and I were chatting the other day and he was telling me about his Christmas. I challenged him to write his experience up and he did. Read it; it will warm your heart!
Ghosts of Christmas Past
As many of you know I maintain a home upstate, though I don't spend as much time there as I might like. This year was only the second time in more than forty-five years that a Thanksgiving dinner was not eaten there. Last Christmas was the only time in my entire life that I did not spend any part of the Twelve Days in the house.
My mother was the last full time resident of the house (apart from the dog). She had lived there for five years following my sister's death. After Mom had died I used to call it "Schoko's house," my dog being the survivor. Now, of course, he is gone too. In the first few years that the house was mine, spending time there was very melancholy. Most everything was (and much still is) exactly where my mother had left it. Usually my stays are brief and with little time to get much done. Time has stopped there in a way.
Many of her clothes are still there. The living room is still pretty much the way it was in December 2009 when my mother said, "Good-bye house." We had spent Christmas with the family before we coming down to Long Island where mom intended to stay through the rest of the winter. But that was her final "good-bye" to the house where with her husband of 44 years she had her children and lived for fifty-seven years. Recalling her voice, I say "Hello house" and "Good-bye house" each time I arrive and leave. Silly, of course! What does a house know about my comings and goings? I suppose it is in some ways a greeting not to the house but to the memory of mother, sister and father who lived there are whose memory is enshrined there for me every bit as much as it is in the cemetery.
That was indeed a part of the melancholy of going there. It was a haunted house. Not in the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night sense since I don't believe in that kind of ghosts. It isn't the haunting of a presence at all; it is the haunting absence that plays on the emotions. It was true even when my mother and sister were there after dad's passing; when my mother was there after Jane's passing, and when I was there after mom's passing. "A house is not a home." How many of us have heard that? A home is a living place where people live. When I would go there most often it didn't feel like home but very much like a tomb. A place of the dead.
Then, in two consecutive years, hurricanes came to Long Island and I headed north to ride out the storms there. The first time some effects of the storm were felt there, but little of "Superstorm Sandy" reached that far north. Each time I spent four or five days there alone; no holidays or houseguests. And a funny thing happened. An element of home began to return to the house. It was once again a place of refuge, not merely a place to visit. In those few days, I was sheltered not only by the walls and roof, but by the memories of what that house had seen, but also by the sense of safety and security it had been for me for so much of my life. It was the place where I had been brought home to from the hospital after I was born, where the bus picked me up for my first day of school, where my confirmation party was held and where I celebrated my graduation from high school and college. The day of my ordination began and ended there. Memories of these and so many other occasions both singular and recurring are for me embedded in that place. Because of these it is not really a place of the dead, because I yet live in possession of them; it is a place of living memory. Even if sometimes these are frozen in time. Or…just frozen.
My parents born in the 1920's never fully made peace with technology. My father never really knew the personal computer (he was barely comfortable on the telephone…for years my mother dialed long-distance calls for him!) My mother loved computer games, made much use of email and did some computer shopping, she never quite comprehended facebook. Neither of them ever was comfortable with ATM's. So to ensure access to ready cash they always kept some at hand…hidden away. Dad had squirreled some $3000 away in a secret hiding place which he revealed to my incredulous sister and mother a month or so before his death. To my surprise, about three years ago, hidden in the kitchen freezer, when after a malfunction of the ice maker I had to empty and defrost it, I found in a packet labeled "flat bacon" nearly $1000 dollars. Coincidentally, that amount covered most of the cost of a new furnace unit a few weeks later. A bit of treasure frozen in time had come to the rescue. This year another treasure, once again frozen, was revealed. I finally completed the emptying of the big basement freezer. Most of the stuff there was long past shelf life, mom being six years in her grave. But a single box contained a couple dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies: a plastic time capsule of love!
Mom was a pretty good baker, but really only made cookies at Christmastime; usually of several kinds. Some would become holiday gifts; others shared and enjoyed by the family. She had brought some with her to Long Island that last Christmas; these must have been stored away for her return. I ate some when I found them in September (I had to see if they were salvageable after all!). They were still good, so I resolved to save the rest for my Christmas sojourn. Though I wasn't there for Thanksgiving, on the first Sunday in Advent I headed north to put up some decorations and the tree in the living room. I hadn't last year because I wasn't to be there over Christmas, but I always felt I'd let the "ghosts" down. Once again the tree would come to life each night of Advent to say "this is a living home." It was there waiting when I arrived the day after Christmas and as if to say "welcome" the lights switched on just moments after I walked through the door. I removed the plastic "treasure chest" from where I had stowed it in the kitchen freezer and when I returned from a Christmas dinner and sharing with my first cousins, I settled down in front of that tree with a cup of tea and a plate full of these ghosts of Christmas past. I doubt I will ever receive such an unexpected, welcome, and memorable Christmas gift again. But who knows, Ebenezer Scrooge reminds us that the Ghosts of Christmas can do whatever they like.
Merry Christmas, Mamma! Merry Christmas, Jane! Merry Christmas, Papa! Merry Christmas, house!
A happy New Year to you all.