Tag Archives: Christmas

The Night I (Finally) Understood Christmas

Animal onesie hugsMy favorite Christmas moment was the last one before I fell hard asleep.

I’d been in commandant mode all day, maybe all month, but finally — finally — the presents were opened, the meal was produced, and the family was unpleasantly full after gorging on turkey and all the fixin’s plus some extra fixin’s for good measure. “Ben!” I’d barked at my nephew, “move it!” as I motioned for him to step away from the counter where I planned to set the brimming dishes. Then I added, “I want you to know I speak to you like my own children.”

As if he would understand that I only bark at those I love.

In the moment this picture was taken, this delicious moment after I emerged from bed to take it, my adult daughter and son had returned from checking on two pooches that my son was babysitting over the holidays. He seemed too tired to drive so my daughter, his older sister, agreed to go with him. When they returned, they had concocted the idea to take a picture in front of the tree in his-and-hers animal onesies.

They could hardly stand, they were so tired. I could hardly stand. But I’m so glad that I got out of bed to say goodnight just as my daughter was telling her brother that no one was around to take the picture. Then they saw me: problem solved.

Pictures were taken: arms flung wide, arms wrapped around each other. They’ve been this close since the beginning, a true gift to one another.

Why is it that I just figure Christmas out — remind myself what the season means — about the time it’s over? Until then, it seems, there’s just so much work to do to make it perfect for everyone. Or (let’s be honest, Betsy) to make it perfect enough for my own standards.

Christmas had begun to seep in on Sunday when I finally made it to church. As the advent candle was lit for the fourth Sunday, this blessing was said:

“Love surpasses the secure locations we would choose, the holy nests in precarious places and roots in the fragile.”

I’d been feeling overwhelmed. Broken. With my son applying to teach English in Japan, it had been like college app season all over again, characterized by my own frantic feeling that I needed to make sure he didn’t miss a step. He wanted this, after all, so I was all in. I know what they tell parents — it’s supposed to be their problem, not ours (there’s yet another “should” from whoever “they” are) — but I’m terrible at disconnecting.

So I was sitting in church feeling like a failure, like a rotten mother who, in her effort to ensure that things got done and done right, was turning the holiday season into boot camp. Instead of offering love, I was draining it. Ninety percent of the time I’d been in bitchy mode; the other 10 percent I tried to make up for it.

As the week continued, I couldn’t stop thinking about the blessing of the Advent candle. About precarious and fragile places. About brokenness.

Was this a reminder that love conquers all? That I could make all things right with enough love?

No, I had it on its head. It was a reminder that I was loved — am loved — even in my fragility and weakness. Even when I confuse motherhood with sovereignty.

Then I read Pope Francis’ homily on Christmas Eve. The meaning of the birth of Jesus, he said, “is the humility of God taken to the extreme; it is the love with which, that night, he assumed our frailty, our suffering, our anxieties, our desires and our limitations. The message that everyone was expecting, that everyone was searching for in the depths of their souls, was none other than the tenderness of God: God who looks upon us with eyes full of love, who accepts our poverty, God who is in love with our smallness.”

God’s love could surpass my smallness? The way I sometimes fail in mothering, the most important role entrusted to me?

Here were my children, standing by the Christmas tree, engulfing one another in a hug, goofy in zebra stripes and leopard spots. Here it is, I thought, what Christmas is really all about. Love, just love. If only I let it in.







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A Christmas Album, Shared with Dad

Rainy Christmas morning, shared memories with Dad at the breakfast table …

1953, my sister Midge’s last Christmas…


Midge got a dolly

Scott got a rifle


1954… brother Dean arrived on the scene…


1956 in Kingston, Ontario… Nana in the foreground (I’m still in Mom, about 3 months along)

Christmas 1956

1959… I’m on the scene, 18 months old, in our house on Old Spring Road in Kensington, MD

Christmas 1959Christmas 1959

Christmas dinner 1959

Dad at the head 1959

Probably 1960… brother Dean and I show off our snowman

Christmas snowman 1960

Christmas dinner in Everett, 1966

Christmas dinner, 1966

And our last family home in University Place (Tacoma), 1969

Christmas morning 1969

Cassandra Eileen Campbell 1969

By the tree, 1969

Christmas 1971… and man, was it the 70s!

