Monday, December 31, 2012

A Quiet New Year's Eve

I just got an email from my dear friend Tim's daughter Mary Kate, wishing Bob and me a very happy New Year and telling me that her New Year's Eve will be quite different this year.

It has been, indeed, quite a year for this talented young actress. She has watched and celebrated as her brother and two sisters have married. And she is now celebrating finding a new and wondrous love herself. She wants to ring in this New Year on a note of quiet gratitude. "Matt and I want a nice quiet New Year's Eve," she wrote. "We want to reflect on the blessing of finding each other."

                   Mary Kate Schellhardt and Matt Palka: A Happy New Year   

That sentiment resonates so deeply with me as 2012 becomes 2013. At a time when it's so easy to focus on what's wrong with the world and on one's own daily aches, pains, limitations, disappointments and fears for the future, it really is important to take a time out and to celebrate all that's going right, all the good in one's life. So today, I'm feeling quiet gratitude for life's many blessings.

I feel blessed by family... and by friends who have become family.

                                         My sister Tai, a nurse in Seattle  

                            My brother Mike, a physician now working in Thailand 
         My sister-in-law Amp, so busy with Maggie, 3 and Henry, 6 months     
                                   Maggie and Henry, jetlagged in Bangkok                       

                         Mary, one of my dearest friends for more than 40 years
                                Tim, so dear to me for nearly 50 years 

          Ryan, our "Honorary Son" for twenty years and counting!

                    Ryan's life partner Sean, now also a beloved honorary son                    

There are joys and challenges with all our ties to family and friends, but such a blessing to see these relationships grow and become richer and even more treasured with time.

My sister Tai is 10 years younger than I am. We were separated by nearly a generation when we were young. But now that age barrier has become irrelevant and she is very much with me in experience and spirit as we age, bringing such warm understanding and irreverent humor to our discussions on the trials of aging, the turns life can take and the general state of the world and ourselves. My brother Mike, a wonderful kindred spirit all our lives together, has never ceased to amaze me with his accomplishments and choices -- like his late-in-life transformation into a family man. His wife Jinjuta, nicknamed Amp, brings such joy and lovely insights into family discussions and has given birth to the two youngest members of the family -- Maggie and Henry -- who never cease to make me smile. I never would have dreamed that a FaceTime call from my three-year-old niece in Bangkok (simply to tell me that her Daddy had just made her smiley faced pancakes) would bring me such joy.

And I'm so grateful for friends who have, through the years of shared joys and sorrows, become family. I met Mary when we were both working at 'TEEN Magazine more than 40 years ago. We've seen each other through so much love and loss and so many life changes and challenges.  Now more than ever, we really treasure time spent together. The same is true of my friend Tim, whom I met in college and who has been a source of inspiration, comfort, and great conversations in all the years since. Time and age have only added to the joy of this very special friendship. Both Mary and Tim -- as well as some others dear to me but not pictured -- have added immeasurably to my life.

Although Bob and I have never had children, there is a special young man who has felt like a son since he captured our hearts as a nine-year-old when he and Bob were matched in the Big Brothers program. Ryan is now a 29-year-old MSW, a social worker in Los Angeles, helping those most troubled and desperate every day on Skid Row. He is a wonderful young man who has found an equally endearing life partner Sean, a landscape architect, who has become an honorary son of ours as well. They made our Thanksgiving extra special this year by coming here to spend it with us.

Our animals are also family -- family to us and to each other. I'm grateful for our beautiful, sweet cats Gus, 14, Maggie, 5, Sweet Pea, 2 and Hammie, 8 months. They endlessly amuse us, cuddle up to us in bed and keep us on our toes, most recently chasing the ever-disappearing Christmas tree skirt. And they are wonderful with each other, offering support and grooming and love to one another.

                             Our male cats Gus and Hammie truly love each other

                          And Maggie and SweetPea groom -- and love -- Hammie     

I'm so grateful for the wonderful neighbors who brighten our days, bring us new and valuable perspectives, shared experiences and familial friendships that make us feel so warm and secure, even when we have families living far away.

I'm so grateful for health and well-being, for opportunities to be active, to lose that stubborn weight and become truly fit in the New Year.

