West Tisbury: Christmas rituals

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My mother’s Christmas cactus is blooming on a plant stand in my dining room. It has been blooming since just after Thanksgiving, and will continue through most of the winter. It’s covered with magenta-colored blossoms, just as it was when Mom was alive and it bloomed on a sunny windowsill in her living room. Mom has been gone almost 40 years now, but I feel her close by when her Christmas cactus blooms at this, her favorite time of the year.

My mom loved the holidays. Both my parents did. They made the rituals that I remember and cherish, that I try to duplicate every year. They made our childhood Christmases magical. Our holidays weren’t lavish, but they were wonderful, and the sense of expectation and excitement still thrills me even though I am now the one trying to make it special for those I love.

Those childhood memories are special and wonderful and overwhelmingly sad all mixed up together. I can’t keep up with those memories. The holidays are difficult for me, sad and wonderful all mixed together, old memories and the total exhaustion of trying to “do it all.”

The anticipation carries me through till about now. Now I am just tired. The dining room table is still covered with wrapping paper and unwrapped presents, my cat Nelson sitting watchfully amid the mess, awaiting his opportunity to hook a package or bite into an errant piece of ribbon.

I haven’t made a cookie yet, my favorite part of the holiday preparation, although I do have some dough chilling in the refrigerator ready to roll out and bake. My annual fantasy about decorating them à la Martha Stewart is not going to happen. It hasn’t in several years. I sent an email to my niece Charlotte yesterday, saying that I missed my best baker’s helper. She and my nephew Josh, baking together and decorating cookies when they were children, made the best cookies and the best memories. I miss them both, the rituals of their childhood that we all cherish. We made things together and decorated together. Charlotte remembers dusting chair legs, one of the memories of my childhood, too, getting ready for the family to gather for Christmas Eve.

We will be at Hannah’s this year. Charlotte and Joshua may call to wish us “Merry Christmas” from their grownup lives. Last year, I felt the weight of a sleeping baby as I held her, of Iyla Grace. Watching her grow this past year has been a gift. I will be baking cookies and making decorations with Iyla soon, making a small part of her childhood memories. She stood on a chair watching as I lit my Hanukkah candles and sang the blessing. Last Christmas Eve she was good as gold as we all stood together singing Christmas carols at the West Tisbury Church service.

My childhood church for midnight Mass was Saint Mary’s, a mile walk from our home on Main Street in Ridgefield, Conn. The ceiling was pale blue and painted with clouds. The Stations of the Cross made a stately progression along the walls. The Mass was still chanted in sonorous Latin then, and I can still see Monsignor McLaughlin, stately as he walks toward the altar, the fragrance of incense in its thurible, the order of the service, the voices raised in song and prayer. Always the same, comforting and inspiring, resounding in my head as I left the church for my walk home, down Catoonah Street, up Main Street, my breath visible in the cold air and a star-lit sky above.

Home would be brightly lit and welcoming, as it is now when I come home from the 10 o’clock service at our West Tisbury Church. Christmas Eve is a combination of company and solitude. I treasure that quiet walk home, and the time to silently sit in the glow of the Christmas tree lights, looking at favorite ornaments, thinking my own thoughts. Reminiscences of my brothers, my parents, Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” the Lessons and Carols sung in boyish British voices.

By the time you are reading this, all the preparation and clutter will be over, leaving me memories for another year. I will have forgotten the anxiety and weariness of working into the night. In another few days, we will be celebrating a New Year, 2018. May it bring good health, happiness, and peace to us all.