Editor’s note: The original version of this column was published in December 2019, months after I’d lost my mom. Having just lost my brother and with the pandemic continuing, it seems appropriate to revisit it.
Christmastime this year is different for a lot of us. We’ve lost family members, friends, pets and other loved ones, and so we have to face the holiday without them.
But we have our memories.
Of cold, snowy mornings spent sledding behind the church because it had the best hill that wasn’t the road, more than a few times smacking the fence at the bottom because we were having too much fun to remember to steer (but that scar on my jaw reminds me of it). Not that our homemade sleds were easy to steer, mind you, especially the metal slide that finally fell off our swing set.
Of snow ice cream if the snow was pristine and deep, and making sure to get the first bowl because once the boys started in, there’d be none left. It was the only yellow (and pale, at that) snow that was good to eat. Sprinkle a little chocolate or cinnamon sugar on top, or some chocolate syrup, and you were living high!
Of the Christmas program at the Dayton community building right next to our house, which drew most of the people in our tiny wide spot in the road in addition to the 4-H Club and Extension Homemakers who regularly met there. We’d always did the nativity play, and I was usually an angel (clearly, cast against type). We’d gather around the huge cedar tree, sometimes cut from behind the building and decorated with decades’ worth of ornaments, sing, laugh, exchange gifts, and welcome Santa Claus, who always brought old-fashioned sacks of goodies full of candy and fruit.
Of the trip to Nanny Kaylor’s house on Christmas Eve for a full Christmas experience, including dinner with all the trimmings, peanut brittle, those addictive ranch oyster crackers, and playing Santa’s helper to give presents to family members. Uncle Charlie would usually be the one to say Grace before we started fighting to get the best pieces of turkey and dressing and chowed down. Then there was the trek to Nanny and Grandpa Terrell’s house down the road on Christmas, usually for chili, beans and soup, and maybe a few small, handmade gifts. I long ago forgave Nanny for that crocheted clown doll which, darn it, disappeared in a tornado (thank you, tornado).
Of the Christmas I had a temporary case of wry neck, probably as a result of the multiple ear infections I had that fall, but I have pictures to remind me. At least the head tilt looked cute and somewhat intentional in the photos. I wish I still looked that cute. The next Christmas, though, I got my first bike … with training wheels that lasted all of about two days. After the mean neighbors made fun of me when I was riding on the community building’s tennis/basketball court, I insisted they be taken off so I could be just like my brothers. This was before we all wore helmets to ride, but our family is naturally hardheaded.
Missing Mama has been the hardest thing for me the past few Christmases. She was my best friend, biggest cheerleader, and the funniest and kindest person I’ve ever known. She was hardheaded, and could be stern, too, and would let you know how she felt if you happened to touch on one of her pet peeves, which included a few politicians. Like me, she missed two of the best public servants, Dale Bumpers and John Paul Hammerschmidt, and was saddened that we’ll probably never see their like again. Ask her about them, and she’d smile remembering them, their kindness, and their desire to help others.
That was what she had in common with them. She “adopted” older friends and neighbors, taking them food, visiting with them, and in at least one case, taking them shopping even though we didn’t have much. (Jess was a sweetheart; I loved that suit-shopping trip with him and Mama.) When a cluster of tornadoes hit our area, she gathered us and whatever supplies she could muster and we spent the day feeding neighbors and volunteers and helping people clean up what was left of their homes.
Now my brother Corey is with her again. He was like Mama in a lot of ways, especially in how kind and funny he was. If you were in his circle, you were family; he’d make sure you had what you needed. In girlfriend Carletta, he found a kindred soul.
That legacy of kindness is a pretty good Christmas gift if you think about it.
I know I’m far from the only person dealing with grief at this time of year. The reason we had our Christmas on Christmas Eve at Nanny Kaylor’s house was because my dad’s dad, who I never knew, died on Christmas Eve 1965. Now, we do without all our grandparents, Mama, Daddy, nephew David, and Corey.
As I was finishing this column back in 2019, one of my favorite bloggers, John Pavlovitz, posted a piece about grief during the holidays, and I feel compelled to quote him here.
“When you lose someone you love,” Pavlovitz writes, “you forever realize the singular, irreplaceable gift that time with them was—because it becomes the only thing you really want anymore: just one more explosive embrace as the front door swings open, one more tearful eruption of laughter recalling the story you heard them tell a hundred times before, one more smell of their heads as they lay nestled in the crook of your arm, one more afternoon with the familiar music of their voices coming through the wall beside you, one last phone call to hear them share life-changing news or the mundane events of a day, just a few more seconds of ordinary life—with them still here.”
I revisited one of Pavlovitz’s earlier blog entries about grief after Corey’s death last month.
“Grief doesn’t just visit you for a horrible yet temporary holiday. It moves in, puts down roots—and it never leaves,” he wrote in a 2015 blog entry. “Yes, as time passes, eventually the tidal waves subside for longer periods, but they inevitably come crashing in again without notice, when you are least prepared.”
It’s at those moments that you feel closest to those you lost, he says. “These tragic times are somehow oddly comforting even as they kick you in the gut. And it is this odd healing sadness which I’ll carry for the remainder of my days; that nexus between total devastation and gradual restoration. It is the way your love outlives your loved one.”
In his 2019 piece, Pavlovitz cautions that during Christmas, as much as you may miss those who are gone, you must embrace who is here and treasure those moments. “[N]otice those who are here with you now: sharing life and making these days both beautiful and bearable—for they too will not always be here. Treasure the embraces and the stories and the meals and the smells of their heads and the music of their voices in real-time, because they too will eventually be the stuff of photographs and memories.
“Mourn the absences and celebrate their presence in the present. No, you can’t have the gift you most want right now—but you have today. Be present.”
I couldn’t say it any better. Merry Christmas!