It’s been a quiet day. More of them are these days. That’s OK. The frenzied decades slide into calmer waters. You think they’ll never come. You cover your eyes from the glare of the sun and check the horizon periodically, but you don’t see any change in the distance. You keep doing your chores, your duties, the things you do. Then, one day you look up in surprise to realize that something’s different. Somehow the landscape’s been transformed. It was so gradual, glacial, that you never even noticed.
I remember one Christmas Eve not that long ago. I was still working full-time. I got really sick right before Christmas. Some kind of bronchial infection or walking pneumonia. Who knows? Who has time to go to a doctor? I was coughing up my throat, my lungs and probably my toenails. I was coughing incessantly, and not sleeping well because the misery was worse at night. I couldn’t finish out the semester and felt so bad for my co-workers who had to cover my duties and classes when they were end-of-term weary themselves.
Because I’d been so busy and then so relentlessly ill, I hadn’t had time or energy to decorate the house. So, I was madly hanging ornaments on the tree on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, still barking and hacking. The kids were coming home. There had to be some semblance of Christmas. I remember crying a bit as I hurriedly hung the ornaments on the tree. Too hectic. Too run-down. It was all wrong.
Today my house is decorated and cozy. My village is lit up, nestled on “snow” on top of the wall unit. The Victorian with the wraparound porch and gingerbread trim, the bed and breakfast hotel with the big front window through which you can see a little girl playing piano, the schoolhouse and railroad station house the memories of the people who gave them to me. The little white church was my first acquisition, a gift from my mother-in-law. The following year she gave me a bank. I bought the windmill myself, persuaded by my sister-in-law, who insisted that the village should include a nod to my Dutch heritage. At night, if you walk down my street, you can look up and see the village winking at you through the living room window pane.
In the kitchen I have a Nativity made by my father-in-law set up on a little table. It’s a rough-hewn manger, but it’s lit up too. The figurines are from Dollarama, so please don’t picture an elegant Mary or three imposing kings. Still, I rather like it. My granddaughter was playing with it and she put all the people and animals crowded right up against the manger. Somehow that’s a compelling arrangement. The ceramic Christmas tree on my desk is lit up, too, made by Aunt Eleanor who used to run a shop called Ellie’s Dolls. My in-laws and Aunt Eleanor are gone now, but live on, forever connected to me, especially at Christmas.
A digital frame in my living room, a gift from the kids, rolls through Christmases past, reliving old memories. The photos mark the passing of time in the ever-changing hairstyles, the addition of new faces, the absence of others.
I’m typing this on my laptop, watching CMT and enjoying Christmas music by Martina McBride and Faith Hill. I’ve had time today to vacuum, take a walk, peel potatoes for tomorrow’s dinner, make soup for supper tonight and run to Europa Bakery for some treats to bring to my sister’s later. Mark has been puttering around the house working on some remodelling projects. He put a battery in the wreath on our front door, so it lights up once again. We stopped to have coffee together a few times. Right now he’s reading a book on the KOBO e-reader that the kids gave him last year.
This sounds like a story about the rewards of the golden years, doesn’t it? You live through the harried times and emerge on the other side to appreciate all you’ve got. Some peace, perhaps. Sure, there’s some of that. But the truth is, the older you get, the more your family grows, the longer you stay in one place and put down roots and come to know your friends and neighbours intimately, the longer your prayer list gets. Every minute of every day could be spent praying for the broken and troubled marriages, the cancers, the accidents, the aging, the addictions, the misspoken words, the harmed childhoods, the famines in far off places, troubled waters swirling around your feet. It’s enough to make you cry even when your house is decked to the nines, your poinsettias and cranberry wreaths match, and you’re not infectious.
Today, on my walk I saw some things. I saw the shining sun, not up in the sky, but glinting off the leaden water in a mud puddle. I waited for a train to pass. I saw the usual graffiti, but one black car raced by completely covered with a superbly executed gang name in vivid green and yellow. Dramatic. Masterful. It was there and gone before I had time to even decipher what it said. Then, in my own drab December garden, perched in the middle of bedraggled sedums, bent stalks of grass and lumps of wet brown leaves, a lime-green heuchera – preening its frilly plumage just like a cocky parrot inordinately proud of its bright sheen.
Tomorrow, I think, I will take a breath. I will let myself be at peace for just one day. I will believe that tiny surprises like sunlight dancing in a mud puddle or graffiti art whipping down the track or chartreuse leaves glowing in a dead garden are signs. Blinking bits of unexpected glory. Like beauty in a barn, worth huddling in for a closer look. Tomorrow I won’t focus on what’s wrong. For one day, I’ll strain to see what’s right.