I miss my mom who died in March. It’s Christmas. And today I heard the familiar lyrics:
Through the years, We all will be together,
If the Fates allow.
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
But the Fates can’t allow things eternally. So the tears started. Yes, this is the time of year when one memory just starts a train of memories.
I’ve cried quietly during that carol for the last five years, because Mom’s dementia was worsening and though my memories were palpable and deep, hers were not. Sometimes she could pull out a Christmas memory, but most times—no way.
But if anyone created ceremony and joy in our childhood days, it was Mom. She wove a tapestry of colorful Christmas threads that no one could ever undo:
1. Who could forget the annual dark-and-cold-morning drive to Marshall Field & Company—the landmark store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The winter sun would be barely lighting the lake as we hurried from the parking garage to the warmth of the store. Already a crowd was forming–crazy, Christmas-loving folks like us. Inside we all boarded the elevator to the 7th floor to enjoy breakfast in the Walnut Room. Lines of sleepy children and smiling parents and grandparents crowded the lobby waiting for a table near or right under “the tree.” Each year this two-story wonder was decorated more exquisitely or lavishly then the year before. Fairies and whimsical animals, Santa and his elves, gold and scarlet packages—all shine and glimmer and magic. There was hot chocolate as thick and creamy as that served on THE POLAR EXPRESS and we could take the glass mugs home for a keepsake. (See photo below.)
2. In the early years, we then stood in line to see Santa. I was always fearful of the man in the beard, but he never failed to bring me my heart’s desire. A baby doll one year, a more grownup doll the next. Not a Barbie. But a doll I named Barbara Jo and when I took off her red and white checked dress, mom had sewn her a tiny bra to cover her anatomically correct body!
3. Back home, there was always a Christmas tree—but before it graced our living room there was always the Christmas tree argument. My brothers wanted the typical tree—a Balsam fir. It looked scraggly to me. One year we got a Scotch pine and from then on, I was hooked. Its long needles made the tree round and solid; once decorated it filled our simple home with elegance. My brothers weren’t swayed. Mom’s firm yet gentle voice created a compromise—we would alternate the variety every other year. I kept track.
4. Belief in Santa reigned supreme for many years, each older child maintaining the magic for the younger ones as long as necessary. “Did you hear it, Beth?” my older brother said coming out of his bedroom at dawn. “Last night, I heard reindeer hooves on our roof.” If I close my eyes and picture the upstairs hallway where we all stood, there’s still an exciting chill connected to those words. And then Mom going down to light the tree while we waited patiently at the top of the stairs, waited for the magic to unfold–how thrilling the Christmas morning experience always was, no matter what was or wasn’t under the tree.
5. Finally there was the music and literature—The Robert Shaw Choral Christmas carols, Amahl and the Night Visitors Opera and a recording of Dylan Thomas, that amazing Welch poet, reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales. He writes: All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen. He then tells the tale of a small fire in the warm Christmas house and the firemen who came to douse it and were asked by an aging aunt, “Would you like something to read?”
Ah, Christmas. Snow and cold and boots and sleds. Heavy coats and slippery sidewalks, bags of presents and hot chocolate. Midnight Mass in churches spilling light into the darkness. And then the cozy bed and warm covers, the Rock Island train doing its last run as I fall asleep, its familiar horn becoming a wisp of memory moving into my dreams.
I live in California now. And I suddenly realized that though there is much to love, sunshine and roses, warm breezes and tawny hills—something is missing. For me. The forlorn and lonely sound of the train horn, oddly comforting in its familiarity.
Forever in my growing-up-house in the city Chicago, and in all the Chicago suburbs where I lived and even in Des Moines, Iowa—I could fall asleep to the call of the train. I’d hear the horn and picture the train’s beam of light breaking through the darkness as it chugged along the rails.
Then just yesterday, on a four-mile California hike, suddenly there it was—a train horn, the distant music coming back to me again, calling me. Magical. Like The Polar Express.
Certainly at this time of year with ceremony and tradition predominant in our lives, the train of memories is chug-chug-chugging along. I wish you great ones. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays.
Thanks to Google Images