I'm grateful for where I've been -- the challenges and the sorrows of life, the hard times as well as the fun times and moments of triumph. All of these experiences have shaped my world view and the person I've grown to be. And I'm grateful for now -- which is all I really have -- and for what will be -- new adventures, new challenges -- in the year to come.

And, certainly, not least, I'm grateful to have a true partner in life, my husband Bob. This is our 38th New Year's Eve together and, this coming May, we will celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary. Having someone with whom to grow older, someone who remembers my youth (as I remember his) and who appreciates me equally in older age is a blessing indeed. I feel so fortunate to have someone to share not only concern but also laughter over some of the indignities of older age.

                         Bob and me with our dual C-PAP machines - so romantic!                               

I'm grateful for all that we share, for laughter and music, for quiet moments and reflection.

I can remember some other New Year's Eves that were more lively: with parties, evenings with friends, dinners out. But this year, like Mary Kate, I'm dreaming, not of revelry, but of warm contentment and reflection.

This is a time to be mindful of blessings, realizing that another year has passed, that time is increasingly finite, that nothing or no one is forever ... or ever more treasured.

So this will be an evening to be still, to reflect, and to dream, ever mindful of the passage of time and the blessings of each moment.

Friday, December 28, 2012

100th Birthday Musings

If my mother -- Ethel (aka Caron) Curtis McCoy -- were alive today, she would be celebrating her 100th birthday.

How different her world -- and ours -- would be had she lived to see this day, or even come close, instead of leaving this life when she was the age I am now.

How very much she missed: the adventures she dreamed of having after our father's death, when she had, at last, some hard-won freedom; seeing the professional successes we were to have -- my books, Michael's stellar medical career, Tai fulfilling Mother's dream for her to become a nurse.

But, even more, she died years before any grandchildren arrived. How she had longed for grandchildren! She even imagined that one of them might be a redhead. Her mother had red hair and she had always dreamed of having at least one ginger child. It didn't happen. But Nick, my sister's child, has beautiful red hair. How Mother would have loved and enjoyed her -- and what a difference it might have made to this child whose paternal grandparents were so rejecting of her because she was a girl and not the grandson they wanted. And how she would have cherished Maggie and Henry!

                                             The Grandchildren She Never Knew

                                        Nick, Tai's daughter, born in 1990

                                       Maggie, Mike's daughter, born in 2009
                               Henry, Mike's son, born 2012, with his loving Dad                                                              

She was a wonderfully warm person whose early career success -- as a psychiatric nurse and then as one of American Airlines' first flight attendants -- was evidence of her intelligence, her independence and her lovely spirit that could make others feel so good about themselves and life in general. Because of her delightful personality and social skills, she often represented American in major publicity events -- in ads and in public events, like giving an aviation award to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt -- and she had a scrapbook bulging with news clippings and photos from these wonderful years.

As children we looked through her scrapbook with wonder. When we were older, we felt sadness that her years thereafter had been so unrelentingly harsh. After she was gone, we rejoiced that she had known such happiness in her early adult years and, with time, we understood, with new clarity, what she had always told us: that she had also greatly enjoyed being a mother. And she never felt sorry for herself. She felt she had been blessed, as well as challenged, in every phase of her life.

                                            FROM OUR MOTHER'S SCRAPBOOK

                         Caron Curtis in publicity shot for American Airlines 

                           A photo op with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

                                     To Hawaii on behalf of American Airlines   

                                Her life story appeared in newspapers nationwide


                                         She modeled in a number of advertisements

              And made gossip columns, on the town with long-forgotten suitors        
When she married, life quickly took a downward slide: the bright, funny, charismatic man she married turned out to be an abusive, mentally ill, alcoholic husband who dimmed her joyous spirit, crushed her sense of independence. Her life was filled with stress and depression. But never despair.

Like the sun peaking out behind clouds, she always had a wonderful sense of optimism, whether it was dreaming of moving to a new house where we would all have our own space and life would be better or of Father getting sober and back on track with his life or of us finding our own life paths, our own successes, our own happiness. "I just want you to be happy," she would say. "I want you to have the career you want and to love your work as I did and to find true love and live a full and contented life." No matter how terrible her own life was, day to day, she never stopped dreaming of better times for all of us.

