Christmas - es Past

Christmas Eve 2012
This is our family's first Christmas without Jim. We have all come to Avila Beach where we have had several fun holidays together. Being here softens this FIRST a bit with other distractions - but we all know something important is missing. None-the-less this one is also part of the "memory box". And must be added to the collection - Growing the story - as family stories grow over the years. Christmas 2004 Jim and I flew to Robin's a week before Christmas and our daughter Karen arrived in Lafayette several days before Christmas. I wrote about Christmas Past then too.

Remembering California Christmas Eve 1974
Around the dinner table at Robin's tonight, everyone was taking a turn telling something about a Christmas Past.

Brad talked of a memorable Illinois Christmas at his grandparents house. Jamie, Robin and Brad's oldest, begged the question, not sure that this year might not be the one he would talk about later.

When it was our daughter Karen's turn she laughed.
"Ofcourse I remember the year I got all the stuff."
She paused and then added,
" but there is the Christmas Eve we were out here, in Madera, at Grandma's and we went to Yosemite."

Jim and Robin and I nodded. "Oh, yes."

This is not our first California Christmas.

My husband is a California native. He went to medical school on the East Coast and ended up staying out there. Jim's father died in March 1974.

We came back to California with our three kids for Christmas that year so that all the family would be together. It was a wonderful reunion of aunts, uncles, and cousins as those anniversaries often are.

Christmas Eve dawned. All the resident families had chores to do and fixings to complete for the holiday. We were at loose ends and in some ways in the way.

Jim suggested we take our kids for their introduction to Yosemite - only a 90 minute drive away.

As we climbed toward the mountains we met snow. There were snow capped peaks ahead as we drove through lightly dusted hills and valleys.

We stopped for breakfast at a lodge near the entrance to Yosemite Park. The dining room had a cathedral ceiling and large windows framed breathtaking views of the snow capped mountain peaks.

A floor to ceiling grey stone fireplace dominated one end of the room. Standing near-by was a 20 foot evergreen tree. The top just missed the rough hewn ceiling rafters. The room was perfumed with a mixture of spruce and wood smoke. The thick farm pancakes and maple syrup were as perfect as the setting.

We entered Yosemite Park through a tunnel. As we emerged the monumental El Capitan
stood before us on the left.

Ahead on the right we saw a bright white streak against a sheer rock face where
Bridal Veil Falls was frozen solid.
We were all so awed that we spoke in the same hushed voices we use in church.

The air was cold and crisp and pure. The skies overhead were bright blue with an occasional white cloud floating by.

Ours was the only car at the vista point. And that was how it continued all day. We saw no more than three cars all day. We owned the park.

Deer grazed in snow covered clearings.
When we walked toward a creek we heard the rushing water before we saw
it tumbling over the rocks. At every twist in the road there was a new view of the white capped Sierra peaks that surround Yosemite Valley.
Half-dome dominates and is my favorite sight.

That was thirty years ago today - but I can see it as clearly as if it were yesterday.

How could we have known that we were capturing a timeless moment that would live for each of us - -

Today I think of it as the day we spent in the Presence of God -

and I am so grateful we shared it as a family. Back to the present: I had not connected coming to California in 1974 to be with the family after Hal's death with this trip - but there it is. I suggested coming to Avila Beach because Jim had really wanted to come to California before he died - and is time ran out. So here we are - partly to make the trip for him.


Aunt Ida's Nightgown - A Christmas Story

I never really knew my mother's Aunt Ida - but I haven't forgotten her because this Christmas story keeps her alive in my memory. Do you have stories that bring back memories of long-ago members of your family?


Watching the Skies

Watching the skies tonight because the rest of my family is flying out so that we will all be together for this "first" Christmas without Jim. ** Since our daughter married and started her family Jim and I came here every other year for the Holidays - often flying on Christmas Day meaning we shared Midnight Mass with Jimmy's family on the East Coast and were on the West Coast for Dinner on Christmas Day. Lafayette, CA, outside San Francisco, is not a strange territory for me. ** Today I climbed and I do mean climbed into the Ford Explorer that I am renting. This behemoth and I are making peace with each other. Actually I am beginning to enjoy driving it - - except for parking. ** Since it was a lovely sunny day I took pictures around town - from the Library to a local thrift store. And, I finally had my chance to photograph the Lafayette Crosses. This field of white crosses, begun in 2006, are tribute to men and women in the Armed Services who died in Iraq. The field is a local non-official monument on private property which touches your heart.


