Last night the Dickensian wraith in white touched my hand and took me to the attic in my head where I keep my Christmas tree decorations and holiday memories. In the space of a single night I experienced again my mother’s creative, nervous, angst –as well as her homemade plum pudding and red lipstick smile. I knew firsthand, my father’s patient good cheer, and the smell of Old Spice on his clean shaven cheek. More smells: The crisp scent of evergreen, the hot smell of my mother’s spotlights looking like reindeer antlers attached to her 8 mm movie camera as she captured our sleepy faces on Christmas morn. The smell of eggnog with nutmeg. The smell of Limburger cheese and Braunschweiger, my parents’ party food, chased down with Cold Duck amid the laughter of aunts and uncles playing cards at the kitchen table.
I remember my sisters and I, donned in our Christmas finery, hands snug in white furry muffs, going to visit our grandparents in the old blue Chevrolet, singing Jingle Bells all the way. I remember the special gifts –the dolls and doll houses, the books. I remember getting a book each Christmas: King of the Wind, Misty of Chincoteague, The Black Stallion, Nancy Drew. One year I was thrilled to find a rock hammer under the tree –I had hinted so hard for it! That was the year I wanted to be a geologist when I grew up. Another Christmas I received a microscope; science was my thing. My parents fostered my dreams and sometimes helped make them come true.
I remember the first Christmas after my mother died, at Thanksgiving. I remember the way my father and we girls pulled together in our shared, unspoken grief. Five years later my father died –it was three days after Christmas –and we buried him on New Year’s Eve. Should auld acquaintance be forgot always brings tears to my eyes. But they’re with me still, my parents. I saw them in my dream last night. They are their best selves, eternally happy, having escaped Time. They still foster my dreams.
I remember playing Santa Clause for my own children, and feeling all over again, the magic of Christmas Eve. And as they grew and I became a single parent twice over, I did the best I could. A registered nurse, I worked many holidays, many Christmases, in various hospital departments, beginning in Oncology, transferring to Critical Care, and finally to the Emergency Department. I worked the night shift and the kids either stayed with a sitter, with their father, or as they got older, they stayed with friends. All too often they stayed alone, long before they were old enough, minding themselves. It wasn’t the best of situations but I managed to keep food in their mouths and to feed their dreams.
One Christmas a blizzard stranded me and my co-workers at the hospital. For thirty-six hours we worked without relief, until volunteers in four-wheel-drives braved the drifted roads and brought the next shift to work. That year I was charge nurse on the Oncology unit at Denver Presbyterian Hospital. There were only two of us working that night; Shelley, the LPN, and I. Night shifts are too often understaffed, under the mistaken belief that night shift is easier because the patients all sleep. But the very sick don’t sleep, or if they do, it’s the sleep that precedes death. We ran our heels off that Christmas, up and down the halls answering call bells, delivering pain medication, chemotherapy, parental nutrition, packed cells and platelets. It was a Christmas nightmare, yet it was real. We did our best to bring comfort to those patients we had come to know as family.
Some of my most joyful Christmas moments spring from those lean years, those long ago, young mother years when the money ran out before the next pay check; when the car broke down or the kids needed winter coats or somebody broke their arm and needed a cast. We never had enough money; we were among the ranks of the working poor. Yet there were moments of comfort and moments of joy. And everyday I came across someone in greater need.
Those years we lived on meager wages, supplemented by our dreams.
Before I was a nurse I worked as a waitress and lived on tips and had no health insurance. And got pregnant. My husband’s health insurance didn’t cover me because he hadn’t worked there long enough for me to be covered. I gave birth at home, ten days after Christmas. My youngest child, born in a mobile home on the eastern Wyoming prairie, will soon be thirty-six years old. Times was hard then, but I’ve been blessed.
Thank you, ghost, for the dream of Christmas past. Come visit me again some night soon, because we’ve got another thirty-six years to review. In the meanwhile, God bless us, every one.