As we came to the last month in 2009 I could only heave a big sigh of relief. This seemed like one of our busiest, most stressful years on record. A lot of it has been good stress but some of it has just plain been STRESS. We had been living in a big older brick home with lot's of character, charm, -- and upkeep. We decided to to move to a town home last spring and quickly found one we loved. We went ahead and purchased it in March anticipating that we would sell our house within a few months. We are just now selling it...
My 95 year old father whom had lived with us until 1 1/2 years ago spent the last year in a nursing home and we've watched his mental state decline almost as quickly as his savings account. This fall we were faced with finding care for him that he could afford on his social security and veteran's pension. Finally this month he was accepted and moved into the Iowa Veteran's Home -- an hour away from us...
With all this, plus caring for my husband's elderly mother, the holidays just sneaked up on us. My husband and I talked about it. Two grown kids, five grandkids, ten nieces and nephews. They all get money I declared. I don't have time or energy to shop! Decorating? Did we even know where our Christmas tree was, I wondered? We still have stacks of boxes full of stuff for me to sort in our basement and a storage unit full of even more stuff accumulated over 34 years of marriage. I suggested that we get just a little pre-decorated tree at the Walmart and stick it on an end table in the corner and call it a day. I'd still "do" Christmas Eve for all the nieces and nephews but way pared down, I guess. In other words --
My husband, who is less prone to sentimentality than I am, surprised me. He insisted that he wanted -- needed to put up the Christmas tree and decorate it. He offered to go to the storage unit and hunt through the boxes and find everything. True to his word, last Saturday he came in carrying cartons, crates, and boxes of faux evergreens, stockings, candles, lights, and figurines. I sighed and put on some Christmas music and a fresh pot of coffee.
Carefully, I started to unfold newspaper wrapped ornaments. My husband held up a tabletop ceramic Christmas tree and asked did I remember it. Wow, I told him. I didn't know my dad still had this. Back in the early 1970's when I had the two boys fourteen months apart, I stayed home to take care of them and desperate for adult conversation and a chance to get out from the house, I took a ceramics class one evening a week, while my husband watched the boys. It seemed like with just one income we were living on a shoestring. Greenware, paint, and firing fees all added up quickly, so I decided that for Christmas that year everyone got a homemade gift. I picked out the tree for my mom and dad and carefully I sanded and filed out all the little holes where little plastic bulbs fit in and would be illuminated by a lamp base. I could only afford one color of paint, so I painted the whole tree, stand and everything a rich dark evergreen. They loved that tree and every year they brought it out along with the little METAL (tells you how long ago that was) Bandaid box of plastic bulbs and assembled the tree. One by one, I set them in the holes and turned the switch amazed when all the little lights sparkled just like the first year my parents opened it.
Next, I unwrapped my nativity set. I remembered how I much I had admired a Creche made by the Lenox china company and aspired to own the beautiful porcelain pieces someday. After my husband's step father died, my mother-in-law went into a deep depression and had such anxiety attacks that she basically quit going out of her house for anything but absolute necessities. She did seek counseling and the counselor suggested that she try going to garage sales. She could arrive early before any crowds and it would be out in the open air and less likely to bring on the terrible claustrophobic panic attacks. She was on one of these therapeutic outings when she spied the homespun ceramic nativity set someone was selling. Thinking of me and my remark that I always wanted a nativity scene she bought it especially for me. When she gave it to me and explained how she got it I was touched. My husband pulled me aside and said that I didn't have to display it if I didn't want to. He knew initially I had longed for the elegant set. No way! That beautiful little garage sale set from my wonderful mother-in-law who loved me and thought of me while she was working through a healing process meant the world to me and it still does.
My husband finished putting up our tree and we started hanging up the ornaments and memories. Most of them made by our children in school, sunday school, or daycare. One of my favorites, my daughter Angela's picture at age 5 glued in a felt ornament cutout and decorated with glitter. I smiled as I looked at her "Dorothy Hammil" haircut which she scornfully told me years later that she hated that BOWL haircut I made her have!