And she had one great pleasure in life that we all shared: swimming. Her daily swims at the Pasadena Athletic Club over the years were soothing and energizing. And some of the sweetest times we all shared with her were the times we swam by her side, enjoying the warmth of the water and her presence.

When she died in 1980, our adult lives were just unfolding: Mike was in his last year of medical school at Stanford; Simon & Schuster had just published my first book and Bob and I had been married for three years; Tai, still so young, was nevertheless independent.

She missed so much. And we've missed her.  For the first few years after her sudden death from a heart attack, I suffered from a prolonged, complicated grief. Her loss was too painful to bear initially, so I avoided dealing with it by keeping busy -- Bob and I, joined by Mike after he finished medical school, cleaned out her home of many years; I dealt with the lawyer for both our parents' estates (our father had passed away four months before our mother); and I obsessed with keeping on my writing schedule, meeting the deadlines for the two books I was writing when my parents died. The grief only hit when life calmed down and then it was profound. My grief and depression was immobilizing.


Then, one night, I had a dream.  I was swimming in the ocean off New Jersey, a place I had never been. My mother had always told me how she loved swimming in the warmer Atlantic rather than the cooler Pacific. And Gene Brissie, who was my editor at Simon & Schuster and who had offered warm and constant emotional support after my parents' deaths, was from New Jersey. So, perhaps because of my mother's talk about the Atlantic or the warm presence of Gene at a time when I so needed a caring friend, the New Jersey waters felt wonderfully soothing. Suddenly, my mother appeared, swimming at my side. I was filled with joy and relief. She wasn't dead! She was right here! "Oh, I've missed you so much!" I said. "Where have you been?"  She smiled, unusually taciturn. "Oh, around," she finally said, vaguely. "Never very far away."

We swam together, quietly content, warmly connected, for a few minutes. Then she began to sink under the water. "Please don't go! Please don't die! I can't lose you again!" I cried, diving down to catch her and swim with her to shore where I let her rest on the wet sand. "I love you so much!" I whispered, kissing her cool cheek. Her eyes opened and she smiled, looking into my eyes with great love. "If you love me, truly love me, you'll let me go," she said softly. "Do you love me enough to let me go?"

I closed my eyes, pained at the thought, as tears slid down my cheeks. "Yes, " I said at last, my eyes still squeezed shut. "Yes, I love you enough to let you go." I opened my eyes and she was gone, without leaving even the faintest impression on the sand. And I woke up then, my face wet with tears.

And from that moment, I felt a sense of peace and warmth and a comfort that had eluded me for so long. And, while I've missed my mother in so many ways, at so many times as the years have raced on, my debilitating grief was gone forever after that dream.

I got an email today from my brother Mike, now back working in Thailand and living in a beautiful condo in Bangkok with a great swimming pool he enjoys on a daily basis. "I was floating in the pool tonight, watching the full moon rise and thinking about Mother and that it would be her 100th birthday today" he wrote. "The last thing we ever did together was to go swimming, so I felt so connected, as I floated, to that time. How I wish she had lived to see her grandchildren. She would have been crazy about them."

He went on to tell me about going back up to the condo, where his wife Amp was playing with their children. Before he could tell her that he had been thinking about Mother or that it would have been her 100th birthday today, Amp rushed to tell him that something unusual had happened. She said that, sitting there, playing with the children, she had suddenly felt the odd, but positive presence of a spirit. An unusual light came into the room through the window and fell on Maggie and Henry. When Mike mentioned his feeling of connection to Mother and that this would have been her 100th birthday, Amp smiled, certain that it was Mother's spirit coming to take a look, drawn to those grandchildren we were certain she would never know. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if that were so?" he asked me in his email.


Through the years, through all our lives, through all the pain and peace of loving, losing and letting go, that connection remains with those we've loved and lost.

Perhaps they're never really lost.

Perhaps, as my mother assured me in that long-ago dream, they're always around, never very far away.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Mystery

It seemed too big a risk.

