There’s something about this season that evokes bygone memories. These aren’t sepia toned memories – I’m not that old – they’re more like a mix of warm vibrant colors filmed with a soft lens. In other words, they bring forth feelings both nostalgic and pleasant. Think of a classic Christmas postcard, its snow covered landscape offering the perfect contrast to the brilliant but somehow muted colors surrounding a heartfelt home filled with love and the joy of expectation. This paints the picture of the memories I’m writing about.
Except my memories aren’t make believe. They are very real, although the distant years sometimes make me wonder if the soft lens distorts more than the crisp definitions we’ve become all too accustomed to in the digitized world in which we live. No matter. The price of a slight distortion here and there is well worth the comfort of the inner smile they bring.
Of course these memories, as they do for everyone and almost by definition, come from our own childhood. It’s not as though we seek escape to some imaginary past. It’s more like we wish to capture that same feeling we had in our youth and pass it on to our own children. After all, some day in the future time will soften that sharp digitized reality of today into a pleasurably fuzzy memory of tomorrow.
For now, I close my eyes on this late evening and take myself back to a time when the snow fell in large Charlie Brown sized flakes. The small house is warm as the lone street light illuminates the white blanket outset of frost covered windows separating the warmth of our family parlor from the lake effect wind chill on the other side. Mind you, not all that frost is real. Some of it comes from a powder decoration we sprayed on those windows to augment the appearance of that outside chill. The colder it looks outside, the warmer it feels inside, with your family beside you and those small tokens you value most.
Decorations have long been a tradition of the season. In a time when “off-the-shelf” meant there’s most likely something broken on the floor (as in, “it just fell off the shelf”), decorations had to be hand-made. I don’t know which magazines my mother subscribed to – Good Housekeeping or Ladies Home Journal – but this time of year they lay on the floor turned to pages promising the reader a cornucopia of inexpensive – or better yet, recycled for free from used materials – Christmas decorations. It seemed each evening when my father returned from work a dozen more decorations greeted him. They were anything from angels made from old books (and spray-painted gold – oh, the smell of freshly sprayed aerosol paint), to Styrofoam ball snowmen replete with felt eyes, nose, and buttons, to Christmas colored home-made candles that looked like a square block of Swiss cheese.
I note the candles in particular. The process of making them intrigued me. You melted plain colorless wax together with several crayons of the color you wished to portray, then poured the liquefied mixture into a topless milk carton fill with ice surrounded by a real candle (preferably one of the same color as the wax you just made). When the molten wax returned to solid form and the ice melted, you stripped away the old milk carton and – voilà! – you had yourself a Christmas candle. They looked so cool as they burned, especially if the inner candle was able to burn down without melting all surrounding wax. In this way the light would then shine through the holes where once solid ice sat. It didn’t take much imagination to picture that candle as that warm house you would often see on that classic Christmas postcard. That the whole family watch these candles burn felt like we were all snuggling up together in a comfortable blanket.
But these fine memories also include inner directed experiences. There’s one that stays with me and continues to grow stronger every year. I don’t know why, it just does. I’m lying on my side, the cold linoleum kitchen floor beneath me. Directly in front of me is my N-gauge train. It’s a circular track about twelve inches in diameter. Lap after lap the four finger-long cars repeat. There’s a slight oily smell from the grinding gears of the diminutive E-8 diesel locomotive. I’m in my pajamas, and I could sense the sub-zero temperatures outside our small raised ranch. I don’t fret. I just watch the tiny train go round and round. Elsewhere the rest of the family busy themselves in their own private activities. We are each unto our solitary selves, yet we are unto our solitary selves together. And that gives me that inner smile I spoke of.
It is this same feeling that becomes magnified on Christmas Eve. We’d normally travel to my grandparents’ home, where all my mother’s siblings would gather. My other grandparents came, too. The evening was filled with food and games and watching It’s a Wonderful Life on the television. There were too many people for us to do everything all together. In fact, there were too many people for us to do anything all together. Even the meal consisted of multiple gatherings at multiple tables. Yes, we had the proverbial “kids’ table” and yes I was assigned to that table long after I thought it appropriate.
That assignment didn’t matter. What mattered was, although spread through the house in several separate groups, we were all together. We were experiencing Christmas as a family. Each doing our own separate things, but doing our own separate things together.
And that’s the memory from this season that creates the greatest inner smile. Sure it’s a memory seen through a soft lens, with all those contemporary anxieties stripped out (why make part of the memory when, however important they seemed at the time, everything turned out all right).
So I remember the feeling and embrace the memory, and do everything possible to ensure my own children have the chance to store similar memories for later use in their own futures.
I wish you all a Christmas full of memories and may you all be blessed with a wonder New Year!