…Timber! A Christmas Tale.

christmas blog

When I was a teenager, I was a member of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. As with all churches, the highlight of the year was the Christmas celebration. For us, this included the annual decorating of the tree.

The congregation planned for months. The format was always the same. Our priest read the Christmas story – from Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, to arriving at the stable filled with animals, to the birth of Jesus, to the arrival of the Three Wise Men. As the story progressed, we listened for our cues and, when it was our turn, we proceeded to the massive tree by the altar to hang homemade ornaments. Once the story was over and the tree was bedecked in all its glory, we sang hymns and rejoiced in our shared fellowship.

In 1976, the year Lori attended this beloved service with my mother and me, we were asked to make two angels and the crown jewel, the baby Jesus. My mother took this honor seriously. To the craft store we went, up and down the aisles, hunting and searching. Mom was on a mission, and she’d be damned if anything would stop her from displaying her strong religious faith and her artistic talents. We arrived home; our arms were laden with heavy cardstock, colored pencils, markers of varying thickness, new scissors, feathers, glitter, and a sheet of gold leaf.

Mom looked through old books and children’s Christmas stories, hunting for models for her designs. No, she wouldn’t copy or trace or rip off anyone else’s creations. She was too much of a purist for that. This was the woman who handmade every Halloween costume I’d ever worn. This was the woman who had baked and decorated every one of my birthday cakes. She doodled while on the telephone; she crafted stained glass treasures for gifts; and, she created magnificent bouquets of flowers, each petal made of twisted wire dipped in liquid plastic, dried, then assembled into lilies, roses, and orchids. My baton twirling outfits were of crushed velvet and bedazzled with rhinestones and pearls. Hell, no. This year’s Christmas ornaments were going to be showstoppers, she determined.

The patterns were drawn, nearly a foot high, and laid carefully to the cardstock. The new, razor-sharp scissors precisely hugged every turn and sharply snipped each corner. With a pencil, Mom sketched in the details of the angels’ faces, with wide eyes and rosebud lips, then colored brilliantly with markers. The plump, baby Jesus was in a manger, a crown angled impossibly on his head.

The finished products were magnificent. Scraps of shimmery white gossamer, leftover from an old project, had become angelic robes. Feathers crafted wings. Long, acrylic hair, cut from discarded dolls – one blond, one dark – had been attached to their cardboard heads, parted in the middle in front and flowing nearly to their feet in back.

And, little Jesus – what a triumph! Real hay had been glued inside the manger and, on his head, the crown shimmered with gold leaf. He was pink-cheeked and cherubic, a nod to the Gerber baby. Crafted in loving detail, you could almost hear him gurgle with joy as the angels sang.

Lori and I could barely contain ourselves as we waited for the big day. We filed into church, proudly holding Mom’s masterpieces, but we couldn’t help noticing what the others had made. Skimpy hand-drawn images on paper – colored only on one side, some curling at the bottom – were so pathetic that we found it difficult to hide our ridicule. But, we were in church, after all, so we smiled graciously to the others, reveling in their naked envy.

Entering the nave, we gasped when we saw this year’s tree. It rose higher and higher, reaching toward Heaven in the rafters of the cathedral ceiling. We took our seats, jittery with anticipation for the service to begin. As the priest read the Christmas story, families and friends rose to walk down the center aisle toward the towering tree to hang their ornaments. We followed along in the program, waiting for our turn. At last, it came.

Mom, Lori, and I rose as one, paused as we entered the aisle to allow everyone the chance to see our extraordinary ornaments. A sprinkle of glitter from my dark-haired angel fell like fairy dust as I held her high for those in the back to admire. Lori, with the blond angel, did a similar sweep. But, Mom took the lead as she was carrying the most precious of all. Like a bride approaching her awaiting groom, Mom proceeded reverently toward the front of the church. There were whispers and smiles of appreciation for the gold-crowned baby she held delicately in her hands. Lori and I followed at a respectful distance, our angels reaping equal admiration.

When we reached the front of the church, we turned to face the congregation and, once more, raised our ornaments high for all to see. Then, Lori went to one side of the tree to hang hers while I went to the other. Mom, holding the heart of the entire event, moved to place hers front and center. I struggled to secure my angel to the branch I’d chosen and began searching for a new one. As I reached to loop my angel’s hanger over the pine needles, it moved away from me and, simultaneously, I heard someone from the back of the room yell, “Timber!”

