Good Will Mandate – (or How to have a Pleasant Christmas)

 

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The family begins to gather.  First, the child from out-of-town, then the children who live close by, the older grandkids, the aunt, the babies, a neighbor, a few friends, a dog or two (couldn’t find a keeper) and suddenly,  it’s Christmas!  And the festivities begin.

Let there be armfuls of packages, overstuffed bellies, crackling fires, joyful singing, lots of laughter, game playing and couch napping.  Let there be peace on earth, re-runs of It’s a wonderful life, and harmony in our home.  That’s the plan.  That’s my goal.  There may be a grandchild or two that has to spend a little bit of time-out on the stairs or a dog that may need to be put in his kennel to get us there, but we will have tranquility in this house.  I am declaring a temporary nix on all unintended little jabs that quickly escalate into hurt feelings or wounded pride.  I’m also tabling the myriad of discussions that could arouse a little too much passion from an incredibly passionate family.  Why? Because I’m the mom and it’s Christmas.  We can get back to those inflammatory subjects another day.  My mother mandate for Christmas 2016 is: GOOD WILL WILL FLOW

Taking a cue from the way certain political figures field challenging questions, our family now has a brilliant strategy – don’t respond at all to something you’d rather avoid, just simply change subject.  We invoke state capitals as our diversion tactic.  For example:

Auntie, “Have you thought of giving your child less sugar?”

Son, “What’s the capital of Vermont?”

Someone, “Lansing?”

Someone else, “No, Montpelier.”

The rest of us pick up the game, dropping the potentially toxic conversation. Voila, crisis avoided!  

We actually tried this at our last family gathering.  One would think that our Thanksgiving was a scene straight out of Pleasantville.  Perhaps it was a bit too nice and a tad less colorful than previous holidays so I briefly consider lifting the good will mandate. Quickly evaluating probable conversations that might occur over eggnog, I envision,  “Can you believe the President Elects choice for Secretary of State?”

My knee-jerk reaction, “what’s the capitol of North Dakota?”

 

 

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Visitors for Christmas

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Here I go again.  It’s that most wonderful time of the year.  Anticipation of and preparation for the season awaken my creative energy and unlock my secret longing for perfection. I envision a totally unique greeting card, individual well-selected gifts, an enormous glittery tree, a front porch to rival Southern Living, and a simple but elegant dinning table. I am dimly aware that frustration, angst and tension may quite possibly be the end result, but it’s still early and hope abounds.  Armed with an arsenal of ideas from Pinterest, I get busy, going through box after box deciding which treasures will go back to the attic and which ones will come out for this year’s grand decorative theme. Gas logs blaze and Christmas music plays, enhancing my yuletide experience.

I fondle some precious ornament, perhaps the one my daughter made in grade school. I hum along to some unnamed melody that suddenly turns sad and familiar at the same time.  I’ve been set up, the trigger is pulled and he appears. He, as in The spirit of Christmas Past, stepping forcefully into the room dragging his good friend Melancholy with him.  After years of futile resistance, I now consider them odd little friends.  My only concern is how long they will stay.  It may be hard to shoo them away this year, because this is the first Christmas without Mother.  I greet them with a sigh and give them time to properly air the memories so that they can leave and I can get on with the present.

They ask me to pause over this red crinkled glass ball,  an ornament from my childhood.  It hung on mother’s tree. Remember that Christmas when Daddy bought Mom all those fancy clothes?  She good-naturedly tried them all on, making the living room her runway, and her children her adoring audience.  The next day she returned everything, anticipating an enormous credit card bill.  Remember the story of how Papaw made Daddy promise to bring Mother home to see him every Christmas before he granted permission for Mother to marry him? How about my first Christmas as a wife of just one month?  We had that crazy little tree with no ornaments so we hung fruit from the branches.  Daddy made such fun of that tree.  I crossed-stitched and framed a dozen ornaments like this cardinal to hang on our next year’s tree.  Here is the wooden rocking horse that reads, “baby’s first christmas”.  Our first baby, my baby girl.  And then two boys. Children, turned teenagers and now adults. I can see their toddler faces on Christmas morning surveying three separate piles of toys from Santa, and that slight pause before they recognize theirs and dive in.  Then all the other Christmases we excitedly wait for each of them to come home because none of them live with us anymore. Now they bring their babies.  We have grandchildren, lovely, loving grandchildren.  One, so new he has no teeth, one has all his baby teeth, two are already middle schoolers, in braces.   They’re growing so fast. Everyone grows so fast, grew so fast.   Mother, you tried to tell me that.  I heard you then,  I believe you now.

Memory hits me hard and brings out a year’s worth of carefully checked emotion.  My senses are all hyped-up.  I see Christmas in all it’s  hysterically twinkly sparkle, it’s spectacular calm and its remote sadness.  I hear choruses radiating throughout the atmosphere and penetrating deep inside my head.  Christmas is strangely new and comfortably familiar.  It feels like long hugs, quick kisses and an achy gut.  It tastes of all things wonderful.  Christmas fills me up and breaks my heart.  It smells like pine trees, cookies, apples and mother. Yes, it sometimes smells like mother.  Mother and Channel no 5 , a fragrance she defines.  That perfume was probably under every one of the trees of my youth, wrapped in department store paper next to her box of Whitmans Sampler.

