December 21, 2010

A Patchwork of Christmas Memories

This morning when I opened my eyes, before I rose from bed, lifted our tiny dog onto the floor and padded my way to the coffeemaker... a bevy of Christmas memories fell from my mind like slick playing cards tossed across a table. I made the coffee, grabbed a Christmas cookie, and made a list of my top Christmas memories...

1. I do not remember the Christmas day I received a red tractor, but I do remember the tractor and riding it up and down our driveway in Canfield, Ohio (likely the following summer). I guess somewhere between Christmas and the following June, I reached the age where memories were consciously imprinted in my mind! I loved that tractor and decades later saw one just like it in an antique store in Florida...with the price tag of $325.

2. The Christmas I received a toy swimming pool that was chewed on by our Boxer, Ringy, stands out as "first bad Christmas memory." But look at this wonderful dollhouse!
3. Other memorable childhood Christmas presents: a black lacquered music box complete with dancing ballerina. Something in it broke, but was fixed by my cousin's husband. I thought he was great, until years later when I learned the reason for their divorce: he had beaten my cousin and she'd lost her unborn baby. I always think of that when I remember that music box: not everything is as beautiful as it might seem. Dancing was a big part of my childhood, and later, when I read "I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can" I learned that ballet was not always as beautiful as it seems either. I guess you could say, this is all part of the transition from childhood to adulthood; understanding the layers that weave through what we see.

Here is a photo of me with the '60s favorite (and '70s, '80s, and '90s) Barbie and Ken. It was at this time of my life that dance predominated.

Another favorite childhood gift also involved a music box. It was earlier than the jewelry box, because I was a young girl, probably 8 or 9, and my father bought me a chime that attached to my bedroom door. Every time the door was opened, music would play. I loved that gift!

4. In my early teens I spent a Christmas in a horribly ancient wing of South Side Hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. (Note: I mistakenly ID the hospital in my post, but have corrected it.) The hospital was packed and though I was there to have a tumor removed from my neck, I had to be placed in a room near the psychiatric patients and one of them yelled "Jannie, Jannie" all day long, which really freaked this 14 year old out. I remember looking out the 19th century window and feeling like a waif (I was waif-like then) imprisoned in some high tower just longing for Christmas. My sister, Joan, rescued me, however, when she and a friend showed up with a small Christmas tree for my room. (This was a private room, and very small.) I still remember her coming in the door with that tree. Yeah!

I did get to go home for a few hours on Christmas Day, but, tubes in the side of my neck, there are no photos of me that Christmas, and traipsing back to the hospital did not make for a happy teen. This was before children's floors in hospitals had cheerful murals, video games, and nurses with interesting smocks. No Robin Williams with a red nose on the floor, just a guy yelling "Jannie" all day long...

5. My father always took me with him to pick out my mother's present. He gave her a Goebel Christmas plate each year and usually something else as well. So, this required a trip to the jewelry store, and this made an impression on me as a young girl. I remember the Christmas I was 17. We shopped in Sharon, Pennsylvania, and I remember standing on the street corner with my father and big huge snowflakes were falling. Everything seemed like a Christmas scene from a pretty card, and I loved these annual shopping trips with my dad. (All of those blue plates of my mother's now hang above the cupboards in our kitchen here in Athens.)

Memories of shopping with Dad were paired with searching for the perfect Christmas tree and in 1977, we were in a new home with a 16-foot cathedral ceiling. Dad and I went out to a tree farm and I located the perfect tree. It was about 7 feet tall and my dad did not say: "It's too big. It's too expensive. It won't fit in the trunk of the car." Nope. He said, "Yes. Let's get it." And as I watched the tree salesmen wrestle it into the trunk of my father's car, using lots of rope and the top and trunk extending from each side, I gave thanks for a father who knew the power of "yes."

