Some Christmas memories are about people.
Christmas, for so many years, meant Aunt Molly. She would show up and make Christmas happen for us. It wasn't just a matter of presents, although hers were always wonderful, well-considered and so appreciated. What mattered most was her infusion of Christmas spirit into our otherwise depressed and chaotic household. She would urge our father to stop brooding and go with us to buy the perfect tree at the Los Angeles train yards. Thrilling in the smell of pine and the crunch of needles underfoot, we'd buy a tree fresh off a boxcar, always one a bit tall for our eight foot ceiling, always with a delicious scent. Aunt Molly would lead us in singing round after round of Christmas carols. She'd make a fire in the fireplace and we'd settle in together for stories and songs and candy and presents, illuminated by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree and the roaring fire. And suddenly, because of her, life felt cozy and normal and festive.
In later years, she was the center of our holiday celebrations when our parents were gone and we were adults. For years, when neither my brother Mike nor my sister Tai were available on the holidays, Aunt Molly, Bob and I would celebrate at our place. Aunt Molly would arrive on early on Christmas Eve and we'd have tea and tiny sandwiches at an English tea room near our home. Then we would make a last, recreational trip to the mall so she could enjoy all the decorations there and then go to dinner at a local restaurant that had wonderful prime rib in sensible portions. When darkness fell, we would tour Valencia to see all the community's holiday lights: homes with outrageously lavish light displays, whole neighborhoods decorated with a theme and with lights strung across the streets, the neighborhood ablaze with Christmas cheer.
We always ended our tour at a modest little home in neighboring Newhall where a cactus was a the main attraction in an otherwise barren front yard. At Christmas, that cactus was blazing with red, green and gold twinkling lights -- and was our favorite viewing tradition of all. We would have a delicious homemade breakfast on Christmas morning, open and savor our gifts and then sit down to a turkey dinner. And amid all the tea, twinkling lights, treasured gifts and good food, there was laughter that rings sweetly in my memory to this day.
In time, Aunt Molly was unable to make the 100 mile each way drive to our home and Mike had joined us by then. We would take turns transporting her to the holiday festivities at my house or at the house where we had grown up (which Mike now owned) or we would carry the food and gifts to her home. Wherever we celebrated, it was wonderful and memorable.
She proposed some changes for Christmas 2003. Since traffic had been horrendous that Thanksgiving and it had taken us all many hours to reach her home, Molly proposed celebrating Christmas on the 27th in Valencia. She also suggested that we go out to our favorite pasta house for spaghetti this time. "It's time to celebrate Christmas a new way," she said. "Let's try it. I think it would be fun." So we did. Mike picked her up in Redlands and brought her to Valencia, stopping en route to visit Vroman's, the bookstore in Pasadena where she had taken us when we were children and which is our favorite bookstore to this day. It was a fabulous day, full of love and laughter and delicious pasta. And when Bob and I took her home, I held her, feeling her sudden fraility, wishing I could hold her forever yet knowing we might be close to losing her. The end came much sooner than any of us had imagined. A few days later -- on January 5, 2004 -- she died as gracefully as she had lived.
And Christmas has never been quite the same.
I have no memory of how we celebrated Christmas in 2004 and 2005, but in holidays since, we have taken her lead to create new traditions, always remembering this special person who made Christmas so merry to us for so long.
Some Christmas memories, of course, are not memories at all -- but stories or pictures passed down from our parents and others. For example, Christmas 1944 -- when my parents and Aunt Molly celebrated with special joy knowing that a new baby was on the way and the next year, my first Christmas, lives only as a picture my mother pasted happily in my baby book -- now worn with time and rich with the memory of family stories.
Some Christmas memories are forever linked with a particular incident or time of life.
There was the Christmas when, after we had brought our once-again too-tall-for-our-eight-foot ceiling tree home from the train yards, Father was about to saw about a foot from the bottom and Liz, our next door neighbor, suddenly appeared in our doorway. She had been out partying with girlfriends and was feeling no pain -- this delightful Southern belle who awed me with her ability to play honky tonk piano, to make my father laugh even when she was drawling "Jim McCoy, you are one silly son-of-a-bitch!" and to make any gathering more fun with her presence. Usually, the more she drank, the more she loved everyone. But this time, when she saw my father poised with his saw at the tree trunk, she became truly distraught. "Woodman!" she screamed, throwing herself down on the tree. "Woodman, spare this tree!" Settling into its fragrant branches, she refused to move, kicking out at my father until he put the saw aside. Then she fell asleep still entwined in the branches. My mother threw a quilt over Liz and the tree. I don't think we ever got that tree standing upright that year.
There was the Christmas when I was 13 and Aunt Molly convinced us to go sing carols outside my father's backyard workshop where he was brooding as usual. Aunt Molly, Mother, Mike, Tai and I dutifully gathered and sang heartily with no response from inside. But then suddenly, the door opened and the contents of a wastebasket filled with water cascaded out the door and totally drenched me. My three-year-old sister bristled with outrage. "Hey, you!" she screamed, kicking the shop door open and, hands on hips, addressing our father. "How dare you do that to my sister? And on Christmas! You tell her you're sorry NOW!" She glared at him and stamped her foot. Smiling, amused at this tiny child's fury on my behalf, he apologized and then joined us in song. To this day, this is Tai's first Christmas memory -- and she still gets mad every time she thinks of me dripping wet in the chill of a late December evening.
