Christmas stories

Laughter, tears and mincemeat

Christmas is wonderful. Christmas is terrible. Christmas is a non-stop over-the-top buy-a-thon. Christmas is quiet moments and belly laughs with friends, and rapprochement with family members who don't normally speak. Christmas is crying children, forgotten batteries and "The Little Drummer Boy" for the 500th time. Christmas is the best time of year. Christmas is the worst time of year. Most especially, Christmas is memories, memories from our past and those made in front of our eyes, moment by moment. The memory of my mother cooking her mincemeat is Christmas in a single fragrant snapshot for me. The warm, spicy smell of it even half a decade later brings her to life again and I see her as she stirs and samples the bubbling mixture. I still make it myself, and it doesn't matter that no one else likes it (except for my 93 year-old father-in-law)-it's my mincemeat memory and I'll recreate it if I want to.

Every family has their own Christmas memory stories. Sometimes they aren't even our own memories, but feel like it because they have been shared so often. Like this one involving my parents..

The flying Christmas tree:

Jeanne and Stan are newlyweds in the 1950s, living in a little house in Reading. This is their first Christmas together, and my mother wants the house to be beautiful, and the tree perfect. As if I were there, I can hear the muttering and swearing as Stan struggles to get the large tree he picked out to stay upright in its too-small stand. Success at last, and now the ornaments are arranged, the lights painstakingly hung-those big chunky ones with the multi-color bulbs. My mother beams.

Suddenly-crash! The entire tree goes over. That's IT! In a fury, Stan opens the front door, picks up the tree, and heaves it out. There is much breaking of ornaments and a lot of crying by my mother. Chastened, my father fetches the tree inside, and round two commences. Heaven help us, the tree falls again. Out it goes, again. More crying, more swearing, and the tree, knowing that it cannot test my father any further, finally remains upright. Not exactly a silent night...

I was never certain how many ornaments and strings of lights were broken during the tree's multiple trips out to the front lawn, but my mother always told this story doubled up with laughter. We would laugh ourselves silly too as she described the tree sailing through the air, shedding needles and tinsel everywhere. I don't think I realized it at the time, but story really epitomized my parents' personalities: my father, the big picture guy with scant patience for details, my mother, patient, good humored and amazingly forgiving.

Rudolph, we hardly knew ye:

Now anyone can have a gargantuan Christmas display thanks to Home Depot, but in the old days there were only lights and the occasional plastic Frosty or Santa. One day, however, my father came home with a nearly life-sized white plaster reindeer. He unveiled it with the same air of excitement as Darren McGavin in "A Christmas Story" when he breathlessly pulls the leg lamp out of its wrappings. We kids went nuts when we saw it. With the help of some black electrical tape, Stan secured a single red bulb on the creature's nose and the deer became RUDOLPH. He stood proudly on our front lawn in North Reading, lit by a single spotlight. Our reindeer was the only one of his kind in town, and when the December light faded cars would drive by and pause to drink in his glory.

Rudolph hung in there for many years. He was joined by a second deer when we moved to North Andover, as well as a sleigh and a giant stuffed Santa. However one morning we woke up to find Rudolph missing, just completely gone except for his removable antlers. And despite the best efforts of North Andover's finest, and a front-page story in the Lawence Eagle Tribune (with a picture of my sister holding the antlers, looking mournful), he stayed missing.

My father never completely got over it, but I figured life went on, even when beloved plaster Christmas icons were stolen. I'd like to think that whoever took Rudolph got as much pleasure out of him as we did, but it was probably just some punk kids who took him and threw him in the woods. I prefer to remember Rudolph in his first incarnation when he seemed so magical to me-standing alone in front of the house I grew up in, his front foot eternally prancing, his red lightbulb nose shining out into the darkness.

Some Christmas memories are warm and filling, like a big piece of mincemeat pie. Some involve tears and raised voices and broken things. But time and distance soften the jagged edges and, like Christmas lights glimpsed through falling snowflakes, give even the difficult memories a gentler glow.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

One last gift

December, 2019

My husband and my mother bought me a Christmas present together this year, and that wouldn't be strange except my mom passed away in 2001.

It's not really surprising that Jeanne got me a present from beyond the grave because she loved three things with an equal fervor—her family, Christmas, and buying said family Christmas gifts. If anyone could pull off giving a present 20 years after they've passed on, it would be her.

It was wonderful when I was little. I would wake up on Christmas morning to the most extravagant spread of toys, books and clothes imaginable. She (and Santa) bought my sister and I everything we asked for and plenty that we hadn't. But as I got older it began to feel like too much; too much for me, and too much for my kids when they came along.