Were we up to the challenge?

Would it be possible to keep our Christmas tree upright and intact this year? 

It is, after all, our kitten Hammie's first Christmas.

Memories of Christmas past are fresh and daunting. Even our sweet Gus caused Christmas havoc back in the day.

                                                    Gus' first Christmas in 1998

But now, at 14, he does little but sleep and purr, preferably snuggled up to a friend.

                                            Gus with Hammie - December 2012

And Maggie and SweetPea love to look at the Christmas tree, but know to keep their paws off.

                                     Maggie and SweetPea: A Well-Behaved Duo

With all these well-behaved role models, we decided it was worth the risk of putting up the tree this year. And we were encouraged by Hammie's reaction: interest but restraint. He liked to sit near the tree, but never once, while we were admiring it together, did he venture close to the tree or the ornaments.

                                 Hammie: Six months old and a model of restraint

Bob and I were so confident that all was well, we went down to the street for a visit with our friends Phyllis and Wally, leaving Hammie still relaxing on the couch, enjoying the tree.

When we came home, we noticed something strange.  The tree skirt that Bob's mother made for us some years ago, that is usually curled around the base of the tree as shown below, was missing!

                                                Exhibit A: The Tree with Tree Skirt

                                    Exhibit B: Scene of the Crime - a Bare Tree Stand                                                         
 True detectives, we followed the trail of evidence:

      And this led us directly to the Tree Skirt Thief:

                                                        Hammie the Tree Skirt Thief

                                    Mug Shot: The Culprit - Guilty As Charged

Wishing you and yours a wonderful, joyous Christmas Holiday!                                       

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Adult Children: Surviving the Holidays With or Without Them

Have you ever planned a festive holiday feast and then few, if any, family showed up?

Do you long to be with family for the holidays -- but they have other plans that don't include you?

Are you are the only person in the family who wants to celebrate Christmas while everyone else around you is in full "Humbug!" mode?

These scenarios, to varying degrees, are played out in households worldwide. It can feel devastating when adult children -- by choice or necessity -- don't come home for Christmas or don't invite you to celebrate with them or are noticeably unenthusiastic this year about getting together for the holidays. What can you do if you're in the holiday spirit but those you love most aren't going along with the plan?

Create a alternate celebration at another time.  Maybe your adult children have other commitments during holidays but are happy to visit before or after. And after the initial disappointment upon hearing this news, try seeing this, not as rejection, but as an opportunity to expand your holiday season.

My friends Mary and John greatly miss seeing their two adult daughters, married with children and both living in different states. John's physical limitations preclude travel and the grandchildren's activities -- school pageants and sports as well as tight family budgets --make traveling during the peak holiday periods difficult. But their daughter Liz delighted them recently with a surprise weekend visit in early December. She and her family flew in from Denver, bearing gifts and holiday cheer. Christmas came early and wonderfully for them this year.

My neighbor Phyllis was initially disappointed that her daughter Kathy would be unable to come for Christmas, but is delighted to welcome her for a visit during the first week of January, when life will be a bit less hectic, with a better chance to talk, relax and simply enjoy each another.

Some young families prefer to have a Christmas alone together with grandparents celebrating with the kids and grandkids at other times during the holidays. Some do the balancing act with both sets of in-laws from holiday to holiday: Thanksgiving at one home, Christmas Eve or Christmas at another. It's important to respect individual commitments and preferences and find ways to celebrate together -- whether this is on the actual holiday or some other time during the season.

If you're tempted to protest or complain, take a deep breath and go back in time. Remember, for a moment, how it was for you when you were a young adult, perhaps newlywed or with a young family, and how delicate the holiday balancing act was for you -- and then extend your empathy and understanding to your adult children who are now engaged in that same delicate balancing of time with all those they love.

Celebrate a new way this year. One long-divorced friend who finds himself alone on many holidays has found pleasure through volunteering at an organization that feeds homeless and low income families on major holidays. He finds renewed joy in giving and says that he now can't imagine spending Thanksgiving and Christmas any other way.

Creating new holiday traditions with friends who are in a similar situation can also chase away those holiday blues. It can be a chance, with this new family of friends, to make completely new and different holiday memories.

