If there is one time of year that is layered with emotions, it has to be Christmas. In between the constant reminders from retail establishments and the gatherings with our families the whole season is all about traditions that are personal and filled with sentiments of one kind or another. It’s so interesting to see the different ways that everyone deals with the holiday season. The whole event is built on memories, activities, and interactions with people. Christmas stirs the heart, sometimes in ways that are joyful and sometimes in those that are most painful.
I have a cousin who is struggling as the rest of us don our yuletide party clothes and celebrate this happy time of year. She lost her nephew this summer in a devastating accident that happened while he was experiencing his dream vacation. What should have been the time of his life turned into a nightmare. For my cousin the ragged sorrow of the tragedy is still too recent to forget. She has not had enough time to set her grieving for him to rest and the approaching holidays only make matters worse because her nephew was always a major player in her Christmas plans. Like so many who lose loved ones in the months before this lovely time of year, her feelings of hurt are still very raw. The routines that she usually follows are vivid reminders that someone that she so loved will no longer be there to celebrate with her.
I’ve been in her shoes before. I suspect that we all have. The wonder of this grand holiday is all too often tempered by heart wrenching loss. I have been blessed this year but I understand that life is fragile and my little bubble of happiness may burst at any moment. I try not to dwell too much on that reality. Instead my memories banks are spewing out remembrances of people who have been gone long enough that I am now able to smile at the thought of them. As I decorated my Christmas tree yesterday the ornaments that I pulled from the boxes told a history of my adult life and it was good. I indulged in my annual happy cry.
Tears are not always about sadness. Sometimes they actually flow whenever we recall people and moments that were exhilarating. That’s where my mind was yesterday, on the wonderful life that I have led. My cryfest usually begins when I see a tattered old handmade decoration featuring an ancient Christmas card and an image of our dog, Red, the best pet that anyone has ever had. It’s funny how that simple little cardboard treasure is the catalyst for a trip down memory lane. As the Christmas carols play in the background and I search for the perfect place for each ornament I walk back into Christmases past.
My dear departed friends, Egon and Marita, were as much a part of our family gatherings as my own brothers. They were citizens of the world who traveled extensively, never forgetting my love of all things Christmas. They brought me decorations from Holland, Germany, Mexico, Ireland and wherever they went. I so cherish those lovely trinkets that give my tree an international flare and remind me of how much bigger than life these two were. I still can’t quite believe that they are already gone. We used to speak of all of the things that we would do when we grew old together. I laughed and cried as I remembered the fun that we always had. Knowing them was priceless and I feel lucky that we crossed paths along the way.
My mother was like a child when it came to Christmas. She never had much when she was growing up. Her holidays were simple affairs mostly centered around a special meal. When she became an adult she was a bonafide Christmas elf. She loved all of the tinsel and the trappings and gave me dozens and dozens of Christmas ornaments and decorations. She was literally all aglow at this time of year. I can still see that great big smile of hers as she delighted in being able to bring happiness to everyone in her realm.
I have one ornament that seems to be a kind of orphan on my otherwise gorgeous tree. It is an ancient plastic angel that used to belong to my Grandma Ulrich. Its silver veneer is almost gone and it seems more appropriate for the garbage bin but I place it proudly on one of the branches each year because it reminds me of those crazy Christmas Eves that we used to have. My bachelor uncles purchased an aluminum tree for grandma and hung some of the worst ever ornaments on its metal branches. It was a travesty even then but I loved seeing it because it meant that we were going to have an evening like no other in the whole year. The huge extended Ulrich clan would gather in a tiny house barely bigger than my den and kitchen. We fought for chairs and heard only half of the conversations because the din of laughter overtook the room. That little angel that I now have witnessed some of the grandest parties in all of my life. She’ll be a part of my own collection of memories forever.
I have dozens and dozens of ornaments from fellow teachers and students. There are those from friends who knew how much I enjoy festooning my tree with loveliness. My children and grandchildren gave me some of my most interesting decorations, often made with their own hands. I still haven’t found anything to match the concrete orb that my son-in-law created for me in one of his college engineering classes but perhaps the hand crocheted pink bell from a student in my very first year of teaching comes close as well as a lovingly handmade item featuring images of the Scheffler boys.
I treasure the meaning behind each and every ornament that hangs from my tree. When I decorate it each December it is like a walk through my lifetime and at some point during the process the tears of gratitude and appreciation always flow like water works. I am reminded of the many people who have crossed my path and made me all the better with their presence. I suspect that in spite of all of the pomp and circumstance of the season the real meaning is found in those relationships that we developed along the way and in the love that we share.
There will be years when we experience pain that is fresh and too terrible to overcome like my cousin. In the grand scheme of things we will one day be grateful that we had people in our lives who meant so much to us that they burrowed inside our hearts. When we think of them even when they are gone we realize just how happy the memory of them makes us. That is the beauty of our humanity. We eventually heal and view our limited time with loved ones as the blessings that they are. We still cry for those who have left us but our tears are no longer salted with pain, rather they are glistening with unmitigated joy. Our feelings are forever stored in our minds to remind us again and again that overall life is really quite wonderful after all.