87: A Legacy of Love

87: A Legacy of Love

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

A Legacy of Love

Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.

~Helen Keller

I was only eleven years old that day I trudged home from school early in December. Snowflakes danced in front of my face. Christmas vacation would soon begin. Yet, at my house, Christmas was just another day. Dad would get a day off from work at the auto parts store. Mom, suffering from schizophrenia, would spend the day at the psychiatric hospital where she resided. Dad and I would go out for a meal at the local diner. But decorations, lights, and cards were things that happened in other homes, not ours.

“Dad, can we get a tree this year?” I had asked the night before.

Now, approaching our small home, built by my father, I sighed and pushed open the door. Inside, a bare pine tree leaned against the living room wall. A few dry pine needles had already fallen to the floor. No freshly baked cookies greeted me. Dad was still at work. Schoolyard friends never came here to visit after school. Never. Not once.

Standing there on the cheap checkerboard patterned floor of the kitchen, I realized that whatever celebration we would experience would have to be of my own making. Alone, I rummaged about in the basement looking for decorations. A cardboard box stuffed in the corner revealed some colored lights and a few dusty ornaments. I dragged the carton upstairs. Sitting on the floor and pulling the strings of bulbs from the box, I untangled the stiff cords and replaced a bulb here, another there, until at last the whole line worked. Then I set about hanging them on the barren branches.

After supper, I sat down at the kitchen table and began to sort a pile of yellowed Christmas cards bought years earlier by my mother. With my neatest penmanship, I set about addressing the cards to family members. If Dad would not communicate with family members, his eleven-year-old son would take on that responsibility too.

And on the 25th? Each year, I wrote down a wish list of books I wanted for Christmas and my father selected as many of those as he could afford to purchase. No glossy gifts with bright bows appeared. My father, burdened by the load of single parenting, simply handed me a plain brown paper package full of the volumes I had requested.

This was the legacy of holiday memories I brought into my marriage.

My wife knew almost nothing of this history when we walked down the aisle. Emily had come from a home where family traditions abounded. In her parents’ home, hundreds of Christmas cards from friends flooded the mailbox each year; her parents hung these cards on long strings that crisscrossed the ceiling in a kaleidoscope of color. Her mother baked bread and cookies. Parties and laughter filled the house. The family gathered guests around the piano to sing as Emily’s father played favorite carols. A freshly cut tree glowed with lights, and heaps of wrapped packages from aunts and uncles and grandparents overflowed beneath the branches. Candle-lit services at church marked the true center of the holiday. And early on Christmas morning, stockings stuffed with surprises awaited Emily and her brothers when they awoke.

Thus it happened that, several months after Emily and I moved into our first home, I headed to work one day early in December. While I taught my classes, Emily began decorating the house for the holidays. A fragrant wreath of pinecones and acorns hung on the front door. A manger scene appeared on top of the piano. Cards hung from strings just as they had in her parents’ home.

When I walked in the door at the end of the day, a Christmas tree covered with lights and tinsel stood by the front window. My eyes filled with tears as I looked at the homemade stockings, knit by the grandmother of a former student, hanging nearby, awaiting a special midnight visitor. I sniffed the air. Were those freshly baked sweet rolls cooling on the kitchen counter?

After we enjoyed a simple supper of hot soup and homemade bread, Emily turned off all the lights in the house except for those on the branches of the tree. Together, we settled on the couch to enjoy the soft glow. A music box played the soft notes of “Silent Night.”

“You have no idea how healing this is for me,” I said as I pulled her close. “You see, I was always the one who had to make Christmas happen at my house.”

Christmas was still weeks away but my holiday celebration had already begun. My wife’s simple gift of lighting candles and hanging red bows marked the start of a new legacy of memories, a family treasure chest of traditions to pass on to our children.

Today, thirty-nine years later, the pattern continues. One morning early in December, I leave for work, and when I return in the evening I discover Emily has decorated for the holidays. When I step into the house at the end of the day, I still gape in wonder to find our house transformed by a legacy of love.

~Gene Barry Chase

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