I count myself as a peaceful realist when it comes to the winter holidays. I don’t expect miracles. I try not to expect anything. I try to stay in the moment. Once in a while I remember that life is a miracle, but mostly I’m grooving on the fact that I’m relatively unburdened by actual problems and that the drama level in my home is quite manageable. I’ve quietly let Christmas go, in a really good way. I’m still working on the gift giving part, but I’m patient about it. I’ve tried “reimagining” the music, but can’t. It’s hymns. From church. I don’t do church. But it’s okay if you do. That’s what makes me a peaceful realist.
I’ve come to terms with so much that I forget that there was ever a time when Christmas was a cause for outright angst and sorrow. I don’t really forget, but that anguish doesn’t come with the holidays any longer. I can laugh about the time I thought my ex was finally going to give me a romantic present when I saw the three, small rectangular boxes carefully wrapped under the tree, but on Christmas morning they turned out to be three (3) boxes of colored paperclips. Three. I don’t re-live the Christmas after my Dad died (Thanks, Clemens Clan, for making it as wonderful as possible). The Christmas after my freshman year in college with its take home lesson: You really can’t go home again, and who would want to? The Christmas I had no money and made gifts that likely were discarded as soon as they were opened. The Christmas I spent alone “celebrating” sitting in front of my decorated picture window that looked out on the back end of Arlington, Massachusetts, at other people’s family scenes and kept my glass of whisky filled and my pipe bowl smoldering, stubbornly refusing all invitations.
Perhaps because winter holiday time is an especially doing time of year, when miracles come they are noticed. Miracles come to us. We can try to engineer them with our doing, but in the end – crazy, unpredictable, breathtaking, quiet, big – they just happen. And we don’t know how. There’s something captivating about mysteries, especially now when we can Google the answer to anything.
Aside from being an unexplainable gift, what makes a miracle miraculous is that it’s something we often don’t even think to hope for. It’s as if the Universe is saying, “Here. You need this. Just take it.” And maybe when we see it, because it resonates with something already in our hearts, unlikely and healing, we accept.
I am a total sucker for the “newel post moment,” that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey, after wandering the streets wishing he’d never been born, comes running home through the streets of town, yelling “Merry Christmas!” to everything and everyone, overjoyed that he is bleeding, that he is alive. When he gets home, the bank examiner is waiting for him, and he grabs the man’s hand and says, “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!” He runs through the house, looking for Mary, his wife. He sees his kids at the top of the stairs and runs up to embrace them. The finial at the top of the newel post comes off in his hand as it always does. He runs back down to put it on its post, kissing it.
Until I watched that scene again this afternoon, I’d forgotten the one immediately before it, when George is having his moment of truth. He is sitting by the railroad bridge after his guardian angel Clarence has shown him how his community and loved ones would have fared if he’d never been born. He has reached his limit and implores his angel, “I don’t care what happens to me! Get me back to my family! I want to live again!”
I don’t care what happens to me.
My miracle came last Thursday evening, the day after I posted my poem, What is a Miracle? My Mom called to thank me for her Christmas gift. She was chatty and cheery, and said over and over again how much she loved the coloring book, the pencils, how cute the socks were, and oh! the chocolates. Being a person with very little short term memory, Mom tends to repeat herself.
But I was just grooving on how quaintly she says things, how funny she is, and how truly delighted she sounded. Not being savvy about computers and printers, she thought the poem I enclosed on fancy paper had been “professionally done,” and when I told her I’d written it, she began a new round of praise for the gifts. The coloring book, the pencils, the socks, and oh! the chocolates.
Then she got onto the other major track she gets onto about not having anything for anyone, and I said what I always say, which is a funny thing about talking with someone with short term memory loss. You start to sound just like them, repeating and repeating yourself in response to their repetitions, until, if you’re lucky and paying attention, you start to realize you can respond differently. Which is liberation and humanity all rolled into one, so I began to say a few things differently, until finally we were off that topic and onto the gifts again.
And then she says, “I’ve been thinking about your father a lot lately.”
“Oh?” I say. This can be a tricky topic. It could be that I am in for a new round of repetitions of things that begin with, “Did I ever tell you about…” or “I don’t think I ever told you that…” followed by something that I’ve heard about a million times, in exactly the same phrasing as I’ve always heard it, about my father, their wedding, their honeymoon, or his death, which are the major bullet points she usually covers. As if there could possibly be one thing I don’t know after sixty years on the planet with her as my mother.
And yet, I say, “Oh?” Because I don’t care what happens to me. She still believes she is “paying for” the call, so it’s her time.
“Yeah. I’ve been reading his letters from the war.”
This stops me in my tracks. When my brother and I moved Mom into assisted living about a year ago, one of the last things I did was put together a box of mementos for her, told her about it, and shoved it under her bed at the new place. The prize items in the box were the letters from Daddy from the war. They’d been in her cedar chest, something I’m sure hadn’t been opened for 40 years. I had wanted to take them, but they were hers, and I knew she would appreciate having them. Knowing she wouldn’t remember they were there, I thought it would be something any of us in the family could pull out and go through with her during visits.
And I knew she would never discover the box on her own, because she can’t find toilet paper, the curling iron, Q-tips, stamps, note cards, handkerchiefs, photographs and pretty much anything else we send, plant in her room or bring with us to make sure she has what she needs. She is forever making lists of things she “needs” that are right there in her room. She doesn’t look in the closet, the three-drawer plastic bin on wheels, the dresser, under the bathroom sink.
But this box, placed there a year ago, under her bed — did I mention that part? — she finds.
“Oh?” I say, holding my breath, because I really don’t know what else to say.
“Yeah.” She says, in that voice she reserves for changing into her pajamas and dishing up a bowl of ice cream. “Want to hear one?”
“Sure,” I say, not sure what to expect. Maybe it’s something someone’s given her to read, and she’s confused thinking it’s from Daddy. I’m still not on the “page” with her.
And then, I am.
“This one’s from June, 1944.” And she reads my father’s words about being on a boat on the way to somewhere he can’t tell her, staying up to keep one of his buddies company, hoping she’s received a letter from him, and then responding to what she wrote him in her letter. There he is, calling her, “Boo,” like they always did, telling her if he had his way her drama teacher would see she is the best one in the class. He is 22 in 1944, and she is all of 18.
It’s real, I think. It really happened. The miracles pile up. He was a paratrooper. He was one of the troops who liberated the Philippines, then Japan. None of this is in his letters. It’s in the history books. He survived. They made their dream come true. And then he died in his mid-40s. And she, almost 50 years later, is reading his letters again, and only because I found them, packed them in a box, and stuck them under her bed. Well, only that and something else that I can’t explain or Google.
She gets tired of trying to decipher his handwriting. We hang up. Something I never even thought to hope for, that my Mom would have the feeling of my Dad’s love and nearness with her after decades of mourning the kind of loss you never get over, has happened.
Oh, I forgot. There are also miracles you work really hard for but don’t know what you are working for or why until they appear. But you’re not working for the miracle. Like George Bailey, you are just doing what you think is right, loving as best you can, serving what you believe in, and growing in ways you don’t aim for until you look around and the things that were annoying are holy, and the things you worshipped as essential are not.
Happy Solstice, everyone. Whatever you celebrate, enjoy every second of the returning light.