Archive for December, 2013

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Christmas With Mary

December 22, 2013

The celebration of Christmas in my life is divided into two distinct periods. The first is the Christmas of my childhood with my mother, father, and sister. These were the Christmases of leaving Santa Claus milk and cookies by the lolly pole and quarrels over decorating the tree and the stockings hung by the fake fireplace my father had built and the wild pleasure of new toys. These Christmases, now preserved in fading photos, ended when my sister and I became preoccupied teens with interests beyond our own home.

Christmas in the rumpus room

our rumpus room Christmas

The second is the Christmas at Mary’s house. Mary, my wonderful mother-in-law, the matriarch of the family and the impresario of the all-day Christmas dinner. These were the Christmases of all the Uncles stopping by after church for a glass of Jezynowka Blackberry Flavored Brandy or a shot of something stronger, my mom and dad arriving later to join in celebration with the loving and boisterous family I had married into. The Christmases of my niece Emma, the little princess and star of the show in her festive velvet Laura Ashley dress opening presents on the living room floor and mugging for the ever-present camera, a few years later joined by her brother Luke, always with a frisky Schnauzer — first Teddy and later Rocky — scurrying around amidst the mountains of wrapping paper. The Christmases of Uncle Sammy sitting at the end of the table telling his colorful stories that prompted the birth of the “paratrooper alert” by Paula to signal the need to edit a bit for her children’s sake.

The joy of Christmas at grandma Mary's

The joy of Christmas at grandma Mary’s

These are the Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much and remember so well, sitting around that oval table in the dining room surrounded by family photos and Mary’s Hummel collection, hearing the bustle of cooking coming from the small kitchen with Mary emphatically directing the operation. And the food — oh, the food! First the antipasto, the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive steaming platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

Some of us would retreat to the breezeway between courses to digest and watch a few segments of A Christmas Story. Uncle Sammy would plop himself into the well-cushioned arm-chair and soon nod off as Emma, Luke, and I laughed at Ralphy’s dilemmas even though we’d seen them countless times before. We’d be called back to the table as the ham and sweet potato and vegetables and salad made their appearance, belts loosened to accommodate the abundance. The glorious day of stuffing ourselves came to a conclusion with coffee, pignoli cookies, and Mary’s homemade cheesecake. It would take until New Years to fully recover.

Over the years, these Christmases suffered losses, first my father, then my mom, and then Uncle Sammy, but the tradition carried on. The past few years, because of Mary’s failing health, the job of preparation and cooking had to be taken over by my father-in-law Tony and Bernadette and Paula, but they performed admirably, and Mary sat there in her customary spot, agreeing with a smile that they had indeed done a good job on the lasagna, although never quite as good as hers. Last year we moved Christmas to Paula’s house for the sake of logistics, but Mary still enjoyed the evening surrounded by good food and loving family.

2010, our last Christmas with Mary.

2012, our last Christmas with Mary.

This will be the first Christmas without Mary. We will convene again at Paula’s, and I’m sure the stories of our Christmases past will be told with much laughter as well as a few tears. It will not be the same, though, Mary’s familiar spot now empty, her smiling approval of the stuffed mushrooms and lasagna missing. But the gift of all of Mary’s Christmases shall remain with us, kept alive in memory and story alike, and each year as the family gathers once again, Mary’s presence will be felt, and her indomitable spirit will live on as we celebrate Christmas together.

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The Prayer of Presence

December 17, 2013

The nurses came from work in Manhattan still dressed in their uniform greens to be there. The teachers came after a day in the classroom, papers still to be graded and suppers with loved ones forgone. Longtime college friends came from north Jersey and Brooklyn and Connecticut, braving the horrendous rush hour traffic. They came to say words of comfort, to pay their respects for the death of Mary, a wife and mother and grandmother who was not theirs. They did not have to come. But they did.

I used to wonder about the value of the wake, the strange gathering of people to view the body of the departed. It seemed at one time to me to be a cultural relic, part of a ritual now somehow out of place in the modern world. It was, after all, not really the person, just the shell that once contained them.

However, I’ve come to realize that it is not so much about the deceased but rather about those who are left behind. Sister James gave my thoughts a shape in words that evening, that everyone’s presence was a prayer.

It matters not what is said, what formalities of culture or religion are observed. What matters is presence. A look. A touch. A smile. These are the prayers that matter, the prayers that go beyond what is learned to the realm of the heart where things are felt.

I can not find adequate words to thank those who offered this most special of prayers.  But I trust that those who offered their prayer of presence know how special, how comforting, how moving it is to those who have suffered a loss. These thanks too are a matter of the heart, and my heart is full.

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Parting

December 8, 2013
Mary, whose smile will be missed.

Mary, whose smile will be missed.

How do you say goodbye? How do you let go of a part of your past that is so integrally a part of yourself? How can you imagine a future that is missing a piece so familiar and precious?

There are no easy answers. Although death is an inescapable element of the human condition, it is profoundly jarring. The balance of fond memory and sense of loss is a delicate one. The swirling flood of emotion surrounding the inevitable often makes it impossible to achieve that balance.

I think now of my father, how his final torturous years came to an end in his bed at my childhood home. I was called that afternoon from my classroom so I could be there. I had a difficult time saying goodbye. My wife Bernadette knelt by his head as he struggled for breath, gently telling him that we were all there and that we loved him and it was okay to let go.

I think of my mother, how her journey came to such a sudden and unexpected close. I felt frozen and helpless as she lay there, unresponsive in the hospital bed, shattered by the impact of that car, and again it was Bernadette who helped usher her passage with strength and grace.

Yesterday it was Mary’s time.

Mary was my mother-in-law, Bernadette’s mom, the matriarch of the family. Her long descent through Alzheimer’s drew to its conclusion in her home, family gathered around. The sound of the oxygen machine mingled with that of sobs, soft farewells, final expressions of love. Her husband Tony sat by her side gently stroking her hand. Earlier, as cousins and nephews and in-laws gathered, timeless funny stories were retold by Bernadette’s brother, allowing laughter to break the somber mood. Bernadette, ever the caring nurse, tried her best to remain strong, but this parting touched something deep within her. When the moment arrived, soft music played and prayers were murmured and tears fell, and then Mary was gone.

There are many stories to be told of Mary, stories of her life, of her legendary Christmas dinners, of the family vacations together, of the ordinary moments that remain in our memories. But for now there is only the struggle with goodbye. Death, though sometimes a welcome end to suffering, closes a door never to be opened again, and that is a difficult reality to accept.

How do you say goodbye? In whatever way you can, with whatever strength you can muster. But most importantly, with love in your heart.

Goodbye, Mary. You were loved, and you will be remembered.