The Gift of a Memory

Years have passed since the deaths of my parents and, later, my oldest brother, and I’m slowly losing the nuances that made them unique: their laughs, their intonations, their expressions, their walks. But Christmas helps me remember. As I bake cookies, hang ornaments or listen to the gentle notes of carols, memories of those who shared my early Christmases bring them back in their entirety.

Recently, my sister Carolyn reminded me of a Christmas memory I’d like to share with you. I think of it as “The Dance of the Reindeer.”

On Christmas Eve, we usually drove to our grandmother’s house in Provo. Inside the small, orderly home filled with relatives, warmth, and the smell of baking, we’d tussle with our cousins until told to “settle down or else…” which we did when Grandma’s homemade cookies and candy appeared. Silenced by our chewing, we’d listen to the unfortunate cousins whose parents had convinced them to recite, sing, or play Christmas tunes on their band instruments. When food, talent, and patience had worn thin, Grandma read the story of the first Christmas from the Bible; then we drove home through fields crusted with snow-diamonds under a sky filled with low-hanging stars.

As soon as we arrived, Mom announced bedtime, and with minimal grumbling, we left the warmth of the living room for our unheated bedrooms: Bob and Lawrence in one room and Carolyn, Barbara and me in another.

I don’t know what our brothers did, but we girls partied.

We talked, giggled, climbed in and out of each other’s beds, watched out frost-etched windows for Santa, and took turns trying to sneak into the living room because we needed to go to the bathroom “really, really bad.” When the grandfather clock in the living room chimed, we quieted and counted: Mom had warned us not to get out of bed again until the clock chimed six times.

One year, five-hear-old Barbara listened intently as the clock struck, then said, “Oh, no, I counted eleven. Way past six. Now we have to wait until the big hand makes it to six again. I forgot. How many does it go to before it starts over? A hundred? That’ll take forever.”

But on my eighth Christmas, as we began to doze, Carolyn startled us awake: “Listen, can you hear that? Shh. There’s a noise on the roof. Be quiet!” We sat up in our beds, straining our ears, until we heard a faint clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop on the roof. We held our breath and listened as the clops grew louder and more frequent — a herd of deer tap-danced over our heads until, gradually, the hoedown calmed into silence.

Only then did we squeal with excitement and wonder if we should wake everyone to tell them what they missed. Eventually, we decided rousing the household would be unwise and drifted into sleep.

The next morning, after the chaotic joy of presents, Barbara remembered: “We heard them,” she announced into the general din, “We did.”

Only Lawrence caught her remark. “Who’d you hear?” he asked.

“Rudolph and those other ones.”

“Huh,” Dad said, “ What did they sound like, fellers?”

As we re-produced the sound of the dancing deer we heard in the night, the others exclaimed, questioned and chuckled.

Later, Carolyn, older, more skeptical and not above threatening Bob with physical harm, discovered the truth of our nighttime visitors: Lawrence had saved two deer hooves from his successful hunt that fall. Then, on Christmas Eve, waiting until we lost steam, he climbed onto the roof and clopped until he could clop no more.

In doing so, he gave us a meaningful gift: a Christmas memory of prancing reindeer, laughing parents and an older brother who took the time to create fun for his sisters.

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The Gift of a Child

merry-christmas-free-clip-art-merry-christmas-clip-art-7-jpgEvery Christmas, I think about the gift of a child and remember my brother’s birth.

At the age of nine on a worn-out day in February, I heard a rackety car approach and ran to the kitchen window. The barren branches of cottonwood trees streaked shadows across dirty snow; and a pale sun fled behind West Mountain as Mom stepped from Mrs. Anderson’s car.

She slammed the car’s door behind her — launching our resident crows into an orbit of admonishment — then walked along our sidewalk of frozen mud, her face as tired as the day.

Entering the house, Mom glanced at me — my scattered paper dolls, their cut-out costumes and her sewing scissors. Then, saying nothing, she slowly stirred the coals in the stove with a poker. Made uneasy by her silence, I wondered about its cause: Was it her visit to the doctor in town or my use of the forbidden scissors?

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I’m going to have a baby.”

“Don’t you like babies?”

“Oh, Janet, I’ve loved all my babies. But I’m old. And tired.”

My mother had delivered family news, introduced me to a new word and shared a confidence. I forgot all three before dinner.

Then, a few months later, my family arrived at church, and I rushed to catch up with my best friend. “Oh, your mother’s pregnant,” she remarked, looking at Mom in her new, ballooning outfit.

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“That she’s having a baby. My mother’s too old to have another baby. She said at her age, it would kill her.”

My insides shriveled. A few years before, my mom had nearly died giving birth to a baby sister who hadn’t lived. When she told me she was old and tired, did she mean having a baby would kill her this time? My world slowed to a standstill; and in the following weeks my anxiety grew along with my mother’s stomach.

In September, shortly after Mom told us the baby could come any day, she and Dad went to Provo, saying they’d be home by dinner. But they weren’t. So we ate the bottled tomatoes and toast Carolyn fixed for us; then, sent to bed, but wide-awake and worried, I crouched by a bedroom window and hoped the headlights I could see across the fields would turn at our lane. I held my breath, watched the headlights, and promised I’d do my chores without whining and change the new baby’s diaper without complaining, if Mom was in that car rather than dying, far away in Provo, trying to have a baby when she was too old. The headlights turned.

A week later, I again stood sentry by a window. The evening before, Dad had taken Mom to the hospital. Grandma either believed my lie about an upset stomach or understood the fear clouding my eyes. When the others ran for the school bus, I stayed home.

Again, I tracked our car until it stopped beneath the cottonwoods. Dad stepped out, then stopped and studied the sky. Why was he looking at heaven? I ran from the house. Panic squeezed my voice tiny: “Dad?”

“Hey, Janet. You have a new brother. We named him Blaine. They’ll both be home Friday. Looks like it’s going to rain, doesn’t it?”

A few days later, I experienced an unexpected rush of love when Mom let me hold my brother, bundled in white flannel, smelling new, small fists waving at nothing. I smiled up at Mom, and my last worry vanished as I saw that she, too, loved this baby.

In that moment, as I exulted over the birth of our baby, I began to understand why hearts overflow with joy, love and hope each Christmas.