The gift of presence

Two of my favorite beings in the world, my mom and Luke (her grandkitty), both now gone.

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.

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 it was good to eat.

Sometimes we behaved. Really, it happened. And that drool all over my shirt? Wouldn’t doubt that it’s probably snow ice cream-related.

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 sing, laugh, exchange gifts, and welcome Santa Claus, who always brought old-fashioned sacks of goodies. Santa and a Nativity play? Of course, and I was usually an angel … cast against type, obviously.

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. 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 clown doll which, darn it, disappeared in a tornado. The one she gave me before college, on the other hand …

Probably the closest Mama ever got to helicopter parenting … and that’s a red cedar in the background, which was what most of our trees were (though we did use a tinsel tree a couple of years).

Of the Christmas I had a temporary (luckily) 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. 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 my training wheels 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.

Mama knew better than to argue with her hardheaded daughter. She didn’t argue when I decided I wanted to read long before kindergarten, either. Quite often, books would be part of my Christmas gift, and still are, though she’s no longer the one giving them.

Yes, my mom will always be my biggest hero, and I’m proud of that.

Missing Mama will be the hardest thing for me this Christmas. 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. I fondly remember going to the suit shop with her and Jess, the kind old man who lived next to the school. Though we didn’t have much, she put enough aside to make sure he had a suit to wear for an important event.

She was a fighter for those she loved.

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.

The lessons she taught will always be with me. She will, too, though not in the way I would prefer. She, my dad, and all my grandparents are gone now, but their legacies live on.

That’s 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. This year, we do without Mama.

Monday morning as I was finishing this column, one of my favorite bloggers, John Pavlovitz, posted a piece about grief during the holidays, and I feel compelled to quote him here.

This is the mom I’ll always remember: perpetually looking like she’s up to something. She usually was.

“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.”

But, he cautions, you must embrace who is here and treasure those moments. “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!

I get presents? Woo hoo! (Yeah, I know, I was adorable. No, I don’t know what happened.)