O, Christmas Tree

Last year, my parents announced they would no longer be putting up a tree at Christmas. Both in their 80s, handing down the ornaments from the attic and dragging the tree from the basement had become too much. I was saddened by the news.

Since I was a baby, there has been a Christmas tree gracing the front window of my parent’s home. My first Christmas photo, adorned in a red dress and sitting awkwardly in a carrier, the small, live evergreen peeks from behind me, it’s large, multicolored lights stealing the show.

Throughout my childhood our trees were purchased from the Knights of Columbus tree lot at either St. Patrick Catholic Church or St. Jude. Although I do recall standing in front of the Otasco one cold evening with my mother ordering my father, “No, not that one. Hold up the one next to it. No, the other one.”

And my father, always expertly and slowing spinning the tree, asking, “Does it look straight? Are there any bare spots?” I thought my father profoundly smart for bringing his work gloves so we didn’t have to wait on the KOC men or young boys to show us the trees, putting us in charge of discovering the perfect tree.

Then, roped or bungeed to the car, we’d drive home to only discover a gaping hole at the top or lower half of the tree, “just face that side to the wall,” or the trunk had a slight crook which would lead to my father taking the tree to the back yard and sawing off a good inch or two. Somehow, the tree that looked so majestically tall under the generator lights of the parking lot always seemed a little short and dumpy once squeezed into the tree stand and partially lit by the table lamps in the living room.

But, I loved our trees. Short, tall, fat, skinny, full, or skimpy. Once decorated, I always enjoyed gazing upon the tree with the lights off, especially on Christmas morning. I recall a Christmas when my brother and I awoke at dawn and we tiptoed into the living room. I flipped the light switch and immediately the room filled with an amber glow, flushing the cheeks of my little brother as he eyed the packages beneath. Once he’d taken stock of the wrapped gifts from Santa, he rushed off to awaken my parents. I just stood in the living room, alone with the tree and that soft light and while I didn’t understand it at the time, I felt an aching in my chest and thought I might begin to cry. Now, looking back, I understand and am familiar with that emotion, the hope and anticipation, the joy and belief in Christmas spirit.

So, not seeing the tree standing in the window as I pulled into their driveway during Christmas was unimaginable to me. I even offered to come over and set up the tree for them, but they were insistent it was time to retire the old artificial tree. A few days before Christmas, I joined my parents for lunch and took photos of the tree, including a few of the handmade ornaments courtesy of me and my siblings. I walked around the tree, touching the ornaments from my childhood as if to hold those Christmas memories once more in my hand. When dad took down the tree shortly after Christmas, I figured the photos would have to serve as a reminder of the Christmas spirit that was.

This year, the week following Thanksgiving, I asked my mom if she would consider a small tabletop tree to set up in the living room, one big enough to hold her favorite and cherished ornaments. I’d decided I could convince them to put up a smaller version of the family tree, one they could easily cover and hide, fully decorated, in the closet until the following year. I offered to buy one I’d seen at Target.

“No, mija. You don’t need to buy a tree for us. Your dad, well, he’s decided to go ahead and put up the tree, again.”

“What? Really?”

“Yes, he says it’s not time, especially with the little grandkids. They need a tree when they come for Christmas.”

I agreed. I need the tree, too. Still.

On this Christmas Eve, we’ll join my parents for an early Mass, indulge in posolė, and exchange small gifts while seated around the tree. I understand time with the old Christmas tree is limited, just as I recognize each Christmas spent with my parents is precious. Until that time when we are only able gather beneath the branches of Christmas memories and fill the room with the amber glow of Christmases past, I will immerse myself in each moment, each Christmas, and all that is familiar which brings hope, anticipation, and joy to my soul.

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Day #27 of Wild and Exciting Little Things: Sopa de arroz

There is nothing more comforting than my mother’s sopa de arroz (Mexican rice). No matter how I try, I am unable to replicate her recipe. I have a white notecard with her recipe scribbled in my handwriting. I wrote down the recipe after watching my mother cook a large saucepan of its fluffy deliciousness. It was difficult, as my mother does not measure ingredients; she cooks by taste and sight, only. Possibly, that is the reason my estimated recipe never tastes as good.

Or maybe it’s because her recipe contains just the right amount of cumin, tomato, experience, passion, and tradition. Her sopa is never too watery, never too dry, never too salty. A hint of cumin and the smell of enchilada dinners from years past fills your nostrils as you lift a forkful, or spoonful, to your mouth. Slightly red-orange in color, it is soft on the tongue, but not mushy, and fills your mouth with slight bursts of onion, salty tinges of caldo con sabor de pollo, and tastes of a childhood wrapped in the serape of a mother’s loving kitchen.

sopa

The Matriarch(s)

My family is my foundation, my rock, my catalyst, my comfort, my soul. I have been blessed with amazing parents, who not only provided (and continue to provide) unconditional love and guidance for me, my sister and brother, they have proven to be role models to many, from cousins to neighborhood children.

