Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Memories

The other day I was surprised to receive an email from an old friend. I say "surprised" because a bicycle accident earlier this year left Wayne completely paralyzed. As it turns out, voice recognition software now takes the place of his once nimble fingers and hands.

Wayne recently received a visit from a mutual friend who brought a copy of an essay I wrote for the LA Times way back in 1993. Wayne and his family were the hosts of the Christmas party that inspired the essay.

In his email, Wayne wrote, "Both of our Christmases are a bit different than a year ago, don't you think?" One thing's for sure - they'll be memorable for both of us.

Here's the story that first appeared in the LA Times in December 1993, shortly after I segued from my career as "full-time mom" to "writer."

(And, while we're at it, how about if you share a "happy memory from a Christmas or holiday past.")

Memories of Christmas Stuffed with Joy

Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1993all Rights reserved)

"Bring a happy memory from a Christmas past," instructed the invitation to the Bishops' annual Christmas party.

I searched my memory for a splashy story that would impress the other party guests, but my mind kept coming back to the one thing I loved best about Christmas: tramping out with my grandmother to her woods to select and chop down the tree. We always returned home with the scrawniest "Charlie Brown Christmas" tree we could find, threw cotton balls at its sagging branches, hung candy canes on its tired limbs and declared it the most beautiful tree ever.

My husband's favorite memory was just as simple. George recalled that when he was very young his mother created her own Christmas ornaments. She cut out used Christmas cards, taped aluminum foil to the back of each cutout, and then strung the homemade ornaments from the ceiling and on the trees. George was in awe of these beautiful creations.

We were both surprised to learn that our favorite memories were not elaborate, but evocative of a simpler time in our lives when money wasn't a necessity for creating a special memory. Most of the memories shared by guests at the Bishops' party carried the same theme.

"Mom, tell the story about the orange," was a familiar chant in the home of Dean Kieffaber when he was growing up. He and his four siblings begged their mom to retell the story of her favorite (and only) childhood Christmas present, a perfect piece of fruit. The children thought it was wildly funny that their mom could cherish the memory of an orange. They loved to picture her savoring each bit of the luscious fruit until the last sticky morsel was nothing but a memory.

"I was just talking to an older gentleman who had an orange story, too," chimed in another guest. Unlike Dean's mom, who actually enjoyed consuming the orange, this gentleman couldn't bear to part with his prized possession. He kept the orange, admiring it each day, until it shriveled into nothing.

Barbara Friend fondly recalls the Christmas when she and her husband could not afford a tree or gifts. She gathered pine branches after a wind storm and tied them together. For presents, she wrapped borrowed library books and lovingly placed them under her makeshift tree.


Jim McClendon loves the childhood memory of his father taking him to the fireplace to make sure that the flue was open wide enough to accommodate Santa.

While listening to these stories, I realized that ingenuity and sharing, not expensive gifts and gala Christmas fetes, were the common threads that wove special memories.

I couldn't help wondering what special Christmas memories our 4-year old daughter, Cynthia, will cherish as an adult. Conscious of my somewhat humble upbringing in a small town in West Virginia, I often find myself overcompensating. In an attempt to create special Christmas memories for Cynthia, I have orchestrated elaborate parties, accompanied her to lavish productions of "The Nutcracker," and taken her to the Christmas breakfast at Bullocks, a childhood extravaganza complete with Santa, life-size dolls and teddy bears working the room, festive decorations, and a puppet show.

My den has quickly filled with not one, but dozens of presents, in hopes that one will be the prized gift she cherished forever.

I am soon exhausted by my efforts to make everything special and realize that, as a result, nothing is special.

But, in spite of myself, Cynthia has a cherished memory of a Christmas past. It's not the "Nutcracker," the breakfast extravaganza, the trip to Santa's Village, Santa's visit to our home, or last year's coveted singing Ariel mermaid doll that she recalls with childhood enthusiasm.

As we recently drove down St. Albans Road in San Marino, a street lined with massive evergreens festooned in lights, her face brightened as she recalled her favorite Christmas memory. "Mommy, remember when we got out of the car with Meryl and danced down this street in the rain last Christmas?"

"Yes, I sure do remember." And together we talked about the magic we created when we pretended St. Albans Road was the North Pole, a destination we reached on the Polar Express, an imaginary train from a classic children's story. Surrounded by the lights, we held hands and frolicked down the street, splashed in tiny puddles, and felt the raindrops dancing on our cheeks.

We both tingled as we remembered the feeling and I realize that we have a memory in the same league as oranges and homemade ornaments.


Anonymous said...

As I look back, one of my favorite Christmas memories resonates with the theme you presented today. When we lived in a poorer country overseas, we didn't have much of anything extra at Christmas time. We could only afford a 3 ft. live tree. We then took ribbons and made them curly with scissors and hung them vertically down the tree as decorations.

On Christmas morning, opening gifts lasted less than a minute, as I gave my husband his one gift, and he gave me mine. But they were cherished gifts. Afterward, we spent a low key day walking on the pedestrian only main street of the tiny town we inhabited and enjoyed the lightly falling snow and the crunch of the 3 inches of white wonder under our feet.

It was only our third Christmas as a married couple and it was our first Christmas slow paced celebration without commercialism, extended family expectations, or any distractions at all. I'll always have a wistful look in my eye when I think of that time period.

You have inspired me to ask my kids what kind of Christmas memories they cherish. Mine are still very young, but it is telling when they share what really means the most to them. In years past, they have favored the simpler things in life, but always ones where we showed them our love.

Isn't love what it all comes down to anyway?

Tara in VA

Susan Carrier said...

What a touching story, Tara. I can just picture you and Travis holding hands in Riga.

Paula L. Johnson said...

I don't remember doing this, but photos don't lie.

One Christmas when I was around 4 or 5 years old, I enjoyed eating popcorn...straight off the Christmas tree.

I'm surprised I didn't develop a craving for tinsel.

Susan Carrier said...

Ha! I guess a tree could be a kiddie smorgosborg what with the popcorn, the cranberries and the candy canes.

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