Sunday, December 27, 2009

There's nothing more over than. . .


"There's nothing more over than Christmas."
Naomi Elmendorf Johnsone

My mother, the above referenced Naomi Johnsone, said this every year shortly after Christmas. If we heard it once, we heard it a dozen times each year. By the early part of January, she usually managed to find a florist selling daffodils, and a small, thin vase holding five or six of the bright yellow flowers would appear our the dining room. I realize now this was no small feat--those were the days before flowers were flown from all over the world to be sold at supermarkets. That was before supermarkets.

Even though Hubby and I had a lovely Christmas, my mother's words return to haunt me this, and every, year. All the adorable items I so lovingly placed on sideboards, coffee table and bookcases, as I anticipated the holy day, don't look quite so adorable after Christmas. The music boxes, special red candles, Santa and St. Nicholas images, creches, the cookie jar, angels, two artificial wreaths, potholders, towels, throw rug, bells, mobiles . . .all of them need dusting and look tired. Finished for the year. Ready to retire to storage boxes. Maybe that's why people go to their apartments in Palm Springs and condos in Florida after Christmas. Maybe they're tired and ready to go into storage for a little while, too.

We'll leave it* all up until January 1, but I'm ready to bring on the daffodils. And go to Palm Springs.
(*it, in this case, is a dangling antecedant referring to Christmas crap, an affectionate term coined by a long-time deceased friend, Patsy O'Brian, meaning, "That which was cute before Christmas but has become burdensome after.")

Friday, December 18, 2009

REAL SANTA


As a third-grader, I was determined to stay awake on Christmas Eve. I was going to finally catch a glimpse of Santa Claus as he landed his sleigh lightly on the roof and wriggled down our chimney to bring presents. My father heard the jingle of sleigh bells every Christmas Eve and teased me, year after year, because I always fell asleep too early to hear them.

On the last school day before Christmas vacation, my mother picked me up from school in the car. I needed to ask her something privately, while just the two of us were together—so the drive home was the perfect setting. Linda, the class bully at our all girls’ school, had taunted me in front of our classmates and called me a baby because I believed in Santa. I had retorted angrily that my father knew more than she did, and if he said Santa was real (and he did!), then Santa was real.

I was sure I knew the answer to the question for my mother, but I needed to ask . . . just in case. “Linda said everyone knows their parents are really Santa Claus. I told her she was wrong! You and Daddy are not Santa Claus . . . are you?”

Mother’s answer stunned me. "Yes, honey, we are."

At first, I thought she might be joking, but she was not smiling. When I actually absorbed her short, one-word answer, I felt the same way I did when a dog had knocked the wind out of me the summer before. I felt as if I were about to die. Santa not real? If I had been old enough to think in similes, I would have described myself as cracking all over like flower pots did when the wind blew them off our deck onto the driveway below. Christmas without Santa’s magic? I cried in the car. I had already let go of tooth fairies, talking scarecrows, and mermaids. Now the last crumbs of my make-believe world were brushed away forever.

My mother gently reminded me I was too big to cry about something designed for little children. “I should have told you earlier,” she said. “I was worried something like this would happen.” I moped around the house for the rest of the day and cried myself to sleep that night. Christmas would never be the same.

Fifteen years later when I became a mother myself, it was with great ambivalence that I introduced the fat-elf mythology for our firstborn, Andrea. I knew other mothers who—determined never to lie to their children—had eliminated Santa Claus entirely from their newly formed families. Yet, as a child, I had loved the idea of Santa Claus so much I couldn’t bear to ban him completely from my new family traditions. I decided a little bit wouldn’t hurt, rationalizing I’d been just too old when I discovered the truth. I’ll level with Andrea before she gets too old, too attached to Santa, I told myself. Then three more babies arrived—Matthew, Philip, Peter—and Santa was as real and as imbedded in our family as if he were a distant cousin who visited once a year.

Santa consistently arrived unseen, late in the night on Christmas Eve, bringing gifts, fulfilling wishes, and creating joy. I consciously referred to him as the spirit of love when I talked about him, but we partook of all the lore—his team of flying reindeer, his hideaway workshop staffed by elves, his ability to scoot down millions of chimneys in one short night. Andrea, Matt, Phil, and Pete each mailed a letter or a wish list to the North Pole soon after Thanksgiving. Even the process of writing those letters became a beloved tradition among my children.

As the spirit of love, sometimes Santa was a stand-in disciplinarian, too, answering fake phone calls to the North Pole I made, at least once, each December. I’d dial a number (usually the recorded weather report) after announcing to rambunctious children that Santa would appreciate having an update on their behavior. “Santa? This is Mrs. Glerum in Seattle [and later, Wauwatosa]. I thought you might want to know that my children are verging on being too naughty to get presents this year.” Four little mouths would be instantly silenced; four pairs of eyes on the phone, four sets of ears straining to hear the one-sided dialog. For the rest of the day, four well-behaved, docile children would play politely until bedtime.

Nine years ticked away, and all four children were still believers. A week before Christmas, Andrea came bursting through the kitchen door—rosy cheeked, still breathing steam from having been out in the cold winter air. “Mommy, I have to know this. You have to tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus, or not? Is he pretend or real?”

