I am not looking to hear reindeer pawing at my rooftop tomorrow; I am not going to have visions of sugar plums dancing about my cluttered jagged thoughts when I go to bed Christmas Eve. I will be listening to the sound of my wife’s breathing and trying to dream of the tiny miracles of Christmases passed to settle my spirit from a year that has been difficult and at times painful.
I wish my childhood memories were more clear, that I could pick out defining Christmas moments from each year that passed beneath my young feet, but they no longer are, they are blended together. One of the memories unattached to time or age is of a nocturnal exploration of presents beneath the tree. I do not recall if I was joined by any of my siblings (and would not implicate them even if I did) only that on this secret venture I peeked at every present I was receiving that year and it ruined the surprise on Christmas. When I told my mom of this just today on the phone, she told me two things: 1) She didn’t know that I had done that, and 2) She had done the same thing when she was a child. I was surprised and pleased by her admission as it established a new link to have with my mother. I love Mom.
Childhood memories also bless me with mental snapshots of what made Christmases in my youth wonderful. Closing my eyes I can see images of my father in varying degrees of Santa garb, of trees overflowing with gifts for five children who were just lucky to have the parents we did, of fires in the hearth, and of incredible food prepared by my mom for her small army.
Memories are better defined thinking back to my college years. When I was a sophomore, I moved off campus to an apartment that would become known as the “Sex Palace”,the same way a large man is given the nickname “Tiny”. It was there that I erected the first Christmas tree that I would call my own. It was a scrawny pine tree sapling adorned with handmade ornaments, topped with a picture of Cap’n Crunch’s Crunchberry Beast. It was that same Christmas that I returned to Orangeburg for the holidays and got the idea to do a photo series on the season. I made a corrugated cardboard sign bearing a large arrow and the word tree. I then drove to all my friend’s houses and asked them if I could take a picture of them with their families holding my sign pointing it in the direction of the Handal family tree. I wish I had kept those pictures, but somewhere back the line I wrongly decided that the mature thing was to toss those memories in favor of an image of who I should be and what I should carry with me. But nothing can take away from me the memory of the smiling faces on photo stock of the Wilsons, Lovejoys, Barkers, Campbells, Whitakers, Fogles, and others.
Many Christmases have come and gone since then. Not all of them happy, but they produced far more smiles than tears. This upcoming one will be significantly lessened by the recent loss of Dennis (more family than friend) and the sorrow that the love of his life, Marc, will be going through as part of himself is forever gone. This creates a void in the soul of our Christmas that cannot be filled and that we will always carry around.
This is where out of self-preservation I selfishly invoke Christmas magic, and yes I believe in it. I believe in the myriad small miracles that happen at Christmas that bring smiles to our faces and ingrain memories to keep those smiles in reserve for whenever they are most needed.
This has been a year for which only the biggest smile can help, so I look within to my favorite Christmas. It was the Christmas of 1998, and our daughter Haley was pregnant and living at home with us. She was round and seven+ months along. She had been miserable with a winter cold that she could not shake because of the limited medicine that her pregnancy would allow. The house was filled with relatives in for the holidays, and things were buzzing with activity by all of us on the day of our annual Christmas open house.
There was something else going on as well. Since fall, we had been working on turning our sagging detached two car garage into a cottage for Haley and the bundle of joy that would be our grandson in fewer than two months. We did this to provide her with her own life, privacy, and a safety net. By the day of our party, it was structurally complete but as yet undecorated.
My amazing wife who is a force of nature, had her heart set on the house being finished for Haley by the night of the party. This added to the work and stress to the day, but if Jean-Marie thought it could be done, I knew it could be. As Jean-Marie dedicated herself body and soul to the cottage, I was tasked with supporting her and directing the party preparations. At one point, my brother-in-law Matt (one of Jean-Marie’s brothers) took me aside and asked me with an air of frustration if Jean-Marie was aware that in a few hours eighty people would be descending on the house and there was a lot left to do. I simply told him that Jean-Marie would not be doing this and leaving the final party prep to us if she didn’t think it was doable.
A great deal of work in a little bit of time ensued attended by my running interference and supplying manual labor for my spouse. Shortly before the party, things were all in place, and we were showered, dressed, and ready. Before the guests arrived, Jean-Marie and I lit the luminarias leading behind our house to the cottage, and led Haley (with her eyes shut) to her new home. Once inside, we told her to open her eyes. As she did, Christmas for my wife and I collapsed in that one moment to our daughter, her unbelieving look on her face, and the tears of joy streaming from her eyes. Moments like that remind me that almost anything is possible, and the happiness of those I love is the greatest gift I can ever receive.