Love manifests in the strangest ways. Just like courage. And understanding.
Sometimes it sneaks up on you and you don’t realize how great a gift it is or how much self-sacrifice was required of the giver. Until later, much later in the game of life, when you’ve grown old enough to know that nothing is like our perfectly sensible expectations and most of it is so much harder than we’d ever dreamed.
Christmas joy was just such a gift, given to me long ago by my Mother, for whom joy was not a frequent visitor. Let me explain.
All year long, my brilliant and irascible Mother saw the glass not only half empty but so flawed it was hardly worth raising to her lips – perhaps in these latter days, she would be deemed a depressive, but back then she seemed just a cosmic critic of all in life that might have given happiness. I never thought she was joyless by choice, just that joy was an emotion she didn’t quite understand and therefore mistrusted. Yet by the grace of some Christmas Angel, she always rallied in December and went out of her way to make the holidays happy for her family…filled with spiritual meaning , kindnesses and gratitude that had little to do with gifts, and everything to do with love. It was like a doorway opening to a sunnier, sweeter, safer place. Just for the heartbeat that was Christmas.
The Why’s and Wherefore’s
She’d had a dreadful childhood – a cold, cruel father and an ineffectual but beloved mother – and its terrors had sucked the laughter from her marrow, or so it seemed to me even as a little child – leaving her lonely, wounded and doomed to starve in the midst of plenty. Yet once a year, she would somehow put all that aside to give us the gift of peace and joy and good will we so longed for. A Christmas miracle? A gift of unselfish grace? A vestige of who she might have been if the worst had been the best? I’ll never know…
Whatever the genesis of the miracle, it changed things… and to this minute, as I sit here in thoughtful contentment before my memory-laden Christmas tree, it allows me a doorway of my own, into a sort of self-perpetuating gratitude.
Christmas was good and safe and beautiful then – and so it has remained, burnished by the years and the magic of all those I’ve loved who have added to its radiance. And even those who are no longer with me seem to come alive again with indescribable life-force and vigor in the pine scented firelight – a bittersweet but essential renewal that only those who have loved and lost could ever fully understand.
How did so injured a woman as my Mother find the courage to set aside depression and paucity long enough to let joy and love enfold us in the transcendent Light of Christmas that makes all this possible? I wonder, I wonder…
The tale from my mother’s childhood that chilled me most was one of the Christmas when she was seven or eight years old. For some reason, my austere and autocratic grandfather never permitted Christmas presents to be given to his four children, who longed for them. One year a kindly neighbor, scandalized no doubt at the idea of a toyless, joyless Christmas, delivered a spanking new pair of ice skates to each of the four. The children were overcome with happiness – my grandfather was not. On learning of the gift, he marched his children and their precious treasure to the local pier and forced them each to throw their Christmas skates into the sea. Can you not imagine how that calculated cruelty and disappointment lodged within them all to eat away at their belief in happiness?
I used to lie in bed at night and cry for my poor mother who’d been nailed shut by such sorrows. It made sense of why she never smiled.
My Father, who loved Christmas with the same happy generosity of heart that characterized the rest of his year, always saw in my mother the best of everything. He forgave her coldness because of remembered warmth, he admired her brilliant mind and her courage – her Scorpio depths and her fierce ability to prevail over unjust fate. If she didn’t show the best of herself to the rest of us, he saw it clearly nonetheless and forgave what needed forgiving, because he knew what she had endured and who she had become in spite of it. What I saw as her ferocity, he saw as fragility overlain with self-protective desperation. He was wiser than I and knew her better.
So as Christmas approaches this year, I find myself filled not simply with the memories of a lifetime of love that has sustained me through the good years and the bad, but with something else as well – a kind of peace about the past. The kind that’s born of having lived long enough to know that life can’t be lived without mistakes and misunderstandings and that motives are seldom visible on the surface, but instead lie buried beneath layers of words unspoken, sorrows unrepaired. I believe it was no accident that she opened that December door to joy for us each year…I believe it was a conscious gift of something that had been denied her but that she chose not to deny, in turn. Perhaps she simply didn’t have the strength to hold the door open longer than a single month and so she chose the one that would be most important. I see now that this one gift made up for much that I wish could have been different between us.
So now, from the vantage point of the years, it seems so clear to me that this season dedicated to love and to miracles sometimes offers both. And that like the biblical Christ who sometimes comes in the stranger’s guise, or the angels who visit us unawares, some of the miracles are unrecognizable when they come into our lives, but if we’re lucky, they remain with us long enough so we finally know the magnitude of the gift and the courage of the giver.
We finally understand and maybe that’s the dearest gift of all.
© Cathy Cash Spellman/The Wild Harp & Co. Inc 2012