6. A few years later, I was in my second year of college and was given my first ever box of flowers from a boy...a big box of white carnations was delivered to my parents house at Christmas and I thought it was just wonderful! Favorite presents at this time: a hand mixer and a Texas Instruments calculator. Throw in a few books and I must say nothing much has changed in the decades since, just the snazziness of the appliances.

7. Then, the next year, the death of my first cousin, Ruth Ann, who died after giving birth to her second child. A very sad Christmas. As were the next few years with the loss of my grandmother (whose birthday was in Dec.) and the murder of my first cousin Donnie, who was a wonderful, artistic, young man in his twenties who just happened to get off a bus and walk past a business in Cleveland that was in the process of being robbed. The robbers came out of the store and shot the witness five times in the head. My sweet childhood friend's body, covered with a sheet, was shown on the news that night, another statistic of urban violence.

8. In college I dated a young man who was Roman Catholic. He gave me a beautiful gold cross necklace for Christmas. His family was quite upset because it was not a crucifix. This was my first experience with the divisiveness of Christmas...

9. My first Christmas as a mother, I traveled from Florida to Ohio with baby Bryce. It was my father's first time seeing his first grandchild and, as my parents had lost an infant son, a time of comfort for them too.

10. Two years later, back to Ohio for Christmas with another son in tow, for Jesse was born and now 6 months old. I remember traveling on the plane with a 6 month old and a 2 year old. The seats seemed bigger back then... This would have been just before real concerns were surfacing about Bryce's development, so this was what I think of as a rather "innocent" time as a mother. I hadn't faced the big issues yet, though my body must have known something was up. I arrived at my parents' house with an illness that would last almost a year, and coincide with a crisis in my marriage and the labeling of my eldest son as "handicapped." My body, perhaps, knew what I did not...

When the boys were a little older, we traveled to Ohio again at Christmas time, and they were old enough now to really enjoy the snow. My parents bought them matching blue outfits and my sister took them for rides on her snowmobile. This was their first memorable experience with snow.

11. There were several Christmas firsts:

1980s: The first time I saw the Christmas Boat Parade in Sarasota, Florida, and learned you don't need snow to have a Merry Christmas.

1990: The first holiday after my divorce, when shared custody was in place and I woke up Christmas morning to an empty house, since I would not see my boys until noon that day. I remember this very clearly. But the holidays in succeeding years settled in with new traditions and the boys enjoyed having Christmas at three places, Dad's, Mom's, and Grandma's.

1998 and 1999: Through difficult circumstances, Bryce was not able to be with us at home these two Christmases. I was happy in 1999 to be back in Ohio near my sister, Joan, but these were bittersweet holidays. I wish I'd known that better holidays were just around the bend....

The Christmas of 2001, when my youngest son, Jesse, returned home for the holidays after having graduated high school and moved to CT. Bryce was also with us. We had a beautiful tree and it was a fun holiday, giving thanks for our good luck on 9/11, when Bryce, Joan, and I were in NYC.

2007: Mark's and my first Christmas as a married couple. Bryce and Jesse joined us, as did Mark's dad and my sister, Joan. What a great day, as we celebrated so many blessings, especially the blessing of being together. Mark gave me a beautiful gold watch, which I treasure. It was also the only time Mark's dad has been able to visit our home, so it was a very special time in our memory.

2008: Our first Christmas in our home in Athens, Ohio. Finally settled in a place that feels like "home"... with both boys visiting and Joan living nearby (here she is Christmas 2008, with our friend David Pike) it was a wonderful holiday.

12. My mother makes Swedish Tea Wreaths every year at Christmas (we are not Swedish, but that didn't seem to matter...). These are given to neighbors and enjoyed by our family on Christmas morning. When I moved to Ohio, I asked Mom for the recipe and began the tradition of making these same deliciously sweet morning breads for my little family.

I've left out other Christmas memories, happy and bittersweet, because of the limitations of a blog post (it's not a book, as I have to remind myself!). I guess the point of all of this is the comfort that comes when one is ... ahem ... middle-aged and has many years to remember, and sees how events and circumstances weave together, how all those different moments, the good the bad the wonderful, make up a real life, a rich life, a blessed life.

