Things past, present, yet to come

Snow day, again: I’m enjoying the warmth of another fire and the glow of the Christmas tree lights as I watch the snow fall outside. We set out for an important appointment this morning and turned back once we realized that even here on Main Street, which is flat and tends to get plowed first, it was a couple of inches thick and slippery as anything. Baby, it’s cold out there!

With a day of enforced semi-idleness ahead, I’m tempted to begin putting the Christmas decorations away—but I can’t. I was raised to believe that would be wrong: the Twelve Days of Christmas and all that. In our house when I was growing up, the tree went up on Christmas Eve, and not until after we kids were all in bed when we were little. It didn’t come down until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. As the years went by those rules were stretched so the time the tree was up was sometimes longer, but never shorter.

And I am a child of “how we’ve always done it.” A child of ritual, and remembrance.

These rituals matter not for themselves, but because they connect us with something larger than ourselves. At church we reach for the Mystery that is so hard to describe in words, and so present to us believers when we reenact those things we have always done. At home we remind ourselves that our ties to family and friends who have gone before us live on even when they’re gone—as we are connected, and they through us, to other lives that will follow.

Part of the joy of the Christmas season is rekindling our awareness of these connections, but along with that joy comes a degree of sadness. For some reason this season, I’ve been hit hard by the sharp poignancy of doing what we’ve always done, in the absence those who taught us to do it that way. Inklings of my own mortality, perhaps.

Seeing my aunt’s handwriting on a silver Christmas bell music box she gave us back in the ‘80s. Taking out ornaments that have hung on our tree for so many years, and on family trees before that. Imagining what my mother would say about a meatless Christmas dinner. Hearing the whistle of the local tourist railroad and remembering my father laboring through the evenings of Advent to set up the Christmas garden, the display of Lionel trains running through little plastic towns that filled our basement.

My brother has the trains now, but I have the faded Santa that hung on the tree in the home where my grandfather grew up. He’s the man in the black and white photo. It hung on my childhood tree as well, and lives most of the year now in a small box with a handwritten note stuck to the lid: “No one touches this ornament but Mom!” (Apparently the past is too fragile to be trusted just yet to the future.) The shiny Santa beside it is more recent, but it’s been on our tree for some years now. I suppose I got it as a way of putting myself in the picture.

Putting myself in the picture here and in future, that is. I am the child in the old photo. My two grandmothers are right and left in the top row. Looking at it again with fresh eyes, I think I see a resemblance to the one on the right, who always seemed so old to me but is younger in this picture than I am now. (Please don’t say I resemble the one on the left—though I have to say that my memories of her aren’t nearly as fierce as the picture.) That’s my mother on the left beside me, the aunt of the silver Christmas bells on the right. I’m not sure, but I think it must have been taken in the back yard of my first home in Baltimore.

I don’t remember the occasion, but of course it was just a moment of time. They’re all gone now, except me. The fierce-looking grandmother was dead within a decade. The one I resemble lingered for years in the living hell of Alzheimer’s. Perhaps the pain of nostalgia is a yearning not just for the past, but for an ideal past—if only we could go back and fix the way things turned out for them.

We can’t, of course. We live in the now, observing those rituals that raise happy memories, and making our own traditions when that seems better—delicious meatless lasagna for the vegetarians among us, for example, in place of the Christmas turkey or roast beef of years gone by. Creating new rituals, and maintaining the ones that feed us. Cherishing our connection to things past, but not letting them define us. Knowing that no matter how tightly we’re tied to past and future, we must be ourselves in the present.

Still, I won’t put the decorations away before Saturday.