A Box of Memories

“Memories…May be beautiful and yet…What’s too painful to remember…We simply to choose to forget.”

Bergman/Hamilsch “The Way We Were”

“Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open I’ll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I’ve stored away, just for this time in my life.”

Author Unknown

It’s nearly time for my annual game of Holiday Decoration Tetris. In the past few years, I’ve downsized considerably, resulting in fewer boxes and bins, so the game has become less exciting, but it’s a challenge nevertheless. Before I can extricate the plastic tubs from the front closet where they have resided… pushed aside, ignored, and buried…for the past eleven months, I have to remove a big box of Easter baskets and artificial flowers that has been unceremoniously stashed on top. Then I need to move the extra, oak, table-leaves that are leaning precariously against the box holding my senior-citizen-living-alone-sized artificial tree. After all the bins have been liberated I will gingerly remove the lids and inspect the contents. To the casual observer, the contents would appear as a collection of inconsequential junk… little plastic sculptures, fragile bits of colored glass, and painted popsicle sticks together with scraps of paper glued and glittered. But, in actuality, they are the tangible manifestation of love and connection held together by memories.

O, ChristmasTree
2020

Most of the holiday trimmings I collected over the years have gone to my children, been sold at the church bazaar, or have simply vanished in the foggy mist of time. The remaining boxes hold only that which is most meaningful. I have a large glass ornament that hung on my mother’s childhood tree.  In its final years, it is nearly naked of paint and gold bits that once adorned it.  I have a few brightly-colored, delicate treasures that have survived from the 1950s.  I remember them from as far back as I can remember.   During the 1970s,  on the day after Christmas, I rushed out, along with many other shoppers in my small town, to purchase Hallmark decorations at half price.  I no longer have most of those bargains, but the few that remain help me recall the love and joy of another place and time.  Art projects from school, church, and crafting days at home hold special memories. I pause momentarily when I take them from the box picturing the tiny fingers that created them and wishing that I could hold those little hands just once more.

More than any other time of year, the holiday season stirs our senses and calls our memories into the present. I hear Silent Night, and I am singing with family and friends outside the Methodist Church on a long-ago Christmas Eve as snow freckles my nose. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and anise transport me to my grandmother’s root cellar with crocks and tins filled with Lebkuchen, Russian Teaballs, and Springerles. Reminders and memory joggers are inescapable. They surround us with connections to people and places we can only visit in our memories. The reliving often brings us comfort, smiles, and joy; but it may also carry feelings of melancholy, loss, and sadness; and an imperative to treasure the present moment and use it to create fresh memories that will give us succor in the future.

I’m not totally sure if it is an age thing or a Covid thing, but I have lived much of this past year…not just this coming holiday season…with a strong reliance on memories and a great deal of longing for the past… for the way things were before coronavirus, rapid-tests, or KN95s…or… at least the way I think they were. So it’s a bit disturbing when I consider the signifant role memories have been playing in my life…especially when I can’t seem to recall what day it is or why I went into the kitchen. I’ll be the first to admit that much of what I choose to remember has been colored by the rosy tint of my glasses. I’m reasonably good at dismissing those memories that don’t tell the story I want to hear.

“In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to revisit and renew our ties with friends and family. It always involves a little harmless self-deception, like forgetting the pain of childbirth.” 

Stephanie Coontz

In September, after a two-year absence, I returned to two places that have held great meaning in my life…places where my spirit is most at home…Stratford, Ontario and Star Island off the coast of NH. Before making the trip, I weighed the risks, precautions, and benefits. As I crossed into Canada and as I stepped onto the dock I literally stopped in my tracks to acknowledge just how lucky I was to be returning…stepping out of my memories…out of my imagining…and into a very tangible present. I seemed to slip outside myself a few times and view the situation with some detachment. I was a cinematographer searching for the best angle to capture my present while being aware that there were flashbacks and parallel scenes I’d want to incorporate in the final production. The present always contains shadows of the past.


Swans…Down the Hill from the Theatre
Stratford, ON 2021

In Stratford, I had tickets for live theatre. How amazing was that? After a canceled season, there I was enjoying two plays. A huge canopy had been erected and masks and other accommodations were in place to keep everyone safe, thus allowing the show to go on. I have enjoyed more than 40 seasons at the Stratford Festival, but this time I was there without the Stratford Gang or any family members. Just me. It could have been a heavy-hearted experience, but it wasn’t. Yes, I did miss having companions, but I could hear their voices, feel their laughter, and see them hurrying through the park toward the theatre hoping to arrive before the trumpets sounded. How could I be lonely? They were everywhere.

