Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Memories

I’ve always loved Christmas. I can credit both my grandfather and my mother for my enthusiasm.
My maternal grandfather was passionate about the season, decorating his lawn long before the trend was commonplace. He started out with reindeer and a life-sized sleigh loaded with packages. Santa climbed the roof, and Ivory soap flakes created the snow.
The miniature houses on the wall eventually became a complete village with street lights and tiny picket fences. Unfortunately, I have no photos of that display, and the houses were lost in a garage fire in the 1950s.
In the world of my mother’s family, Christmas was magical, and as a child, my family always celebrated with them. I have few memories of the years before my father died, but the overall impression is one of being surrounded by love.

After dad died when I was seven, our financial situation changed dramatically, yet my mom’s family continued to try to make the day special for us.

Mom bought one of the first plastic trees. She got a white one because that color looked more ‘real’ than the bright green ones. Besides, I’m sure it was on sale at a terrific price after the season. She was fanatical about tinsel. We had two boxes of the ‘real’ metal stuff. Each year, she spent hours draping it, one strand at a time. When we had real trees, we spent hours after Christmas removing it. But once we got the fake one, it was unassembled after the holiday, and the pieces placed in the storage box with the tinsel attached. For me, the look of the old metal tinsel is far more attractive than the plastic version. It catches and reflects the light differently.

Our ornament collection included some of the old European hand-blown glass ones. A particular favorite was a blue bird with a tail made of tiny plastic bristles. It clipped onto the branch, and each year my brother and I argued about who would attach it.

We used a string of large old-fashioned light bulbs for years. We wouldn’t give them up for the smaller version everyone else converted to. (The smaller ones were still pretty big and much larger than the twinkle lights and LEDs of today.) We had to special bulbs, one in the shape of a Christmas tree and the other in the shape of Santa’s face. The tree went first, but until Santa burned out, we kept the old string. They were probably terribly dangerous, especially with the mountain of metal tinsel bedecking the branches, but we were (and continue to be) creatures of habit.

In fact, my brother still has the old plastic tree with all of the old ornaments. Several of the branches have broken over the years, and the tinsel is in shreds, but it’s the only tree he’s ever had, and he won’t give it up for anything. The poor little bluebird lost his tail years ago, but he is still attached in a place of honor every year.

On Christmas Day, the family gathered at my grandmother’s house. Because our resources were so limited, the cost of each gift was restricted. I think the restriction was not more than $5. However, in the 1950s, that amount still went quite far.

I remember the year when my gift was the largest one under the tree. Inside were more baking tools and mixes than I could have dreamed of. For years I kept the miniature rolling pin, baking pans, cookie sheet, cookie cutters, etc. I used them when Kim was little to bake with her.
The box also contained half-size cookie and cake mixes of all kinds.

Since I enjoyed cooking as a kid, this was the perfect gift. I also knew that my aunt and uncle had completely blown the dollar limit. It was their understanding of what I would truly love as well as being willing to endure my mother’s disapproval which made me feel very special and much loved.
After Dad died, our Santa gifts were usually things we needed: pajamas, new slippers, etc. Looking back, I realize how far ahead Mom had to plan and save in order to make the holiday special for us. And she did.

I took this same enthusiasm into the holidays for my own family. Fortunately, Larry’s family always celebrated on Christmas Eve, so we could still spend Christmas Day with mine.

His family gatherings were always festive and joyous occasions. The entire clan gathered at his aunt and uncle’s home, which looked as though it had come off a Christmas card. The adults drew names and each received a single gift, but all the kids received them from everyone. Since Larry’s father came from a large family, the party was always packed.

When his aunt and uncle gave up the big house, we hosted the family gathering in our home for many years. We often had forty or so people for a sit-down supper, followed by the gift exchange and lots of Christmas cookies. The youngest children helped an adult (often Uncle Rudy) hand out the gifts. I can close my eyes and hear the laughter and feel the warmth of family love.