I watched in mixed horror and fascination as that colossal tree tipped, almost in slow motion, toward the congregation. Suddenly, Lori was staring at me, wide-eyed and mouth gaping, over the branches of the fallen tree. I think my face must have mirrored her shock, but then she began laughing. Lori has an infectious laugh that makes it impossible not to join in. Plus, we were fourteen. We found everything funny at that age. We were nearly doubled-over in hysterics.

The priest rushed forward to help Mom out from underneath. She crawled from where she’d been trapped, pine needles sticking at all angles from her hair, a sprinkling of glitter across her fiery red face. Lori and I looked at each in momentary panic as Mom was helped to her feet. But, when she yelled, “Goddammit, Lori! You pushed the tree over!” we pressed our hands to our mouths to hold the laughter back.

The entire church was silent except for the echo of Mom’s words. As we slunk back toward our pew, I glanced left and right from beneath my lowered lashes to see that no one was admiring us now. In fact, they deliberately avoided looking in our direction. As some helpful people at the front of the church worked furiously to right the tree, we kept right on going past our seat and headed out the back door. That was the last time we participated in the yearly Christmas story tradition at our church.

…Does Grief Have A Deadline?

taranana

My daughter phoned me the other night and, as usual, when I see her name on the caller ID, apprehension kicked me in the gut. It’s not that I don’t hear from her frequently, but an unscheduled call from my twenty-one-year-old living two hours away in New York City revs my mom-anxiety into overdrive instantly.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” has become my normal greeting when either of my adult children calls me out of the blue. They find it annoying, yet comfortable. My kids get me.

This time, though, I wasn’t greeted with her usual, “Of course! I just wanted to tell you about my day.” This time I heard sobbing on the other end and a plaintive, “Momma…”

Tara had just finished reading the letters my mother wrote to her on her first birthday. The letters were part of a time capsule I had assembled when Tara turned one, that was to be opened on her twenty-first birthday. It included birthday cards, balloons, the hospital bracelets she and I wore when she was born, a fuzzy blanket, a baby rattle, a memory book, and so on. At the time, I had asked her surviving grandparents (my father was deceased by then) to each write letters to Tara about whatever they felt might be important for her to know twenty years in the future. Those letters, along with the other mementos, were then carefully tucked into the time capsule tin and sealed for two decades.

While Tara’s paternal grandparents are still with us and have watched Tara grow into the bright, funny, compassionate young woman she is, my mother passed away when Tara was only nine. Throughout those nine short years, Tara and her older brother were the center of their nana’s life. She retired from her job to spend more time with them, often relieving me when I was cross-eyed from fatigue. She planned day trips, made crafts with them, played games, and spent hours showing them how to take care of their Sims on the computer. Nana attended all their school events, cheered their triumphs, and held them close when they were hurt. When she became ill, Nana even lived with us for a time.

When my mother died, Tara was inconsolable. Even at that young age, she was eloquent about her emotions. “I’ve lost one of the three most important women in my life.” (The others being her other grandmother and myself). “Nothing will ever be the same.”

I remember that exact feeling when I suffered my first real loss. I was twenty and a week away from starting my junior year in college. My beloved great-aunt, Ellie, died suddenly of kidney failure. She had been an ever-present figure my entire life, loving me despite my often-difficult temperament and giving in to me when my own mother wouldn’t. Her death was an agony I’d never known. Those around me offered comforting words, but it did nothing to ease my broken heart. Friends didn’t understand when they found me sobbing in bed. They didn’t get it when I wasn’t my usual life-of-the-party self and that I couldn’t go on with my life as if a gaping hole hadn’t been ripped straight through the middle of it. For me, it was clear. This woman, around whom my most cherished lifelong memories revolved, was gone forever.

Seven years later when my father died, I was thrust into the role of my mother’s emotional rock. I remember her telling me that well-intentioned people in her life said she should get into therapy and needed anti-depressants. She wondered how many of these suggestions were based on their own discomfort at witnessing her pain. Then, a co-worker, someone she’d never known well, emerged with exactly what she needed at that point in her grief. He began stopping by her office every day to check on her, his presence acknowledging her need for time, human interaction, and patience as she adjusted to the dramatic change in her everyday life. He validated her dread of celebrating Christmas without her partner, of the birthdays and celebrations he’d miss, of the looming one-year anniversary of his death. Despite countless setbacks during the next several years, she found new interests, spent time with friends, and found joy in her grandchildren.

