Thursday, December 9, 2010

Remembering Pearl Harbor, Mom, Holidays Past and Larry Bird

December 7th is always a day of note in our household.  For one thing, as a World War II history buff, I am mindful of the day as one that will always live in infamy, particularly to those ever-dwindling individuals who experienced Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the event that drew the United States into the war.  One of the fond memories I have of the past decade is when my dear friend Francine and I took off from work and drove up to Fredericksburg, Texas, home of the National Museum of the Pacific War, to witness the official stateside commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor back in 2001.  What an honor to be there with her and be so close to veterans of that awful day.  The senior George Bush was the keynote speaker and, no matter what you think of him politically, it was pretty cool to be that close to a former President and war hero.  But, I digress, as usual.

December 7 is also my estranged sister-in-law's birthday, as it is Larry Bird's.  They are exactly the same age.  For my husband, while he loves his sister, it might be a toss up as to which is the bigger deal.  Larry Bird was always his favorite basketball player.  White men can jump apparently, and I think Greg always fantasized a little what it would be like to be a Larry Bird.

And on this particular December 7, it was Beck Funeral Home's holiday memorial for their clients in the past year.  So, for the second year in a row, I sat with a delicate gold colored ornament cupped in my hand with a loved one's name drawn on it in cursive and listened to a sermon meant to comfort survivors in their time of grief until it was time to hang the ornament on a large tree at the front of the room, where it will stay with a large number of others until I retrieve it just after the New Year's.  Then I will place it in the corner china cabinet to sit next to the other ornament I received the year before (actually it will get packed first, moved to Shaler and then that's where it will live).  In one of those odd, not-quite-rational thoughts I had immediately after I received the news that Mother had died,  I thought, "Well, I'll get another invitation to the holiday memorial."  When it came, I toyed with not going.  Been there, done that, I thought briefly.  But, Mother would have wanted me to go, and the truth is, I appreciate that they do this for their clients.  It's cleansing somehow.  But, even if I didn't believe that it had any healing benefit, I would have gone because I fear sometimes that Mother's memory gets trampled on by the larger tragedy of her granddaughter's passing.  Not only do I worry that she's been over-shadowed by the loss of Kelsey, I worry that I'm still numb from the trauma (for lack of a better word) that came to define her last couple of years.  She gave me a hard run those last few years, and while I rationally know she was not in control of that, my own fragile psyche is still licking some wounds from it.  I'm not proud of it, but I'm being honest.  But, she was my mother, if not by blood, then by responsibility, and I was determined as we slid into our seats to make this evening about Ruth, not Kelsey.  The sermon seemed particularly geared to helping with that task, the minister they brought in telling the story of a grown daughter witnessing the family's first Christmas after her mother dies.

So, my mind wandered back to the Christmases when I was a little girl, before I strained my parent's love with my teenage angst, and before Mother began working again, in retail nonetheless, and her time became stretched and stressed.  She had always been a bit of a hoarder, but it was under better control then, the house still fairly new and crisp, but her Montana social circle established. She had what she wanted, I think; a family, a home, a position in the community, enough money to be comfortable.  This was her zenith.  If there was ever a time when she was content, it was in these years.  And, it was a warm and harmonious time for us as a family.  She would elaborately decorate our house, finding trendy ideas in her Good Housekeeping or Better Homes and Gardens, loving to try new crafts every year.  She would bake holiday cookies, patiently allowing me to help, always giving me the beaters to lick (one of the benefits of being an only child, I freely admit, is not having to share the beaters).

One of special things that my parents did for me was allow me my own little tree in the dining room.  I had my own set of mini-ornaments, and I would decorate it all by myself, but Mother would oversee in the earliest years, carefully coaching me to make sure I remembered to put ornaments on all sides.  We would make popcorn and string it up to make garland, along with the cheesy paper chains, which would hang every where in the house.  As a family, we had chosen the trees by driving up the canyon and picking our own along the snowy roadside, a larger one for the family room, a smaller one for me, and Dad would cut them down for us.  Later, as they both aged, they bought the trees in town, but Mother always preferred the smell of a live tree.  (I honored that until just a couple of years ago, buying real trees after she moved here.)

I remember the conflict Mom and Dad always had over icicles - those environmentally horrible plastic silver strands so popular in the '50-'70's.  Dad loved them, but wouldn't help put them on.  They're horrible to put on.  Mother never wanted to bother.  She reasoned that if he wanted them, he should help.  Occasionally, he would make a token effort, but I think even he would admit that he never really worked too hard at it.  To make it worse, he preferred that they be hung individually as opposed to simply tossed on.  Over the years, I became versed at the art of hanging individual strands of those things, figuring I didn't particularly mind doing it, and it was worth keeping the peace between them.  It was their own version of the Leg Lamp (Christmas Story), an on-going battle of power, never taken too seriously by either of them.  Mainly because Dad knew she would give in and make it happen somehow.  After I no longer lived there, I think it became more of a genuine fight.  I remember hanging the icicles again when I would visit as a young adult, but in the years I didn't make it home, I'm not sure how it got resolved actually.  Maybe eventually stores just stopped selling them and that solved the problem.

I have dozens of holiday stories like those, and I've often wondered if part of my rancor over the holiday now is my inability to ever be able to re-create those magical years for both myself and my children.  But, the thing I will never forget is how Mom's dry, biting sense of humor came into play.  Gradually, she would lack the time and energy to keep stenciling holiday greetings on mirrors or stringing popcorn with me, but she never lost that slightly cruel sense of humor that caused her to tease me every year to try and guess what she had gotten me for Christmas.

Inevitably it would start as I helped her at the dining room table, where she had set up her wrapping station.  As she showed me how to fold the ends of the wrapping paper in to encompass a box, or watch as I curled the ribbon, she would casually mention something about what I was getting for Christmas.  Something like, "I already have your gift." or "You'll like what you're getting this year."  Without fail, I would take the bait, my heart palpitating a little more than usual, anxious to break her and get her to tell me what she had gotten.  I would ask her what it was.  She would decline to tell me, but offer to give me a hint.  The hint was invariably totally lame and not useful in the slightest, but I would take a guess, be wrong, then I would beg her for another hint.  She would string me along like that for days at a time.  Every time I would, in my childish way, get distracted and forget about it, she would give me another teasing prompt, and it would begin anew.  I don't remember ever guessing correctly, which is fairly amazing, because I generally got what I really wanted.  As I write this, I gaze over at my original set of The Chronicles of Narnia.  They are worn, the spines broken from repeated readings, the pages yellow with age, yet I can't bring myself to give them up, one of the many precious gifts "Santa" brought me over the years.  But maybe more than the various gifts I received, I remember "Santa" teasing me with pointless clues around our dining room table, her eyes lighting up with delight, that sort of devilish gleam dancing over her features all those many years ago.  That's the Mom that I miss.  That's the Mom that I got back this December 7th.

Mom, I really miss you.

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