If you sense that your adult children are hesitating to get together for the holiday because of economic constraints, you might choose to simplify Christmas this year by suggesting no gifts -- except, perhaps, for young grandchildren -- and a relaxed day together with all the things you enjoy doing as a family -- perhaps church services, perhaps Christmas music and stories, perhaps a delicious meal shared with each other. If adult children live at a distance, can't afford to travel during the holidays and don't want to  accept travel expense money from you, plan a virtual holiday together. One family I know coordinated menus and meal times for an extended holiday family dinner via Skype.

Treat yourself to a holiday trip. Several single women in our community who find themselves alone this time of year are headed to Mexico or other sunny spots for the holidays. One woman we know says that "If I'm home, I'll just be depressed and focused on the fact that I'm alone. By going to Mexico, it's a gift for me -- warm beaches, great food, and a chance to celebrate my way. Last year, I didn't even leave town, but checked into a very nice local hotel for two days of pampering. Instead of slaving over the holiday turkey, I was having breakfast in bed. Although I would have happily cooked a holiday feast if my kids had come to spend the holidays with me, this new way of celebrating worked for me. My gift to myself was relaxation with a touch of luxury. And this year it will be relaxation in an exotic setting."

See a holiday without adult children as a time to reconnect with each other.  With so much holiday activity and attention happily focusing on children and grandchildren, long-time spouses may not have much time for enjoying each other. If the kids can't come for Christmas this year, seize the opportunity to do something you might not do otherwise.

My friends Leslie and Rick decided to create their own holiday traditions with each other -- including attending Midnight Mass, something they hadn't done in years because the kids never wanted to go. They slept in the next morning and then made a leisurely brunch as they opened gifts with Christmas music playing in the background. "Once we got over our disappointment that it wouldn't be a family Christmas this year, we had an absolutely lovely time," Leslie told me.

My friend Kim says that she and her husband Chuck have spent many a Christmas alone quite happily. "We watch old movies, read and enjoy leftover Chinese take-out or cook a simple meal just for us," she says, adding that, while they love seeing their family for the holidays or any time, this time alone together, when it happens, is also a blessing.

A neighbor couple whose children have other plans this year also have created a new tradition for themselves: they hopped in their RV and headed to San Diego, one of their all-time favorite destinations, for a camping holiday. They connect with the kids and grandkids by Skype but otherwise simply enjoy being together in a place that means so much to them.

Realize that adult children may go through cycles of caring and not caring about family holiday celebrations.  Perhaps newly independent adult children are underscoring their status as young adults by celebrating with friends instead of family. Maybe some adult children are in the process of working through and growing past family issues that prevent them from participating in or enjoying family holiday celebrations -- at least for awhile.

For some years, for example, my brother Mike actively avoided getting together for Christmas. There were several reasons, including a punishing work schedule. But a major reason was that he was working through some pain of the past, trying to come to terms with the abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of our father. "I can't bear to come hear all the old family stories or Aunt Molly talking so wistfully about Father," he told me once. "I just can't stand it. And it isn't a matter of wanting people to change. Father was Aunt Molly's beloved brother. She has a different view of him than I'll ever have and that's great. But right now, I just can't sit around and pretend that I share such sentiments."

With time and growth, Mike found that he treasured just being with Aunt Molly -- during the holidays and throughout the year -- more than he wanted to avoid reminders of a painful past. And his feelings have softened with time, especially since becoming a father himself. Talking with me about a memoir I am writing, he recently expressed the hope that "it won't be all grim. I mean, there really were some good times, some funny, stimulating, exciting times. When I think about it, I wouldn't have wanted to grow up in any other family."

So adult childrens' feelings can change over time and they may come back to you with renewed love and commitment once they have worked through issues of their youth.

Don't force painful choices. It can be especially tough with divorced parents.

Emotions can run high.

In some families, one parent may throw out the challenge that "If you choose to spend Christmas with him (her), then forget about seeing me at all!"

Give your adult children the emotional space to decide how they want to spend the holidays. You might say what you'd like, then be willing to compromise out of respect for their wants and needs.