The Chapel at Sunrise in September
Midweek 2021

The following week found me on the Thomas Leighton, on my way out to Star Island. In June, when I would have normally been on Star, I was still hesitant about traveling. However, once I understood all the safety precautions being taken, I decided that I had to go. I knew that being on that rock in the Atlantic would feed my soul. A few other Shoalers also felt the island’s pull, but most of my friends would not be there. So much of Star Island is constant: the rocks, the wind, the gulls, and the waves, but the people give it life. I felt the absence of old friends even as the memory of their laughter, kindness, and sense of fun echoed in my heart, encouraging me to create new memories and giving me permission to make new connections.

Our memories, the way we tend to experience them, are sort of fuzzy around the edges, like a watercolor that has bled into the past and is not totally clear.

Lisa Joy

I wonder. When we spend meaningful time in a place do you suppose we leave bits of ourselves…our molecules…in the bricks, boards, and stones? Do you think the memories we create in a place are like a form of our DNA? I have visited many sacred sites where the presence of ancestors has been almost palpable. It’s difficult for me to stand in a very old cathedral without being moved. The architecture is designed to elicit a sense of awe and wonder, but I believe it is the lingering memory of the human activity…weddings, baptisms, funerals, innumerable pleas for help, and prayers of thanksgiving…that inspires me…creating the sacred and making it holy.

People don’t realize that now is all there ever is; there is no past or future except as memory or anticipation in your mind.

Eckhart Tolle

I saw a rather sad meme on Facebook recently: When the glue of the family passes away, the holidays are never the same. My first response was to sadly agree, but almost immediately, I had to admit that in reality, the holidays are never the same…they are constantly changing…we never get the same one twice. Wee ones grow up and elders pass away, and eventually, it is our turn to become the glue. It is up to us to create the magic and the memories. As I juggle the tubs, boxes, and bins, I realize that memories come out of those containers, but they also go in as well. Whether we are able to gather in person or if we once again connect over Zoom…we’ll be making memories. We won’t keep them all, but our favorites will be placed safely in the boxes and bins, waiting for another year when they too will be taken out, caressed, and treasured.

“When you are gone, the only truly important thing you will leave behind are the memories you’ve created.”

Michael Hyatt; Daniel Harkavy, Living Forward

Christmas Conversations with That Little Voice in My Head

One semester my high school art class focused on crafts, including ceramics. While others busied themselves making giant ashtrays and long-haired cats, I concentrated on smoothing seams, selecting colors, and painting a version of the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lying in a manger. For over half a century, these three have held a place of honor in our family Christmas.

The Art Class Creations of a Teenager

Most nativity scenes…aside from a massive display I saw in Notre Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg that included an elephant…imagine that on the streets of Bethlehem…portray the birth of Jesus as a quiet, solitary affair.  Until the shepherds and the magi show up, it’s pretty much just M, J, and J along with the livestock.

A Section of the Nativity…Complete with Elephant
Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, France

The story is pretty much the same In the countless retellings I’ve heard.  Mary and Joseph arrived in town. They couldn’t find a room in the local inn, so they took refuge in a stable, and that very night, without the need for pain relief or assistance, Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus, by starlight and the gentle, soothing sounds of the curious animals. 

Perhaps it is because I am spending so much time alone these days, but that little voice in my head…I really should give her a name… has been especially chatty and persistent lately. Our conversations prompt me to reconsider that 2000-year-old narrative and contemplate the details that might have been omitted, overlooked, or cast aside. I also keep thinking that we would have more specifics if a woman had been consulted while the Gospels were written. Women know that every birth comes with a story and that young mothers are usually eager to share the details. I’ve never heard another birth story as short as…it was time to give birth, so she did. Have you seen “Call the Midwife”?

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.”

Luke 2:6-7 NIV

Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph went from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. Not the most efficient plan in my estimation, but it seems governmental bureaucracy has been around, literally, since biblical times. Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home…basically his hometown. He had deep roots and many family ties to the small city. Surely, he still had friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles, and perhaps even grandparents living there.  

