Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Christmas Box

“Ah! How good it feels the hand of an old friend.”
― Mary Engelbreit

My favorite day of the Christmas season is when it arrives. Some years it has come before Christmas. Most years it comes a few days after. Only once in twenty years did it not come at all and I knew there was something wrong.
I can't remember how it started - this soulful exchange of boxes between Ann and me - filled with treasures.

The boxes' abundance or lack there of from year to year has reflected our respective financial states - some years the box brims. Other years it doesn't - but no matter - it's the friendship contained in it that counts. A long distance friendship that has endured over twenty years.
A friendship that began on a walk with strollers and bikes with training wheels - two young mothers colliding at the end of a driveway with four children between us -
Fast friends - instant soul mates - each sharing a love of the illustrator Mary Engelbreit, a hearty laugh, and deeply honest conversation.

Ann transformed our neighborhood with her enormous mid-western heart and joviality. Her two youngest children the same ages as mine - played dress up together and went to the same pre-school. They learned how to swim in my mother's pool. We trick or treated together, tugging a wagon behind us for tired little legs- and a six pack of beer. Ann organized neighborhood gatherings, dinners out, and lots of afternoon play dates.

Then, Ann moved with her family to Texas via St. Louis, her home town. As it happened, I was going to be in St. Louis for a conference that very summer, and so after she moved, I met up with her there - where she introduced me to the Mary Engelbreit store! I believe the box exchange began with Mary Engelbreit goodies - calendars, tea cups, ornaments, stationary - some years we even gave each other the same things!

Each Christmas, for over twenty years - UPS drivers in California and Texas have carried a box of treasures to Ann's and my front doors - and each Christmas, I wait until I'm completely alone - and then begin the joyous task of opening the box. Individually wrapped gifts - uncanny in their aptness - gifts that speak of the depth of understanding between us belying the long distance nature of our friendship. With each unwrapped treasure, a sigh - a smile - a tear - a giggle - a pause - a gasp - a memory.

Seven years after we said farewell in St. Louis, Ann and I met up again in Italy for a ten day excursion through Tuscany. The last time I laid eyes on her was in an airport in Rome seven years ago. Hopefully we will see each other again this summer. The T-towel I sent in her box this year bore the map of California. A note in her box to me indicated that this just might be the summer. It seems we have a pattern of seeing each other every seven years. We don't email. We don't facebook. We talk on the phone once or twice a year. But through the long periods of separation - and the ups and downs of our lives - the one constant connection has been our Christmas box exchange.

It seems we both outgrew Mary Engelbreit decor - or simply exhausted the inventory of potential Mary Engelbreit chachkies - but the box has always had a sense of magic about it. I think it is because it represents a commitment and faithfulness between two steadfast friends with an almost mystical - heart to heart connection. The Christmas box is a sacred tradition. It is a promise. It is a box filled with love.
It is a joyous celebration of the mystery of life. Each Christmas, as my hand digs into the bubble wrap and paper, it pulls out a wrapped package, big or small, that I know was touched by the hand of an old friend. And that is the greatest treasure of all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Santa Claus is Coming to Town Again

The presents are wrapped, thanks to my son's girlfriend, who graciously offered to bail me out of a mounting pile of Amazon boxes and irresistible souvenirs from Hawaii. ( Why I thought that coconut shell soap dish would be a perfect gift, I have no idea!)
In the spirit of commercialism - no deep message today - I set myself to the nostalgic task of making a list of Christmas gifts I remember receiving as a kid....

1. I probably don't really remember getting this gift - but there are lots of pictures of me just shy of one year-old - with a great big stuffed hound dog with floppy ears. Mother looked like she was quite pleased - propping me up while holding the stuffed animal next to me.

2. Little Miss No Name - a pathetic doll in burlap and a tear permanently attached to her cheek. I'll bet I was about 7 or 8 years old.

3. A gold Schwinn bicycle with a banana seat, big handle bars and a white basket attached to the front with daisies. I was only allowed to ride in a circle in the cul de sac in front of our house.

4. My first guitar. My friend Susie got one too. There are pictures of the two of us in front of our Christmas tree, guitars strapped across us like a couple of folk singers. These pictures were taken minutes before we banged into each other and put a hole in the side of mine.

5. The 5th Dimension LP Up, Up and Away.

6. A 45 of Diohne Warwick singing Do You Know the Way to San Jose. I thought I was so cool!

7. A 45 of Peter, Paul and Mary's tear jerker I'm Leavin' on a Jet Plane.

8. Meeskite. Our Beagle. I asked Santa for a Dachsund after seeing the Disney movie The Ugly Dachsund with Dean Jones. I daydreamed of having a cute little weaner dog as my pet. Mother preferred Snoopy. It wasn't the only time Santa tweaked my list.

