Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Christmas that almost wasn't

Sitting in the truck at the beach, I'm physically and mentally exhausted; and I always come here when I'm feeling like this.

Looking back, I have experienced the sublime joy of childhood Christmases and all those wonderful years with my own young children, as well as the utter heartbreak of laying my paternal grandfather to rest on Christmas Eve.

But this Christmas was like no other – a rollercoaster ride of extreme lows and highs that can be described as nothing short of miraculous.

I had spent Christmas Eve cooking, cleaning and setting up for our Christmas feast for 14.

I awoke Christmas morning with a smile. “Christ is born!” Then my husband and I attended Christmas Mass.

Driving home, I was busy making lists in my head of all the things necessary to carry out my dinner plans.

Back at the house, I put on my Christmas apron and got to work – but then the phone rang.

My mother was crying. My 89-year-old father was having difficulty breathing, and he had just been transported by ambulance to the hospital.

In a daze, I took off my apron, placed the hams in the oven on the timer, put my coat back on and headed to the Emergency Room.

My mother and my father’s sister were already there, and hospital policy dictated that only two visitors were allowed in the ER. I sat in the plastic seat and waited.

What was the delay? Was he unconscious? Would I ever see him again?

I thought about my beautiful young aunt – a second mother to me – whom I lost two months ago.

Coming to my senses, I began to pray.

It was a very long 20 minutes before I was granted access. I spoke to the doctor. He said that the chest x-ray was normal and prescribed an over-the-counter medication. Unbelievably, my father could go home.

Since my father had arrived by ambulance, he was in his pajamas and had no coat or shoes. We wrapped him a thin white hospital blanket, and my mother put the detachable hood from her coat on his head. The hospital slippers would have to do.

I finally stopped shaking on the way home. When I walked in the door, I put on my apron and jumped in where I left off.

All our friends and family arrived as planned, and dinner was ready on time. Throughout the long afternoon I kept kissing and hugging my dad, maybe annoyingly so.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Warming up – A Christmas story


Many years ago when I was a young mother, I went to the grocery store with my daughter and waited behind a poor old gentleman who was unable to pay his bill. I desperately wanted to help him, but I was afraid and kept silent. The episode bothered me so much that I went home and wrote this fictional Christmas story. I wish I had been the woman in my story.

Dan held the mug of coffee tightly in both hands and felt the steam rising to his face. He lifted the cup to his lips and let the bitter amber liquid trickle slowly down his throat.

Even though he knew that the apartment was well-heated and comfortable, he was cold. He felt that he would never be warm again.

Dan was always cold and lonely. He missed Abigail and the children – but Abby was gone now, and the kids had their own lives to lead, their own problems to solve.

The future looked bleak. His days were filled with routine. He was thankful for his independence and reasonably good health, but he longed for something more.

“An old man’s foolish dreams,” he thought to himself.

Dan placed the empty cup on the table and reached into a pocket for his wallet. He opened the worn black billfold and checked its contents. There wasn’t much money left, but he would make do. He always had.

Walking gingerly to the closet, he took out his winter jacket, a flannel-lined wool coat. Briefly, his eyes scanned the kitchen shelves. He made a mental note of a few items, slid into his coat sleeves, and placed his keys in the ample pocket.

Making sure that the door was locked securely behind him, Dan slowly descended the winding staircase.

It was an overcast and blustery December day. He shivered and pulled his collar up around his neck as he sauntered down the street toward the supermarket.

There was a time when he had enjoyed grocery shopping. He had loved to watch Abby shop. Even though their Social Security checks barely covered the necessities, she always had enough for the bill and managed to save a little bit extra.

He smiled when he remembered how she used to sneak a little something into the basket for the kids. He would always pretend not to notice.

Dan knew how much it had pleased her to feel that she had made the burden a little lighter for him – and she had. Being with Abby had made everything easier.

He entered the market, chose a cart, and started the trek through the numerous well-stocked aisles. Sterile-sounding Christmas carols played over the intercom.

He was tired as he finally made his way to the express checkout lane. In the corner of the oversized shopping cart were cans of soup, cereal, orange juice, bread, and coffee.

He took his place at the end of the line, which wound its way down the immense corridor. Impatient shoppers paced nervously while they inched forward. Dan waited.

No one spoke. His mind wandered. He remembered the market he had shopped at when he and Abby were newlyweds. The proprietor had been a friendly man who had appreciated each of his customers. The cashiers had called Dan by name.

It was different now – so impersonal. Everyone just stared straight ahead while the electronic scanners did the talking.

It was his turn now. With disbelief he saw the final total on the register. He would have to put something back.

Dan felt ashamed. He had never had much money, but he had always had his pride. Now he felt that even that had been taken from him.

Dan cleared his throat and in a whisper told the clerk that he had changed his mind about the coffee.

The lady behind him bent down, picked something up, and tugged at Dan’s sleeve.