My husband pulled out a ragged square of colored yarns that had been woven on popsicle sticks -- one now broken. Did I want him to toss it?, he inquired. I snatched it out of his hand and said don't you dare. That's Joe's God's Eye. He proudly brought it home from school one day and "lectured" me on the meaning of the God's Eye. How it was a spiritual symbol from the peoples of northern Mexico and the four corners represented the elements of earth, fire, air, and water. HOWEVER, he told me, he preferred the Christian meaning that it was a devotional "process art" expressing a prayer that God would watch over the binder. I was blown away that an 9 year old would learn all this and be able to recite it.
He is now a professor of art at Judson University - a Christian university in Illinois...
Lastly, I pulled out a little box containing little snowman angel ornaments with names across their tummies. One for Jim and I, and one for each of our children and their spouses. I think I had bought them to hang on all our stockings. I lined them all up on our fireplace mantel, planning to tie them to each person's present that I was now deciding to buy. I came to one that said "James" and with a catch in my throat, I had to sit down. I held it in my closed hand and remembered the year that I had bought them. James came to me a few days before Christmas and asked if I was going to give him money this year and could he have it early. Knowing we had already shopped for family gifts together, I told him no. He was on disability for mental health issues and tended to blow through his money at the beginning of the month and come up short at the end. He volunteered with a homeless youth outreach program and a church sponsored lunch café for indigent people but other than his disability check, had no wages. He begged and bugged me saying he wanted to buy some presents for his friends. Finally, I relented and agreed to take him shopping at Target and he could spend $50. I made sure I told him repeatedly that it was coming out of his Christmas money. He was fine with that he assured me. Once in the store he went right for the men's underwear section and tossed in the cart some packages of thick socks, long johns, and tee-shirts. Next he found the winter hats, gloves, and scarves. He bought some bottles of lotion, petroleum jelly, and antibiotic ointment. He finished up with color books, crayons, cheap children's books, and a book of crossword puzzles with a pack of sharpened pencils. He begged for a little extra to get wrapping paper and bows. All right I sighed, I could see he wasn't buying frivolities. He spent the afternoon wrapping and I agreed to drive him to his destinations, curiosity getting the best of me. We drove into some the worst neighborhoods in our town and he would tell me to stop and I waited as he sprinted to different doors hand out the presents. We drove down under several bridges in the heart of the city and he distributed more wrapped packages to several men gathered around a barrel with a fire in it - holding out their bare hands to warm them. They smiled huge grins as they unwrapped gloves and knit caps. An old man came out of a tent and walked up to the car as we were about to pull out. My son introduced me to "Old Razor Charlie" and James explained that he wasn't sure Charlie would still be out in the tent. He handed him the crossword puzzle book and pencils. Later James explained that Charlie had a college degree and had taught before alcoholism had gotten the best of him. James feared he might not still be in out in the tent because Charlie would often go into the hospital to detox when it got too cold. Last stop was in a coffee shop and I thought we were stopping for a much needed cup of java. When we entered a little girl ran up to James and her mother followed closely behind suspiciously eyeing me. James explained it was OK because I was his mother. He gave the little girl the last two packages -- a book, color book, and crayons. She jumped up and down with excitement as she opened them and kept squealing that she had gotten presents. I bought a round of lattes and the woman told me that she and the little girl "mostly" stayed with her sister in a small apartment downtown but her sister often had boyfriends stay over that weren't too friendly. So when that was the case she would take the little girl and walk downtown all day until her sister got off work from her job at a Subway restaurant. She hugged us goodbye and prompted the little girl to thank James and I. She jumped up and hugged us quickly and sat right back down to her coloring. We were about to the door when she hollered across the coffee shop "I love you James"!!!
That was his last Christmas...
I gently hung the snow angel on the tree and turned to my husband, whom in his wiseness knew just how much we needed to keep Christmas in our lives, and I