Christmas is my favorite time of year in our house. This year was particularly magnificent as our home was filled with the laughter and stories of thirty Parks family members shared over Christmas dinner.
Decorating starts the day after Thanksgiving when the girls and I put up our tree with It’s A Wonderful Life playing in the background. The stories and memories associated with every ornament are retold with greater appreciation every year.
It takes me more than a week to decorate the rest of the house. After the girls leave on Sunday following Thanksgiving, my brother comes over for a few days to help me decorate. We, too, share happy memories of past Christmases and dream about ways we can make this year special as well.
Taking the Christmas tree down, however, is a solo act. And it’s more spiritual than utilitarian.
I spent almost a full day, with college basketball playing in the background, packing the ornaments away. I savored the memories associated with each and every one. I can track the growth and maturity of our girls from the priceless ornaments they made and the ones we gave them each Christmas commemorating something special from that year; from Veggie Tales and Barney, to American Girls and Hannah Montana, piano keys and play marquees, drivers licenses and diplomas, a red solo cup and a rather stern looking Boy in Blue.
I say prayers of thanksgiving as each ornament brings a memory of the vacations we’ve taken, the houses in which we’ve lived, the schools in which we’ve studied, the teams for which we’ve cheered and the friendships made through it all.
And I repeat countless prayers to God asking for blessing and protection for each family member and friend whose spirit is somehow tied to a memory, enmeshed in a symbol and attached to a wire hook. I ask God to keep those people happy and healthy until the next time I hold that same wire hook in my hand and again thank Him for their place in my life.
In an attempt to outsmart the January sadness that routinely and quite stealthily sneaks in trying to fill the void left by the now-curbed conifer, I started 2018 armed with a plan.
Energized by goals I’ve set for the year, I wasted no time diving into the “house organization” objective. I started with a tiny little drawer in our family room that sits partially hidden behind a chair.
The drawer had a blanket shoved in there along with an unopened murder mystery dinner party game, cocktail napkins featuring Santa’s face, a balsam fir-scented candle boasting its unblemished wick, and a book.
The book was Traveling with Pomegranates: a mother-daughter story by Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor. I opened the front cover to reveal my mother-in-law’s handwriting, “Christmas 2009.”
I immediately felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach.
My in-laws have the beautiful tradition of giving each adult and child a book every Christmas Eve. Their selections are made with great care and consideration of the interests, essence, and place in the life of each distinct family member.
Clearly, this little drawer somehow became a time capsule of Christmas 2009. These items must have been placed in there and summarily forgotten.
Christmas 2009. Our last Christmas together. And the reason why, for every Christmas moving forward, taking down the tree has become a spiritual exercise.
We would never have guessed what the next months were to hold. Weeks after these items were curiously stowed away, Pat would come home from playing squash complaining of pain. Hernia surgery would follow. The pain would not diminish. More doctor visits. More questions. Mid-July would come the news of cancer cells. And on August 12, without even the chance to say goodbye, Pat peacefully offered his last exhale. His pain abated and ours began.
I speak often of the fog that follows such a devastating loss. I’m not sure how long it lasted. Quite frankly, there are days that I’m not convinced it still doesn’t linger.
And now I hold in my hand a gift given to me from the time I will always think of as the “just before.”
Life was good, and all was right with the world.
So, I’ve since abandoned my cleaning goal and found a place on the couch with this literary Ghost of Christmas Past. It is astounding how much more appropriate the message is for me now, so many years later.
Described on the jacket cover, this mother-daughter undertaking is a “wise and intimate dual memoir…each on a quest to redefine herself and rediscover each other” written primarily over two trips to Greece and France.
The mom is struggling with turning 50 and the daughter, a recent college graduate, is struggling to find her path. I’m enjoying the back-and-forth first-person narratives and find myself empathetic to both authors especially since I just turned 50, and my oldest daughter just graduated from college.
I’m only two-thirds of the way through the story, but I am feeling personally inspired by their reflections, profoundly grateful for the depth of love and, now, adult friendship I share with my own daughters, and pretty damn sure we need to visit Greece and France. Soon.
One paragraph, however, jumped off the page for me. Now a year or two into her 50s, the mom, Sue Monk Kidd wrote, “My only personal encounters with death have been with those of my grandparents, who were ripe with old age and the fullness of their lives, and with that of my father-in-law who died abruptly of a heart attack at the age of sixty.”
Wow. I honestly don’t know one human being who can share that sentiment.
Death has been a part of our lives since my children’s earliest memories. As I read this mother-daughter memoir, I can’t help but acknowledge how our life experiences have given us a different base of perspective, a unique appreciation for what is truly important, and a depth of communication that spans their entire lifetimes.
On some level, nearly impossible to articulate, I am aware of the impact loss has had in defining who we are—without actually defining who we are.
Which brings me to this morning. I sat down with a cup of coffee to read another chapter of Traveling with Pomegranates when a text dinged its arrival. My eyes were first drawn to the date at the top of the phone… “Thu Jan 25”
One month ago, this house was filled with a flurry of activity. And now I sit, reading, reflecting on the past and contemplating the future. Immediately drawing me out of any melancholy was this text sent to our family group chat.
Apparently, we don’t need a “wise and intimate dual memoir” to grapple with life’s deepest questions. We just need a Thursday morning in January when the oldest daughter (clearly very busy in the work world) texts, “If your life was a movie what songs would you want to be in the soundtrack?”
I needed all of six minutes to draft my knee-jerk playlist.
And then I went back to read and reflect with Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor, but this time with Stevie Nicks singing in the background.
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m getting older too.
I can only hope this literary Ghost of Christmas Past adds force to a Landside set in motion by my hopes and dreams for 2018.
The soundtrack of my life is still, very much, a work in progress.