Christmas, COVID-19, Family

Christmas trees, pandemic, 2020

As the winter solstice approaches, with its short cold days and long nights, I feel a familiar swirl of feelings—sadness mixes with pleasure, contentment quickly turns into restlessness. These feelings are intensified by the approach of Christmas, a holiday that for most of my adult life I’ve greeted with nostalgia and a vague sense of loss. I wrote about this feeling of being homesick for Christmas in a blog post a few years ago. My sister’s death in December 2018 sharpened the edges of the sadness and pandemic-induced isolation has given the season a new twist of poignancy—it’s been tempting to simply ignore Christmas this year. 

In the end I decided to put up a tree, wanting to bring the green and light of warmer times into my home. The first step was twining the string of lights carefully around the tree, aiming for an evenness in spacing that I never quite achieved. “Beauty is in the imperfections,” I kept telling myself as I tugged a strand up here and down there but never closing the light gap on the left side of the tree. 

I sorted through the box of ornaments, taking the time to remember the stories that accompany them—these are a gift from a friend, these were on my dad’s tree when he was a child, here’s one my mom gave me when I first had my own decorated tree in an apartment far from home, a Norfolk Island pine whose slippery branches I loaded down with ornaments and small white lights. 

I lifted out brightly colored discs and balls; several cat figures; a delicate glass hummingbird; a crystal snowflake; a slightly tattered stuffed elephant that my sister had brought back from India; a small trombone, one of the vintage ornaments from my dad’s childhood tree. I hung the ornaments carefully, pausing often to step back and assess bare spots. 

Decorating a tree was a good thing to do in this strange year and yet I felt slightly let down. I wanted to feel more joy in the doing, to bask in the beauty of the lights glowing in a dark room, to feel the grace of light in a dark time, of continuity, of ties back through time. 

I wanted to feel the delight I’d felt as a teen when my sister and I would decorate the tree on Christmas eve, place the brightly wrapped presents, stuff the stockings. I remember how I’d sit in the darkened room with only the tree for light, everyone else asleep, and feel a wordless wonder. But of course that remembered joy and grace came as much from the shared experience of decorating the tree as it did from the tree itself–the laughter and teasing and loving connection, the anticipation of others’ delight. 

And so my pleasure in the solo tree decorating is muted, tinged with an awareness of loss, accompanied by ghosts of my young self, my sister, our family. I’ll keep the tree up until New Year’s day and I’ll sit for a few minutes late at night, with only the light of the tree, and maybe instead of waiting for—and missing—the remembered reverence, I’ll let the light wash over me, let it be what it is today. 

Crafts, Family, Home

The black ceramic dog

The window ledge above my kitchen sink is home to a collection of artifacts—a glass replica of a Hershey’s kiss given me by a roommate years ago, a miniature watercolor of an iris that I bought in an antique store near my sister’s house in England, a tiny blue vase I made in my wheel thrown pottery phase, and a black ceramic dog that I made in eighth grade art class. 

I have never been much of an artist ; I’ve abandoned attempts at learning to draw or use watercolors. I don’t remember much about that art class—I suspect it wasn’t one of my more successful academic experiences.

But there’s this dog with ears and a nose and legs curled up and a tail tucked in. Never mind the fact it looks like a black lab and I was trying to make a statue of our family’s tiny brown terrier. I made this thing that is pleasing to the eye and fits easily in my hand. The surface is smooth although I can feel lumps in the clay when I glide my finger along its body.

I don’t remember what I did with it after I brought it home from school. Did I keep it in my bedroom? Give it to my mom? Many years later I saw it on her writing desk where it sat between the blotter and the lamp. After she died I packed it into my suitcase and brought it back to Massachusetts with me. 

This doggie has lived on the ledge above the sink for all the years I’ve been in this house–a small lumpy thread back to childhood. I often don’t notice it—it’s just part of the array of small items that have migrated to that spot. But sometimes my eyes linger on it and I stroke its back. It reminds me to create what needs to be created, even if it ends up being a black lab rather than a terrier. 

Family, Garden, Grief, Home, Nature, Poetry

Yes, and…

In our writing group recently one of the prompts was Jane Kenyon’s poem “Heavy Summer Rain” in which she writes about missing someone “…steadily, painfully.” This poem felt particularly poignant as we move into late summer/early fall days when the quality of the light, the feel of the air remind me of my yearly visits with my sister either here in New England or at her home in England. I miss her deeply, especially when I sit in the garden in the late afternoon. The following is what emerged in that writing session, with just a bit of editing to make it readable.

*****

A pervasive ache of missing weaves through my days. Missing far flung friends, missing places, missing you. Missing Maine and the view of Damariscotta as we drop down the hill from Route 1, then the road out to the coast, the tang of sea air, the porch overlooking the cove, sitting there with you in late afternoon light as birds skim the water. Or missing your little piece of England, the view of the village up on its hill, the church where you and Peter are buried, the village hall and cricket field, the winding lane that curves in front of your house, your garden that slopes up to a fence and field, your house with its multileveled roofline, its stepped and staggered rooms, its worn upholstery and pooled lamplight.

The shape of loss changes with time, the space it occupies waxes and wanes. I go for days without much thought of you and then…I’ve written about this before, how turning from Route 116 onto the road toward home jolts me back to the turnoff to your house or how a particular bird call tugs me back to your garden in the late afternoon. Small seams of grief. 