I get up and go to my room.  The bottle that I took from her house when we packed up her things is on my dresser.  I take it in my hand and unscrew the top.  I ceremoniously put a dab of her scent on my wrist and rub it against my other wrist the way she used to do.  I lay down on my bed and try to smell her, let her presence surround me.  Mother and the memories of 64 Christmases become this moment, this Christmas, and suggest the probability of future holy days.  

In a little while, a new guest arrives.  Her name is Gratitude and she is powerful.  With her in the room, I can allow the Spirit of Christmas Past and even Melancholy to stay.  They expertly choreograph the delicate dance between what was, and is, and is to come.

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Seeking and Finding

I’ve done it before, many times and I usually come up empty.  I meet someone from somewhere else and I just throw it out there.  “Do you know so and so?”

Most of the time I can hear the unspoken words behind the predictable sympathetic smile,  “It’s a big city, you know?” and, “that was a really long time ago.”

But, I ask anyway, not really sure of what I’m after.  Perhaps it is connection to my new acquaintance.  More than likely, I’m looking for connection to my past and the person I’m asking about.  So I cast my net again and again with the wild hope of catching a memory, a glimpse of who I am.

I met him at a wedding reception in Virginia.  My husband dropped me off at the door and went to park the car.  I wandered into the library of the large estate, taking in the grandeur of the space when he spoke, “I sure would hate to pay the heating bill in this place.  You know there are 34 bathrooms.”

He was a refined older gentleman, interesting and totally non-threatening.  I guessed him to be about ten years older than me.  His name was Brice.  I asked him if he’d been in this building before and he told me that he knew the man who owned the house.  Apparently the owner tried to sell it shortly after he built it and couldn’t find a buyer so he turned it into a rental venue for parties, weddings and such.

“You must be from Richmond.  Did you grow up here?” I asked.  He told me that he had lived in Richmond all his life which caused me to suddenly become an ancestral investigator, my growing curiosity taking over.    I stopped listening to him and started thinking of  a subtle way to ask this stranger if he knew anything about my family.  My mother and father grew up in Richmond and so did both sets of grandparents, all my aunts, uncles and cousins.  Mom and Dad moved away shortly after they married so I grew up in another city.  Though we visited often, I knew very little of life in Richmond and the day-to-day events that shaped the lives of my relatives.

I took a chance, risked looking foolish and offered the bait  “Years ago, my uncle owned a little gift shop in the Village Shopping Center.  There was no comment from Brice.  I tried again, “When I was a little girl my grandfather owned a hardware store on the West end.”

“You mean Kelley’s?”  He said.  “As in the Kelleys that lived on New Kent Road, on the 5000 block?  I grew up a few streets over and I knew your uncle and your grandfather.  Your grandfather was one of the finest men I’ve ever known.”

“Score,” I thought and I felt all warm and satisfied.  We talked for a while as the room began to fill with other guests.  I introduced Brice to my husband, said thank you, many times and forced myself to walk away.  I focused my attention on the beautiful bride and her groom,  the music, the heartfelt toasts, and the many friends that were there to celebrate.  Part of me however, insisted on remaining somewhere else, in another place and time when I was a little girl and my grandfather was the most wonderful person in my world.  The evening quickly passed, but the awe and wonder of Papaw lingered throughout the night and seeped into my dreams.  I woke to the smell of his pipe, the sound of his laughter, the love in his eyes.

On the way to the airport, my husband listened as I recited every wonderful memory I could recall about my Papaw.  The ring of my cellphone interrupted.  I did not recognize the number, but I answered anyway.  It was Brice.  He had gone to some bit of trouble to track me down.  He said he couldn’t find me at the reception when he remembered something.  He wanted to tell me a story that he knew I’d have to hear.  It went something like this.

When Brice was a boy, his aunt and uncle came to his home for Christmas.  Packed tight in the trunk of their car were all of their Christmas presents.  On Christmas Eve, they went out to the car to get the packages only to find that they were gone. They had been robbed.  Of course all the stores would be closed at this late hour and even if they were open they had no more money.  His family knew that the children would be devastated with no toys from Santa.  Christmas was ruined. Brice’s mother told them that she knew someone who might be able to help them.  She called Papaw who immediately said to meet him at his hardware store.  It was late at night and my grandfather opened the store (which had toys on the second floor).  He told Brice’s uncle to get everything he needed and together they wrapped the gifts.   “This is the best part,” Brice said.  “When asked how much they owed him, Mr Kelley said, don’t be ridiculous, have a Merry Christmas.”

Now, I am really touched.  I look at my husband and at the scenery passing by with moist eyes.  I receive this little bit of family history with humble gratitude, recalling how much my Grandfather loved the holidays. I remember Mama telling me that he added the toy floor in his hardware store when his grandchildren were born.  As kids we would run up the stairs in his store believing that we were entering a place second only to Santa’s workshop.  When my parents couldn’t afford it, there were toys under our tree.  Family legend tells of a time that Papaw took food, gifts and a fully decorated tree, to a family who lost everything in a fire a few days before Christmas.  He didn’t even know them.  Daddy told me that Papaws only requirement for granting permission to marry my mother was, “only if you bring her home every Christmas.”

Upon reflection, I wonder why there is so much joy in seeking and finding stories of old friends and family.  I ask myself why I would try to describe the awesomeness of my Grandfather in a blog that no one may even read.  I look to Frederick Beuchner for possible explanation.  Frederick Beuchner wrote:  Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally.  If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but spiritually.