Flint, Mich. Christmas Eve 1947. She receives a call from the hospital. The loud ring startles her in the late night. The six children sleeping upstairs don't hear it. She is told her husband is dying. He doesn't have much longer.
She wakes her oldest child, who is 17, and tells her to watch the others while she is gone, the others being 12, 10, 8, 5 and 3. The four older children are married.
She dons her worn black fur coat and hat from the Salvation Army, slips into her galoshes and makes her way through the snow to the neighbor next door and explains her situation. She needs a ride. The family has no car. The neighbor is hesitant about driving in the horrible weather, but is understanding of her situation and agrees to take her.
When they reach the hospital, the car is unable to make it up the icy hill. The neighbor is told not to wait around. She will call her older children to come for her. She thanks him and he goes on his way. She walks up the steep slope, slipping as she goes, afraid of falling. She finally makes it and is with him 30 minutes before he dies of pneumonia. It is 2:15 a.m. December 24th.
The children get up bright and early the next morning, full of adrenalin anticipating the inevitable visit that evening by the firemen with their Christmas gifts. Magically, somehow, they know what each one wants. Their Christmas is never on Christmas morning because they can never wait until then to open the large box that has been delivered. They are sitting around the table, chatting, giggling and waiting to get breakfast.
She hadn't been to bed yet. She slowly comes out of the kitchen and in a very calm, drugged sort of way, tells them they no longer have a father. He had died during the night. The children look at each other in shock. They say nothing. She says nothing. There are no tears. The silence is painful. She walks back into the kitchen, showing no emotion, and starts breakfast.
Huntington Beach, Calif., Christmas Eve, 1985. I had finished decorating the tree. It was perfect, with red bows, brass and wooden ornaments, candy canes and tiny white flowers called baby's breath, fresh from the florist.
I had lots of gifts under it with lace bows, a small train encircling it, and Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls colorfully adorned with their traditional clothes, perched in front of the focal point.
I had made the dolls for our six-month-old granddaughter, our first grandchild, who was born on our wedding anniversary. I was excitedly anticipating the evening's activities, which would consist of gifts, dinner and the thrill of seeing the baby viewing her first tree and gifts. Everything was complete except for last-minute things. It was a dark overcast afternoon. I turned on the tree's lights. They blinked in unison with the Christmas music, while I polished the furniture.
Glenn Campbell was singing, "I'll be home for Christmas." I glanced at the wing-back chair in the corner, the one Mother used to sit in when she would come for our Christmas celebrations. (The whole family would come. Thirty-five at the time.) The chair looked lonely without her and the gifts from all of us completely surrounding it. She had died five years earlier.
The music combined with the fresh pine smell of the tree and the decorations created an atmosphere that touched my deepest emotions. I was overwhelmed with a flood of memories. I started to sob. It was Christmas 1947 all over again for me. (I was the 8-year-old.) I cried for Mother, for my brothers and sisters and for myself.
I kept wiping my eyes, hoping I could wipe away the sadness that had come over me. It took a while, but I finally managed, and by evening, I felt light hearted, the way I normally would feel for the holidays.
I was now anxiously awaiting the arrival of the kids. We had a wonderful evening. That year was one of my most special, not only because of my loving husband, kids and darling grandchild, but because I came to terms with my own pain. My pain and Mother's. There were more than just hard times in her life. There was also a lot of joy. All 10 of her children turned out to be good, hard working adults with honesty and integrity.
After dinner I rocked the baby and hummed the music. It reminded me of our singing together when we were growing up. Mother would always look proud, as only a mother can, when we would sing Christmas carols in three-part harmony. She never seemed to notice when we were off key. She would tap her foot and nod her head to the rhythm as though she had orchestrated the song herself. There was singing whenever we were together, no matter what the occasion (the girls especially). It helped us get through the seemingly endless stacks of dirty dishes after our dinners. The guys always disappeared.
Mother was blessed with strength, perseverance and a wonderful sense of humor. Best of all she could laugh at herself. Since that day, I have made it a point to reflect on the good things about her life, the funny things she used to say and do. I stopped mourning her losses and mine.
I now find comfort in knowing that "she'll always be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."