As of Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Last week I woke up at 3 a.m. with a severe case of the night sweats. My doctor would have diagnosed it as a post-menopausal event, but I think it was the Ghost of Christmas Past paying me a visit.
The scene the ghost conjured up that night was not the most pleasant. It replayed a cold winter day in December 1988, when a local doctor navigated our listless 18-month old daughter’s spinal column with a hypodermic needle, and uttered the word “meningitis” as he called for an ambulance. Minutes later, we were on our way down the Gorge in route to Doernbecher Hospital, and a 2-week stay that saved our only child’s life.
The ghost has frequented my dreams regularly since it first appeared, bringing with it Christmas memories of all varieties — humorous, sweet, and occasionally sad.
1962: I am a 6-year old girl lying on the couch, my nose chapped, my throat red and swollen. I push the scales at a mere 35 pounds. This is not the first Christmas I’ve spent in such a sickly state; infections seem to come with Santa’s sleigh. It will, however, be one of the last I spend prone and miserably ill. A tonsillectomy the following year is successful. I gain 20 pounds. in a few short months following the surgery.
1963: This is my last year to enjoy the blissful belief that Santa Claus fills my stocking. I sneak downstairs early and smuggle my stuffed stocking into my bedroom. There, I marvel at all the lovely things Santa has left me. The following year, my mother decides that we are too old to believe in Santa, and dispenses with the myth. My brother and sister, both older than I, are unperturbed, but I am devastated by this realization.
1965: Santa may be a hoax, but my belief in Christmas magic is restored when I receive a “Creepy Crawler” maker. I squeeze brightly colored liquid Plastigoop into a metal mold made up of all varieties of hairy, multi-legged critters. The filled mold is lifted on to a scorchingly hot device that transforms the liquid goo into a rubbery solid. Once cooked and cooled, the critters are pried from the mold. Today, this fascinating toy would certainly be banned as a safety hazard, but I loved it.
1966: My church stages a Christmas pageant each year, and in 1966 I decide to try out for a part. There are not many parts for girls — I’m not nearly pretty enough to be Mary, and the shepherds and kings are all boys. I try out for the Angel who delivers the good news. My friend gets that speaking part. I am left to be Gabriel’s silent sidekick. All I do is stand in the balcony with my arms raised over my head for an excruciating length of time. I’m not sure which aches more — my shoulders or my ego.
1967: If the church won’t give me a starring role, I’ll conjure one up for myself. I decide to put on a “variety” show of Christmas carols for my extended family, including my cousin’s fiancé, who I meet for the first time on this Christmas Eve. My plan is to lip sync songs from my favorite holiday album. I design programs and costumes. When I step out in front of my audience I freeze, then run and hide. I will not attempt another thespian adventure for 45 years, when I portray Emma Ingalls in the “Cemetery Tales.”
1976: My first Christmas away from my family. I am enrolled in a college program in Madrid. It’s too expensive, and too difficult, to fly home. My Spanish mother tries to boost my spirits — she even buys a branch of evergreen for me to decorate. I sit in my room, all alone, and make paper ornaments to decorate the branch. On Christmas night, my parents call me. It is the first time I’ve spoken English in months. Tears flow, and Consuelo, whose name means “Comfort,” does her best to do so.
1979: Like thousands of pioneers before me, I leave behind my life as an “east coaster” and head west in my modern Conestoga wagon, a 1976 Chevrolet Vega. I settle in the beautiful Hood River valley. Thanks to my brother’s kind in-laws, I have a place to celebrate Christmas Eve. After a delicious dinner, our large group loads into a Volkswagen van and heads off into the night to sing silly (sometimes irreverent) carols to friends around the valley.
1980: The man who drove the VW van a year ago is now my boyfriend. Our gifts to each other this year symbolize the depth of our affection — he builds me a beautiful drafting table, and I knit him a sweater. Two years later we celebrate Christmas as a married couple.
2000: 11 Christmas holidays have come and gone since our daughter survived meningitis. Eleven Christmases of searching for the perfect tree, building gingerbread houses, baking cookies and making our own Christmas cards. On Dec. 17 I write in my journal: “Rose and I finished our Christmas shopping, read Christmas books by the tree and snuggled. For me, it really felt like a day honoring the Christmas season, and the closeness of family.”
2014: I will make the yearly trip down to the basement to bring up all things Christmas. Some of the most important items are the dozens of holiday books I’ve been collecting most of my life. There’s Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Fir Tree,” O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Polar Express.” I love them all, but only one is a must-read every Christmas Eve — “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. This sweet book reminds us that the holiday should be about friendship, generosity and the making of memories. Whether delivered to me via the Ghost of Christmas Past or my cerebral cortex, these memories will once again be the most meaningful gifts I receive.