Share your stories for the Holidays

My friend Lee Shephard turned the tables on me when he interviewed me on his cable tv show, "Out of the Past". We had a grand time and I told several stories. First a taste of Finding Gus and then a quick version of the Elephant Man, a story from Elmwood Cemetary. Both stories are true and both use genealogy and family history as the content of the story. ** Hope you enjoy the stories and that during the holidays you are telling lots of your own family stories. Happy Holidays


Close to home

Here is an old story that reminds us to look at home for the treasure in our lives. Peddlar of Swatham from Ellouise Schoettler on Vimeo. What is treasure anyway? Gold? Goods? or the love and people in your life. At one time in my life, I admit, I went for the gold and goods - now I think more about the people being the treasure.
Jim ofcourse. ** Even though Jim is "out-of-sight" he is "ever-present" to me and my most valuable treasures are the love and years we shared. Our children and their families and our extended families. ** Friends ** Memories and stories - their value was once again wonderfully clear when I visited with Jim's sister, brother and their spouses this week-end, telling stories that brought Jim back into the group with us. Just as my sisters and I shared stories earlier this Fall - - stories are the glue that bind us aren't they. ** I have a pamphlet on Grief and Grieving by Doug Manning a Texas minister, in which he talks about how important it is to focus on the significance in your life of someone you have lost, how important it is to really understand what they meant in your life - as you grieve for them. ** The process of fully understanding what someone meant in your life is both a joy and an agony. Because now they are gone. You can't tell them.** Wouldn't it be wonderful to do that before you lose them - so that we know how incredibly rich we are? And, that they know they are the treasure? ** Just saying.


At home.

Today our country is mourning - mourning the deaths of twenty innocents in Connecticutt yesterday - and we hurt for and with the parents and families left in shock. ** This morning I wake up in a familiar hotel room in Jim's home town in California. We have stayed here many times since 1974 and even slept a few nights in this very room. I feel warm and comforted being here. Its as though I have stepped back in time - - I am home. Amazingly, Jim is here. ** Last night Robin and I had dinner in the restaurant downstairs with his brother, sister-in-law, sister and brother-in-law. We share the deep bond of loving Jim. Even when we are not talking about him we feel the connection. ** I was afraid of coming here. Afraid I would be overhelmed by grief and emotion. I am overwhelmed but its by the love and connection to Jim. Family. ** Dispite his own illness, Jim's brother came to visit Jim several weeks before he died. They sat together in our make-shift hospital room at home, saying little, feeling lots. I realized last night that Tom had not felt closure until we came and we could sit together. The same with his sister, who was too ill to travel. ** We will meet this morning to share Mass at San Joachim's where we have all prayed together and where we were all together for the funerals of Jim's parents and his sister. I know it will knit us still closer as we finally share prayers for Jim. ** One afteroon last February when he was in Sibley hospital, Jim fell silent. When I asked what he was thinking about he answered, "I am just wondering where you will be ten months from now." ** Now we know. ** Here in Madera - with him. ** As much as I feel my grief comforted this morning my thoughts circle back to the grieving parents of the innocent children in Connecticut -- just starting on their journey. I think of my daughter Gretchen who died when she was three years old- remembering walking that path and I pray for them. ** God Bless them with the strength to find their peace and comfort.



Today is the 48th anniversary of our daughter Gretchen's death. I have been thinking about her today - and about Jim. Jim was on active duty in the Air Force, stationed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, when Gretchen died suddenly. My uncle, an Army Colonel, advised Jim to exercise his Arlington option saying, "you can always move her later." But we never did and now Gretchen and Jim are together in Arlington - where I will someday join them. Feels right to me.