The moment had come at last—the dreaded moment I had anticipated for so many years—the question that must be reckoned with. I felt a lurch in my stomach reminiscent of the one I’d felt inside my mother’s car almost twenty-five years earlier. “Let’s talk in the bedroom where we can close the door,” I answered. Even though the boys were all playing in the basement with their Tonka Trucks, I didn’t want to run the risk they’d overhear me. Once in the bedroom, I took a big breath and started the speech I’d been rehearsing for three years.

“You know how I’ve always told you Santa is the spirit of love?” Andrea nodded. “Well, Santa Claus is the symbol of the love who makes Christmas so wonderful. As Christians, we celebrate Christmas because we believe the arrival of Jesus in the world was the most magnificent gift imaginable from God. Love is real, right?” A solemn nine-year-old nodded in agreement. “We can feel love, can’t we?” Another nod. “Well, Santa Claus ‘personifies’ love (here I stopped to explain the word personify—using the example of Jack Frost as a pretend creator of a natural phenomenon), so wherever he is, we are reminded of love . . . and he is a perfect symbol for unselfish giving. But no, Andrea, Santa is not a real, walking-around elf. He’s a pretend elf.”

Andrea had sat absolutely still, taking in every word, studying my face as I talked. She broke into a wide toothy smile when I was done talking. “You mean?” she began . . . then started to laugh. “You mean that all those Santa presents came from you and Daddy? My doll? My bike? My watch? All those things came from you and Daddy?”

“Yes, everything.”

“And you just gave me and the boys our Santa presents all those years . . . and never expected a thank you? You just put them under the tree from Santa?” She was smiling so hard she could barely get out the words.

“That’s right.”

“And you just watched us open them, and we didn’t have to say thank you?”

I nodded.

“Oh, Mommy, that’s better than I thought. That is love. Thank you, Mommy—thank you now for all those presents,” and she threw her arms around me and squeezed a big, warm, tight hug.

When our hug was over, I asked, “Do you think the boys still believe in Santa?”

“For sure Pete and Phil do—and maybe Matt. But don’t worry, I won’t tell them—I love having this secret.” She hugged me again and ran out of the room to find the boys to see if her doll could ride in the back of one of their Tonka trucks.

My eyes welled up; relief and joy momentarily overwhelmed me.
© 2009 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SIDEWALK CAROL

When I first moved back to Seattle from Milwaukee (1986), I was shocked at the number of homeless people living on the streets. Many panhandled; others sat silently with signs describing their plights. I felt overcome with sadness as I walked to and from the downtown bus stop, wondering how I could be so lucky to have my health and a job when there was such misfortune in this city.

My boss, a prosperous businessman, was intolerant of the sight of the "beggars" downtown. Once he asked me to use my lunch hour Christmas shopping for him, so he wouldn't ruin his Christmas spirit encountering those "lazy no-goods" sitting on the sidewalk.

I began this poem in 1986 and just finished it this year. Do you know any singers who would like to put it to music?

SIDEWALK CAROL

Once upon a time remembered
A little child was homeless born.
A baby boy without possessions,
Swaddling rags inviting scorn.

I see snowflakes falling gently,
Each one fragile and unique.
I see homeless crouched in doorways,
Hovering there with prospects bleak.

A child today died on the street.
Hundreds more are huddling cold.
Nothing I can do will help them.
No frankincense, no myrrh or gold.

Mary, Joseph, babe in arms,
Bound in love and covenant,
Fled to Egypt seeking haven;
Left their home—itinerant.

I see snowflakes falling gently,
Homeless people young and old.
Curled up tight on bus stop seats
Shivering, frightened, freezing cold.

“Merry Christmas,” says my boss,
But not to beggars on the street.
“Let’s close our doors to celebrate—
Keep it private, keep it sweet.

“City homeless, what a scandal!
It’s not our problem they’ve no food.
Let’s have Christmas pure and merry
And not let ugliness intrude.”

Could we give just from our surplus?
Could we share with them our gold?
Could we be both hope and harbor
For the homeless—hungry, cold?

Help us, Jesus, savior, friend,
Help us, Christ, the lamb and king,
Grant compassion, help us see
Your presence, here, in everything.

I see snowflakes falling gently
I hear church bells in my mind
Help us, Jesus, learn to love them,
Learn compassion and be more kind.

You were homeless and reviled.
Through my tears the snowflakes blur.
You were homeless just like them . . .
Gold and frankincense and myrrh.

I see snowflakes falling gently,
Each one fragile and unique.
I hear church bells in my mind,
Ringing in the night’s mystique.

Gold and frankincense and myrrh,
Gold and frankincense and myrrh.


© 2009 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like . . .

Winter! Seattle has rarely had such a prolonged cold snap as the one we're currently experiencing. Temperatures are running in the twenties and teens--the highs never rising above freezing. Rhododendrons have curled up their leaves in self-protection, making them look like bushes loaded with New Year's Eve party horns. But it's beautifully sunny and clear during the day; at night the stars from our front porch are bright and twinkly.

There's much to be thankful for, particularly a warm house (Halleluiah for the efficient furnace). I'm grateful for running water (no frozen pipes, praise be) and functioning electric lines making possible, in addition to more essential light, the special lights of the season. Sometimes I fixate on the doom of the unknown and inevitable, but today I am essentially fixating on the present and its blessings.

Like many others, I can get caught up in the rush of seasonal deadlines and the scurry of societal pressures to buy stuff. How fortunate I feel when grace envelops me with a lacy moment. I understand how lucky I am, and see what's wonderful about this tiny space of time I occupy. So many people are struggling worldwide, going without their essential needs being met. I grieve for them. But how did I get so fortunate? Only by the luck of the draw do I luxuriate in such comfort. So today, in the winter sun and surrounded by Christmas decor, I am taking a minute to wallow in my good fortune.

Rocky, the stone cat on our front porch looks particularly festive in his new hat. He had a several-year-old Santa hat, which became waterlogged and essentially ruined in last year's constant rain, so I was tickled to find the perfect fit as a replacement. Outside, Hubby and I draped a small evergreen tree (an eight-footer) with tiny blue lights. A wreath with white lights replaces our porch light this time of year. The whole effect is lovely.

Br-r-r-r. It's cold outside, but hearts are warm and life is good . . .inshallah.





Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thirty-seven years ago today . . .

It was December 5, 1972, when my new friend from the neighborhood, Sue Prein, phoned me. After standard fluffy niceties, she asked, “So . . . are you all ready for tomorrow?”

“What’s tomorrow?” I asked bewilderedly.

“St. Nicholas Day! What do you mean? Don’t you celebrate St. Nicholas?”

As a matter of fact, our Seattle-based family had never had reason to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. Why, we’d never even thought about it. As far as I was concerned, St. Nicholas was a scrawny old bishop from some place in Turkey who rode a white horse and brought an impoverished family a dowry for its unmarried daughter. I knew there was a tradition of men disguising themselves and knocking on doors in Eastern European countries with gold coins or lumps of coal for children. But in Milwaukee, Wisconsin? How preposterous!

I had a quick lesson in Wisconsin history on the phone. Huge numbers of Polish immigrants had thoroughly integrated their seasonal practices into the new world, and the other large ethnic population there—Germans—had thoroughly embraced the practice. By 1972, practically everyone who lived in greater Milwaukee celebrated it. I wasn’t sure quite what to do, but just to be sure, I went to the corner variety store and bought two dollars’ worth of penny candy.

At 3:00 p.m. the four Glerum children burst through the door, home from school and as bouncy as the jumping beans displayed on the counter of the variety store. “Mom,” one yelled. “Guess who’s coming tonight! St. Nicholas! We have to put our socks out!”

“We can put out our shoes, instead,” chimed in another.” “We’ll get coal if we’re bad and candy if we’re good.” All four scurried upstairs to find suitable foot ware for St. Nick.

“I sure hope I’ve been good enough,” I heard one say and realized this tradition might be a useful one.

When I told Hubby that night what Sue told me, he rolled his eyes. “OK,” he said. “But I guess that means they don’t get to hang stockings on Christmas Eve—what a shame.”

“Oh, no,” I answered. “I asked Sue, and she said all the kids and their kids’ friends hang them up both times.” Hubby just rolled his eyes—consumerism rearing its ugly head. “But it’s leverage,” I reminded him. “And good leverage, too.”

In the morning all four kids at candy for breakfast. Living in a house where candy was rationed, it wasn’t surprising that one of our boys remarked, “Boy, I’m glad we moved to Milwaukee.” The other kids quickly seconded their delight in their newly adopted city.

At school (public, mind you), the crayoned paper-stockings the kids had made with their respective teachers each contained a few gold candy coins, and a candy cane. Not one kid in four classrooms was left a lump of coal! (Yes, I specifically asked each of my children the question.) Hard to believe for me, having helped out in the classrooms a few times in the fall. But I’d leave well enough alone. I, too, was learning to love Milwaukee.

Happy St. Nicholas Day!




Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Here came . . . uh, went . . . December

Turning over the calendar page today brought me to my psychological knees, so to speak. How could the year already be over? I think of those movies that depict the passage of time by a calendar flipping ahead in a breeze blowing through the window . . . I need to run to catch up with the days, weeks, months.

It wasn’t that long ago that December seemed roomier, with plenty of space to pack whatever it needed it to contain. Now it feels like the size of a carryon bag.

At least December brings the end to the decline of light. In just a few weeks we can look up from the depth of darkness to detect our ever-so-subtle ascent into light. Anticipating more daylight as the days lengthen makes me happy. At our house, the dark and dreary days seem intensified by the Doug firs that stand guard around it. Perhaps it is a small price to pay for their blissful protection from the heat in summer, but they can be overbearing this time of year. There’s much to be said for the lacy light-leaking capacity of deciduous trees.

Rejoice, I tell myself. This is a happy month. And so it is, this December of 2009—as long as it sticks around for awhile . . . and slows down.