Sorrow Mixed With Holiday Cheer

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Christmas, 1965, I’m the sailor girl, he’s in blue plaid

 

We sat at the dining room table, my father having cleared a corner where we could both work. Agreeing to combine our efforts, we decided to write out both his and my Christmas cards in one fell swoop. These days, my visits to the folks come around more frequently—either flying or driving the three hundred miles to spend a few days back in my childhood home. And I didn’t mind addressing that stack of cards, especially with my dad sitting faithfully next to me making the job that much more special.

It’s my brothers who do the heavy lifting around the old homestead. My middle brother, in particular, visits nearly every day, pruning the shrubs, cutting the lawn, shoveling winter snow, and answering those midnight calls for transportation to the hospital which are also growing more frequent.

My youngest brother passes his weekend visits with on-sight, live-in chores. Heavy furniture moved, manure bags hauled, and removing and returning Mom’s giant window box cover, an aluminum contraption, some eight feet long. When those chores are finished, number three son whisks my father off to look at cars, both vintage, and new because they both like cars . . . a lot.

They take it easy on me when it comes to manual labor. My main job is to hang out with the folks and just go with the flow. On one earlier stay my Mom decided we should head out to the local mall. Happy to make the foray into retail-land, I wrestled her wheeled walker into the car, jockeyed for entrance onto the freeway, and we spend the afternoon simply looking around the stores, making time for a little overpriced coffee at the mall coffee spot. On this trip her sudden impulse for fun surprised me. All three of us sped the opposite direction on Interstate 90, to the Coeur de Alene Indian Casino, for some noisy, smoky, slot machine therapy.

If Caesar Milan is the Dog Whisperer, then my mother is the Slot Machine Whisperer. Stooped and round-shouldered, that little dynamo of a woman, cane in hand, cruises through islands of blinking, ringing machines, moving as smoothly as R2D2, but with more tenacity. She says ripe machines beckon to her, and damn if it isn’t true. As I sit beside her, losing my mortgage payment (at an identical machine) Mom turns ten bucks into a sweet fifty in a heartbeat. And she can get an awfully cocky for an old lady.

Bending over my work, back at the table, my Dad and I subtly figure out a production line. I copy last year’s addresses from a stack of cards, one by one, jotting them onto fresh envelopes. Stuffing this year’s card inside, I scribble into a spiral notebook each recipient for his records. My father then presses both the return address sticker and postage stamp on to the envelope corners and seals them up. This system is efficient and should have processed smoothly, except that my parents are now eighty-three, and their friends and close relatives are getting up there, too.

“This one is wrong. He’s in assisted living now. Oh, and he died just before Thanksgiving, poor guy. Say, can you put a line through that first address, and write in the new one?”

“Sure. It will still get where it’s going,” I assure him.

“She died a few months ago.” He sighs. “I’d better look at those envelopes,” he reaches for last year’s batch, “and I’ll get my address book.” Dad didn’t want to waste any more stationary. So by the time we were done with his cards, the final number had thinned down considerably, and he looked a little sad.

Despite that bitter-sweet atmosphere of sorrow mixed with holiday cheer, I found our time huddled at the end of that table somehow uplifting. Clearly our effort underscored that our lives can be measured as a series of losses. The loss of youth, of extraordinary moments too quickly expired, of dear friends, beloved pets, and the dearest of family members who leave us far too soon.

Still there was really no place I’d rather have been at that moment. I’m sixty years old and still I got to sit with my sweet, lovable, ever-constant dad, at a table we’ve shared since I was a little girl.

A precious gift indeed, in this season of joy.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January also available on Kindle

2 comments on “Sorrow Mixed With Holiday Cheer

  1. Jamie K Donaldson says:

    Very poignant, Gail. You really capture the mixed emotions of the holidays in general, of getting older, of watching our beloved parents age. Nicely done.

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