“We two kept house, the past and I . . .
Through all my tasks it hovered nigh,
Leaving me never alone.”
– Thomas Hardy
For some reason, my age group perhaps, I’m hearing of more and more people this year who are facing Christmas alone.
Oh, we cajole, there are dozens of ways to fill the day: volunteer at a homeless shelter, visit patients in a hospital or nursing home, invite other “singles” to share a meal or the day with you and brighten your own day by dispelling the sadness for someone else.
All good suggestions, but emotions don’t always obey our bidding, and the “should-dos” are overshadowed by what my pastor calls, “recycled memories.”
One of those “memories” resurfaces for me, and I recall the time when I, too, followed the prevailing opinion – and the song – that having “a merry little Christmas” occurs only when “we all will be together.” But as I learned at the time, not every custom or song lyric is necessarily true.
Talk about culture shock. There I was, the country girl from a large family who migrated to college, marriage and motherhood without intermission, alone at Christmas for the first time in my life.
I was divorced, my extended family scattered across the country and my sons both away – one serving in the U.S. Navy, and the other spending the day with his new in-laws out of town.
“I’ll be fine,” I told the newlyweds. “I had you at Thanksgiving, and we can celebrate when you get back.”
I remembered the Christmases when my husband and I had disappointed one set of parents or the other and vowed to spare my children similar guilt.
I spent the morning cleaning traces of bread and cookie-dough from the kitchen, and packing away leftover cards and wrapping paper for another year. Tasks complete and order restored, I poured myself a cup of hot tea, lighted a fire in the fireplace and sat down by the Christmas tree. Surprisingly, my thoughts were as warm as the fire.
There, on the tree, were the Chrismons my now-grown sons and I had made a dozen years before. The gold-trimmed Styrofoam stars, crosses, anchors and other shapes were all monograms of the Christ Child we believed represented the true meaning of the day.
On the table beside the tree sat the red-trimmed wire-mesh Christmas card holder my younger son had made for me in Cub Scouts. The elegant Lladro figurine my Navy son purchased for me during a stopover in Spain stood in a nearby cabinet. The angel on top of the tree was a gift from a special friend, and assorted Christmas-related souvenirs from other times and gift-givers gleamed from every nook and tabletop in the room.
Memories of my once little-boy shepherds or “wise men” in Sunday School pageants also made a return visit, followed by the feasts and family gatherings we enjoyed whenever our military address placed us within driving distance of parents or assorted other kin.
I remembered, too, the orange-in-the-toe stockings “hung by the chimney with care,” the all-nighters with “some-assembly-required” toys and the early-morning light in our children’s eyes when those laboriously assembled objects were just what they hoped Santa would bring.
My thoughts returned to the present.
“You can come to work with me,” a friend who knew I would be alone had said the night before. No, I decided. Following the usual consuming month of family and church activities, being – and resting – alone was better than another day at work. I thought, too, of the neighbor who was undergoing chemotherapy. Being alone is better than being sick.
The shadows lengthened; my first solitary Christmas was about to end. I rose to put another log on the fire and pour myself another cup of tea when I heard a commotion at the front door.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!”
The newlyweds had left her parents’ home after their afternoon meal and driven 4 to 5 hours to spend some of the day with me. We managed to open gifts and finish a light meal of soup and cookies before the exhausted travelers went upstairs to bed.
I lingered a few moments by the smoldering fire and still-sparkling tree and savored the day. Though I was grateful for the surprise visit of my son and new daughter-in-law, it felt like they – and the others – had been there all day.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer, and author of As Long As the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County’s Past. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)