Monthly Archives: December 2015

A Different Christmas

This is for those who already know and for those who will one day learn.

I am one of those with soft-focus, happy, glowing memories of childhood Christmases. As effortlessly as visions of trees draped in tinsel and multi-colored lights, frosted windowpanes, and warm, snug rooms float into my mind accompanied by sound of Mom’s favorite carols, it is the rich panoply of smells that is most evocative, the redolence of roast turkey, the zest of fresh oranges, the tang of evergreen, that trigger the most intense memories.

The house where I experienced most of my childhood Christmases still stands. Although expanded and reconfigured, the core still remains. My sister lives there now. Mom passed away two years ago, Dad two months ago. Even though Dad, gripped by Alzheimer’s, could not tell Christmas Day from any other day for the last few years, this is our first Christmas without at least one of our parents physically existing in that place that was Home. As long as just one of them was alive, that Home had a sort of tangibility that transcended mere concept, a tangibility which is now irrevocably, irretrievable gone, unrecoverable.

My wife and I discussed this the other day while out Christmas shopping, listening to carols as we drove around. Or rather I tried to express how it felt. For the 30 years of our marriage when I have thought of Home, I have thought of her. Home was where we made it, whether in Atlanta or Greensboro or Charlotte. These days the boys are grown, gone, and married. Our Christmases are now graced with the happy laughter and warm snuggles of grandchildren. Life is fuller, richer than any I could have imagined, undeserved, cherished.

Subliminally if never articulated, I suppose that I always knew that Home was really two places: the Home from which we sprang and the Home we made. The former, if we are fortunate, a blessing, an example and template for a good, well-lived life; the latter the Home we strive with God’s providential grace to build .

What I found so surprising was how strangely unmoored I suddenly felt when I realized that that first Home was gone, how unprepared I was for that revelation, how much more important the thirty years of new and evolving traditions had become, the Moravian Love Feasts and Christmas Eve services, the multi-part family singalongs of familiar carols, the Christmas Day fire laid and lit, the companionable babble of familiar voices around the breakfast table, cold winter light streaming through the tall windows onto well-loved faces.

We grow older. Things change. We realize that are many things that we cannot fix. We lose friends and loved ones to distance, neglect, or death. Our bodies don’t work like they once did. All are a reminder to recommit ourselves every day to seek out and cling to the good, the beautiful and life affirming, the vibrant, the blessings that are available, not the ones that were lost or squandered.

This year we will go to Christmas Eve services with both of the boys, their wives, and all four of our grandchildren, then pile into bed to sleep under one roof and wake up on Christmas Day together. Later after the blizzard or wrapping paper and squeals of delight and thank-you hugs, we will sit down for Christmas Dinner with four generations of family. We will embrace and laugh and share the little things in life, that sharing that binds people together, that creates family, and Home.

I will call my sisters and my oldest friend’s parents, who have been my “other” mother and father for years on end, to wish each of them a Merry Christmas, family far away but no less dear for the distance.

As Christians we celebrate the miracle of Christmas, Christ’s Advent, God himself appearing among us, no gift more undeserving or more freely given. Amid the enormity of that concept, I will also take time to celebrate that first Home and Mom and Dad who built it with God’s grace, the Home that held those Christmases of long ago, that Home intangible now that they now longer inhabit that place, but substantial in its effect, foundational, that Home which cannot be supplanted, but which can be, should be, built upon, the gift, the blessing without which the new Home and all of its Christmases would never, could never, have existed.

The capacity of the human heart is amazing. It can encompass sorrow and joy, loss and renewal, at the same time. We simultaneously rejoice that a loved one who has passed away has gone to a better place and grieve that they are gone. Some say that loss makes us more appreciative of what we have. That seems too simplified a response to me. The spectrum of human experience is too rich and varied, shockingly obvious or finely nuanced, overt or subtle by turns. All of it can, must, be embraced, each for its individual and relative value, each for its impact upon us, just as God in the form of His Son, wholly God and wholly human, must have experienced the entire variety of human life when He walked among us.

For me, that has been the unexpected gift of a different Christmas.

Thanks be to God for life and loss and wonder and blessing, and Merry Christmas to all.

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How Distant Is the Past?

I was ruminating on the passage of time, the way the years seem to slip by faster and faster the older one gets. For some reason I thought of something that happened the summer I turned eight years old.

It was 1961. As was not uncommon, I was spending the summer on my grandparents’ farm two-and-one-half miles north of Brazil, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta.

One day in late summer, August, I think , Pop – the same name my grandchildren who have heard and read countless stories about my Pop, call me – informed me that we were going to visit Mrs. Ferguson for her birthday.

Pop and Mr. Ferguson had been great friends. In fact, at one point Pop was purchasing a place out at Friendship (where my father was born) from Mr. Ferguson and his sisters in the late 1920’s when the Great Depression struck. Unable to make his annual payment, Pop asked for additional time. That was fine with Mr. Ferguson, but his sisters disagreed  and outvoted him. Pop lost the farm and every dollar he had put into it.

It is hard to imagine how crushing that must have been, but it did nothing to diminish Pop’s and Mr. Ferguson’s friendship which lasted until Mr. Ferguson passed away. Pop took over management of the King place shortly thereafter.

I was not enthusiastic about putting on church clothes on any day other than Sunday. Actually I was not very enthusiastic on Sunday either, but Cat – that is what I called my grandmother – insisted, and off we went.

What do I remember about that summer day in 1961? I remember that Mrs. Ferguson’s garden was close to her house and that she had rows of tall sunflowers down one side of the garden with blossoms the size of saucers tracking the sun’s progress. Sparrows and finches flitted among the stalks, chattering incessantly.  The house was wood-framed and painted white. Despite  the usual humidity it felt and smelled dry and slightly musty inside. The rooms were filled with curtain-filtered sunlight cascading through tall, open windows.

I approached Mrs. Ferguson cautiously. She was very old, thin but not frail, lively actually, and seated in a rocking chair where she was receiving her guests and well-wishers. I shook her dry hand and mumbled ‘Happy Birthday, Miz Ferguson,’ then got a cup of punch and settled into an unobtrusive seat in the corner.

Soon Mrs. Ferguson’s parlor was filled with people, mostly very old people to my thinking, and the stories started flowing with the gentle give and take of people with long and intertwined histories, but the parts that stuck out with me were the old, old stories. You see, it was not just any birthday. It was Mrs. Ferguson’s 100th birthday.

I may only have been eight years old, but I could do arithmetic and had some idea of the history of the South, so I quickly put together that Mrs. Ferguson had been born in 1861, the year before the Civil War began. She did not remember much about the War, but the hard times after the War were vivid. The stories eddied and flowed about the room, hard times and flush, good crops and bad, loved ones gone, nods of agreement and gentle corrections of imperfect memories.

So how distant is the past? Most people consider the Civil War ancient history, but it resounds in many families. Cat never knew her mother who passed away two months after Cat was born, and ironically Cat’s mother never knew her father who died of pneumonia in North Carolina on his way back to Mississippi from the surrender in Virginia. In fact, he is buried less that ten miles from where I in live in Charlotte.

And I am a white man. How much more must that war, that truly watershed moment, resound in the lives of the descendants of freed slaves?

Viewed in that light, the past does not seem quite so distant. A few years ago, I told the story of Mrs. Ferguson’s 100th birthday party to a black co-worker. He stared at me in disbelief, trying to process the concept that he was talking to someone who had heard stories of the Civil War from a survivor of that conflict.


How distant is the past? Both near and far. The span of long lives allows for the transfer of a sort of institutionalized knowledge, which only has value when shared and internalized and used to inform our lives and actions.

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