Every year in November I would have "the talk" with her, thanking her for her generosity and asking her to please, please cut back this year. Every year she would agree. And every year there was the same enormous number of gifts under the tree. To her, Christmas wasn't Christmas without a living room absolutely filled to the brim with presents.

I honestly think she's been plotting and planning for the last 20 years about how to give me one last gift. This year she saw her chance when my sweet husband Davis asked me to look for a little something for my Christmas present, a piece of jewelry perhaps. He is a smart man who knows that gifts of jewelry for wives work out the best when wives do the shopping.

So, a wife on a happy mission, I went looking for a modest necklace of some kind. But when I happened to glance in the ring case at the wonderfully eclectic Market Square Jewelers in Newburyport, I saw a sapphire of a blue so beautiful, so clear and deep, that it took my breath away. Staffer Gail Hudson told me that the best Sri Lankan sapphires, like this one, are  the color of the evening sky right after the sun has set. I couldn't stop marveling at it.

But it wasn't a little something. It was a big something, and it cost more than I was going to let David spend on a Christmas present, even if he (wonderful husband that he is) said he wanted to. And that's when Jeanne saw her opportunity and sprang. Suddenly there she was, out of nowhere, whispering in my ear.

"You know they buy jewelry here as well as sell it," she murmured (she seemed to know a lot about the place). "What about trading in that old charm necklace of mine, the one that's been gathering dust in your jewelry box since I've been gone?"

I was surprised that my deceased mother was suddenly chatting me up, but I knew the piece she was talking about. It was a bulky chain with a number of gold charms on it which she never wore because it was too heavy. There was a biplane charm because my father had been a pilot, a sailfish, a globe, a set of keys, and an old-fashioned ski and boot, among others.

I had long ago taken from it the two charms that I loved and wear as pendants--a little medallion from an Italian cruise ship that my parents sailed on and a tiny gold box holding a dollar bill folded into a cube that fascinated me as a kid.

Would I be a bad daughter if I sold the others? They were special because they had belonged to her, but they had sat unworn for nearly two decades.

Jeanne piped up again right on cue. "Honey, you know I never liked that old thing!  It looked terrible. Now get my coat and let's go, before someone else buys your ring!"

So mom got her way about Christmas again. I took the necklace along with a few other old pieces and went back to Market Square Jewelers, where Gail meticulously assessed each one. We worked out the numbers and I bought the ring. My mother's charms went a long way toward defraying the cost, bringing it down close to the price of the "little something" I was originally looking for.

I always knew my mother would give me the moon if she could because she loved me that much. Well now, along with my husband, she's given me a little piece of the sky. And boy, is she smug about it.

Merry Christmas, mom—you sly devil, you. 

Making peace with my (enormous) Christmas tree

The tree towers over everything. The width of its trunk is nearly impossible to measure. The top is almost out of sight. Tales are told of this giant and people come to gaze in awe.

I'm talking about my Christmas tree.

The huge tree is my husband David's favorite thing. He loves hunting for it, decorating it, and hearing the gasps of amazement when people see it. He loves it because he loves a challenge, and an 18-foot Christmas tree is a challenge worthy of his talents.

I have no idea what it would be like to have a tree that fits through the front door without a struggle, and is easily tossed out after Christmas. Taking our tree down when the holidays are over requires two vacuums, a wheelbarrow, and power tools. David's New Year's Day tradition consists of watching football and dismantling the tree with a chainsaw while setting off all the smoke detectors.

Where does one find a tree this big, you ask? In the farthest corner of the Christmas tree farm, because dragging it to the checkout is part of the challenge. It's the tree that's been growing for years, the one that no one wants because it's too big. Cutting it down leaves my athletic husband winded. Lifting it onto the car is an event in the "The World's Strongest Man" competition.

A tree like this requires the largest possible stand bolted to a huge piece of plywood. Keeping it steady while wrestling it into the stand involves great struggle, potential injury, and language not suitable for children's ears.

Even when the tree is finally upright, victory remains elusive. The stand's screws aren't strong enough to hold the monster steady, so David uses pieces of wood jammed in next to the trunk to shim it. And, gravity being what it is, one more level of support is needed­-a rope from the very top attached to a (festive) block of concrete on the second floor.

Phew. But when all the grueling set-up is done and the tree is standing tall with lights and ornaments shimmering, it is spectacular.

And to my shame, I was a killjoy about the tree for a long time.

The difficulty. The mess. The scratched arms. The avalanche of Rubbermaid containers spewing Christmas stuff everywhere. I'm pretty even-tempered but the giant Sequoia in my living room always brought out the grumpy in me. My mother's nightmare was her orderly house "getting away from her," and I inherited that fear.