This year, we will have the immediate family for Christmas Eve again. Our niece and her family will not attend since they now live in Utah, but Kim is here with us.

Once again, the love this family shares will surround each of us as we celebrate this very special time.

What are your favorite childhood Christmas memories? Which do you continue as an adult?

Monday, December 16, 2013

My Christmas Gift to You

I posted this Christmas story on our website a few years ago, but thought you might like to read it again.

Christmas Miracle
By Lorna Collins

It was a week before Christmas and the town looked like fairyland. Tiny white lights twinkled from every tree in the park, except for the big one in the center which glowed with brilliant colors reflected off shiny ornaments. The streetlights were bedecked with red bows and wreaths. Carols drifted from the doorways of all the stores. In house windows, decorations competed with those on lawns and roofs.
But Holly Noelle O’Malley was oblivious to the magic in the air. It would be the first Christmas without her mother and father. Losing both of them at the same time and so suddenly nearly ten months earlier was something she hadn’t quite come to terms with. And now the holidays loomed.
Thanksgiving had been bad enough. Several friends had invited her to spend the day with them. She’d finally agreed to go to her best friend Cheryl Howard’s house. Somehow the sight of her large loving family had made her own situation even more painful. So she had sworn off celebrating Christmas altogether.
Not only would Christmas Day be painful, but Christmas Eve was her birthday. After many years of marriage, her parents had given up the idea of having children. Then Holly had arrived. Her mother always called Holly her “Christmas Miracle.” The ache in her heart grew as she remembered her mother’s voice and all the special treats, decorations and surprises of Christmases past.
After all these months, it was time to sell the family home. Holly had her own condo a few miles away, and the big house felt too large and full of memories. She’d only been there a couple of times since the accident, and every visit had been difficult. Cheryl had encouraged her to start sorting and packing. Today she would meet the realtor her friend recommended.
Cheryl’s car was already at the curb. Holly pulled up behind her. She took a deep breath, grabbed her keys and stepped out.
“Hi. Thanks for coming today.” She gave Cheryl a hug.
“Glad to be of help. How are you doing?”
Holly shrugged. “Okay, I guess. I haven’t been inside in months.”
“Do you want to wait for Trey?”
“No, we can probably start figuring out what to do with everything.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” Cheryl put her arm around Holly as she unlocked the door.
Perhaps because the house had been closed for so long, the familiar smells of home seemed especially intense. Comforting and painful, sad and welcoming, the hints of Mother’s cologne, carpet, candles, old paint, Dad’s leather chair all blended together were overwhelming.
“It’ll be okay, Holly. You’ll see,” Cheryl assured her.
“I know. But it’s still so…”
“Maybe we can start some sorting before Trey arrives,” Cheryl suggested, hoping activity would occupy Holly enough to get through the process of letting go.
“Okay. I can probably handle the kitchen.”
Cheryl followed her friend through the formal dining room into the cozy yellow kitchen with its bright white appliances and cabinets. The oak table and chairs looked as though they were waiting for someone to sit down for a meal.
Holly opened the cabinet next to the sink. Sparkling glassware filled the shelves. “I hate to part with any of these. Mom was so proud that she had complete sets of everything. But I know I can’t fit all of it into my little condo.”
“Take you time deciding,” Cheryl advised.
“Is anyone here?” A deep voice called from the living room.
“In here,” Cheryl answered.
Holly turned from contemplating the contents of the cupboard. Her gaze collided with beautiful green eyes framed by long dark lashes and set into a handsome face. She felt as though she’d stuck her finger in a light socket.
“Hi, I’m Trey Donovan,” he said and extended his hand. His touch was firm and warm and as powerful as his eyes. Holly found it hard to let go. “You must be Holly.”
“Yes,” she managed to squeak out. Pull yourself together, she scolded herself. It’s not as though you’ve never seen a good-looking man before. Yeah, but not THIS one. I really have to stop having these conversations with myself.
“This is a wonderful house,” Trey continued, “perfect for a family. How can you bear to part with it?”
Because he seemed to genuinely want to know, Holly started to explain. “I lost both parents a few months ago. It’s been hard to come back here with all the memories…”
“I understand. But I hope you won’t regret your decision later on.”
“I thought you were supposed to sell houses,” Cheryl interrupted.
Trey chuckled. “I am and I do. This would be a great listing. But I never want to take advantage of anyone under duress. And you seem to … belong here.”
He looked so tenderly at Holly, she nearly cried. “Thank you. I appreciate your concern.” Something about his gentle smile looked familiar. Perhaps he resembled a movie star or someone on TV. “I’m sorry. I seem to be staring. You look so familiar. Have we met?”
“I don’t think so. I’m sure I’d remember you. I have a weakness for short redheads with blue eyes.”
Holly shook her head. She could have sworn she’d seen him before somewhere. “Do you want to see the rest of the house?” she offered. That’s why he was there, after all. Taking the lead, she went through each room pointing out the special features of each one.
At last they arrived at her parents’ bedroom. She had closed the door the day after the funeral, and it had remained that way ever since. Steeling herself, she opened it. Everything was in place, just the way Mom always kept it. Holly circled the room, touching each piece of furniture. Trey and Cheryl stood back watching her.
She turned to look at them and noticed something sticking out behind the big dresser. “That’s strange,” she said as she bent to retrieve it.
In her hand was a photo she recognized. It was of one of her mother’s preschool classes. Mother had been especially fond of this group. It was her last one before Holly was born. She often spoke about a little boy named Donnie. “An imp with a pure heart” was how she’d described him.
“What’s that?” Cheryl asked.
“A picture of Mom’s last preschool class,” Holly responded, holding the photo out for them to see.
“That’s Miss Mary,” said Trey. “I still remember her. She was the nicest lady. I loved school because of her.”
“You knew my mother?” Holly asked.
“Sure. That’s me, right next to her.”
Of course it was. The same bright green eyes, the same unruly lock of dark hair falling onto his forehead, the same dimples appearing when he smiled. No wonder he had looked familiar. “Mom always said that little boy was called Donnie.”
Trey laughed. “My full name is Donald Anthony Donovan III. Granddad is ‘Don’; Dad is ‘Donald’; I was nicknamed ‘Trey’ since I’m the third. Miss Mary was the only one who ever called me Donnie.” Trey looked around the room again. “So this is Miss Mary’s room ...”
“Yes. She and Dad lived here long before I was born.”
“I remember her telling all of us on the last day of school in June that she was expecting a miracle for Christmas. It sounded like one of the fairytales she told us. But I’ve always wondered what she meant.”
Holly began to cry softly.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry…”
“It’s okay. You see, I was that Christmas miracle. Mother always called me that, especially since I was born on Christmas Eve.”
“Thanks for clearing up one of the great unanswered questions of my life.”
“No wonder you looked familiar. I’ve been looking at this photo all my life. And Mom always talked about that little boy, I mean you.”
“Oh, no…”
“What did she say?” Cheryl asked.
Holly smiled, “She said if she’d ever had a son, she’d want him to be just like Donny.” Of course, what she didn’t tell them was that Mother had also said she hoped Holly would find someone just like him to marry someday.
“Now that I know this is Miss Mary’s house and that you’re her special Christmas Miracle, I’m really not sure I should let you sell. Would you like to grab some lunch, and we can talk about it?”
“Well, I… a…” Holly looked at Cheryl.
“You two go ahead. I have lots of shopping to do, and it appears we won’t be doing any packing today.”
For the first time in nearly a year, Holly smiled, really smiled. She felt warm and loved just as she with her parents.
She was the last to leave the room, and just before she closed the door, she whispered, “Thanks, Mom, for another Christmas miracle.” It must have been her imagination, but she thought she glimpsed a shape that might have been a person. Of course, it was probably just a trick of the light. But then, again, it was the season of miracles.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Virtual Christmas

A few years ago, during the financial crisis, most in our family were unable to spend much for gifts. We agreed to give the kids smaller presents, but the adults were in a quandary.