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David;

Luke 2:4 ASV

As it happens, my son was unintentionally born at home.  While my mom stayed with me, my poor father rushed to fetch a nearby friend, a nurse, to help with the early arrival. Dad entered her house without knocking…totally out of character…and said, in a voice cracking with emotion, “I need help. I have a new baby at my house, and I don’t know what to do with it.”  Within half an hour of his birth, my son was surrounded by his sister, my sister, my parents, the nurse, her entire bridge club, and the next-door neighbors as well. Knowing the excitement around the birth of my son on a quiet November night in rural Michigan,  I find it difficult to believe that Mary and Joseph in a crowded city full of family would have faced the birth alone. The women undoubtedly would have been there to soothe Mary’s brow and tell her when to push. They would have fetched the swaddling clothes, washed the wee one, and rocked him while Mary rested. It seems to me the authors left out all the best parts.  

And what about Joseph?  He seems to get short shrift in this tale.  It’s true that the Joseph in my nativity set lost his crook years ago and has had to have his head reattached a couple of times, but I doubt he was merely a bystander in Bethlehem? If Mary was chosen to be the mother, doesn’t it follow that Joseph was also selected for his role?

One of my fondest Christmas memories happened during the annual church pageant a few years ago. Just as the procession was about to begin, the second-grader playing Joseph looked up at me, and with a voice full of tenderness and hope, asked, “Can I hold the baby, too sometime?”  Of course. Wouldn’t Joseph have wanted to hold the baby sometime too?  Unfortunately, most depictions have him relegated to the background, pushed aside by the shepherds while looking on beatifically.  He must have been tired and perhaps overcome with the miracle and wonder of the moment as he gazed upon Mary and the baby, but he was not unimportant. He gathered hay for bedding, ensured that the sheep and cows kept their distance, and kept Mary and Jesus warm and fed. I have no doubt that then he held the baby too.

St Joseph with the Infant Jesus
Guido Reni (1575-1642)
Joseph seems a little on the old side to me, but who knows?

The Gospels tell us of shepherds, angels, and magi, but not a word about the people who made reservations and actually had rooms in the inn. There were no streetlights in Bethlehem, so what must they have thought when the light of a brilliant star…a star bright enough to be used for navigational purposes…was suddenly beaming in through the window?  How could they get any sleep with something that bright shining in their eyes?  Did they drape blankets over the window, cower in their rooms in fear, or grab their robes and sandals and rush out to explore? 

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 

Matthew 2:9

If Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because it was Joseph’s hometown, so to speak, what about Mary’s family? Where were her parents?

This year, when so many of us wish we could be with our children and grandchildren, I feel a strong bond with Mary’s mother, who is unnamed in the Gospels and entirely left out of the story.  She must have worried, not knowing whether the women of Joseph’s family would support and coach Mary through the birth and how her arms must have ached to hold little Jesus, her grandson. Without Zoom, cellphones, or even a reliable postal system to comfort her, how could she focus on her daily chores during the years the young family was in exile in Egypt?

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519
While ignored in the Gospels, she does get a name in the Apocrypha.

I have so many more questions, and there are so many stories within stories in this ancient narrative.  Perhaps that’s the lesson the voice in my head is trying to teach me.  Look beyond the soloist in the spotlight to the angels in the chorus and beyond the shepherds in the stable to the one who had to stay behind to watch the sheep. Like these unnamed characters with uncredited roles, we all have a part to play and a story worth knowing.

Throughout my life, I have seen myself as the frightened shepherd who nonetheless curiously ventures forward, the seeker who journeys toward a promise and a goal, the young mother rocking her child, and now in the autumn of my life, the grandmother, yearning to be near her family. We can all find ourselves somewhere in the narrative if we look carefully.

The Arrival of the Shepherds
Photo credit: Pixabay

In the manner of Mary’s mother, this holiday season, I will patiently wait for the time we can all be together again. I will wear my mask, social distance, and wash my hands, keeping myself safe until that time.

In the meantime, like the folks in the inn, I’ll have to decide whether to cover the window and ignore the star or find new ways to join the celebration safely.

Update: Christmas 2021…A year later, the threat of covid still hangs in the air, much like the decree from King Herod following the birth of Jesus. However, unlike M, J, and J, there is no escape into a foreign land. Grandmothers around the world face the same threat and the same dilemma.

And yet, as I await Christmas morning, I chuckle to myself. The wee ones are looking forward to a visit from a chubby, old, white-haired guy in a sleigh, while I, a chubby, old, white-haired woman driving a Mini-Cooper, can hardly wait for the arrival of those little children. So I am vaccinated, boosted, tested, and masked…a small price to pay for smiles, hugs, and the closeness of family.