I complained about the selection of the tree ("Oh my god, not that one, it's too biggg"), the struggle up the back stairs ("I'm never doing this again! Never!") and the installation ("ARRGGHHHH!"). So Christmas tree day was miserable instead of fun and it was my fault.

A couple years ago I realized that I was acting like the Grinch. Why was I being a sourpuss about something that gave the love of my life such pleasure? So getting the tree was hard. Big deal. So the living room got messy. Who cared? None of that mattered compared to the joy my husband got from the whole process.

So like the Grinch, I changed. I'm not sure if my heart grew three sizes like his did, but it's definitely bigger. Several years ago we cut a tree on our own property (which is a former Christmas tree farm. Coincidence? Or something more?) and I enjoyed doing it. Last year the family went tree-hunting and I stayed home baking cookies-a win for everybody.

I vow to continue my truce with the giant Christmas tree because the tree makes my husband happy. And isn't making the people we love happy what Christmas is all about?

Now who wants to come see our tree this year? It's an absolute beauty, and boy, is it big.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

Happy New Year-

now make your bed

I made my bed this morning.

I made it yesterday too, as well as the day before that. I made it every day last week, last month, last year. Anytime you see me, you can assume that my bed is made. Call me a crazed, bed-making zealot, I don't care. As far an I'm concerned, an unmade bed after 8 or 9 in the morning is the first step to the kind of slovenliness that will eventually have me wearing a stained housecoat, sporting curlers, and being able to talk knowledgably about which celebrity was on "Harry" that day.

I believe I need to give my mother much of the credit for this. My sister and I were supposed to make our beds and we generally did, but I think my true bed-making inspiration came more from the sight of my mother putting HER bed in order every day; tucking the sheets, fluffing the blankets, arranging the (massive) spread, ordering the (many) pillows. I don't believe there was ever a day when my mother's bed wasn't made, or when her room was a clothes-strewn mess. Her bedroom was a always a soothing, ordered place, and even the sizable stacks of magazines that my father kept on his side of the room were tidy and organized (although she would have much preferred that they weren't there, but that's marriage for you). My mother never yelled at me to make my bed every day, she just showed me what life was like when you did.

I am not militaristic about how I make my bed. I don't do hospital corners. I can't bounce a quarter off the sheets. I don't even use a spread; instead I have a blue cotton blanket, white sheets, white and blue pillowcases, a pretty patterned fleece throw at the end of the bed, and blue, white and grey throw pillows. The colors are muted and the textures are soft.

When I put my bed in order I am accomplishing my first task of the day. Pull back the top sheet, smooth the bottom one on one side, then the other. Pull the top sheet back up and fold it over the now wrinkle-free blanket so that it looks nice, shake out the pillows and fluff them so they stand up and then order the throw pillows (only three). Arrange the fleece over the bottom of the bed, like the cherry on top of a sundae and that's it, I'm done.

How long did it take me? Less than five minutes certainly, basically no time at all. It's pleasant and meditative, and never feels like work. But somehow it means everything to my day. It's only 8'o clock in the morning and I have already accomplished something that's important to me (after making coffee, of course but that's akin to breathing, ie, I would die without it, so there's no actual choice).

My husband knows that I much prefer to make the bed by myself, but sometimes he pretends to help just to tease me. Yelling "NOOOOO" loudly until he leaves usually works, but Toast the cat is another matter. She thinks that making the bed is an invitation to play, and not the deathly serious matter that it is. She dives under the covers and pounces on the blankets until I am forced to remove her bodily, ignoring her squalling.

I had no idea other people felt this way until a few years ago, when former Navy Admiral William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas system, gave a commencement speech in 2014 in which he extolled the virtues of the made bed. "If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed," he told the graduates. "It will give you a small sense of pride and encourage you to do another task, and another...Making your bed will also reinforce the face that little things in life matter....And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that's made...And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better."

The speech became a social media sensation and McRaven went on to incorporate it into a book called "Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...and Maybe the World." A SEAL for 37 years and formerly commander of U.S. Special Operations, this man appears to know a thing or two about Getting Stuff Done. So if he believes in the value of fluffing blankets and tucking sheets, that's good enough for me.

Reading the comments from others as I was researching this column was eye-opening. Many people feel exactly as Admiral McRaven and I do, but naturally, others do not. Making the bed for some people was associated with unpleasantly rigid parenting or other difficult issues, and they find their freedom in NOT making their bed. I'm happy for those who reclaim peace of mind at any age, but I feel a little sad that they can't take joy from climbing into a smooth and ordered bed each night.

Now excuse me, it's 8 a.m. I need to go change the world.

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport