Christmas time brings us the joys of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the demands of gift giving and present purchasing, the stress of schedules, financial stress, expectations that are often too lofty to be met, expanding families, expanding wishlists – and it seems that we become buried in an avalanche of Christmas that leaves us neither holly nor jolly.
Since when was Christmas so damn difficult?
But it is what it is, right?
This is the story of an idea that radically changed Christmas for me and removed the burden of what is supposed to be the most joyous and hopeful holiday of the year.
It all started, improbably, with pizza.
I had come to a friend’s house in the cold throes of a New York December to simply share a night with a dear couple who had recently come into my life. Much like the Three Kings I keep hearing about, I came bearing the gift of pizza and was greeted by the recently engaged couple, their energetic dog, and a fake fire that was realistic enough to fool me more than once into expecting heat from it.
All in all, it was a wonderful night with wonderful people and wonderful food.
Then they received a phone call halfway through my second slice. A night of laughter and enjoyment came to an abrupt end.
They both grabbed jackets, rattled off a few requests regarding the dog, and rushed out of the door into a bitter night.
Her father had just had a heart attack. He was being rushed to the hospital and it wasn’t good. Weeks from Christmas and months away from their wedding, the whole world came crashing down.
The next several weeks for them were trying, to say the least. Her father showed certain signs of promise, enough to give hope, but not enough to fulfill it. Relationships became strained; family differences escalated under the stress of possibly losing a father, the man she nearly idolized in life.
Frequent trips to and overnight stays at a hospital an hour away created more strain and needs. I filled in where I could, cooking, cleaning or taking care of the dog, as did others, doing whatever we could to lend support, knowing that we could not understand.
He died in January, a handful of weeks after that initial phone call that interrupted a night dedicated to enjoyment, that interrupted life.
For everyone else, the next year returned to normal, save for the times when we were reminded that theirs never would. The holiday season was once again approaching, and with it would come the sharp pain and reminder of what was missing – a daughter’s father.
For some reason, I had them in mind on a nondescript October morning that year, riding a train into Manhattan as my daily ritual dictated. The repetitive sounds and movements of the train, coupled with the preference of basically everyone to be left alone, created a quiet world of thought for me.
That morning, those thoughts consisted of Jewish customs, specifically revolving around graves and remembrance of those who were lost to death. I loved the idea of the rocks on a gravestone, a Jewish tradition pulled from the stories of the Old Testament and Joshua as the Jews crossed a dry Jordan River to reach the Promised Land. Along that crossing, they took boulders from the riverbed and brought them to where they settled, not only to remind them of the journey, but to tell future generations about what happened.
Those boulders from the Jordon, and the small rocks placed on gravestones, were physical representations of memories, easily the most important thing we can pass on to our children and others. I blankly stared out the window at the passing buildings thinking about teaching that lesson to my future children one day.
Then my mind made a turn to my now-married friends who were approaching a season where grief undoubtedly lay in wait.
But even among the ruins of life, there is joy to be found.
Though her future would now be without her father, her past was full of him – rich memories, wonderful experiences, life lessons and a man who imprinted himself on his beloved daughter. In short, her past was full of memories.
I texted her husband, frantic thumbs tapping a glass keyboard to spill the idea out before it disappeared.
I called it “A Christmas Box.”
First, get a box. Any box, of course, will do. Ornate or plain, big or small, hand-carved or made in China, it matters not.
Have your wife write down a handful of joyous memories with her dad – just a sentence or two, no need to write long stories.
Fold them up neatly, place them in the box, wrap the whole thing up with a nice little bow and then have her give it to her mother.
On Christmas day, her mother will open it, will be confused at first, and then she can explain it:
These are the most precious memories of dad that I have written down and placed in the box, so that every Christmas, we can read them, remember and talk about these wonderful times, a wonderful dad, and share joy at his life rather than sorrow at his absence. As we think of him through the year, write that memory down and add it to the box at Christmas so that each year, the memories and joy are increased.
I found out the following year that this idea is just as precious and meaningful for those who are still alive and kicking. My parents now have boxes of their own, filled with memories between us – filled with joy, filled with life.
Things will come and go. People will live and die. It is their memories being refreshed, retold and remembered that shall be with us always.
Start this year with a Christmas box for someone you love, and fill it every year with memories, with life and with love.
For other articles and writings by Darrell, please visit the Milk Crate.
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