Holiday Season

Christmas Memories

My most poignant Christmas memory took place while visiting my mother’s grave. Even I’m surprised to see myself write that. After all, we live in an era where Christmas brings out the twin vices of materialism and selfishness in many people. Who doesn’t vividly recall the childhood thrill of opening presents under the blazing lights of a Christmas tree? Such times comprise the pantheon of my happiest memories.

Mom passed away in the fall of 2010 following a brief, but agonizing battle with cancer. Even though I understood the magnitude of her illness, her passing still came as a surprise. Nothing prepared me for losing someone that close; even when I knew it inevitable.

Christmas morning that year was eerie. For the first Christmas ever, the scent of Mom’s bacon and eggs didn’t fill the house. I found it harder to cope with not giving her presents. I’m terrible when it comes to shopping for women, which may explain why I’m still single. At any rate, no matter what I got, Mom would always gush like she’d been hoping for my present her entire life. I already missed experiencing her doing this. In fact, I still had the gift I bought her for her 46th anniversary. (I should note that she passed away on that day.)

I walked down the same steps I had as a child. During Christmases past, I’d race down them past Mom and Dad to my new toys. This year, instead of yelling for Dad to get up so he could film me opening my presents, I went downstairs and breakfasted alone. I wanted to let Dad sleep in. Christmas is tough enough for him. His father passed away on Christmas Eve of 2003.

My gaze drifted among a series of old family photos laid out on the dining room table. One included my Mom, Grandmother and Great-Grandmother. It’s a shame it takes such a personal tragedy to make someone appreciate the real meaning of the holidays. Without family, there’s not much of a reason to have them.

Both my mom and grandmother are buried at the same cemetery. Since it was early on Christmas morning, I thought it would be a nice gesture to “visit” them, if you will. I put on a warm coat and jumped in the car.

While driving past a series of stores along the highway I chuckled at the irony. It’s impossible to find a parking space during any of the days leading up to Christmas. Everybody runs out to take advantage of those last minute deals they run close to the holiday. It’s like nothing in life matters, but shopping. On Christmas Day, all of them are closed; the parking lots completely empty. That always seemed strange to me.

The hypocrisy in thinking that way hit me like a blast of cool winter air. As a kid, I wouldn’t leave the living room for a week after Christmas. My new toys were my universe. Nothing else existed outside of my circumscribed personal play pen. While reflecting on my new life situation, I recognized that I could just as selfish as anyone else at times. I guess that’s the problem with becoming a mature adult: you start thinking like one.

While ruminating on all the self-centeredness that permeates the “season of giving” I pulled into the cemetery. A “Christmas miracle” of sorts greeted me. The scene reminded me a bit of the store parking lots during the lead-up to Christmas Day. I don’t recollect the exact number, but numerous people chose to spend their Christmas morning the same way I had. It touched me to see a man, his wife, their three kids AND FAMILY DOG paying their respects. In addition to the holiday, the temperature hovered in the low 30’s (Fahrenheit, of course). It still wasn’t 9:00 AM, yet, either.

This experience made me feel even worse about my childhood selfishness. Still, it enhanced my faith in humanity. Witnessing so many people focused on something larger than they was a gift worthy of Good Ol’ St. Nick.

Thanksgiving Memories

People will describe numerous signs of aging to you. To my mind not wanting to have Thanksgiving dinner at home makes the top spot on that list. After all: it takes days to prepare and possibly twice as long to clean-up. I had the pleasure of spending this past Thanksgiving with my Dad and Step-mom. We went out to a local Charlie Brown’s for the “All You Can Eat Turkey Special”. (If I may put my food critic’s hat on for a moment: it lived up to its name. The limitless supply of turkey, potatoes and stuffing couldn’t have been better. The unlimited amount of vegetables, I could’ve lived without, though.) Knowing I could gorge myself to capacity without having to help with the tidying afterwards enhanced my turkey day enjoyment. So did the company. We all live busy lives and dinner gave us the opportunity to catch up on things.

