“Joy is not in things, It is in us.”
It’s the late nineties. I’m carpooling my two daughters to their Montessori grade school on Chicago’s Northside. A radio commercial airs almost daily during the commute. It’s an ad for a method of tutoring for your fidgety kid. A Learning Center where you can take them after school. The A.D.D. – attention deficit– diagnosis phenomena has begun, and panic is taking hold. It is before cell phones, cyber-bullying and Smart phones. Nintendo is still king.
“I’m talking to you Debbie”, a 40-something Mom pleads with a shadowy silhouette in the t.v. ad. But in this ad during drive-time radio – Debbie is not heard from. A voice-over assures us there is hope for Debbie and others like her. “You don’t have to go it alone”. There are proven, innovative ways of “reaching” your child, and you really need to sign-up.
A dozen or so years later, constant use of electronics and texting over-stimulate the brain, and pharmaceutical companies, with their Ridilin cocktails, corner the market, inducing the ups and downs once reserved for nature: roller-blading at the park, followed by an after school snack and then a nap.
Coming from a family where teasing is de rigueur, I took to impersonating the concerned mother in that radio ad, and started calling my daughters “Debbie”, when I felt ignored and wanted their attention. They’d respond from their rooms on separate floors, by calling back to me, then go-back to whatever they were doing. The “Debbie” morphed into my calling them “Debra #1”, and “Debra #2”, in birthright order, like the Chinese tradition. Their Great Grandmother on the Greek side is also Deborah, “Debbie”. My habit is made even more absurd by the fact that the mothers of two of their best friends were also named “Debbie.”
For the next ten years or so, I added new nick-names to the list of favorites. As a household we added our share of newfangled devices to our possessions – CD Walkmans, boom-boxes, laptops, I-pods, tennis shoes with wheels…The 1993 Volvo eventually petered out completely. The girls started biking, then upgrading their bicycles, and soon Nia had a sweet Italian Bianchi “Milano”, in mint green and cherry red to ride around the Square.
The girls moved away for college, four years apart, both to California schools.
They took most of their favorite things with them. The ephemera remaining in their rooms were mostly keepsakes of childhood: posters, pillows, grade-school folders, photos in funky frames, scrapbooks, small gadgets, (way too many) hair things, empty CD cases, and lots of 90s clothes.
We sorted the kids clothes and toys. Gave some away, and stored the rest in the attic.
I taped a penciled list of what was stored up there – holiday lights, decorations, ornaments – on the wall near the drop-down attic stairs.
“Christ. in the attic,” its subtitle said. “He is?”, someone scribbled, in response.
I was pretty sad with the girls both gone. I emailed them a fair amount. Went for Thanksgiving one year. Took a trip to Madrid when Nia studied there in ’08. I called them – interpreting their sighs, or long silences on the other end of the phone, as their heartache – or “the Missing.” I missed them, too.
When at last they came home for Christmas break in early December, we got the tree together, rain or snow. And every year, it seemed, paying for it was a sacrifice. Swallowing hard as I sang the lyric “And there’s nothing to spare for a Christmas tree”, in The Magi song in our Christmas concert. But, we got a live tree all the same, usually from a lot down the street, and dragged it home, or strapped it to the roof of the car, singing “Bringing home the Christmas tree.”
Meg steadied the tree-base while Nia judged the angle. They strung the lights, and decorated. I watched. The tree was up in time for the caroling party, which we hold each year without fail, with school friends reuniting, and cousins and aunts and uncles singing up and down the chilly Chicago streets.
Eventually, Meg came back to Chicago to stay. Nia followed, after her college graduation, a year later.
They got jobs. They started a band. They fell in love – Nia with Casey, Meg with Alex – and they fit right in.
Last night, Meg and Nia canceled band rehearsal, and came to my house for dinner. I made green “Italian Christmas” lasagna, with the best organic vegetables and herbs from Stanley’s Vegetables on Elston.
We set-up in the living room.
“One of the best things you ever made, Mom”, Meg says.
The boxes come down from the attic, we string cranberries. I watch them decorate the tree, all of us knowing each ornament, and where it came from. Reviewing the hierarchy as daughters #1 and #2, they light-heartedly make claim to my favorite things – the emerald ring, the painted chairs, the piano, the Mexican screen, Madonna on the ironing board – and what they will “get” when I die!
We watch “Love Actually”, the 2003 romantic comedy, set at Christmas in England. We laugh and cry.
Meg makes a little pile of the ornaments she will take for the tree she’s put up with Alex, who is now her fiance. She puts a collection of angels on display for her little cousins. Nia sets up the manger set, and as a final touch, tucks loose fir boughs in the banister. Then they load-up with left-overs, put on their mittens and boots, and head out for the four-block walk home – together. I survey the tree. It’s old-fashioned, simple and…perfect. I unplug the Christmas lights, a strand at a time. And then go to sleep.
That’s Jamie in the middle.
My Aunt Dorothy used to read this poem by Fra Giovanni Giocondo at Christmastime.
I salute you!
There is nothing I can give you which you have not;
but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take Heaven. No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take Peace. The gloom of the world is but a shadow;
behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take Joy.
And so . . . I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
in song and peace, jamie