Then there was the year I couldn't come home for Christmas. I was a graduate student at Northwestern University near Chicago and, for the first time, was living in an apartment. Money was tight and my campus job required me to be there during the holidays. It had been an emotionally tough few months for me and I grieved at the thought of not spending the holidays with my family. But, to my surprise, that Christmas ended up being one of the best. It started when my roommate, with whom I didn't get along, left to spend the holidays with her family. Immediately, my dear friend Jeanne Nishida (now Yagi), then a senior at Northwestern, moved from her holiday-shuttered dorm to my apartment. Jeanne, too, was working and also couldn't afford to fly home to Hilo, Hawaii for the holidays. So we enjoyed our first ever white Christmas together making warm memories. We bought a fresh Christmas tree and, as neither of us owned a car, we carried it more than a mile through the snow and four flights up to my apartment. Jeanne baked glorious Christmas cookies. We visited friends for holiday parties, gifts and good cheer. We sang carols, watched the snow falling outside with new delight and agreed on Chinese take-out for Christmas Eve. To this day, my memories of this holiday time -- in an otherwise stressful, unhappy year of my life -- make me smile and think warmly about Jeanne, still a dear friend, who was -- and is -- such a blessing.
Then there was the infamous holiday 1981, our first in our new house in Valencia. My brother was a medical intern and had to work on both Christmas Eve and Christmas. Also, my brother and sister weren't getting along. What to do? I agreed to cook three Christmas feasts three days in a row. I cooked a turkey dinner for Mike and Aunt Molly on December 23. On the 24th, it was a ham dinner with all the trimmings for Bob's parents, brother and sister-in-law and grandmother. And on Christmas Day itself, my Kansas cousins Jack and George, who were living and working in the Los Angeles area, their wives and my sister Tai and her then-husband arrived for yet another turkey dinner. I was at the end of my rope when, about two hours before dinner, the turkey pan split, spilling grease all over the oven. Smoke roiled out of the kitchen and I snapped -- yelling at everyone to go out to the patio -- fortunately it was a warm day -- until the kitchen emergency was under control, the smoke had cleared and dinner had been salvaged. We laughed for many years about my wild-eyed hostessing that day and I have never again attempted a three day string of feasting.
Some Christmas memories are linked to things - like the handmade ornaments Bob's parents made for us over the years that still delight us and hang on our Christmas tree more than two decades after his mother's death.
Then there are the Christmas holidays that have signaled new beginnings.
A particularly memorable new beginning was Christmas 2006 when Mike brought Bob and me to Bangkok for Christmas and New Year's. We enjoyed a holiday both exotic and wonderfully familiar and the highlight of our celebration was meeting Mike's fiancee Jinjuta, nicknamed Amp, for the first time. We also enjoyed exploring a vibrant and very different city -- from teeming marketplaces and ladyboy cabaret shows to the famous "Cabbages and Condoms" restaurant where guests can pluck condoms rather than mints from a dish at the cashier's desk and where a good percentage of the restaurant's proceeds go to support family planning clinics throughout Thailand. But the best times of that very special holiday season were just relaxing with Mike and Amp, whom we came to know and love during that time, embracing her enthusiastically as a vital part of our family.
And then there was our first retired Christmas in 2010, the first in our new Arizona home, when we had a Christmas Eve Open House, inviting neighbors for dinner and song and celebration.
Our cats got in the holiday spirit, too, especially young Sweet Pea -- who loves to have her picture taken -- clowning in front of the Christmas tree and curling up between two cherished Christmas items that were gifts from two long-ago, warmly remembered patients.
Christmas 2012 will be quiet and reflective -- and that feels right this year.
Mike, Amp and their two young children Maggie, 3 and Henry, 6 months, are at their home in Thailand where Mike recently started an exciting and challenging new job. My sister Tai is working the holidays at her nursing job -- loving the extra holiday pay -- in Seattle with promises to visit for a delayed celebration in March.
So Bob and I will share a Christmas Eve dinner of pot roast, popovers and apple pie with our friends and neighbors Phyllis and Wally. Phyllis will be recovering from yet another painful surgery only a few days before and is looking to the future, which includes starting kidney dialysis, with some trepidation. We're hoping that a quiet, but heartfelt celebration with us -- not to mention a much anticipated visit from her daughter Kathy and son-in-law Evan a few days later -- will help quiet her fears and let her know that caring and support and love are all around her.
Bob and I will spend Christmas day quietly together, remembering all the sweet holidays of our life together and the memories to be made this year and our special Christmas wishes: that Phyllis will regain some health, strength and zest for life once her treatments begin in the new year; that our national heartbreak over the recent elementary school shootings in Connecticut will translate into positive change in terms of services to the mentally ill from childhood on and gun laws that make sense; that the divisions we feel as a nation will begin to fade and our national unity will grow to face the challenges of this new era.
As quiet as our holiday will be this year, we have much to celebrate both here and from afar.
We feel blessed to be celebrating our 38th Christmas together.
We're blessed with our loving animals, two of whom -- Hamish and Gus -- graced our Christmas cards this year.
We're blessed with loving family and friends and good health.
And we feel blessed to watch as, for another generation, Christmas magic and memories are just beginning. Because they're half a world away, we'll be part of their celebration via Face Time, as my nephew Henry has his first Christmas and my niece Maggie celebrates one of the first holidays she may remember. And we will be sharing their joy and wonder as another lifetime of Christmas memories begins.