“I think you dropped this, sir,” the woman said, handing him a small slip of paper.

Confused, he glanced at the free coffee coupon and without thinking passed it on to the clerk.

The old man looked up in surprise when the total came within his means. He paid the bill, accepted his change, picked up the bag and walked out of the store.

Dan smiled at the woman as she came through the exit doors into the cool, bright sunshine.

“Why did you do that for me?” Dan asked as he patted the head of the squirming toddler strapped securely in the front of her shopping cart. “You could have used that coupon for your own family.”

“God has always given us enough and a little bit extra,” she replied. “I like to share the extra.”

With eyes brimming with tears, Dan reached for her hand, squeezing it tightly.

“God bless you,” he said. “Have a very merry Christmas.”

As Dan walked back to his apartment, he didn’t feel quite as cold as before. He felt the warm sunshine on his back and a warmth radiate from within.

Impulsively, he stopped at the first-floor apartment and knocked on his neighbor’s door. He waited patiently while Harry opened the multiple latches.

Smiling into Harry’s puzzled face, Dan said, “Why don’t you come up for a cup of coffee?”   

Thursday, December 12, 2013

'Happiness is reflective, like the light of heaven'

Barely awake, I crawl out of bed. It is two weeks before Christmas, and I need to start the day early.

Dressed in my warmest clothes and boots, I climb into the frigid car and notice that the temperature gauge reads 21 degrees. Shiver...

Across the street, the freshwater pond reflects the blue sky, and the woods wear their winter coat of white.

Cranking up the heater, I head to the highway on route to the dentist’s office a half-hour away.

Once I stop shaking, I begin to see the winter wonderland around me.

Dusted with snow, the houses and evergreens sparkle in the early morning sunshine, just like the images on the Christmas cards I have yet to write. This is quintessential New England at its best, something we often take for granted when temperatures plummet.

Sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, I turn on my Nook and begin typing in my journal, making a list of Christmas things to do:

The tree that we bought Sunday is waiting in the living room, the decorations still tucked in bins lining the garage walls.

Boxes of cards sit on my desk, alongside the Christmas stamps.

I have a houseful of guests coming for Christmas dinner, and I don’t even know what’s on the menu.

After my appointment, I slip into a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. Munching on a muffin and sipping tea, I pull out the Nook again; and this time I decide to list my accomplishments this season, rather than my shortcomings.

I attended the beautiful Holy Day Mass of the Immaculate Conception on Monday night, and a gift I bought lies under the Giving Tree for a young boy I have never met.

I performed in three Christmas concerts at two nursing homes and at a church as a member of a volunteer 30-piece concert band.

Nineteen jars of my homemade grape jelly, adorned with crimped red-and-green Christmas fabric, line the top of my pigeon-hole desk…

Noticing the people sitting nearby, I hear their excited chatter about their own Christmas preparations.  

“I feel the influence of the season beaming into my soul from the happy looks of those around me,” wrote Washington Irving. “Surely happiness is reflective, like the light of heaven; and every countenance bright with smiles, and glowing with innocent enjoyment, is a mirror transmitting to others the rays of a supreme and everlasting benevolence …”

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Winter Eden

It’s early December, and Christmas looms large on the horizon. The weather is cold and brisk as it should be, and snow is predicted by week’s end.

One can imagine nineteenth-century poet and preacher Ralph Waldo Emerson heading to his New England home in Concord, just about 70 miles north of here, in the lines of “The Snow-Storm”:

“Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, / Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields, / Seems nowhere to alight:  the whited air / Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven, / And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.”

Emerson served nearby in New Bedford as interim minister of Unitarian Memorial Church. Yet he would resign from ministry just six years after his ordination.

“I have sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry,” he wrote in his journal.

Following Emerson’s lead in “Nature” – “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society” – I, too, yearn for open natural spaces on this gray, overcast day, finding refuge on this deserted beach near our summer house.

Today, the usual pulsing Sakonnet is pond-like, bearing ripples instead of waves. Along the shoreline, the sea grass is an unappealing brown color, withered by wind and frost.

Other than a few seagulls roosting on boat ramp pilings, I am alone on this horseshoe-shaped stretch of coarse sand, seaweed and surf-driven rocks.

I strain to listen to wind or wave, but my footfalls are the only sound.

For the moment I forget about the long list of home and work obligations, as well as Christmas things to do. Instead, I downshift and take stock, tapping into the Source of the panorama before me.   

Suddenly, the sun comes out and the grayish sky and sea turn blue, highlighting the Creator’s handiwork.

Then I hear the beat of Emerson’s verses in “Terminus”:

“As the bird trims her to the gale, / I trim myself to the storm of time, / I man the rudder, reef the sail, / Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime: / ‘Lowly faithful, banish fear, / Right onward drive, unharmed; / The port, well worth the cruise, is near, / And every wave is charmed.”