 One dear friend, in the process of divorce after a long marriage, is spending a festive Christmas Eve with his adult children in his new apartment in the city. They will spend Christmas with their mother in their childhood suburban home. They've made it clear that they love and want to be with both parents and, at least this year, are inclined to spend Christmas with their mother not only to be with her but also to celebrate that special holiday one last time in their childhood home, which will soon go up for sale. They're saying "Goodbye" to the past and embracing their family's changes at the same time.

My friend is fine with his children's wishes and is planning a splendid Christmas Day for himself -- a church service filled with music and celebration and then an afternoon at the movies, starting with "Les Miserables" which he has been eagerly anticipating. He will still be smiling, of course, with memories of his special time with his adult children the day before.

Make your home a welcoming place for your adult children.  Let them know that you love seeing them whenever they can visit, instead of demanding their presence. If they need to split the day between you and in-laws, be gracious and make the most of the time you have together.  Offer pleasure, not grim obligation; loving words, not criticism; open arms, not guilt trips.

The time we all have with those we love never seems to be enough and never ceases to be precious. Instead of grieving dashed expectations, savor those moments you do share together,  however brief or imperfect they may be.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This Old House

This is the house where I grew up with Mike and Tai, a small two bedroom, one bath house in La Canada Flintridge, CA., near Los Angeles. My parents bought it new in 1947 and when they died, Mike bought it and made it his own -- with paving and patios and bay windows, with modern kitchen and bath.

The gardens are a mixture of distant past and newer plantings...from Mike and later, from his long-time tenant Mary Beth. Aunt Molly planted the huge tangerine tree outside the back door more than 60 years ago. It is still bearing wonderful fruit.

 The camellia bushes along the garage are more than sixty years old, too. We marveled at their blossoms as children -- and we still do. So nice to see, in a rapidly changing world and through our aging eyes, that some things seem to go on nearly forever.


The view of the house from the street is different, a bit eccentric, but cozy on the other side. You can see the mountains, but no one from the street can see in as you sit on the porch in the old rocking chair, enjoying the quiet and the cool of the evening.

It looks like such a peaceful place -- and it is. Only the childhood memories aren't peaceful. The moments of anguish and hopelessness and terror that happened within live only in our memories now along with all the love and laughter and dreams for the future that we shared within these walls. To Mike, Tai and me, it's our childhood home that can inspire whisps of ghostly memories that both chill and warm our hearts.

To anyone else, it's a charming little house that Mike has made even more delightful with his improvements, like built in bookcases and special reading lights, a stone fireplace so cozy on winter nights.

It's so much a matter of perception. Once, attending a Christmas party given by Mary Beth, who rented the house happily for ten years, moving out only when she got married, I overhead one of her friends remark "Oh, Mary Beth! This is such a cute, charming house."

I shot Mary Beth a look and she smiled and rolled her eyes. She knew the story of our family in that house.

But now the house had a different story happening within. Mary Beth had brought her own special warmth to a house that needed a loving touch to make it a home. Now Mary Beth has married and moved on, leaving happy memories and her own warm decorating touches behind.

But very soon, Mary Kate and Matt will make it a home again, to make their own vegetable garden, to pot some bright flowers, to sit on the porch in the front or the back enjoying the views, playing their guitars and filling the place with song and with love once again.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Past and Present

There is nothing like Christmas to bring back memories of where you've been, the directions your life has taken and the people who have been so special over the years.

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.

                                                    Christmas at Aunt Molly's house                                         

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.

                                    Christmas 1944 with my mother (l) and Molly (r)
                                       An unremembered Christmas - my first in 1945

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.

                          Jeanne Nishida Yagi who made Christmas '67 merry!           

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.

                                       Mike and Amp - Engaged - Christmas 2006

     Christmas Eve 2006 at Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant, Bangkok

                               It was a chance to explore a very different culture   

                       And yet, Christmas was much in evidence in Thailand!                                        

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.
                        Phyllis and Wally: Set to Celebrate Christmas Eve with Us                  

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.
                           Our 2012 Christmas card photo with Hamish and Gus   

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.

                                   Maggie, 3, with Christmas lights in Bangkok