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A Familiar Christmas





Growing up in a military family, every three years I was uprooted from everything familiar. Household weight limitations meant a severe purge of my belongings. The arrival of the moving company to pack up our possessions solidified the fact that radical change was imminent. On moving day, as each box was loaded on the truck, I was painfully aware that time with my friends was quickly coming to an end. I waited until the last possible moment to get into our car, which was packed heavily with pillows and blankets, suitcases, and whatever else we needed for the next few weeks. I would tearfully wave to my friends until we drove out of sight.


With the exception of the years we lived in Hawaii, the holiday season meant a visit to southeastern Virginia. Each year we’d rotate the holidays, traveling back one year for Thanksgiving, and the next year for Christmas. Long before DVDs, those long road trips meant I had to entertain myself by reading, daydreaming, or sleeping. Occasionally, Mom would join me in a game of Slug Bug, where we’d each try to be the first to spot a Volkswagen Bug. When Mom got tired of trying to dial-in an AM radio station, she would play an 8-track tape. Since they only had a few tapes, I quickly learned all the song lyrics for the Carpenters’ Close to You album, Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass’ Greatest Hits, and the soundtrack from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even today, when I hear the first chords of any song from those tapes, my memories flashback to those road trips.


I loved visiting my grandparents. In my world of continuous change, I loved the fact that nothing ever seemed to change in their homes. I knew I’d sleep on the same soft, worn, and faded sheets blanketed under the weight of a thick handmade quilt. The radiator would rattle and clank as it spewed warmth into the cold night. I’d peek in the closet, its thick wooden shelves stacked with old linens, and inhale the musty and pleasingly familiar scent. The same dried-up, dusty blue bottle of Phillips Milk of Magnesia was on my grandmother’s dresser for more than a decade.


I anticipated spending time with my cousins. Cousin-time guaranteed hours of fun, antics, and even a bit of mischief. We spent hours outdoors creating our own adventures. When the weather kept us indoors, we played games and acted out skits, including one about the old blue bottle on my grandmother’s dresser. Our shrieks of uncontrolled laughter usually resulted in one of our parents opening the bedroom door and telling us to quiet down, which we did…for a little while. A certain consequence of our unending silliness was that throughout our entire childhood, and even into young adulthood, we never ate at the dinner table with the adults; we were always banished to another room to eat together.


Every year, whether or not we traveled out of town, Mom would decorate our house with Christmas ceramics, made in my grandmother’s ceramic shop in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The snowman was always placed on one end table; the caroling scene on the other; and the sleeping Santa candy dish was placed in the center of the coffee table. Santa’s sleigh and his reindeer took up the entire top of the console TV. Every year, the painstaking placement of those reindeer almost caused my mother to cuss; extremely fragile and prone to topple like dominos, every reindeer was placed slowly and with great caution and no one spoke to her until the task was complete. The large, elaborate nativity scene, with shepherds and wise men, camels, sheep, and cattle, all placed around Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, rendered my dad’s desktop unusable until January. Our tree was decorated with intricate felt ornaments, bedazzled with sequins and beads; every year my grandmother made a matching set for each grandchild. Personalized handmade stockings were carefully pinned to the wall.


When I was 14, we moved to Hawaii, arriving the week of Thanksgiving. In temporary lodging, with our household goods not scheduled to arrive until after Christmas, there would be no Christmas tree. No ceramic decorations. No visit with family. No cousin time. No laughter. There would be absolutely nothing familiar.


The next year, and for the remaining Christmases on the island, the decorations were in their proper place. I realized it was those priceless treasures that made each one of our houses “home.” Year after year, they were the familiar in midst of the unfamiliar.


We moved to back to the East Coast, and a couple of years later, when I moved into my first apartment, Mom gave me my set of ornaments. Over the years, Mom gradually passed along most of her ceramics to me; only the nativity scene and Santa and his reindeer are still safely packed away in storage.


Sadly, the road trips back to Virginia for the holidays stopped in the 1980s. My grandparents passed away and their homes were sold. An aunt, and uncles, have passed away; and last year, my father died. My cousins have scattered geographically. While a few of us have been able to get together on occasion, most of our relationships are sustained via phone calls, texts, and social media.


Last year at Christmas, my cousin called me. “After seeing your pictures of Aunt Shirley’s ceramic Christmas decorations, I decided to unbox my mom’s and put them out! And I’ve got to tell you, trying to put those blasted reindeer in place made me want to cuss! They fall like dominos! But I have a plan…”


She shared her strategy, and at some point in our conversation, we talked about our childhood days, which wasn’t really surprising because our conversations always migrate to our shared memories. The familiar memories seem to ground my shifting world.


Recently, my mother was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s. This Christmas, I will ask her permission to take Santa and his reindeer, and the nativity, out of storage and bring them home. I will carefully, using my cousin’s technique, set up Santa and the reindeer on my grandmother’s antique foyer table. I will clear my buffet for the nativity scene. I will decorate my tree with my homemade ornaments. I will place the snowman on one end table; the carolers on the other. And the sleeping Santa candy dish will be in the center of the coffee table.


And my prayer is that my mother will find comfort and joy in a familiar Christmas.

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God;

I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

~ Isaiah 41:10



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