I put our Christmas tree up yesterday afternoon. For the first time, my four-year-old grandson Brendan helped.
“We’re working as a team, Papa!”
“Yes, baby. We’re a team.”
When we were finished we sat on the floor and shared a cup of hot chocolate together. The look in his eyes is what I remember of my own children and it brings conflicting emotions. I’m so glad we can make Christmas special for him, but I’m sad that I can no longer do so for my own kids. I hate them being gone and I miss them so much at this time of year.
After we’d finished our chocolate, I told Brendan there were a few more things remaining to do. Going out into the garage, I brought in a very special box. As I took the contents from the box one by one, I explained to Brendan what they were, and why I treasure them.
The first item was an old manger, dusty and weathered by time. It's fragile and showing its age now, but it’s not Christmas without it.
“Your great-grandmother Della gave me this when I was five years old.”
“Gosh, Pa! How old is it?”
“It’s forty-years old, son. I know that seems very old to you, as it did to me when I was young like you, but it passed so quickly, baby. You would have loved Granny, Mr. B, and she would have adored you.”
“Was she nice, Papa?”
“She was more than nice, son. She was the sweetest person I’ve ever known. We used to bake cookies together for Christmas. I mostly just got in the way, but she always had me help her. I loved sitting in her lap, eating warm snickerdoodles and drinking my chocolate milk.”
“I like to help you, and sit in your lap, Pa!”
“I know you do, baby. Papa likes it too.”
Smiling at my little grandson, I placed my grandmother’s manger under our tree and carefully arranged the white cloth around it to make it look like snow. My mind was flooded with memories of a lady I loved with all my heart and who I miss every day of my life. I can still see her smile, her eyes twinkling behind small, round glasses. I miss the warmth of her hugs, our talks on the porch, her tenderness and her wisdom.
My grandmother gave me a great gift, a gift I had to become much older to appreciate fully. She believed in me. I hope she’s looking down from Heaven today, and can see how much her little grandson still loves and cherishes her many years after her death.
Turning back to the box, I took out three tattered old stockings. They belonged to my children when they were small. I remember their excitement on Christmas morning when we handed them the stockings stuffed full of cookies and small toys, and with a note from Santa to each child. Brendan and I went downstairs to the fireplace, and as I lifted him up he placed each stocking on the mantle so Santa could see them.
“Mama has a surprise for you, baby.”
“What is it Pa?” he asked, wide-eyed.
“Better go see!”
Brendan ran up the stairs yelling, “What do have for me, Ma?” After a moment, he excitedly cried out, “Pa! I got my own stocking! It’s just like the others and it has my name on it!”
“Well, you better bring it down here, honey.”
Brendan came back downstairs carefully holding his stocking so it wouldn’t drag on the floor. I lifted him again, and he proudly placed his alongside those of his aunt and uncles.
“Will I get something from Santa in my stocking, Pa?”
“Have you been a good boy this year?”
“Yes! I’m always a good boy except when I’m mad.”
Laughing, I told Brendan I was sure his stocking would be stuffed as full as Santa could get it. His happy smile lit up the room, and his Papa’s heart. He ran to tell his Mommy about his special gift, and left me alone in the family room with my children’s memories for a few moments. Where did the time go? How did my babies grow so fast? It seems like only yesterday when our home was filled with their laughter. When bedtime meant changing giggling little bodies into pajamas with feet. God, how I miss them. The only regret I have over my children is that I cannot do it all over again. I was lucky; I realized they were a gift from God and I cherished every day with them.
They’re grown and gone now, with children of their own. I'm very proud of them, but I still long for the days when they were small. My daughter laughs at me sometimes because I’m so sentimental. I can’t help it, it’s just who I am. I suppose it’s silly for a grown man’s eyes to fill with tears when he thinks of those he’s lost along the way. Sometimes the tears are sad and lonely, sometimes they’re filled with longing for another day of my long-ago life. Mostly, they are simply expressions of the love and gratitude I feel for those wonderful and wise people who made me what I am.
This year, Christmas is even more special because of how horrible and trying the year has been. I was hurt but I’m alive. My body was broken, but my spirit didn’t bend. I called on the strength and love of my youthful memories to pull me through. They didn’t fail me.
On Christmas morning I will watch my beloved grandson tear into his gifts with glee. I will smile, and his joy will be my greatest gift this season. My eyes will wander to the stockings hanging over the fireplace and the manger under the tree, and I will once again recall special people and cherished memories. I will see, in my mind’s eye, the bustle of my grandmother's kitchen and hear her soft singing as she bakes cookies for her grandson. I will hear again the laughter of my own children on those ancient Christmas mornings when they were young, and I will softly thank God in my heart for all his gifts to a foolish and undeserving man.