Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Thelma's Christmas Story

Those of you who know me will tell you that I am just a sentimental sap who can cry at the drop of a hat, or at a jar opening - as my Dad used to say in his later years.  I come by it naturally, obviously. So when I wax philosophical and reminisce about days gone by, the memories have a tendency to cloud my eyes with tears while a smile crosses my face. This story, my version of my Christmas memories, is one of those times.

My first recollection of anything to do with Christmas is from a time when our family lived in Aroma Park, lllinois. Our house was probably not as large as I remember, but it seemed big to a toddler of 3 years old.  I remember the day that Mom and Dad had gone shopping, very close to Christmas. "Going grocery shopping", they said. But we were excited that maybe there would be gift-buying, too! Doug (Dougie, at the time), our oldest brother, was the babysitter that day.

Doug had put on a red winter coat and was acting like Santa Claus, much to the delight of his younger siblings! It seems like yesterday that our parents came in the house looking very somber and sad. They told all of us that our beloved little dog, Toby, was hit by a car. I still remember Doug sliding down the doorway and collapsing onto the floor, still in that red coat. Toby was his dog, and he was gone just before Christmas. I know that sounds like a horrible memory, and I guess it is sad. But what I truly remember was a feeling of utter helplessness to help my big brother in his sorrow of losing his dear friend and companion. It was the first time that I can remember having the feeling of compassion...it was a life-lesson that is still with me.

Another flashback is from that same house. Our family had a tin, beautiful church window music box...not the whole church, but a stained-glass-looking church window. It seemed absolutely beautiful to this little girl. But what I remember even more was sitting and cranking that music box that played "Adeste Fidelis", or, as they say in English, "O Come All Ye Faithful". I thought, at that age, that I was pretty talented since I could actually sing the song in Latin OR English!

Our next house was in Kankakee and right next door to Papa and Uncle Fritz, my mom's dad and uncle. Having holidays, and every day, with them bring many memories to mind. Some Christmas, some not. But I do remember - regretfully, to this day - the year that Mom and Dad had bought both Papa and Uncle Fritz beautiful, golden pocket watches. I was so excited that we had such special gifts for them! But in my 4-year-old-child excitement, I told them what we had bought: "I'm not supposed to tell you, but we got you pocket watches for Christmas!"  Of course, Mom's glare was more than enough punishment. Papa and Uncle Fritz just acted like they didn't hear it...and feigned surprised looks when they opened them on Christmas Day.

It was also in that house that I recall one particular Christmas with another Aunt Dorothy (we actually had THREE), who was married to Dad's brother Ken. They came to our house every Christmas Eve when I was younger. They had no children of their own, and Dad was the closest relative in the area. I remember one particular Christmas Eve when Aunt Dorothy had little, tiny bell earrings on her ears. They sounded like tiny, little sleigh bells jingling (I'm not sure how they didn't bother her). When we went to bed that night, with sugarplum fairies dancing in our heads and thoughts of what Santa would leave under the tree, I swore I heard Santa's reindeer and sleighbells. Fall asleep FAST! He's here, he's here!!  My siblings still tried to tell me I was only hearing Aunt Dorothy's earrings. But she was in the living room, and we were in our bedrooms! Surely, it was Santa....I still believe it was Santa!

When we moved to our big, Victorian house in Kankakee, my mom finally had a 'formal living room'. Even with a brood of eight kids, that was Mom and Dad's special room. Mom tried to keep that way for a while, but it didn't last long. Christmas, was the season when that rule changed. 

Depending on the year, our tree was silver with a color wheel to light it up or a fresh-cut tree (until we found out I may be allergic to spruce tree sap), or whatever Mom had decided that year.  But some of the most special parts of my Christmas memories involved the lead-up to the festive day. In every house we lived in, the tree had a place of prominence and importance where it could be seen and admired in the room, as well as from the outside.

(Side note: I grew up hearing that Dad had actually "invented" the artificial tree back when he and Mom first married.  Times were tough for the young couple.  Mom had to have a Christmas tree, but it was so close to the holiday that pickings were slim at the tree lot.  Dad bought a cheap tree for about 25 cents...it was truly a Charlie Brown tree with sparse branches. Dad made lemonade with that lemon of a tree for Mom. He cut branches off the backside, drilled holes on the front side, and filled it in with those branches. It was propped into a corner so only the 'full' side showed! Dad said he could have retired a rich man is he would have had that idea patented.) 

Our new house finally had a fireplace. No, it wasn't real (it was one of those 'electric' kind that had a light bulb behind red plastic. Somehow a 'wheel' made the light appear to flicker like a flame). But it didn't matter to us because we finally had a place for Santa to come in bearing gifts, like we had always heard in the Christmas stories!
Mom (usually with several of her brood close by) would sit in the living room on the couch facing the tree. The only lights illuminating the room were the ones on the tree. She would sit for as long as life would allow and just look at the tree. Sometimes she would share what she was thinking. Or she'd ask what was on our Santa list. Or she'd listen while we lamented over some dramatic event in our lives...friends, boyfriends, schoolwork, etc. Always, she would tell us it would be fine...be patient, be kind, and do what was right. And she gave the best hugs to reassure us, always.  

