Good parents create a storehouse of beautiful memories, memories that tell them that they are loved and that they are special. That they are part of 'our family' and our family is a special family.
Christmas is the most highly charged time of the year. From children to well-seasoned adults, everyone's expectations for everything from gifts to happiness are high as a kite. Amid the season's madness of shopping and traveling, there is little time to reflect on the memories of what Christmas has meant in our own lives.
That said, for most of us, Christmas is thick with memories...some good, some not so. From its beginning, it has been a time of stress and dislocation: Being "requested" to leave home and travel a distance to one's home for an imperial census; Or a time of missing homeward flights, or of fixing flat tires on the side of frantic turnpikes.
Christmas is often a time of unexpected panic. You arrive at your destination and there are no available rooms. Finally, someone allows you to set up in his barn amid the livestock. Or your neat Christmas plans are shattered when a down-and-out relative calls and needs your help. Or someone close becomes quite ill or dies.
It is also a time of unexpected visitors. Unknown shepherds from the hills, excitedly following a star, arrive at your door, hoping to see your baby. Or you are awakened early by caroling neighbors, after Midnight Mass and celebrating late, reminding you that today is no ordinary day. Or you receive an out-of-the-blue call from a long-lost and long-loved friend, letting you know how much you are missed.
Christmas is so drenched with these memories. The two of us come from different worlds. One of us, Marilyn, was raised on a small farm in northwest Washington State. The other, Kevin, was brought up in a suburb of New York City. We had very different educational and cultural upbringings: Kevin in a large Catholic and Republican family; Marilyn in a small, Democratic and areligious home. But in both homes, Christmas was distinctive, leavings us awash in its memories.
Kevin's mother took on the Christmas season with a singular -- perhaps, slightly deranged --passion. She alone "invented" the idea of putting a Christmas wreath-on-the-front-of-the car. (True. Look it up!) It was 1948 and the family had just acquired its first car, a "pre-owned" Chevy. To celebrate the family's new status and the birth of Our Lord, she initiated this staggeringly original idea. Of course, her children were stricken with embarrassment, but also with a quiet admiration at her imagination.
The same woman was the scourge of Tony, the local nursey owner, where she annually bought our Christmas tree. She went about the purchase of a tree the way a careful buyer would go about purchasing a new home. She consumed hours and hours of patient Tony's time, inspecting dozens and dozens of trees. One year she purchased three trees, taking each of the first two back to Tony's after giving each an unsuccessful "try-out" in the living room.
Marilyn's mother, a busy farm woman now in her 101st year, was and is areligious. Growing up in an unchurched family, Christmas was just another national holiday, like the Fourth of July. Nevertheless, she entered into the Christmas spirit, providing presents for her husband, two daughters and several other relatives. A notoriously generous woman, one Christmas she sewed 15 cowgirl and cowboy shirts for her daughters and 13 neighbor children.
Christmas at Marilyn's public school was a festival of carols and pageantry. The upper-grade singers, carrying lit candles, stopped at each classroom door singing. She recalls one year being an angel with glittering wings. The coveted role of the Virgin Mary was awarded to a dark-haired girl whose home had burned down a few weeks earlier.
Not all Christmas memories are good memories. The season brings out stresses and strains, memories of sad past holidays. One searing memory is of Kevin's father, a thoroughly honorable and admirable man, who, during a period of business decline, broke under the strain of providing for his family. One Christmas Eve, he took to the bottle and was in no shape to walk with the rest of the family to Midnight Mass. Nevertheless, the family -- and the rest of the parish --witnessed him shuffling down the aisle to go to Communion. A bad memory, but shortly after, he found AA and spent the remainder of his life helping others deal with the curse of alcohol.
Marilyn's father, too, was raised on a small farm family. His first memories were when he was four years old, being taught in the barn by his immigrant father how to milk a cow. This was no idle game. From that day forward he was part of the family work routine. He continued milking cows twice a day until he retired at 72. Also unchurched, his childhood Christmases were spare holidays. Nevertheless, he hung up his stocking. If the family had a good year on the farm, he found an apple and an orange with a dime pressed into it. A bad year, a nickel. Every year on our mantel, we always have an apple and an orange. Thanks God, every year we've had a dime slotted into the orange
Kevin's most vivid Christmas recollection was when he was seven and having written Santa and prayed over his request of a pony. The rest of the family pointed out that they had no place for a pony to stay; he tellingly pointed out that since they didn't have a car, there would be plenty of space in the garage. So, on Christmas morning, while the other hurried to the living room for their presents, he bolted for the garage and shortly returned in tears and that year covered the Ryan's Christmas with a soaking pale. Thankfully, next year Santa brought him Taffy, who blessedly turned out to be the world's most loyal, intelligent and loving dog. (Look it up!)
All parents plant memories into the hearts and minds of their children. Good parents create a storehouse of beautiful memories, memories that tell them that they are loved and that they are special. That they are part of "our family" and our family is a special family. And, too, they let them know that their family is part of another family. A small, poor family whose son was born on this day we celebrate at Christmas, a family whose example we must all work hard to imitate, a family whose son has entered our world and has changed everything.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.