The Year I Broke with Tradition

coral-reefIt was soon-to-be Christmas and all I knew was:  I couldn’t be home for the holidays. Why? Too much bad had happened. We were coming off two years of horror with my husband’s terminal disease.  He died on January 1st, of that year; we all limped along, in recovery, for 12 months; and now, the holidays were fast upon us.

Now, don’t ever think “terminal” just refers to the patient. When that verdict comes down, the whole family suffers. You never get away from it. Each moment is tinged with “Will this be the last time for this?” At other times, you just want the “awful” to end.

It’s soul-crushing.

So, because I didn’t want to be around the wassail bowl answering Uncle Mattie’s ever-exasperating questions (“What will you do with the house?” hardly hiding his sexist expectation that no woman could maintain all of this alone,) I determined to take my girls and me to Cozumel.

Yep, Mexico would have us.  With that, I booked a flight; minimally-packed; got us in a limo to Boston and flew out.

When I say ‘minimally-packed,’ I mean it. I was so bent on my mission that I allowed my 8 year old to pack her own suitcase (crazy?) meaning she took what she thought important:  When I opened her suitcase in Cozumel, her giant history textbook  popped out—a book half her size. She neglected to bring seasonally-adjusted clothes, like shorts and tops.  After all, we were in winter zone at home and she thought everyone was. As I said, she was only 8.

How’d our trip turn out? It was one of the most memorable and beautiful ever. We snorkeled—the three of us—off the rocky coast of the island, mesmerized by the gorgeous coral, mango yellow, and neon green fish, darting about.

We bought a Mexican crèche on that trip and hand-carried it home (that’s it in the photo in a previous post.) We spent New Year’s Eve with a bunch of rowdy revelers, blowing horns wildly, and dancing about.

That trip was the year we broke with tradition…the day we three went on our own. It would be the precursor of longer trips to come as we became world travelers.

On that trip, I realized that breaking with tradition can be a far better route– one necessary in the growth process.

Maybe some of you reading this need to break with tradition for your own sake.

Wherever you are in the process, I wish you peace and a good year in 2017.

“These Are a Few of My Favorite Things…”

creche-mexican-turquoise

(A nativity scene my girls and I got in Cozumel, Mexico, years ago. We hand-carried it home. It’s now a colorful and cherished part of our tradition.)

In the glass display case running along the corridor at Rhode Island Hospital, are gift boxes of Mr. Potato Head, a Rhode Island-designed toy, made right here at Hasbro Toys, in Pawtucket. Those boxed gifts transport me to the era when I spent hours, as a child, redesigning the head of a potato with the stick-’em-in parts.

I loved Mr. Potato Head. As a child, I inserted his changeable parts of eyebrows, nose, mustache, lips, teeth, ears, into a raw potato, creating a multitude of different characters.

I liked him so much, I bought a Mr. Potato Head (now they supply a brown plastic head instead of child using a potato) recently as Christmas gift for my grandchildren, knowing full well it won’t “do the trick” in the excitement category. Why? Mr. Potato Head doesn’t perform in any grandiose fashion. He doesn’t sing, talk, or transform into a menacing moveable character.

But I hope they love him, anyway.

If Mr. Potato Head brings back warm, fuzzy feelings, it’s because he represents a throwback to a simpler time. In short, he reminds me of my childhood. But he’s just one of the memories I have of Christmas in my youth.

For instance, I remember shopping for family gifts. On the Saturday before Christmas, Dad gave each of us kids $25.00 for our Christmas shopping. He’d drop us off on Main Street in the merchant district of Arctic where we’d do our gift-buying in a few hours. I spent most of my time stressing over Mom’s gift, only to end up getting her another milk glass candy dish (to add to her collection) or the small, cobalt-colored glass bottle of Evening in Paris cologne. I bought my brothers and Dad socks (let’s face it–I didn’t have much left after Mom’s); bought a stuffed animal for my sister (4 years my junior) and candy for Nana. When I got home, I tucked my treasures into the far corner of the dormer of my bedroom.

Anticipation for the big day built over weeks. At church, I eagerly awaited the birth of baby Jesus who’d finally lay in the cradle of straw in the manger, following midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I loved the candles that bathed the manger scene in amber light, made more festive, still, with votives twinkling nearby. When the choir sang, I joined them in thrilling tribute to the “Newborn King.”

But, few gifts left serious imprint in my memory. When I was 8, I got the crystal rosary beads I asked for in my “I want to be a nun” phase. They were housed in a grey-blue taffeta-covered box almost as interesting (to a child) as the beads, themselves. I’d hold the strand up to the light to watch the reflection of the crystal’s prisms dance on the wall. But I wouldn’t have them  long…

That Christmas night, when Mom and Dad  took us kids downtown to see Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” I brought them along, because I couldn’t bear to leave them  behind. But, at some point during “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” I lost them and that loss broke my heart.