I recently re-read Unless by Carol Shields. I took the book off your shelf the last time I was in your house, before all the books were packed up to be sold or given away. I remember your admiration for her writing and your small pleasure in having known her. She was a year ahead of you at Hanover College and preceded you on a junior year abroad to study at Exeter University. You told the story of how her safe return from this trip convinced our father that it was OK for you to head off to England, where you met Peter and fell in love with him and his home, how she set you on a course that took you around the world. 

A friend emailed me a recent New York Times article about Carol Shields. As I read I felt your absence tip-toe in. I wanted to call you and tell you about the article, send it on to you. 

A pervasive ache of missing threads through my days but I’m not, on the whole, unhappy. Tired of this viral existence? Of course. Worried about the future, the election, the course of the pandemic? Oh, yes. But day to day small pleasures abound, details I wish I could share with you in a Sunday phone call—a meal with friends at the end of the day, a pot of hot orange zinnias in the garden, an egret wading in the river, a small boy in yellow shorts and orange sneakers running down the path, a rooster that crows at me as I walk by his driveway domain, the white flowers on the chives glowing at dusk, like small stars hovering close to ground. Grief and delight. The “yes, and…” of life. 

Christmas, Family, Home, Music

Music and memories

Christmas eve morning, 2019. A young boy’s voice, pure and clear, sang the first line of Once in Royal David’s City and I was instantly transported back two years to England and my sister’s house, the last Christmas we spent together.

We’d had a mid-day meal at a nearby inn and by 3, with the sun low in the sky, we were back at her house, mugs of tea in hand, ready to watch the BBC broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols service from King’s College, Cambridge. Coats rustled as people took their seats, silence fell, and a young boy’s voice rang out. 

I don’t remember when I first listened to this service—it might have been at my sister’s house or possibly with my mother on one of those quiet Christmases we spent together after dad died. I’d arrive on the 22nd or 23rd and we’d spend the morning of Christmas eve listening to the lessons and carols and decorating the tree. The listening helped us feel connected to my sister at home in her English village.  

On this Christmas eve, I sat for a few minutes then I was up and puttering around the house while the service played in the background. I paused to listen more intently to certain carols—Silent Night, Adeste Fidelis. And as the voices soared I was taken even further back to family Christmases in Ohio and the candlelit lessons and carols services we attended at Mariemont Community church, a small stone church modeled after English parish churches. 

I remember the strong descending notes of the organ and then the choir singing “On this day, earth shall ring…” as they processed in, the stone walls and dark wood pews, the familiar carols and my sister and I searching for the harmony line, the final carol, Adeste Fidelis, with its soprano descant that spiraled up through the candlelit space, and then the choir singing Masters in This Hall as they recessed. 

Music and memories. I spent Christmas with friends and will gather with friends tonight to see out the year. I revel in these warm connections—I am held by them just as I am warmed and held by the music of the season and the memories it brings. 

Once in Royal David’s City, sung by Kings College Choir, 2016

Adeste Fidelis, sung by Harvard University Choir, 2009

On This Day Earth Shall Ring, sung by the Kings College Choir, 2009

Masters in This Hall, sung by HSPVA Madrigal Choir, 2009

Crafts, Family, Friends, Home

Is it done yet?

“Have you finished that afghan?” Jean asked during one of my last visits with her before she died. I didn’t see her often in her final months but each time I visited she asked about the afghan that sat in my knitting bag, two-thirds done. 

I don’t remember what prompted me to start this project, which is actually a lap blanket rather than an afghan. Did I imagine it wrapped around my own knees on winter nights? I already have an abundance of woven or fleecy or hand knitted options for knee warming. At various points in the years since I started it I’ve considered possible recipients, hoping that the deadline of holiday gift giving would spur me on. But it continues to languish. 

Jean was a long-time friend—and my knitting guru. An artist with needles and yarn, she encouraged me to stretch my skills, take on intricate stitch challenges, branch out from scarves to knit a sweater or hat, ruthlessly rip back to fix mistakes. We spent many chilly evenings sitting at her dining table, a fire crackling in the woodstove, knitting and talking while scarves, hats, sweaters, and shawls grew. 

I learned to knit when I was nine or ten. My cousin was visiting and my mom, desperate for ways to keep us occupied, sat us down with balls of yarn and knitting needles and set us to work making garter stitch potholders. Sporadic forays into knitting in my young adult years mostly resulted in half finished projects. I did eventually finish an orange wool scarf made with yarn I bought in Ireland on a two-month England and Ireland exploration the summer after junior year at university. The bright wool knit up nicely in popcorn stitch. I wore the scarf a few times and then left it in a restaurant that immediately went out of business and the scarf became the property of the creditors. 

Mom was an accomplished knitter, regularly producing sweaters and vests and scarves to keep us all warm. She knit American style—and that’s what she taught me. I’ve since been told this is an inefficient method but in her hands it was fluid and fast. I can still see her sitting on the couch, eyes on a TV show, fingers flying as she inserted the needle, wrapped the yarn, slipped off the stitch, row after row. 

I have an afghan that mom made—she made several and gave them to family members scattered around the globe. Mine is shades of green and each square is a different stitch pattern. I also have several scarves, a hat, and a sweater I made for myself. And maybe this winter I’ll finish and bind off the lap blanket—and imagine Jean saying “Well, finally!”