The house was decorated with candles, lights were hung outside on the big porch pillars, and a set of plastic lighted candles were perched on each side of our big oak front door. All the decorations were preparing for my favorite day...Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve was the day when our house came alive with the celebration. My Dad's oldest sister, Dorothy, would always send us a care package from Hickory Farms, filled with sausages, cheeses, and candies. When the big, clear, pressed-glass punch bowl with matching cups came out, it was time for joy! It meant Mom would make her homemade, not-to-be-duplicated, eggnog with sprinklings of nutmeg on top of the whipped-to-peak-perfection egg whites.  The icing on this Christmas montage was the local radio station playing non-stop Christmas Carols through midnight. The candles were lit, the tree lights were on, and no other lights allowed. A platter of Aunt Dorothy's treats - as well as trays of cookies and fruitcake and snacks - would be our feast of the night. The sounds of the radio playing those beautiful songs were only made more special, more amazing, when Mom would sing along.  We might join in, if we weren't content to listen to her beautiful voice raised in song. It was just a slice of heaven on earth.  

Christmas morning brought gifts that overflowed into the room - with eight kids, it was easy to do! And on those very special Christmas mornings, we would find our dear "Unca Chunk" asleep on the living room sofa.  Gifts that brought special memories included my sisters and I receiving beautiful ballerina dolls one year, Barbie and Midge another, and - one of my favorites - my first camera.  

Time went on. We started growing up and moving on with our lives and our own individual family units. But Mom and Dad always made sure that we gathered together for our family Christmas. Oh, it wasn't on December 25th. But it was within a week or two of it. And it always felt just like we lived there still. As Dad aptly said in an article he wrote, "Santa had to be a woman".  He said if it hadn't been for Mom, Christmas just wouldn't have been what we had grown accustomed to. Who else would take time to find the perfect gifts, wrap them so beautifully, and make sure each child's eyes opened wide with wonder and delight on that special morning.

As my sons grew up, there were many years that a small Christmas tree served as a 'night light' in their bedroom during the holidays. Of course, there was a large tree in a prominent spot in our living room. Underneath, Santa provided the gifts on the wish lists of both children. Christmas Eve was candlelit, with appetizers as the feast for the evening. Yes, some things have carried on. 

It shouldn't be a surprise that Dad went on to marry another "Santa" after Mom died.  He found another, beautiful, loving, caring and amazing woman.  (Some may think she is a saint to have married a man with 8 children and several grandchildren at her young age!) Our lives really didn't skip a beat when our 'new' Mom celebrated Christmas with as much gusto and detail and love as we had growing up!  In fact, Dad pulled out that article again...this time with Nancy, my second Mom, in his mind. She always made sure the tree was decorated beautifully, gifts were always perfect for each grateful recipient, food was plentiful, and love was all around us. 

Dad is now with my first Mom, as well as so many other loved ones who have left this earth. And my siblings have all spread out around the world, almost literally.  Those huge three-generation family Christmas gatherings have been replaced by our own individual family festivities (and that sometimes means we have three generations or more under our own roofs). But some things, with me, remain the same.

Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was an unintentional choice.  I am now married to a female Santa myself, who loves Christmas more - if it's possible - than me!  She makes sure our house is filled and decorated with all things beautiful for Christmas.  In fact, her designs and decor look like the pages of a home magazine layout!  (The photos in this article are from our house. Amazing, don't you agree?)

A very large, beautiful wreath will be hung over the real fireplace. A lighted garland will be draped there accessorized by eight stockings for my family. A Christmas village will decorate the top of the entertainment center. Candles will be plentiful, and lit, throughout the home. Even the main bathroom will be adorned with Christmas decor! The outside will be decorated with lights to welcome anyone who drives by or stops in for a visit. 

And on our Christmas morning, just like throughout my entire life, the tree will have an abundance of gifts carefully chosen for each recipient.  The stockings that have 'been hung by the chimney with care' will be filled with trinkets and things that, hopefully, will bring smiles to our childrens' faces.  

We could skimp. Not buy lights for outside. Not hang stockings for kids who are now teens and young adults...but why? We aren't just 'decorating for Christmas'. No, we are making memories and passing on family traditions for our kids to celebrate with their new families, whenever that happens.  And isn't that worth the time and effort?  I'm thrilled to know that my kids will carry on the same traditions that my Mom and Dad taught me, along with some new ones from our own new family. It warms my heart to know that my parents will smile on my family when we do those things that made Christmas special for my childhood.

Besides, the best and most treasured gift for Christmas isn't the tree or the decor or the gifts under the tree.  It cannot be measured or wrapped and is still the same one that I am sure I received on my very first Christmas. Yes, the greatest gift I'll receive again this year is love. Christmas is love.