A Christmas Train of Memories

A Christmas Train of Memories

A train horn, the distant music coming back to me again.

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

 Christmas Train of Memories

We could take the glass mug home. I still have two of them.

A Christmas Train of Memories

Just before Christmas, breakfast in the Walnut Room.


6 thoughts on “A Christmas Train of Memories

  1. Beth

    Bless you, reading your memories brought back many of my own. I’m especially thinking of my sister Phyl who truly loved this time of year. She was a “giver” like you and made everyone around her feel loved and wanted during the holidays. We’ll all be thinking of her as we gather this year. And I’ll be thinking of you and how wonderful it is that you have made such a “magical” transformation to California.


    • Dearest Joe,
      I miss you and our talks and of course my workout. I imagine you are headed to Kansas City or St. Louis. Be safe and enjoy your grandchildren. My best to Jen.
      Memories help us bind up our wounds when we miss certain people and aspects of our lives. Then we head out forming new memories, blessed that we had people like Phyl and my mom to show us HOW to form them so that our grandchildren will carry on.
      Hugs, Beth

  2. I love this Boomer Highway, as it brought back all those warm memories of the holidays, and the people we shared them with. Mom, of course, tops the list, but then her mother, Nanna, and two sisters, Margaret and Lucia, who would be with us through out. On Christmas eve they would serve us glogg, (a classic Scandinavian hot spiced wine punch served with raisins and almonds), salmon loaf, vegetables and Christmas cookies before showering us with gifts that were stacked up high on their grand piano.
    And there are still many things that remind me of those days, but nothing like the music. From church, to carolers, to Amahl and the Night Visitors. Christmas always comes flooding back with the glorious music……and yes the sounds of the Chicago trains, gliding through the cold night. Thanks for this, Beth…….

    • Our memories are precious and they help us when we are missing those we love at Christmas. I am grateful for Mom because she had a sixth sense about all of this and knew that in the tapestry of her Christmas, she was creating something for us that we could pass on to our children and they in turn to theirs. Again and again she made life GOOD. That’s the simplest and best way to say it.
      So when you come to my door today, you might just break into a Christmas carol instead of ringing the bell! Beth

  3. Your post is beautiful Beth. It conjured up memories of years my mom or aunt took us to see Santa Claus at State Street Marshall Field’s… however because there were so many of us kids there we couldn’t afford lunch in the Walnut Room so every year we looked at the gorgeous tree and I promised myself someday I would eat lunch there. A few years back I took Grace there after we saw The Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theater, courtesy of my sister Teresa, who works there. We’ve since made it a tradition. Every year Grace and I see the Christmas Carol and then have lunch in the Walnut Room. Even though it’s now Macy’s, that tree is still as gorgeous and the Chicken Pot Pie just as delicious. We missed it this year due to illness but we will be back…
    I have a list of traditions I’ve carried on…things I do with my daughter every year that my parents did with us. I also have my own, Christmas memories I created for myself during years when my family couldn’t be together.
    Christmas is a special time for me and each year I get to be here, I’m thankful to share it with my daughter, my husband and my dearest family. I can’t imagine a Christmas that didn’t bring forth a warmth and love in my heart that fills me for the whole year to come.
    And yes, the sound of that lonely train horn blowing in the distance is a must…I hear it every year and it always resonates…
    Merry Christmas Beth!!!!!!

    • Dear Natalie,
      I apologize for getting to your comment a day late, but yesterday we were with Christie and her family all day, forming memories. I AM SO GLAD that you started the tradition of the Christmas Carol at the Goodman and lunch in the Walnut Room. That sounds incredible. One thing about California living, is the distance to LA and we have yet to find all the nearby things that might replace such a tradition.
      Yes, when family are together and when they show appreciation, which I know you father does, it can bring back all the good memories and the harder times are forgotten.

      I wish you good health and a wonderful 2014.

      Thanks, Natalie, Beth

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