families are together is an ideal time and place for sharing memories. How I wish I knew the stories of my family that came before. As I work on a narrative about my great-grandmother’s life, I know little beyond a few stories and the legal documents, which have survived time. How grateful I’d be to have had the opportunity to sit down with her and listen to her stories.