A few years ago, I posted about my amazing mother, Martha. Since then, she has amazed us with her determination in healing from a very bad fall in August. While she is slower to get around, continues to deal with a lot of pain on a daily basis, and has become hesitant walking in crowds, her physician and orthopedic surgeon praise her recovery as “remarkable for a woman in her eighties.” My mother is tough, inside and out.

And she has handed down that toughness to my sister, Shirley. My sister is eleven years older than me, so she has been more than a big sister; she has been a second mother. Her innate ability to nurture and protect has endeared her to her own children, as well as her little sister and even littler brother. When I am with my sister, I feel comforted. Not many people can bring comfort to others by just their presence, it is a gift. Maybe this sense of security comes from our life together, but I believe my sister emanates an aura of comfort. If her aura could be captured in a photograph, I think it would appear to the eye of the beholder as whatever brings them their greatest comfort, like a warm glint of sun through the leaves. For me, her presence is like a familiar blanket, one I’ve carried since childhood, its plushness still evident within the worn threads. I know every inch of this blanket, from the tattered corner to the blue-black stain from a ballpoint pen. It smells of my childhood and careful washings and from 688 miles away I feel its warmth.

I was proud and somewhat jealous of my sister when I was a young. An incredibly beautiful young woman, she was adored within our family and community. I considered her royalty even before she was crowned queen during the Mexican-American tournament. And yet, she remained untouched by the attention, always with a soft smile, ever caring of me and my brother. We shared a bedroom until the day she married and moved from the home. Thinking back, I can’t imagine how she shared a full-sized bed with a little sister for almost ten years, especially one who hated to brush her hair and whose pet hamster escaped and found its way to her big sister’s pillow in the dark of the night. But, she did. And while she claimed the room by painting its walls in red and navy blue stripes, including the shelves that held her bronze incense burner and eight-track tape player, I never felt as if I were intruding. As a matter of fact, I can’t imagine a childhood without falling asleep listening to The Moments or Love Unlimited Orchestra, even with the ca-thunk of the eight track player as it switched from one channel to the next, and the soft form of my sister next to me in the bed.

When she married and moved out, I was excited to have a room to myself, especially since my dad and Uncle Louis had built an addition to our two-bedroom home that included a bedroom for my parents, a recreation room with fireplace and a much-needed basement. That bedroom for my parents meant my brother and I would have our own rooms. I’m pretty sure I was picking out wallpaper as my sister walked down the aisle of Our Lady of Perpetual Help church. But that night, lying in bed in the dark, the shelves empty, as well as the tiny closet, I never felt more alone.

My sister married and began a family of her own, eventually moving to Illinois. We made many family trips to Illinois and I stayed with my sister for weeks at a time during the summers. She raised three children, built a home, and created a large circle of friends, all the while remaining in touch with family and friends back in Wichita. I continued to admire her, how she settled in Illinois after a few bumpy initial months, rooting herself and her children, and tackled the everyday tasks of being a good mother with her own mother so far away. She was the cool mom, the one who invited neighbors over to sit in lawn chairs and splash their feet in the baby pool while their children played in the yard. She wore leopard print, loved shoes, and took a limo with friends to see Prince during his Purple Rain tour. Her Halloween parties were legendary, as well as the hand sewn costumes she created for herself, her husband and kids. And when I moved to Illinois shortly after graduating from high school, our relationship reached a different level, as we became good friends. We shared many a beer, popped popcorn to watch Knot’s Landing, drove to the city of Chicago to hear local cover bands, and danced on our chairs during a John Mellencamp concert at the Rosemont Horizon. When I returned to Wichita five years later, my chest ached for weeks with the absence of her.

Her life has been full, but also tragic. My sister has faced what no mother should ever experience and that is the loss of a child. Andrea, her first, left us on Christmas Eve 2007. There are no words, no sentences to describe the anguish or the hurt, the pain we still carry. And as our family lives with this grief, I still cannot imagine the grief my sister carries. I can see the sadness in her eyes, sometimes hear it in her voice, but my mother’s strength she inherited fills her and carries her so that while she is incomplete, she remains a constant to her other children, Holly and Jeff, as well as her husband, Mark. I’ve read many people do not survive the loss of a child, be it their marriage, their relationships, their own being. But, I never doubted my sister. As she stood upon the shakiest of ground, she remained a comfort to the rest of us, forever that glint of light through the leaves.

So, on this Mother’s Day I pay tribute to my sister, my second mother, my best friend. She has a grandson now, a little boy she cherishes and who has brought back that soft smile to her beautiful face. He is an energetic ray that illumines her family. And one day, he will recognize and understand the comfort of his grandmother, how she blankets him in ease, assures him like the Sponge Bob nightlight in his bedroom, warms him as the fuzzy slippers he wears to bed. She will be the rhythm of his life, her heartbeat against his own as she rocks him to sleep. Just as she has been to me and to all whom she has touched, nurtured, comforted. Hers is a quiet strength and one I cannot imagine being without.

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