What follows was originally intended to be one chapter in a larger collection of essays that chronicles our family’s journey through cancer over the past three years. I began writing the collection just as the dust started to settle from Charolette’s cancer, and before the storm of Pop’s. It has been through several edits since Pop’s illness and death, but the original version below is one of the happier essays and captures the joy and peace with which I have always viewed Christmas Eve. In the spirit of the season I’d like to raise a glass to Christmases past, and to my family who made them magical.
I frequently tease Dominic that I’m going to start dragging him back to Midnight Mass during one of these Christmas seasons in our future. He staunchly refuses, stating in no uncertain terms that he is over any desire to stay up late enough to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. (Even in college, it was well known that Dom would be the first one to call it a night and go to bed.) Once we had children, Midnight Mass was no longer a viable option for our schedules. But, oh, how I miss it. Of all my memories, our family’s attendance at Midnight Mass and the wee-hours celebrations that followed are some of my most treasured.
They say you can’t go back, and I accept that; really I do. And I accept that those memories may have to remain only memories, being that so much has changed within our family since the days when we were young, just beginning our adult lives, full of hope, possibility and promise. When I reflect on that time of my life it is as if I am seeing it transpire inside a snow globe. I shake it and a memory forms, its edges slightly blurred. We are walking up the driveway of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church. The air is bitterly crisp and I clutch my winter-white wool dress-coat tightly around me. Dominic offers me his arm, and I loop my own through his and snuggle close against his suit jacket, resting my cheek against his shoulder as we walk. Bob and Charolette walk beside us, elegant in their Christmas attire, as we are joined by Victor and Melissa and then by John and Kasie. We enter the church and head up the center aisle to our familiar pew on the right-hand side six rows from the front. We genuflect and file in, filling the pew almost to capacity. We greet and are greeted by familiar faces throughout the sanctuary, which is adorned in boughs of greenery. Deep red poinsettias and several Christmas trees decorated only in lights flank the altar while a large, solitary manger stands nearby. As Mass begins the smell of incense tickles my nose and makes my eyes water, but I love the tradition of it all. This is Christmas to me – holy and unrushed, simultaneously simple and resplendent.
I watch the memory for a while before shaking the globe again, and the memory fades out like a dream sequence as another forms in its place amid the falling snow. We have left the church and returned to Bob and Charolette’s home. We are loud and lively. We redress in blue jeans and sweatshirts, getting comfortable for the festivity ahead. A thousand tiny white lights shine on the Christmas tree, which is filled with so many jeweled and ribboned ornaments we can barely distinguish one branch from another. The ornaments were handmade by Charolette’s cousin, Boots, many years prior, and they are the only tree ornaments I will ever know inside this house. We have a full meal planned and ready. Wine glasses are filled and Pop reaches far back into a kitchen cabinet to retrieve a bottle he will use to top off the eggnog. We laugh and eat and laugh some more before settling in to exchange gifts in the living room, a process in which we take turns opening one gift at a time. Sometimes Father Dave is there, standing at the kitchen counter, popping the top on a beer and joking with us. He is as much a part of this family as we are, and his relaxed smile says that he feels it.
The memory morphs easily into one of my most favorite Christmases, when during our gift exchange John hands Kasie a wrapped box of running shoes. On the laces is tied an engagement ring. She opens the box and proclaims her excitement that he has bought her exactly the shoes she wanted. And then, removing one shoe from the box, she sees the ring just as John kneels on the floor in front of her. Her hand flies to her mouth and a second later she is in his arms, crying and saying yes. John had almost given her that gift in private; I had to beg him to please let us watch, though I’m sure it was Charolette’s asking that actually convinced him to propose publicly. I believe that is the widest I have ever seen him smile.
Sleepy and satiated, we depart for our homes around three in the morning, only to regroup in the same place the next afternoon for lunch with the extended family. It is at these lunches that I would enjoy spending time with Dominic’s cousins and getting to know Charolette’s aunt and uncles. Oh, the stories these people can tell on each other!
The tradition changes slightly after those early years of our marriage when we begin filling the church pew with children. Now the snow globe reminds me that we have committed to an earlier Christmas Eve Mass, Victor wears the well-deserved title of Gumbo Chef for the night, and the unwrapping of gifts is no longer facilitated one person at a time. Tiny fingers rip bows from presents and hold books and dolls high in the air for all to see. “Look, Mommy, look!!” is shouted so much that Kasie, Melissa and I can’t tell who’s opening what or who’s calling to whom. We begin to nod and smile at every child in turn, saying, “Oooh, that’s great, sweetie! Did you remember to say ‘thank you?’” Pop examines the instructions that came with his gifts, collects wrapping paper into a trash bag and plugs batteries into new toys. Mom sits beside the tree, handing out packages still to be opened while her sons gather at the kitchen table to admire a new toolset someone has received.
It is at the end of these evenings of frivolity that Dom announces, “Saddle up!” and we wrestle cookie-filled children into car seats and drive home. Once they are tucked safely into bed and our Santa duties are fulfilled, Dom and I continue our tradition of exchanging one gift each before turning out all the lights except for those on the tree and in the garland. This is where I find my silent night. We plug It’s a Wonderful Life into the DVD player and snuggle on the sofa. We know it’s okay if we fall asleep before Clarence gets his wings; we will watch it again the next night. And maybe the night after that.