When I was a girl it was my happy job to decorate the tree. I loved doing it and afterward, when it would be evening, and the lights would all be lit (the big old style bulbs that got hot!), I would lie on my back in front of the tree, feet toes-up under the lower boughs, arms behind my head, staring at the beautiful lights and ornaments, taking in the smell of pine. I believed just about anything was possible in the face of such easily created beauty. I still do.

(You can see photos of my favorite ornaments at this Facebook album.)

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Janice Phelps Williams, 12/2010


Melissa Kline said...

Such beautiful memories Janice. I can relate to all of them in some form or another. I too was a huge Barbie fan and have a similar photo of myself with my dolls. The St. Elizabeth's hospital memory reminded me of "My Beginning." I love your story of the shopping trips with your dad and the blue plates. I decorate my kitchen with blue plates as well, although they are not nearly as special. Love the 80's photos of your boys - reminds me of my own childhood. And the baking...I am a big traditionalist and have begun my own rituals of holiday baking with my boys. I appreciate and admire this so much. You have such a beautiful family Janice! Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

February Grace said...

What a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself and those dearest to you, with us. I am moved to tears by your memories, the sad and the sweet, and especially the vision of you as a girl, looking up at the lights.

Merry Christmas, Janice! May you always find strength and joy in the beauty of the lights.


Madeline Sharples said...

Thank you Janice for sharing such personal memories.

Your recall reminds me of the "60 Minutes" show we saw last Sunday night about new research into memory. It seems a group of people -- six were interviewed on the show -- who can recall the exact date and place and even feel the experience when prompted for information about what happened in their lives. It was pretty amazing to watch.

Your memory is pretty amazing as well. By the way, I have a lot of things that belonged to my mother and father. It's not the things that are important, it's the story behind them. So I could relate to your story about the plates. I'd love to see them someday.

Janice Phelps Williams said...

I didn't think about it, but the St. Elizabeth's Hospital time does remind me of your book "My Beginning"! Thank you for your comments...I love learning about your family, too, and can tell that you are a gifted homemaker as well as a writer.

Bru... thank you for "seeing" me as a girl gazing in wonder up at the Christmas tree. I am sure you have seen the lights in a way I never will. Your painting on your blog shows that!

Madeline: Mark and I watched that 60 Minutes episode last Sunday. Memory is an important issue for us. Mark is gifted with an exceptional memory. He remembers specific events and scenery from infancy! He has an astounding memory for faces and can see someone in a movie in 1983 as a kid and then recognize them in a few seconds in a movie made today. He doesn't have the every day-of-his-life recall like the subjects on the show, but he does have an unusual memory, especially for people he has met, movies/TV/music, and places he has visited (which are many).

I, on the other hand, have a very poor memory. Likely as a result of (I think) anesthesia given to me as a young teenager during 3 operations. Or, perhaps from stress and years of not enough rest. It's hard to say, but my lack of memory is as astounding as Mark's excess of we make a great pair!

Writing and scrapbooking, especially in such detail as I tend to do, are a way for me to document and bring to memory the events of my life. Often photos and momentos help prompt these memories. So, I am very thankful my lack in this area wasn't apparent, but just the opposite. How nice!

The best way I've found to help my memory is to pay close attention to the present, to each day, to really treasure it. And use a lot of notes...

And, I really treasure the three of you who have commented here. You are in different parts of the country, different lives, different writing styles, in different phases of a woman's life...but it is so important to me to have the opportunity to know you and have glimpses into your lives!

So, to us all, Happy New Year-to-be! Here's to more memories!

Jules said...

Stepped over from February Grace. I loved the sharing of these precious memories. Isn't it funny how getting older changes our perspective on the true important things.

Merry Christmas.
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Lucky Press, LLC said...

Thank you for stopping by, Jules! Yes, it is funny how our perspective changes... I like the patchwork quilt of my life now. Merry Christmas to you, too!

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