As Dad shuffled out of his 122-year-old home, he went back to his bedroom to take down the large wooden-framed portrait of his daughter, Kelly Ann. Kelly died on September 25, 2004, and he sobbed while he unsteadily carried the picture towards the front door. I met him there and took the picture, wrapped it in a Christmas angel blanket and stacked it atop the miscellaneous mess crammed into Dad’s Pontiac Vibe. After he painfully plopped himself in the passenger seat he remembered Momma. “I forgot Gerry,” he said as he started to struggle to get up out of the car. I stopped him with, “I got it. I got it. The big photo on the hall table, right?” He nodded sadly as I hurried back into the lonely house to retrieve the black and white photo we had blown-up to display at Momma’s memorial in 2014. These were Dad’s farewell actions before I pulled shut the heavy front door of Grandma’s house. (Even though my parents had lived there since 1972, 420 S. 2nd St. would always be “Grandma’s house.”)
In Annie Hall Woody Allen says, “A relationship is like a shark. It has to keep moving or it dies.” Does the simile work for life in general? We keep moving on or we die, either literally or figuratively. And a big part of moving on is learning to let go: of places, of things, of people. The week before Christmas my sister Gayle, our close friend Mark, and I started cleaning up and clearing our Grandma’s house. We organized items in piles: Trash; Goodwill; KEEP; Leave for the house. (My cousin Chiquita had bought the house and she let us leave all the stuff we did not want to take! Merci beaucoup, Chickie!) Gayle kept quoting the book about decluttering: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up , “Does it give you joy? No? So throw it.” Mark would sometimes argue over the value of an item. “This old kitchen clock is wonderful! It would remind your dad of his home. Take it.”
Since we had limited space in Dad’s car, I had to make tough decisions. I wanted Momma’s china and Mama Joe’s pie safe. Period. But then a portable hair dryer from the 1960’s and a stack of old 45’s would remind me of the freedom and freshness of being 12 years old. I caught myself putting a tube of lipstick from my momma’s winter coat in my own pocket and setting aside the dented aluminum bun warmer Momma used a lot. I opened stiff books and touched the handwritten dedication from a dead relative to a dead friend.
Later my brother Emile arrived and he made piles of old things for his three children and five grandchildren. Then someone thought of gift-wrapping unique or sentimental items to put under the Christmas tree: a tarnished tennis trophy, a pair of iron wolf book ends, a biography of Carl Sandburg. The gift tags read “from Grandma’s house” or “from Eunice” or “from Mr. Snowball.”
From December 17 to the last day of 2016, we were slowly saying good-bye to Grandma’s house, to Momma and Kelly’s memories, and to our own childhoods. We let go of stacks and even rooms of furniture, clothes, knick-knacks, and even some treasures. However, each of us took the items we needed to hold on tightly to ( two audio cassettes of an interview with Grandma, a Latour coffee cup Uncle P.J. gave Momma, Kelly’s copy of Walden.)
I let go of almost 60 years of objects from that home even as I squirreled away an LP here or a cast iron skillet there. I know that the things I took are just things, but they hold powerful memories of parties and suppers and stories and games and bad times and good times. Dad and I did not finally drive off in the Vibe until I ran back in for my final treasure from Grandma’s house: the extra-large Bulova kitchen clock from the 1940’s. Time to let go and move on down the road.
Like the cliched tangle of several strands of colored lights, I am a mess of knotted stress and on-and-off joy. For me, the Christmas smiles and laughs of surprise get swept away by the demands and deadlines of consumerism. First of all, why do we put so much money, effort, and worry into a holiday season? We spend hours spending dollars we cannot easily spare on presents most folks do not truly need or want. We drag out dusty decorations and spend more hours making our homes “merry and bright” for a few weeks of over-hyped, commercialized holiness. Why?
Perhaps when I was a kid or when my 20-something sons were kids, I enjoyed the getting and the giving. Back then we had Santa’s magic and loads of brand new playthings. Now I mainly see just the aftermath of the Christmas explosion: cookie crumbs, dirty napkins, discarded toys, and dead pine needles. And after the overdone turkey, off-key caroling, and cranky kids, all the cleaning and organizing and putting away looms large. Why?
I know. I know. “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But how do days and days of shopping and decorating and shopping and planning and shopping and cleaning and shopping and cooking and shopping and traveling and shopping and visiting and shopping add up to celebrating the birth of a savior who praised love over possessions?
Call me Scrooge or the Grinch or just a grumpy old lady. This is my truth. Christmas comes too soon and demands too much from our bank accounts and our time sheets. I enjoy holiday time with my family . I savor our delicious holiday meal. I enjoy the thrill of opening presents (and watching others do the same). I still get misty-eyed when singing Christmas carols. But I need to turn the whole thing down several notches. Today is December 14 and I have not bought my sons a single present. May I stick with my “single gift for each person” plan. My home has not a single decoration. May we simply trim the tree on December 24 and call it Christmas.
A picture of a Finnish proverb is taped above my desk: “Happiness is a place between too little and too much.”
May this thought rule my life and especially my Christmas this year. A shorter and simpler holiday leaves me more time for true joy and peace.
We love Christmas time. Our house is decorated inside and out. There are so many ornaments on our Christmas tree that have special meaning. Wherever we go, we purchase an ornament from that location. A red lobster from Maine, bear paw from Yosemite, cable car from San Fransisco…you get the picture. But, there is one decoration on the tree that is above the rest, a Christmas corsage.
For as long as I can remember, my Daddy always loved to decorate for Christmas. When I became older he showed me a silk, red poinsettia corsage that lay on one of the Christmas tree branches. He told me that my mother was in the hospital her last Christmas and one of the nurses had brought her the corsage and laid it on her pillow, as a token of the season. She died that January and from that time on, my Dad would place that corsage on the tree in her memory.
As time passed, my brother and I divided Daddy’s ornaments between us, and I received the corsage. Every year as I place it on our tree, I whisper my mother’s’ name, inviting her to enjoy our tree and know that she is not forgotten. A simple red corsage laid among the baubles and bells. A simple act of kindness that carried a mother’s love all these years later.
A few weeks before Halloween, the stores are filled with Jack-O’-Lanterns, costumes, candy and all things pumpkin spice. ( Pumpkin spice ice cream, creamers, bagels and more..) But, like three or four days before Halloween, BOOM! Everything goes on sale and Christmas decorations are being stocked on the shelves, advertising lay-away plans and Santa’s arrival. When did Halloween become the new Christmas?
And, where is Thanksgiving? Oh sure, there’s a few Pilgrim pictures up, lots of turkeys and a cornucopia thrown in for good measure, but, basically that’s it. The most unbelievable yet is that Sirius Radio began their Christmas Music station on November 1st. I hadn’t even eaten the last of the Halloween candy.
Hurry up!!! Be thankful! But, more important….Be Good! Be Nice! And avoid the ‘Naughty List’ at all cost. Yikes! I’m beginning to feel that stress creeping up…..hurry, hurry, “It’s” almost here!
Let’s make a pact to slow down. Let’s finish that last fun-size Snicker bar. Let’s make a gratitude list and name everyone and everything we are grateful for. More importantly, let’s calm that outward hype to start the mad countdown to Christmas. Let’s at least stop and smell the pumpkin spice! Is anyone with me?