So, when Tara, at nine-years-old, uttered many of the same emotions I’d experienced at twenty and again at twenty-seven, I immediately understood what she meant. She cried. She didn’t want to go to school. She held onto the memories of things she and Nana had done together, reminiscing over and over, as if repeating them would cement them in her very being. On one hand, I was concerned because I couldn’t comfort my daughter, but at the same time, I knew her grief for such an enormous loss was to be expected.

What I found peculiar, though, was the feedback from some of the adults in her life. Several staff and faculty at her school informed me that her reaction wasn’t “normal.” That she should be “getting over it” by now. I received a few calls a week during the month following her nana’s death, saying Tara wanted to come home from school. Her inability to bury her grief quickly after burying her grandmother prompted suggestions of anti-depressants. Her well-meaning peers, while trying to relate to her, told her, “I lost my grandmother too. I know exactly what you’re feeling.” This infuriated Tara, who felt that her level of pain was based on the close bond she had with her grandmother, not the biological connection. Again, a feeling I understood from my own relationship with Ellie. But, when my uncle began expressing doubt that Tara should still be so grief-stricken a month later, I made an appointment for her to speak with a therapist.

“Tara’s response is absolutely natural,” I was told. “She understands the finality of death quite clearly and is heartbroken over losing her grandmother. Wouldn’t it seem odd if she wasn’t grieving for someone she loved so dearly?” She then said that medication could be an option if Tara was unable to function, but we weren’t there.

I was relieved by the professional’s conclusion, and more than a little vindicated with my own assessment of Tara’s show of grief. No, it wasn’t abnormal. No, she wasn’t overreacting. No, she shouldn’t be “getting over it” according to someone else’s timetable. She needed to be allowed the dignity to properly go through the entire grieving process.

One thing that the therapist uncovered, though, was something I had not thought. The loss of her grandmother had awakened Tara’s awareness of the impermanence of life. As children, we are secure in assuming things will never change and that those around us will always be. For Tara, losing her grandmother made her suddenly realize that, at some point, she would lose her other close family members. Most terrifying to her nine-year-old self was the thought of losing her parents. In addition to the loss of her nana, Tara was now weighted under the loss of her sense of constancy and security.

At that moment, I remembered my own feelings when I suffered my first loss. When Ellie died, I had the same sense of being adrift in the world. The people who I thought would be my anchors through life, providing the safe harbor I took for granted, would not always be there. It was that enlightenment that marked the end of my childhood.

Tara moved through the stages of grief, predictably arriving at acceptance. She continued through middle school, high school, and into college. It turns out, she has many of her grandmother’s traits, including a flair for acting, a skill for writing, and a keen sense of humor.

Having grieved, though, doesn’t mean unexpected reminders won’t slice our heart open again. Hearing a song you shared, a sudden familiar scent, visiting a place you once walked with your loved one will inspire dormant feelings of longing and sorrow to burst to the surface.

So, when I got that phone call from Tara, sobbing because she had read her nana’s letters lovingly hand-written all those years ago, my heart jerked with concern for her emotional state. She read me excerpts, sniffling at times, laughing at others. Predictions that Tara would be tall and green-eyed—she is. Transparency about her own fragile health and her belief that she would not live to see Tara turn twenty-one. Her hopes and visions of Tara’s bright future. Background on who she was as a person outside of just being “Nana.” Honest revelations about choices made, paths chosen, and regrets for dreams never achieved. Each word was written in my mother’s beautifully artistic hand; each word was poetically chosen.

Near the end of the conversation, Tara commented on what an incredible writer Nana had been. “You get that from her, you know,” I told her. “One of her biggest regrets in life was that she never followed that passion. She always wanted to be a published writer, but never pushed herself to accomplish it.”

“I guess that’s why you push me the way you do,” she said. “So, I never regret not having tried.” Then, she added, “I’m coming home to see you this weekend. I need to make sure you, Gran (her other grandmother), and Aunt Pat (my mother’s sister) know how important you are in my life.”

When I hung up the phone, my heart felt a little swollen. Not with concern that Tara had renewed grief, but with relief. My daughter has learned to express grief when she’s feeling it, instead of hiding it for fear of being labeled “not normal.” Most significantly, as a twenty-one-year-old, she has learned the importance of showing the people in her life how much she loves them while she has the chance. With my emotions tangled by the revelation, I realized that my baby has left her childhood behind.