Coming to Ground

Hard for me to believe it has been nearly two weeks since I have written here. There has been a lot going on....but nothing I wanted to share particularly.
I have gotten a few jaunty Christmas letters from dear friends. This is not one of those. I can't point to many high points this past year. The best I can do is let folks know "I get out of bed everyday." People have been wonderful in helping me transition to this new life, in fact several angels have appeared to hold my hand. "Grieving" is hard work. For those who might not know - my husband Jim died in March and just to see if we were on our toes we had to wait for five months for his burial at Arlington National Cemetary. Two funerals, no matter how lovely, and his were, is just a bit much in one year. So, as I was saying, grieving is hard work. I just don't get as much done and am certainly not as efficient. All the books and articles on grief - and there are hundreds, assure me this is normal. I am glad to hear that but can't say that it helps much. Storytelling is the a grace and helps heaps. But now - - add a holiday. Wham - that really slows you down. I solved several parts of that by deciding not to decorate my house for Christmas. No tree this year. Jim and I loved putting up the Christmas Tree and we kept ornaments from every year. We still have a few left from the first time we had our own tree in 1957. Jim was an Intern at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. On his $63/month salary we had NO money to spend. But when another intern took us to Bargaintown USA - one of the first big box stores, we bought several boxes of shiny, colorful thin glass ornaments for $1.50 a box. Several have survived although the silver sprinkles have turned black. No, I am not taking a trip down memory lane as I unwrap every ornament. Instead I packed up and went out of town for an away-cation. Found someone who loves animals to live in my house for a few weeks to feed and love the animals. So far that's working out really well. United Airlines brought me to sunny California and its G O O D to be here with my daughter and her family in the sunny hills around San Francisco. This away-cation is a very sentimental journey. California is Jim's home state. He loved it. We came often to see his family and then our daughter moved out here and we came even more often to see her and subsequently our grand-sons. I am back in part as escape from home and in another part because Jim wanted to come to California but time ran out before he could. I was worried about coming. Wise Facebook friends shared many thoughts about what I should bring to support me through it. And I brought something of everything they advised from journals to that mouthy stuffed lion, Leo. He is the stand-in for Jim because Leo was on Jim's bedside table during the last leg of his journey. Last night I had dinner with long-time friends - one, Jim's college room-mate and Best Man at our wedding, reminded me of stories I had heard but forgotten. He brought back some wonderful memories - especially of one night he, Jim and I and one of my nursing school classmates visited the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorial at night - when they were bathed in moonlight. Oh, yes, I remember that - and Jim and I often took folks to those monuments at night because we knew how beautiful they were then. As well as other stories - - stories of a good friend. He told me how Jim called him when he had his stroke 15 years ago and rehearsed him on the answers with the psychiatrist the next day so that he could go home. And, it worked - just as he had sometimes coached him when they were in college. Gifts! Yes, I cried. Wouldn't you? But the tears felt warm - and healing. Once again - learning - the healing is in the stories.



Neil Gaiman won the Newberry Prize for The Graveyard Book. I read it, loved it and have it on my bookshelf. Let me tell you what led me to read it. One afternoon when Jim and I were driving back from PA we listened to a fascinating NPR interview with author Neil Gaiman. He was talking about his new book, The Graveyard Book. Gaiman told about taking his small child to a near-by graveyard to play twenty years ago and how, watching his youngster, the germ of the idea of a child being raised in a graveyard began to jell. Nobody Owens or Bod is the boy in this book who is raised by a community of ghosts. I had to get the book into my hands as quickly as possible. It reminded me of Mama. Mama told me from my earliest memory that she was “raised in Elmwood Cometary.”
Mama’s daddy died when she was about 18 months old. Granny was devastated. Everyday she took Mama with her when she drove to Elmwood, parked at the grave and sat with Gus Keasler – every day for eight year.
As Mama got older she was more and more restless on these long visits and Granny let her get out of the car. Mama had the run of the marble garden. She climbed over the statuary and eventually read the tombstones. She knew where everyone was buried. She could lead you right to anyone that she or Granny had known. She could tell you about them.
When Mama was about 90 years old our son Jim and his family went to Charlotte to visit her. She asked him to drive her out to Elmwood for a visit. Once they were parked she led them through the grounds, telling stories, introducing them to all the family. When I mentioned it to her she said – ” Of course I could do that. I was raised in Elmwood Cemetery.” When reading Gaiman’s book I enjoyed and admired the language, the images, and I liked the characters in the ghostly community. And, I thought of my mother and her relationship with all her ghosts. I have that too. At age 92 My mother died late in the afternoon on a Thursday.
The next morning Jim and I drove through the black wrought iron gates at Elmwood Cemetary. I stopped at Gus Keasler’s grave, now with my grandmother beside him, and I felt comforted. Years have passed and these days--- On Wednesdays I wave my pass for the guards to see as I drive through the black wrought iron gates of Arlington National Cemetary
, they smile and wave back.
Minutes later I park near Jim's resting place near the Tomb of the Unknowns. People say "why do you go there every week?" I go, as my grandmother did, because I feel comforted. Life is a circle.