1971 - big snow year

Sandy dressed for snow

Christmas dinner 1971

1973… Dad surprised Mom with the diamond wedding ring she never had, the ring I wear today

A diamond ring for mom

Gathered round on a Christmas Day, 1985

Christmas day 1985

Maddie had so much fun hunting a Christmas tree with Nana and Papa, circa 1991

Maddie Christmas tree hunting

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Summoning Angels

Perhaps the worst losses are the ones that we don’t expect: the children who die before their parents, the young mothers or fathers whose lives laid ahead of them, the mothers we expected to be in our lives for so much longer.

With these premature deaths, we wail with no less intensity than the mourners of ancient Rome, albeit through all the ways that we communicate now. Whether poured out in text messages, or emails, on Facebook or by telephone, it is awful to behold, and worse to feel.

With the loss of my “other mother” in October, I find myself compelled to unpack some Christmas decorations that I haven’t displayed in years: my mother’s angels. Back in the 50s and 60s, my mother collected small angel figurines that she displayed on a bed of “angel hair” (spun fiberglass) that glowed from the string of tiny white lights beneath. Each was lovely, but one in particular stood out: a small girl angel, clad in pink, rosy cheeked, curly haired, head bowed, hands clasped in prayer.

Angels weren’t just a symbol of Christ’s birth to my mother; she had her own little angel in heaven. Before I was born, my sister, Midge, died of leukemia at the age of four. I don’t remember seeing obvious signs of grief in my mother or father during my childhood. But much later, after my mother died in 1999, Dad poured out his heart to me. He repeatedly slapped his palm against his forehead as he described her calling out to him from her oxygen tent in the hospital, “Daddy, help me.” “I couldn’t do anything,” he said, “I went out of the room and pounded on the wall. I couldn’t do anything.”

In the past few weeks, I have borne witness to and experienced that stabbing kind of pain that comes with unexpected loss: the continuing fallout from the death of a young mother to alcoholism, the sudden loss of a joyous and loving young father, and my “other mother,” Miss Ann.

My other mother’s family gathered to make her favorite foods and set the table just as she would have, harvest colored candles arrayed on her heavy brass serving tray. My friend who lost her childhood buddy to addiction wrote a eulogy filled with beautiful stories of her wit and strength. My friend who lost her brother, the young father, raises beers to him to re-enact the fun times when they met at the Whole Foods Bier Garten. These moments were nothing like scenes from a TV drama in which survivors look beautiful while they delicately weep in their time of grief; they were – and are – red-eyed, snot-riddled affairs where people try to do something, anything, to make a terrible reality less terrible.

In reliving traditions – even privately – we summon the people we have lost, the people we feel we should not have lost. Are we hoping that their ghosts will be with us as we go through our rituals? Do we imagine that they will be near as angels, hovering over our lives? I think my mother imagined Midge as an angel, captured in the likeness of the little pink-clad figurine.

Caroline Kennedy, who knows a few things about grief, devoted a chapter to death and grief in her lovely collection of poetry, She Walks in Beauty (Hyperion, 2011). Among the poems was this excerpt from “To W.P.,” by George Santayana:

With you a part of me hath passed away;

For in the peopled forest of my mind

A tree made leafless by this wintry wind

Shall never don again its green array.

Chapel and fireside, country road and bay,

Have something of their friendliness resigned;

Another, if I would, I could not find,

And I am grown much older in a day.

But yet I treasure in my memory

Your gift of charity, and young heart’s ease,

And the dear honor of your amity;

For these once mine, my life is rich with these.

And I scarce know which part may greater be —

What I keep of you, or you rob from me.

Those who lose someone too soon know what it means to grow older in a day, and to feel robbed by the loss of someone who died before we were ready. As I pull out my mother’s angels, one by one, I call her: “Mom – whether you are angel or ghost – be with me.”

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