9. A Schwinn 10 speed bicycle. Now this one bears some explanation. I wanted a boy's 10 speed. The kind with the bar and bent over handlebars. On Christmas morning I awoke to a bright, shiny silver girl's 10 speed. It was slick. Santa wisely chose a girl's bike for me. That bar on the boy's bike my own version of "You'll shoot your eye out."
But unlike Ralphie, in A Christmas Story, my BB gun never materialized. I was secretly so disappointed. I never liked that girl's bike.

10. Clothes in I. Magnin boxes. I. Magnin boxes were similar to Nordstrom boxes. The problem was that I wanted wrapped packages in paper - but Santa clearly had other ideas. The bright silver metallic boxes glistened neatly under the tree. The spoiled "only-child-like" brat in me wanted paper, ribbon, and chaos like at the Shea's house.

Christmas at my house growing up was always a mixed bag. Mother was always mad. Dad would sulk. My brother would put in his appearance. A tinge of sadness hung over the house right along with the colored bulbs on the eaves. The tree was decorated from top to bottom - the balls graduating in an orderly fashion from smallest to biggest and Frank Sinatra played on the stereo.
Dad would buy Mother clothes that didn't fit. Dad would unenthusiastically open his tie box.
Bayberry scented candles with plastic holly wreaths lined the fireplace mantel from which fake stockings hung.
For some reason, Mother didn't fill Christmas stockings - so the tradition that my children have grown up with started the first year I was married - to this day, stocking stuffers are my favorite part of Christmas morning.

Some things about our childhood remain a mystery our entire lives. I don't know what it was that made Christmas so tinged with melancholy in my house - I yearned to be Heidi - but felt more like Klara. I suppose it was due to my parent's humble beginnings and their growing up during the depression rags to riches story - they showered me with the best and sheltered me from hardship. Funny how things stay with us. I still feel guilty about being disappointed on Christmas morning a midst the abundance of those I. Magnin boxes. I remember one Christmas in particular, when I opened the two piece cow-hide skirt and vest and leopard spotted coat. Mother detected my displeasure and told me she would give all my presents away to the Salvation Army for the poor children. I went into my room and put on every piece of clothing she'd bought - layered one on top of the other, to prove that I was grateful for them. I wince to this day at the scene.

My own anxiety attached to Christmas gift giving and receiving with my children must be traced to my childhood - Is there enough under the tree? Too much? Is it even? No matter whether the gifts were coming from Pic 'n Save - which they did in the early years of their childhood when we were cash strapped - or in shiny Nordstrom boxes - expectations and fantasy collide on Christmas morning. It's not easy being Santa Claus. So just for the record - Thanks, Mom and Dad. I know you did your best. You were right about the 10 speed. And Beagles really are cuter than Dachsunds.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Faithful Friends

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do during the Christmas season was to curl up on the couch in my parent's den next to the Christmas tree and listen to Frank Sinatra's Christmas album. A melancholy yearning would well up inside of me as I gazed at the colored lights on the tree particularly when the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" played.
Faithful Friends who are dear to us
gather near to us once more.
Through the years we all will be together
if the fates allow
hang a shining star upon the highest bough
and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

There is something haunting about those lyrics.
Something prophetic.
It's the word "if".
The yearning, I suspect, was the desire to hold that if at bay -
Even as a young child, I knew life was fragile. I knew my secure slumber on my parent's couch next to that Christmas tree would not last. But "if" the fates allowed, maybe it would for just a little while longer.

Truth be known, I think I was lonely as a child - which is why my friends have always been important to me.
This weekend I spent time with some of those faithful friends. Childhood friends. College friends. Friends with whom no explanation is needed. We know each other's stories. We are intimate friends.

I took great solace in being with those friends this weekend. Here we are, fifty-somethings. Our faces have more lines. Our bodies are a variety of sizes. We are in various states of "shape."
We were young together and now we aren't.
We are peers
in the same stage of life.
Always have been of course -
but now, as we get older,
it matters.

These are friends with whom nostalgia is only a part of the picture. We do not live in the past. These are present tense friends. We're still making memories.

Friendship is one of life's greatest riches.
This weekend, as I gazed into the faces of such dear friends, my heart was full of gratitude for all the years we all have been together.

This weekend, I might just as well have been George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life."
I feel like the richest woman on earth.