Larry grew up with a large extended family. All the kids got something small, but lots of gifts. Auntie Wanda, who worked in a bank, gave each child a crisp, new two-dollar bill. Uncle Francis brought them each a shiny silver dollar. (Kim still has some of hers.) Auntie Margie loved finding loud and crazy socks. She’d shop all year for them. (And Kim insisted on wearing them—with everything.)

Since Larry’s dad was one of six, and most were married with kids, we often had forty or more on Christmas Eve. Dad was the youngest and was sixteen years younger than his oldest sister. We loved having kids and adults of all ages, and we welcomed a new family member every few years.

The adults drew names for gifts with a $20 limit. This meant each couple only had to buy two adult gifts. Names were drawn on Thanksgiving, but we weren’t particularly strict about sticking with the names as drawn. Much horse trading occurred between that date and Christmas Eve.

Everyone knew Cousin Gerry loved getting Larry’s brother, Casey. Both were pranksters, and Gerry loved giving Casey off-the-wall gifts.

One year, she gave him a large box. When he opened it, the only thing inside was a clue to the next gift. She routed him all over the house until he finally located the small box in the center of her cookie plate. It held a $20 bill. Another year, he received a coffee can filled with change embedded in the most awful mixture of white glue, peanut butter, chocolate syrup… Well, you can imagine. He had to run the whole thing under very hot water before he was able to extract his $20 in change.

I always loved getting Auntie Margie. She had very definite tastes, and most of the rest of them found her challenging. What a coup when I was able to please her, and I did so often.

For many years, we hosted the entire family, but as the older generation died out, and the ‘kids’ grew up and moved away, the group grew smaller until we were left with only our immediate families.

As Christmas of 2009 approached, some of us were faced with limited resources. My sister-in-love, Lucy, had just started a new job. Casey’s company had folded, as had mine. Kim had moved to Texas for work and was no longer working two jobs. Our niece, Carrie, and her husband were leaving right after the first of the year to move to Utah. In short, times were financially challenging, and money was tight.

A coworker was faced with the same situation in her family. She had just gone back to work after nine months of unemployment. (I had gotten her a contract job at the same place I was working.)

Her family decided on a virtual Christmas. The rules were simple:
·         Decide what you would give each family member if money were no object and without any restrictions.
·         Write a note to each person, along with pictures or other enhancements (web pages, etc.) to let them know what you’d give them and why.
·         Put your virtual gift in an envelope, and put it on the tree on Christmas Eve.

Everyone took the challenge seriously. And the gifts we received that year far surpassed any material gifts we might have gotten.
I have kept my virtual gifts locked carefully away along with the birth certificates, marriage certificate, and all the other valuable papers. They are that precious.

Kim ‘gave’ Larry a trip to outer space, complete with photos and a web page. I ‘got’ a house in Hawaii.

My brother, who is a classic car fanatic, ‘gave’ Larry a woody and me a ’57 Thunderbird—my favorite car of all time.

Carrie and Loren had just bought a new house in Utah, so they brought the map of their neighborhood. Their ‘gift’ was a house of our choice so we could be near them.

Larry’s gift was a trip to Hawaii for the whole family. His gift to me was to retire and travel to all the places on my bucket list: Machu Picchu, England, Scotland (again), New Zealand (again, Italy (again), and Hawaii (always). Oh, and he’d go along.

My gifts were all intangibles. To Kim, I ‘gave’ happiness. To my brother, confidence, and so forth. Larry’s gift reads as follows:

To Larry I would give JOY
In God and your faith
            In your work and your play
                        In your family and home
                                    In love and marriage
You are the greatest blessing in my life.
            If I could do it all over again,
I would. You taught me how to laugh
            And play and love (the best parts).
I love you.

We haven’t done it again, but someday, perhaps, we will. I’d recommend it to anyone, whether or not finances are an issue.

My virtual gift for you? A joyous and blessed holiday season and a prosperous New Year. May all your fondest dreams come true.