Archive for December, 2015

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Letting Go

December 29, 2015

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I carefully glued the gold-rimmed glass wing back onto one of the eagles that festooned the old serving dish. This is not the first time I have repaired it, but still it is important that I do so. It is the kind of item one might find in a second-hand store or rummage sale, something kept for years by its owner and later lovingly preserved by the family as a keepsake. Eventually, however, the time comes to let it go, and it finds itself in the hands of strangers.

But that is not the case with this one; not yet, at least.

This particular serving dish has also been lovingly kept, for it once belonged to the matriarch of my wife’s family, her grandmother. It is one of the few things that remain of her other than a few photos and the memories. The memories are clearly more important, but somehow we invest some part of the person in the cherished object, and it becomes hallowed. And that makes it hard to let go.

Many such things can be found in our house, small remnants of someone dear to us. Most are not functional or even displayed. However, just possessing them somehow retains a connection to that past existence.

There are the tools that belonged to my father, old wrenches, rusty saws, hammers with split handles, a rake with bent and broken tines. Though I have tools of my own, I can’t bring myself to part with these relics.

There is the sewing box of my mother, still filled with buttons of assorted sizes, shapes, and colors and the needles, thread, and thimbles with which to reattach them to long-gone apparel.

There are a few pieces of handiwork made by my nephew — a photo he took of High Point of which he was so proud, a now-faded layered sand painting in a cylindrical glass jar.

There is the heavy old black cast iron pan of my mother-in-law, well-worn from her many years as master of her kitchen, the diamond ring she bought at an auction in Atlantic City after she stepped into the auction hall just to get out of the heat.

And the serving dish with the eagles, broken wing now repaired.

As difficult as it is to let go of these things we hold onto, it is even more difficult to let go of that which is more abstract — the idea of who we were as age forces us to lose those transient qualities and abilities we once possessed, the very presence of others who have left the impermanence of this existence.

I have been thinking about this problem of letting go for several reasons. It is the closing of the year, this month in which the year itself meets its end. December can be for many a month of both joyful celebration as well as bittersweet nostalgia. It is the month that too many people special to me have departed this life: my young nephew, my mother, my wife’s mother. It is a time of nostalgia, a time of longing for what once was but is no more.

And though this is a reality we know we must accept, we are not immune to this ache that arrives unannounced and shrouds our hearts. So we hold on to what we can and grieve for the loss of what we can’t. We eventually let go little by little as time goes by, and perhaps that is the only way in which we finally make our peace.

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Christmas Tree Memories

December 17, 2015
"It should be," muses my friend, "twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can't steal the star."

“It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.”

For many years when I was still teaching, as Christmas season approached I would present Truman Capote’s wonderful story “A Christmas Memory” to my classes. It is funny and sad and beautiful, weaving the themes of friendship, memory, and Christmas so magically together. We would spend time talking and then writing about how certain memories are triggered by a sight or sound or smell of the season as it was for Buddy in the story, his friend each year exclaiming, “It’s fruitcake season!” I know this well, for when December rolls around and it is time to get the traditional evergreen Christmas tree, a flood of these memories washes over me, plunging me into a period of nostalgia lasting well past New Years.

When we were young, my sister and I would go to bed on Christmas Eve filled with all of the expectations of a Norman Rockwell American childhood. Cookies and milk had been left for Santa on a lolly pole in the rumpus room and empty stockings hung on the fake fireplace our father had built. Upon awakening, we would dash downstairs to discover the cookies all eaten (and even a bit of beard hair somehow caught under the plate in Santa’s haste to complete his route), the stockings stuffed, and a Christmas tree all lit up and decorated complete with presents below. We assumed, I suppose, that Santa lugged our tree in along with the toys. It was only later that the normal process of parental acquisition became clear, and my sister and I eventually eased our way into our roles in the operation.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

One year we had a real Charlie Brown kind of tree experience. Our father often worked a second job as a part-time seasonal janitor to earn extra money for the holidays. Things were tough in those days, so he had gotten our tree for free from the school he had been cleaning. It had graced that happy classroom for weeks but was now discarded since winter break had arrived. He brought the tree home Christmas Eve, and it was decorated as usual. However, when we ran down Christmas morning to revel in our usual festive glory, every last needle on the tree had dropped off and lay in a pile on top of our gifts. Apparently the cumulative effect of the hot school classroom had been too much for the poor thing, and the timing was such that the mass shedding took place in our living room at the most inopportune moment.

When we were a bit older, my sister and I got to participate in the decorating. In those days, most of the decorations were made of glass and were rather delicate, so my parents would put those on after stringing the lights, no small feat back in the good old days of series wiring (one goes out, they all go out). Our main job was to put on the tinsel. For those modern souls who may not know what tinsel is, it’s strands of very fine aluminum foil made to resemble glistening icicles. It came in flat boxes, all stretched out in neat rows, ready to become the final touch on somebody’s Christmas tree.

My sister, who is two years older than I, thought that she, in the absence of my parents, was the boss, a condition shared by most older siblings. I usually accepted her self-proclaimed rule, partly because I was lost in my own world of imagination and partly because she could (and would) beat the snot out of me.
However, in this instance, there was more to it; there was a major clash of philosophies. I was of the opinion that tinsel should be painstakingly placed strand by strand on carefully selected branches. My sister, on the other hand, thought that the haphazard flinging of clumps of tinsel was the best (and fastest–she apparently had other things to do) approach. It may seem like a minor conflict, but I was stubborn despite my age, and a battle of words would always escalate into pushes and shoves and finally the inevitable “MOMMM!!!” from whomever was getting the worst of it at the moment (usually me). Then came the ominous threat of being accused as the one to have ruined everyone’s Christmas.

My parents tried various methods to settle the dispute. One year they had us each decorate our own half of the tree. The result was a disaster that looked like a hurricane had struck just one side (guess whose). Another time they forced us to use each other’s method (one of those psychology-induced “learning experiences,” I suppose); that lasted about three minutes before turning into a tinsel-throwing brawl. Finally they imposed an every-other-year system on us. This worked during the decorating itself, but it didn’t prevent the continuous stream of whiney complaints and negative comments about the other’s “masterpiece” on alternate years.

Eventually the problem solved itself. My sister became involved in other activities (boys) and was content to leave the decorating to me. I actually kind of missed the battles we’d had, though I was glad to not have to look at Christmas trees buried in a disorganized avalanche of silver.

So as I put the tree in its stand each year and smell the scent of pine filling the room along with the sound of seasonal music, my thoughts inevitably drift back to those good old days. I remember the unbridled joys of childhood tearing open the wrapping paper in our pajamas as we sat on the floor around the glittering centerpiece we had helped create. As I decorate, I think of my big sister and the raging tinsel wars we had. Though I no longer use tinsel, most of the decorations I do use are filled with memories as well: some of the old glass beauties I had saved from my childhood, various humorous ones received from students through my years of teaching, the gingerbread hands of my niece Emma from when she was a tot, the handmade paper and clay creations from my nephew Luke. I linger during the process, pausing often to reflect and sigh, savoring each image as it wafts up from the depths of my past. And though I realize Christmas can never be the same as it once was, this ability to preserve and relive it in memory has become perhaps the most precious gift of all.

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