"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in."

-- Robert Frost

Thursday, December 23, 2010

One last Christmas memory

Erin (#5): Just recently a new little antique store opened in our town. It’s called “It’s a Wonderful Life” and it’s on Christmas Avenue in Bethlehem, GA. Cute, huh? It’s right next to the post office, and as I drove by its black-and-white sign this week, I thought about that Christmas when Dad watched that movie over and over and over.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we seem to have (at least) two sets of memories of the things that have happened in our lives? There’s the memory of our immediate reaction, of what we said, did, and thought at the time, and there’s the memory of what really went on, as softened and understood through the filter of years or decades of experience with life. I remember walking in and out of the living room as Dad watched that old boring black-and-white movie again and again, and wondering what at all he could see in it. I mean, it wasn’t even in color!

But I wonder now, in light of Mom’s statement, if Dad didn’t identify with George. We all know George’s story, of harsh reality, of life, of all the things he was “supposed” to do crowding out the things he dreamed of doing. All of us as adults have felt, or will have felt, that same way. Old house, lots of kids, a job that doesn’t fulfill my dreams. “Why do we have to have so many kids? You call this a happy family?” I can hear Dad saying it today, and laughing until he nearly cried.

But I want you to know, Dad, what I remember about Christmas.

We know now, and we knew then, that you and Mom scraped to fill our stockings with coloring books and My Little Ponies. Eleven stockings is an awful lot. I don’t know if you thought about it at the time, when what you could see was the columns of numbers that didn’t quite add up, but every one of those children that you scraped for would someday be an adult. Every one of them needed to know that our lives aren’t about getting what we want all the time. That it’s better, somehow, to scrape it all together to give somebody else a beautiful Christmas than it is to take your money and buy yourself all the things you want. Every one of us, I think, learned that lesson, a lesson we couldn’t possibly have learned from lavish Christmases year after year. Why was it, after all, that Mom was always so overjoyed to get a new dish drainer from Santa? And I know now that they sell those cordial cherries for a slap dollar a box, and you acted like you’d gotten solid gold.

In my little box of cherished items that I lug with me from house to house as I go, I have a little blue-green sweater. It’s about a size six, and I remember the Christmas morning I found it under the tree in a box with my name on it. I don’t remember who told me, but I knew that Dad had picked that sweater out just for me. We must have a picture of that moment somewhere, because I can see myself more clearly than memory usually allows. I’m sitting in front of the brick hearth with Meg, frowzy-haired, with the blue-green sweater pulled on over my pajamas. What was so wonderful to me about that sweater, the reason I loved it that morning and have kept it for so many years, was this.

My father, a man with lots of cares, with worry about the Christmas bills adding up, with eight other children, took the time to pick out a sweater just for me. Because he knew me. Because even though I often felt like just one more amid a sea of hollering children, my Daddy cared whether I smiled on Christmas morning. And not just enough to tell Mom to go get me something nice, but to pick out, with his own busy hands, a sweater that he knew I’d love. “Is this her size?” I imagined him saying. Her. Me. Every time I see that sweater, I take it out and hold it, and remember the feeling I felt that morning, that can’t possibly show in the picture, that I was alone, for once, in my father’s heart.

So yes, Mom and Dad, I know how it must have felt. It felt like you were dealing with children. I know now how that feels, and I’m sorry that so often it feels so thankless. But I want you to know that you weren’t only dealing with children. You were laying down memories in the minds of adults. The minds of parents. You remember the scraping? I see the widow’s mite. You think of all the gifts that were lost, forgotten, or broken? I hold, decades later, a little blue-green sweater that taught me, and continues to teach me, that although I am one of nine, or one of billions, my Father knows me, and cares whether I smile.

The gifts that you gave us had nothing, and yet everything, to do with the actual presents you put your two dimes together to buy. Because this year, as each of us thinks of how best to bring Christmas to those around us, we’ll remember the feeling that was in our home every year, that we were known, that we were worth sacrificing for, and that we were loved.

Merry Christmas,

Love, Erin

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