The Road to Bethlehem - Christmas, 2009
It's that time again. As I remember them, scenes from all my past Christmases appear like animated holiday postcards in the sentimental eye of my memory.
I imagine myself walking down a street full of houses with big windows, each window holding a view to a year of my Christmas life. It is snowing outside, and quiet, although the houses are busy and lively. On one side of the street the houses all have beautiful memories, each colored with the soft hand of time, the grace of forgiveness, the choice to recall what is best.
The windows on the other side of the street hold the rougher details, the harder moments, the details no one saw.
I don't want to look at the rough side. I don't want to focus on the sad years, the time of divorce, the first Christmas without my mother, or without my dad. I don't want to vividly recall what loneliness felt like, or searing grief. I don't want to recall being yelled at, or hit, or being crushingly poor and frightened.
And do you know what this year has taught me?
This year I have learned that I can choose where to look. I do not have to deny the rough side of the street in order to not walk on it. It's there, as real as anything in ones past can be.
But look, right there, on the other side of the street, are all the things that make me feel good, and warm, and loved.
They are just as real.
That there were tough times does not have to taint what was good, and true, and pure.
So this Advent my Road to Bethlehem takes me down that street of memory. I am 5. I see my Uncle Joey getting ready to take us all Christmas caroling in his green pick-up truck. We'll ride to the Polish neighborhoods and sing Polish Christmas carols. People will come out of their houses to listen and to sing with us. My Mother's favorite, and now now mine is a lullabye to the infant Jesus, sung below:
I hear it and cry. I cry because I miss Mom, but also I cry because crying during this carol is almost a family tradition! I suppose it is a part of our Eastern European melancholia, but it during this sweet lullaby carol that we unashamedly miss our departed mothers. We miss being held and coddled and fretted over. We miss being beloved children.
But the tears are not painful. They are not from that side of the road. They are also tears of my great good fortune. My family may have been clumsy at love sometimes, but I was loved. Through all the dysfunction, the upheavals, I was loved.
We do the best we can with love in this world. It isn't so easy. The best love that one person can give us might just be a fraction of what another can -- but with the right perspective, we come to see that it is all love, and that people largely do the best they can.
I walk past the windows of my marriage and divorce, choosing instead to see the good moments in my marriage, the shared experiences and joys and hopes. Did they all work out? Obviously not. But there was goodness there. I wasn't a fool for marrying, and neither was he. I choose to see what was right and good. I choose to see the best of us. Lives have moved on. He has grown children by another. It's been a long time. How silly it would be for either of us to not have moved on!
My father's last years were not easy ones for me or for us. But they too are over -- no sense lingering on the wound -- or it won't heal. Today I am the product of the love and the other stuff he delivered to our relationship. There are good things I can see when I look for them -- and I do not have to be an archeologist to find them. So that is what I have decided to do.
I walk down the street knowing that it has two sides. I choose to see the Christmas that my ex-husband and I gave what little we had to buy used warm coats for the poor. I recall how happy it made us, and how it still ranks as one of my favorite Christmases. I remember our car getting broken down driving back to Ohio after a Christmas in Massachusetts, and how much fun it was to discover that our gasoline credit card actually was effective at a local sweet hotel somewhere deep in Pennsylvania during a blizzard. After a day of craziness, we checked in, took warm showers, dressed up, charged a fabulous dinner from their restaurant, and felt like we owned the world.
I remember my godmothers, and my aunts and uncles. I remember always buying my Aunt Stella a fancy candle or candle holder, because she loved them so -- or getting my Auntie Jo another piece of her beloved Native American jewelry from our home in Denver.
I remember the look of joy on Mom's face when I gave her the kind of Christmases she had never had as a child -- full of presents from my travels around the world. I recall her sheer delight in preparing the Christmas Eve traditional meal that I will be cooking this week. She lived for Christmas. It was he great joy. No Santas for her -- her Christmas, and my family's has always been centered around the manger and the traditions of Poland. All of that is on this side of the road to Bethlehem.
Mom collected manger scenes. Each window has a different one in it -- from the little wooden ones to the plaster, the porcelain, metallic, paper, plastic, stone -- you name it -- she had a manger scene made from it. And she loved them, setting them up each year with renewed joy, as though she saw them for the first time.
And that is what Advent feels like to me. It always feels like the first time. Every Christmas I walk anew to Bethlehem in reverie, as though I have never done so before. This year's journey is so serene, although there have been no great events to cause that -- and the year has had more than an average amount of challenges. Nonetheless, these walks have seemed to teach me something.
I can choose where to look in my life -- past, present and future. I wave to the little girl me, the young woman, the newly wed, the single woman, the aging woman. They all wave back at me. They know where I am going.
One by one they run from their homes to give me a small gift to carry to the manger. "Here, take this," my child self says, as she hands me a small toy, one that I loved at Christmas. And so it goes, each giving me something from that time of my life to bring to Bethlehem with me, and to lay at the manger.
When I get there, they will tumble from my arms, the jumbled gift of my life, the ingredients that have allowed me to see joy, to forgive, to have faith. I will fall to my knees then, but in thanksgiving. For the very gifts I offer Him, are those he gave to me.
The sweet Infant Jesus will just smile, as his mother sings him a soft lullaby.