Sunday, November 28, 2010

What Christmas Means to Me - My Annual Christmas Letter

When I was a child, there was an annual Christmas activity in my elementary school classroom. The teacher would write the word “CHRISTMAS” on the blackboard and then instruct us to make a list of holiday words, using each of the letters in Christmas. This was back in the dark ages when we could talk about Christmas in school, have parties, and wish everyone a “Merry Christmas.” In the spirit of Christmases Past, here is my updated list as my Christmas letter to my family and friends.

C - H - R - I - S - T - M - A - S

C – is for Cookie Baking Day, the highlight of the Christmas season for Phil and me. On the first Saturday in December, our home transforms into a cookie-making workshop for the day. Friends, family, and sometimes strangers, fill up our home with laughter, memories, fun, and wonderful things to eat. We spend the day baking cookies, and then share them for everyone to take home. It is my day to bask in the warmth of those I love, celebrate the start of the holiday season, and overdose on sugar.

H – is for home. There’s no place I’d rather be at Christmas time. My home is my nest, my sanctuary, and my anchor. It is the place where I know I belong.

R – is for reindeer antlers. Every year as I unpack the holiday decorations, I dust them off, straighten them out, and get ready to wear them on Cookie Baking Day. On Christmas morning, Diamond wears them for a short period of time. Even Phil takes a turn with the antlers at some point in the season. I haven’t figured out a way for the cats to take their turns. The antlers with jingle bells on them add a little bit of silliness to the season. I love my reindeer antlers!

I – is for the incredible feeling of thanksgiving I have for living to experience another Christmas season. Even with all of the traditions, each year brings something new and special – simply incredible!

S – is for spices. I have some special recipes that get pulled out every December. One in particular that I bake every year contains molasses, ginger, ground cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. How I love the way my house smells when these cookies are baking! Also loved are my spice-scented candles and herbal teas.

T – is for travel. While I love my home at Christmas time, it’s a rare season that we don’t travel somewhere between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Whether it is to attend a holiday concert where Roy is performing, to spend a few days at my friend Beth’s beach house, or to simply take a day trip, we really enjoy a little holiday travel.

M – is for mystery. Bishop Kenneth Goodson preached a sermon many years ago on “Stewards of the Mysteries of God” that I’ll never forget. While he was speaking directly to an ordination class of ministers, the message penetrated my heart. Christmas is filled with mystery, which leads to faith. There is so much that I don’t understand about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, but as a steward of God’s mysteries, I embrace the message and the gift.

A – is for angel tree. When I married Phil, I brought a box of Christmas tree ornaments from my divorce that were special to me. Most had been given to me by friends, students, and my boys. As I unpacked them the first Christmas that Phil and I put up a Christmas tree, I realized that most of them were angel ornaments. Thus, my Angel Tree was born. Over the years, more ornaments have been added, transforming it to an Angel and Other Stuff Tree, but I treasure my angels, and the story that each one holds.

S – is for steak dinner. Christmas Day is usually a quiet day at our house. My sons rarely come this far south or east for Christmas, and Phil’s sons typically spend the day with other branches of their family. Instead of preparing a traditional turkey dinner, we have developed our own tradition – steak. I set a romantic table, complete with wine and candlelight, Phil grills the steaks to perfection, and we feast on Christmas filet mignon.

So, dear family and friends, this is what Christmas means to me. What do the letters in CHRISTMAS mean to you?

Merry Christmas to all!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Strange Case of Writer's Block

I’m back in my Collection of Days. I’d like to say that I’ve been suffering from a case of writer’s block for the past month, but if I am going to be honest in my writing, I have to admit that it’s been more a case of writer’s avoidance! It’s not that my days have not been interesting. On the contrary, my dilemma is that I haven’t found the words or the courage to honestly write about some recent special days.

Last month my mother-in-law died. It affected me profoundly, mainly from the perspective that it was a huge relief that she finally let go of her earthly body at the age of 89 and journeyed to her next place. I loved her dearly, and I wish I could say that she was a wonderful person, which she was in some ways. However, in reality, she was very difficult for me to love, and for many years I wasn’t sure how she felt about me. It wasn’t until her final three years of life that we became close, became confidants, and I finally let myself love her unconditionally.

I remember a comment she made to me early-on as I told her that Phil and I had married. Her response, “That’s wonderful, Jennie. We always hoped that Phil would marry Susan.” [a former girlfriend]. Then, one Christmas early in our marriage, she proudly presented everyone in the family with a new pair of bedroom slippers. When she got to me, she said, “Sorry, Jennie, they didn’t have any in your size on sale.” It was comments such at these that built the wall that separated us. I could see how she loved her family and was always helping out people in her church, but I wondered where I stood with her. I also knew that she was always trying to get me to influence Phil to do things that she thought he should do. When I refused to intervene, she didn’t like it one bit.

In spite of things like this, I grew to love Mom. After Pop died and she moved into an assisted-living apartment, we became fast friends. I shared my writing with her, which she seemed to enjoy reading and discussing. She also confided some of her deepest thoughts with me. Whenever I’d go to visit her, she wanted to know about my sons, and how they were doing. She was always interested in hearing about their lives and careers. Up until a few months before her death, when senility took more and more of her away from me, I knew that she was aware of who I was when I’d visit her in her nursing home room, because she never failed to ask me about Wade and Brian.

Her funeral was difficult. Phil and his sister haven’t spoken to each other in several years, and Mom’s death didn’t change anything. While the minister spoke of her love of her family and how much it meant to her, I felt a deep sadness that her family had splintered and was uncomfortably enduring having to sit together in the same pews for her service. I also admitted to myself that some of it was her fault. When something difficult came her way, she’d turn her head the other way, wouldn’t want to hear about it, and would pretend that everything was fine. She just never could admit that things were less than ideal in her family, even though she was always willing to add a critical comment about whatever the issue of the day happened to be. In contrast, she would always find excuses for everyone’s, including her own, behavior, as her way of forgiving herself for making such caustic comments and thinking such thoughts.

Mom was a World War II veteran, and she was buried in the National Cemetery in Canton, Georgia, with military honors, next to Pop, also a veteran. As the bugler blew Taps, something inside of me was released, and I finally let Mom and all of the Lazarus family conflicts drift away with the warm October breeze. I knew that Phil and his sister might never reconcile, and that the awkward times with the family were now a thing of the past for me. In a purely selfish thought, I realized that never again would I have to endure the strain of family get-togethers, when someone was always mad about something, and never have to dread coming face-to-face with Phil’s sister who openly despised us both. Instead, I thought of the good things that I knew about Mom, and cherished the special moments that we had together acting like girlfriends in her apartment, and later in her nursing home room. I remembered the way she would grip my hand, not wanting to let go, and how her eyes would sparkle when we’d share a private moment or joke. I remembered her smile when she’d spot me walking down the hall toward her room, and the delight in her face that I had come for a visit.

No, Mom was not perfect, and she had the ability to get under my skin and irritate me to no ends. But I miss her, and will miss my visits with her. I am happy that she is finally at peace and is exploring heaven with her beloved Trooper.

Good-bye, Mom. I love you. I am now ready to write again.