During the course of our conversation, our thoughts drifted to those no longer able to join us for dinner. My Dad brought up my favorite holiday story. Our Uncle Tom Connelly (my paternal grandmother’s brother) had an interesting tradition. When he felt full during Thanksgiving Dinner, he’d excuse himself from the table and take a walk around the block. Upon his return, he’d sit down and resume his meal. I didn’t have the privilege of meeting him personally, but family members all describe him as “thin”. Uncle Tom must’ve had a pretty good metabolism. I’ve been jogging for over 25 years, but nobody describes me that way.

In the course of discussing Uncle Tom’s Thanksgiving weight loss routine, I remembered my grandmother, Marguerite Stephany, telling me about him. I recall her sharing that story every Thanksgiving. She lived for that holiday. It seemed like she spent all year getting ready for the last Thursday in November. I wouldn’t be able to see the dinner table because of all the food she’d put there. While I was only 12 the last time she cooked dinner at her home, I remember at least three t.v. trays full of vegetables. Granted, at least eight people showed up for Thanksgiving dinner, but there were still plenty of leftovers for everyone. They lasted us close to a week after the holiday.

Several years ago, I started working for a gentleman who purchased my grandparents’ home from the couple they sold it to. While living there, he refurbished the place. When he found out that the house belonged to my grandparents, the first thing he asked me about was the oven. I felt a tinge of sadness when he mentioned removing it. “A lot of great Thanksgiving Dinners got cooked in that stove,” I told him. While writing this I could still smell the scent of my grandmother’s turkey and stuffing wafting through the cool autumn air.

I get sentimental every Thanksgiving. The last time I ever saw my grandfather, Ed Stephany, was on Thanksgiving of 2003. At the time, we had it at my Aunt Marguerite’s house in Reading, PA. (She lived half-way between my parent’s home and my grandparents’ new residence up the Poconos, so we opted to have dinner there.) I remember my grandfather lamenting his health. I didn’t believe him. The guy was a machine. Rarely, and I mean very rarely, would he sit still. He served as an officer with the Kingswood Lake Association, he volunteered as the treasurer for a local branch of the VFW and held the rank of Captain of the Kunkletown Fire Police. He did most of these things in his late seventies! Apparently, years of eating all the vegetables my grandmother cooked, really paid off. Sadly, he passed away of Christmas Eve of that year at the age of 81.

Thanksgiving of 2012 was one of the last times I saw my grandmother. On the cusp of turning 90, we’d retired her apron for her. We had dinner at the Inn in Reading. As my aunt went to get her dinner, she told my grandmom, “You gave us so many great Thanksgivings, let us wait on you.” My grandmother volunteered her time in many of the same organizations as my grandfather. In spite of raising two children and working as a supervisor for a publishing company, I thought she worked harder after she retired. She passed away in September of 2013, just two months shy of her 91st birthday.

I really miss my Mom on Thanksgiving. Her birthday sometimes falls on the holiday. This past November 24th would’ve been her 70th birthday. I vividly remember visiting her grave on that date the year she passed. In the distance I noticed a school bus drive by. It reminded me of my youth. I’d get home from school early and would look forward to spending Thanksgiving with the whole family. For the first time I realized that many of the people I spent Thanksgiving with were no longer part of my life.

Eugene O’Neill once wrote: “When you’re 50 you start thinking about things you haven’t thought about before. I used to think getting old was about vanity – but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial.” Ironically, this Thanksgiving Day marked the 61st anniversary of his passing.

A lot of people complain about the frenzied nature of the holiday season. Some with large families tell me that they have breakfast at one of their kids’ homes, lunch at another’s and then dinner at someone else’s place. They don’t realize that’s a good problem to have. The end of the year may be a little hectic, but it’s a great opportunity to spend time with loved ones.

Whenever I reflect on Thanksgivings past I’m reminded of an expression from Dr. Seuss. I like it so much that I quoted it when I eulogized my Mom. “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” While I miss kicking off the Holiday Season by breaking bread with my Mom and grandparents, the times I did enriched my life. I’m a better person today for having the opportunity.

I had a great time with my Dad and Step-mom yesterday. I’m already looking forward to next Thanksgiving.