April 2018

Saturday, November 29, 2014


At Wallingford United Methodist Church, Advent starts today, the fourth Sunday before Dec. 25, but for my mom Advent starts on June 25. If I’m talking to her on the phone on June 25, me in Seattle and Mom in Raleigh, North Carolina, she’ll sing, “You know what today is?” I never know. “It’s six months ‘til Christmas!”

For my family when I was growing up, Christmas was the day when Dad didn’t work, and we three kids stayed home from school and sports. Sometimes my Grandmother Edwards or my Auntie Myra’s family joined us. It was a day when we rose slowly, wore our pajamas all day, ate a tasty turkey linnner (that’s lunch plus dinner, served at 3 pm). On this day, we were present with one another in a way that we weren’t in our busy lives throughout the other 364 days of the year. This was a day to prepare for with joyful anticipation.

Though we attended Pullen Memorial Southern Baptist church regularly, opened the windows on our advent calendars and learned the stories of Mary and Joseph, the angels and the taxes, the humble stable where the baby Jesus was born, and the star that beckoned the wise men to this birth, Advent and Christmas were more about family than they were about church. Though it may sound like this day for us was more about family than about Jesus or God, it was in this genuine presence that we lived in God’s space more than we did any other time of the year. This was our miracle. This is when we lived on God’s time and in Jesus’s spirit. Though this Jesus talk jangles in my progressive ears, I really think of Jesus’s spirit as a spirit for all, not a specifically Christian spirit, and God’s space as universal (pun intended).  

Before Christmas, we bought presents for one another like the other families in the suburbs where I grew up. The gifts were something to scan the Sears catalogue for annually (I never did get that game “Ants in the Pants,” though I asked for it every year). I kept a drawer in my desk where I stored gifts for my family throughout the year: maybe a special pencil or a funny sticker. Christmas Eve night, we kids filled the stockings with our gifts and went to bed early in anticipation of Santa’s arrival.

Christmas day, Dad would get up earlier than we sleepy-heads did, and he’d bang a pot with a spoon to roust us from bed. Bleary-eyed, Sister Jen, Little Brother Matt and I would go to the living room where a giant decorated fir tree had a few wrapped gifts from neighbors and Dad’s pediatric patients waiting on the red and green tree skirt. Each kid had a special gift from Santa: maybe a watch or a necklace or a sweater. One year Little Brother Matt got Atari tapes and cried as he explained to my parents that there was a machine he’d need. Dad said Santa must not have known about the machine. He was sorry. After Santa, we’d have our Christmas breakfast: Moravian sugar cake from the Norris family up the street and Neese's sausage.

Then in the den, we would draw numbers to see in what order we would unstuff our “stockings.” The honorary person would sit on a leather stool, and Mom would bring out a “stocking,” a paper grocery bag stuffed with gifts meant just for us from the people who knew us best. (Mom had hated the waste of all that wrapping paper, so grocery bags were a way to transition away from the waste of wrapping paper.) My Auntie Myra had decorated each bag with a foot that was clearly ours—Dad’s bag, for example, had a foot with a toe poking through the sock because his socks were always in bad repair.

One person went through a stocking at a time. As we pulled each gift from the bag, we would guess who it was from: I always bought my sister Jennifer Gerber’s Baby Plums, because she loved them even when she was too old to admit it. Grandmother Edwards always got split peas. Dad always got socks. One year, Little Brother Matt got the Atari machine after all. That was the year my sister gave me the plaque: “WORK FASCINATES ME—I CAN SIT AND LOOK AT IT FOR HOURS.” Now fifty years old and in my own Seattle home, I keep that plaque with its Christmas label “To Mary from Jennifer” on the back on my desk: its message still applies and sits as a reminder of how well my sister knew me.

One especially creative year, Dad gave Mom, Sister Jen and me matching, monogrammed flannel onesies from The Wall Street Journal. All of us got pennies and a bag of assorted candies, red hots and chocolate covered peanuts, Dad’s favorites. Mysteriously, Dad always got pennies and candy, too. Dad said that was because Santa brought them. My favorite year was the year that Sister Jen had gone through Dad’s bag from the previous year, retrieved the goodies he had never used, and put them in that year’s stocking. He didn’t notice until he got to a calendar from the previous year.

In those days, the gifts were more thoughtful than expensive, and we knew that Christmas wasn’t about these gifts. It was about being together, celebrating family, the people who knew us well and gave us what we really wanted, the people who shared our traditions and sense of humor. It was able taking the space and time to be together in the way that it seemed Jesus had tried to teach us.

Though my parents still live in that ranch style suburban home, my siblings and I have moved away to live our own adult lives. Sister Jen lives in New York with her husband Todd and their three teenage boys. Her oldest daughter, Isabella, is at Duke for her freshman year. Little Brother Matt, his wife Kristin, and their three kids live in Connecticut, and my partner Ann and I live in Seattle. Each family has had its share of hard times: Sister Jen was in an accident and helicoptered to emergency brain surgery; I had two brain tumors, neurosurgery and radiation, and Little Brother Matt is in recovery from alcoholism and its deadly effects. We’re all getting older.

We no longer gather for Christmas in Raleigh, but every other year, we gather in the New York/Connecticut area to celebrate family again. The grocery bags have grown with the times: there’s more stuff and it’s more expensive. Unstuffing the stockings with so many people and so much stuff takes hours, and the in-laws (Ann, Todd, and Kristin) try to be good-natured about it but clearly suffer through the tedium.

Still, this is the time we anticipate every two years: the time when we celebrate our history and our connections, a family that grows and continues to know us and love us even through hard times. This waiting is our Advent, and I know that next June 25, Mom will sing to me, “You know what day it is?” and I won’t remember. The first day of Advent, six months until Christmas.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please comment: I'd love to hear your thoughts!