Jan. 21, 2018


Our first Christmas as a couple was in December of 1970. Butch’s draft number was 26 for the military. His brother-in-law got him set up to take the exam for the Air Force Reserves. With un-diagnosed dyslexia, he failed the written test. So, he joined the Army rather than waiting for the inevitable notice that his number had come up. He did basic training at Fort Ord, in Monterey California. Schooling was in Virginia. He had a one-week pass at Christmas time. Having proposed before leaving for the army, my Christmas gift was an engagement ring that probably cost him a month's salary. His sister took one look at it, and loudly announced, “My God, that's the smallest diamond I ever saw.” I'm not sure it qualified as a chip. He later replaced that diamond when he discovered that the manager of my apartment building was a jewelry maker and had access to wholesale prices for diamonds. It was still pretty small. Eventually he gave me a lovely ring for our 40th anniversary.
Our first Christmas after we were married was in December of 1972. We drove home from Fort Hood, Texas where we were stationed, to Sacramento, CA to spend Christmas with his family. We owned a Volkswagen bug. His mom gave us a bean bag chair, a very hot item in 1972. She then announced that, because it wouldn't fit in our car, (which it would have) she had asked his sister to keep it for us until we moved back to Sacramento. It was a great way to give a gift to two people and only pay for one. We never saw the bean bag chair again. It was the only Christmas in my memory that it was cold enough to snow in Sacramento and have the snow stay on the ground for over a week. It was equally cold in Texas that winter. It was great fun to watch the people from all over the world driving in snow for the first time. The snow literally immobilized the town. No garbage. No school. Nothing. There was a yield sign at the intersection where we lived. Not everyone understood what a yield sign was, even in good weather. But on snowy / icy days, we could watch out the window as cars literally ice skated into one another.
The next Christmas, December 1973, we were in Minnesota with my family. Our oldest son had been born in August, so it was our first Christmas as a family. It was also the first Christmas since my parent’s divorce. My mom bought us a tree and we used her ornaments in exchange for hosting Christmas dinner at our apartment, with my family. My dad asked us to come to his house for Christmas morning hoping to create something with the new wife like we had with my mom. His new wife must not have received the memo, as she was stunned that we were there. This was her first Christmas in her lovely new home and her large family was coming for Christmas dinner. She was very upset that we were making a mess in her living room, opening our presents. Halfway through, she made us stop, clean up, and run the vacuum while she started dinner. We were then required to put our paper and ribbons in a garbage bag as we finished opening our packages. She chased us out the door as soon as we finished opening our presents. It was in the middle of the recession, during the oil crisis, and Butch was working as a parts runner for a local Ford dealer. A month later he was offered a truck driving job in Sacramento. He left to take the job and I stayed in Minnesota to close out our apartment and work off the 60-day notice that was part of our agreement as apartment managers.
Christmas 1974 found us living in Lodi, CA on a dairy and Butch driving for a company that made dill pickles in Stockton. At 16 months, our son’s favorite treat was a dill pickle that was as big as his hand. We were so broke that our Christmas tree was originally a poinsettia plant. Just before Christmas, someone gave Butch a Christmas tree that was about 2 feet tall. We strung popcorn and other shiny things to decorate the tree. All of the gifts were for the baby. Even at that young age he seemed to understand that Christmas was all about him and we were counting on him to have a good time. He opened every gift with great flourish and amazing enthusiasm, even the socks. We then went to his mom's house in Sacramento for Christmas dinner.
After we settled down in Sacramento in 1976, we spent Christmas with his family most of the time for the rest of our marriage. Like all families, there were issues. I wasn't my mother-in-law's favorite person for many years and eventually it was just too hard to be there. For 3 years we went snow skiing instead of participating in the family Christmas. We would stay in the motel next door to our favorite ski resort. There were stockings hung on the towel racks in the bathroom and we each gave one another a single gift, using the rest of the funds to enjoy the skiing. Even with the tourists from other countries, there weren't many people there Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. You literally skied until you were too tired to ski anymore. The night skiing was amazing. On clear nights, you could see forever. We drove in to a nearby casino for Christmas dinner. Eventually, the tension and animosity faded away. We all aged and mellowed and Christmas with his family became a pleasant evening that we look forward to attending.
Christmas with our kids slowly evolved over the years as well. With the addition of girlfriends and wives, competition for prime dates in December grew cumbersome. The goal was to have a long, leisurely afternoon and evening together without anyone having to hurry off to the next event. Granddaughters and nap times have forced adjustments, but those are only temporary. We began having Christmas in January. We all take advantage of the sales after Christmas. Returns and exchanges are complete and often supplement the budget for the January gift giving. By the time our boys have Christmas with their in-laws, their own families, and Butch’s family, before, on, or shortly after the 25th, it is nice to have a bit of a break before our family gets together. My favorite part of Christmas has always been the stockings. I look for interesting gadgets, strange trinkets, and unique little surprises all year. In addition to the customary fruit, there are everyone’s favorite candies and snacks. There is the annual tiny flashlight for your key chain and a new pair of scissors for everyone. By the time Christmas comes, the stockings have overflowed into a medium SpaceBag for each person that is handy for storage all year.
Our last Christmas together was January 16, 2016. His heart attack was January 26th and he died February 13, 2016. Christmas 2017 loomed large on the horizon, but the 1 and 2-year-old granddaughters, enjoying the festivities, brought joy to what could have been a very difficult day. This year, we added my brother and his wife and their 9 and 11-year-old kids to our celebration, resulting in a busy and fun-filled day. There was little time to regret what was lost as we created something new.
Becoming us without them turns every holiday into a two-edged sword. There is no way to avoid the fact that the old traditions and rituals are gone forever. Letting go of those is a little like losing our loved ones again and again. Moving on and enjoying the new life we are forced to create is complicated. Embracing something new always involves losing something old, even if it is voluntary or exciting. But this is not voluntary at any level. We would give anything to have the old life back. Focusing on what has been lost, to the exclusion of what is ahead, is like doing math homework for misery. You learn your times tables by reciting them over and over. You learn misery by practicing it over and over too. Finding the balance between the necessary grief and the necessary growth will be the most difficult thing we will every have to do. This is yet another reason why our grieving peers and mentors are some important. They help us find that balance. They give us permission to take all the time we need to grieve the tremendous loss we have sustained. They also help us believe in a future that is worth living for, even when we can’t see it ourselves. All of our friends and loved ones make it worth putting one foot ahead of another until the joy outshines the sadness and life has flavor and color again.
One of the toughest things after Butch died was finding all those stocking stuffers around as I cleaned out the house, his truck, and his shop. Each of them is a reminder that I don’t ever get to do that for him again. But then I watch my granddaughters, niece and nephew gleefully pulling treasures out of their stockings and I feel that joy shining into the dark places again.