One year Santa brought me the white transistor radio I’d asked for. The little Emerson was housed in a tan leather jacket, with a perforated patch where the sound came out. But oddly enough, as a child, I wasn’t as impressed with its capacity to deliver music as I was in awe of its gold-tone buttons and leather casing that buttoned on its side. When I see older transistor radios in antique shops, today, they bring me back to that time and I relish the memory.

I got a bird in a cage, when I was 10. Apparently, the hours after my going to bed were close to murderous as my father (never good at fixing things) nearly strangled the parakeet in the door apparatus, when he sought to connect its feeder. They kept the frenzied critter quiet after his near-death experience by putting its coverlet over the cage.

I hadn’t asked for it but got it, probably because my grandmother had birds (as pets), and Mom doubtless wanted to pass along that family tradition, in the same way I want to share Mr. Potato Head with my grandsons.

That same year I became “Official Wrapper of Family Gifts,” and Christmas lost its mystique. A few days before the big day, Mom sequestered me in an upstairs bedroom, closed the door, and shouted encouragement to me whenever I showed signs of flagging energy. From that point on, I knew what everyone was getting ahead of time. She even had me wrap my own gifts (not the bird), with her caveat “You mustn’t look in the boxes,” ringing in my ears.

So, there you have it: a Mexican creche, a pint-sized radio, rosary beads, Midnight Mass, Mr. Potato Head, a paranoid parakeet, gift-buying and gift-wrapping for the family…–an eclectic batch of memories of “the most wondrous time of the year.” But I find it noteworthy that in that cluster, there’s nothing spectacular of a material order (the spiritual’s another matter).

That tells me: Like Mr. Potato Head, the things that impressed me most, as gifts, were really quite simple.…Even more telling: Those memories grow more meaningful with the years.

I wish you all “Merry Christmas” and wonder: “What’s your positive memory?”

mrpotatohead.htm      mr-potato-head

(Click on above link to read some fascinating data about Mr. Potato Head, one of Rhode Island’s more famous exports. Did you know, for instance, he was the first toy to be advertised on TV?)

 

Christmas in Our Cape

 

like-210-pulaskiOur home glowed orange during the Christmas season, since that was the color of the candles Mom positioned in the windows throughout our two-floor Cape. I felt it a fine color—the glow seemed heavenly.  Some lights were tiers of three candles, while others were singular, but they all bathed our home in a warm amber light.

Nowhere was that light more pronounced than in the dormer of our girls’ bedroom, for here I’d transformed the cloistered space into a sacristy (picture above is similar, if you take away garage and side entryway.)

On a table nearby, our kids’ red and white record player piped in soft Christmas music.

On the walls of the dormer I’d taped Christmas cards depicting the birth of Christ or the Three Wise Men following the star of Bethlehem, to the manger in Jerusalem. All the illustrated people wore the necessary faces of piety and solemnity. Since it was still the era when most people sent cards (requiring twice-a-day-delivery by the Post Office,) I had plenty to choose from.

I’d transformed Mom’s cedar chest into an altar, covering it with a white sheet, and on that, I placed my tabernacle which had been a neighbor’s cigar box from which I’d removed a panel,  glued white construction paper to each of 3 sides, and ran a knitting needle across the expanse of one for a curtain rod. From that, I hung a cloth I’d gotten from a package of Dad’s new white handkerchiefs.  It had to be perfect, for behind that curtain stood the chalice.

That goblet was one of Mom’s best crystal glasses topped off with a cardboard square (again, covered in white paper), and it held the small, perfect circles of Sunbeam bread I’d cut, using a half dollar coin as pattern. They awaited the singular moment I’d transform them into the body of Christ—the Host.

To prepare, I draped sheets about my body, to mimic the garb the priests of my church wore. I’d already anointed my younger sister as altar ‘boy.’ At 4 years my junior, she was only too happy for her role in the drama.

Then I invoked the heavenly spirits– God, Jesus, angels and archangels and I began the chant that was hardly Gregorian.  It was a child’s rendition of the holy words, rising in crescendo, at times, just as I believed I’d heard them at church.

At the high point of my delivery, I held the ‘host’ on high, genuflected, as my sister rang the dinner bell I’d conscripted for our use. Next, I turned, deposited the “host” in her mouth, and did the same for me. We bowed our heads appropriately.

My sister and I performed this nightly ritual all through the pre-holiday season, leading up to Christmas day when I was 8 years of age and she was 4.

We merely mimicked the ceremonial actions we saw the priests and my brothers (as altar boys) perform.  In later years, I’d see the Catholic church bend its rules and allow girls to serve in that capacity.  But in our era, that service wasn’t possible.

So, my sister and I created our own church, as only children can.

In retrospect, I might have seriously entertained the idea of becoming a priest if that occupation were open to me. Instead, I became a teacher– “doing God’s work,” as some friends describe it.

But in that dormer, I sought… as a child… to leap the constraints my church and era imposed.

It would signal the beginning of a lifelong struggle.

Merry Christmas to all of you.  I wish you every blessing in this New Year.