I’ve started this column at least a half-dozen times. The original goal: find some heartwarming nod to the Christmastimes of yesteryear. Wrap it up with shiny words and tie it up with a punchline as its metaphorical bow. But the closer we’ve come to Christmas, I’ve found a heavy spot in my heart growing heavier. So many of those Christmas memories are now also reminders of loved ones who’ve “gone on.” Yes, of course, that makes those memories something to cherish even more. That doesn’t remove the sting.
I know what I’m describing is hardest for those who have lost a friend or family member since last Christmas. The “firsts,” in my experience, are especially hard — first day back at work, first time back at church, first birthday (theirs or yours), first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first New Year’s.
I went to what seems like a lot of funerals and/or visitations in the last couple of years. So I know many people I love are hurting this Christmas, missing their spouse, parent, sibling, child, or friends. Upon his death a few months back, I dedicated a column to my Uncle Harold. For years my siblings, Mom and I had made sure to send him flowers and small gifts at Christmas. And cards. He loved cards. Last January we’d lost his former wife, Frida, who had also kept in touch with Mom by telephone and via Christmas card exchanges. Picking out flowers, cards and small gifts each popped into my head for a second before I remembered.
In February I lost a friend who always lifted my spirits and made me feel I could do anything — nothing could defeat me after a pep talk from Dianne. I sometimes forget she’s gone. Just this afternoon I was standing in Berry’s Pharmacy and heard a woman speaking, coming in the door behind me. My mind lit up for a split second, thinking “Oh! Dianne’s here.” Reality hit hard for another split second. Then I had happy thoughts of Dianne and could hear her voice in my head, wishing me a merry Christmas and asking about Mom and telling me if I need someone to talk to she’d be there. I believe Dianne still has my back.
So I’m writing this to say please remember all those who are grieving, as it can be especially hard this time of year. For me, I’ve found cherished memories of good times from Christmases past can lighten that heavy place in my heart.
My paternal grandmother loved Christmas and especially Christmas trees. I went earlier today and placed a small decorated tree on her and “Popaw’s” grave marker. I had been living with her prior to her death in 1997. I had put her living room Christmas tree up in November ’96 — and didn’t take it down until late March. Each time I’d ask about taking it down, she’d answer, “Not yet. That’s my last Christmas tree, I think.” I began taking it down one day while she was napping. I thought I was being “positive” — showing I expected her to stick around through another Christmas. She didn’t tell me to stop when she awoke, but I could tell it made her sad. She died in mid-June. Taking that tree down? Big regret. Huge.
A better memory of Momaw (as I’ve said before, that’s pronounced as Mom-awe, i.e, in awe of) and Christmas trees also brings warm feelings about my long-ago bestie, Robert. Robert was just 6 months older than me, but was a year ahead of me in school. He was from a neighboring county, and was much more ... let’s say street smart ...than me. Way much more. Around my family he was somewhat of an Eddie Haskell — so sweet sugar wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Don’t get me wrong, Robert had a genuine love for older folks. And he adored and respected my parents. But to hear him tell it, all our “sounded like a good idea at the time” moments (and there were many) were brought about by me. He was just minding his own business when I led him astray.
One idea I did have, and which Robert helped me implement, was a great success. We dragged out all Dad’s strings of C9 Christmas lights and spent a chilly November evening draping them, carefully, up and down and all around the 25- to 30-foot Blue Spruce in Momaw’s front yard. Her house sat high on a hillside cul-de-sac, and she owned four additional, wooded lots. The lights on that big tree, as well as clear strings of small lights we strung around the wrought iron railings of her patio and bare dogwood trees, could be seen from quite a distance. Momaw was delighted to receive phone calls from people living on the next ridge over saying how pretty the lights were. While we were decorating outside that afternoon and evening, Momaw served us copious amounts of hot chocolate and her secret-recipe triple-layer jam cake. Chex Mix was likely also offered, as it was another favorite thing of hers. Although I can see them both in my mind, standing on the porch and viewing our finished work with glee, I still wish I’d taken some pictures. I’m not even sure what year it was, but it was probably 1980 or 1981.
Robert eventually moved to Sarasota, Florida, in 1987, after I’d moved to Johnson City to get serious about college. We drifted apart. I didn’t know for years that he’d died in 2003 at 41 years old. The last I’d heard from him? A note left on my door, on that same porch I can still see him sharing with Momaw, admiring the lights on the big tree. He was in town and really needed to see me. Needed. Not wanted. We didn’t make it happen. Big regret. Huge.
Merry Christmas and God bless.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.