By Wendy Hodge
It is a cold Monday night in Alabama… a rare chance to cuddle up under a blanket. My only company tonight is my daughter’s cat, Ophie, and she is a reluctant snuggle buddy. In fact, the only reason she has graced me with her presence is that it is feeding time. So, while I eat my plate of pierogis (from the frozen section in Kroger), she will dine on Fancy Feast. There is a lineup of Christmas movies on several channels tonight. Bah humbug. I am not in the mood.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. Absolutely love it! From the sappy commercials to the pre-Thanksgiving sales, from the neighborhoods lit up with flashing lights and moving Santas to the Christmas cantata at the church down the street, from the office parties to the carolers at the door… I am a fan of all things Christmas.
In fact, for many years, I have had three Christmas trees in my home… even in my apartment days when there were fewer bedrooms than Christmas trees. Like all true holiday fanatics, each tree had a theme. There was my snowman tree, filled with snowman ornaments I’ve collected over the decades. And my traditional tree with the classic red, green, and gold globes and garlands. And, of course, the family tree filled with all the hand-print reindeer and homemade Santas from the kids’ school parties.
I didn’t stop with trees – there was garland over the fireplace, lights around the door, wreaths on every window, and Christmas carols playing on the stereo. The decorating always began on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, during the Iron Bowl – the South’s high holy holiday. And for a month straight, I cooked and decorated and sang myself into a Christmas frenzy.
But this year is different. In place of my usual anticipation, there is… well… nothing. As I sit here on the couch with the cat purring beside me, it hits me that I would be quite satisfied if I blinked and it was suddenly January… if all this Thanksgiving and Christmas business were already behind me.
I cannot seem to summon that good old holiday sentiment. In its place is an overwhelming urge to get away somewhere completely new, preferably where the natives have never heard of Christmas, or to just cozy up in the far back corner of a cave and sleep until the New Year.
The thing is, I am an empty nester who lives with her aging parents. It’s an awkward stage of life, caught somewhere between Christmas past and Christmas future. Christmas present, at the moment, feels just a bit overwhelming. My mother is no longer the matriarch who bakes and decorates and plans for everyone. That has fallen to me. My children are no longer the ones who count down the days and build the anticipation for the family get together. That has fallen to me.
Christmas this year feels a bit short on festivity and long on hard labor. And what a shame that is.
Sitting here with ‘My Christmas Nanny’ playing on Lifetime Movie Network, I close my eyes and remember Christmases from my childhood…. each of them a wonderful memory. In fact, I can honestly say that every Christmas I’ve been lucky enough to have has been special in some way or other. I have certainly never been hungry or without the things I needed. I have, more often than not, gotten the things I wanted.
On this night, though, I am suddenly 10 years old again. My granddaddy has been dead for a few months, and it is Christmas time. Our first one without him. The house in the country is quieter than usual, even in the midst of the decorating and baking. The big boxes of ornaments have been taken down from the attic, and my grandmother and I are sitting in front of the tree looking at each ornament as we take them out of their wrapping. I’m sure the other family members are there, but it always felt as if my grandmother and I were a unit of our own.
I can see her long, labor-worn fingers carefully putting hooks on glittery balls and untangling the tinsel. I can smell the pumpkin pie baking and the cinnamon punch in a pot on the stove. I can feel the chill in the air creeping in around the old window frames. And I can hear my grandmother’s startled cry as a glass ornament hit the floor and shattered into several large pieces.
It was her favorite Christmas decoration. My granddaddy had given it to her decades earlier. The glass had been hand blown by a craftsman in Tennessee while my grandparents had watched. It was the figure of a horse, prancing across a bank of snow, with a wreath around his neck. My grandmother said it reminded her of the horse that had drawn the buggy my granddaddy had been riding in when they first met. He pulled that very same buggy up to her family’s front door just a month later, asked her daddy for her hand, and carried her away to start their life together. On their honeymoon, he’d paid the glass blower to craft that horse just for her. And now it lay in pieces on the floor.
I watched Gussie’s face for a moment, waiting to see what her reaction would be. Tears sprang quickly to her eyes. She bent down and began picking up the pieces, her tears landing on the floor next to the shards of glass.
“We can fix this,” she said to me.
I wasn’t so sure. It looked impossible.
Her fingers moved quickly, assembling the pieces on the kitchen counter. She got the glue and began to work on the ornament like she did one of her many jigsaw puzzles she loved so much. And, amazingly, within a few minutes, the horse was intact once again. We continued decorating the tree and left the repaired ornament to dry overnight. I was skeptical that it would ever be beautiful again, but my grandmother insisted I wait and see what a little time would do.
I watched my grandmother closely the rest of that day. Occasionally her eyes would drift to the kitchen counter and the ornament that was so priceless to her. But she was cheerful, and the tree was glorious.
The next morning, I woke up to the sounds of breakfast being prepared and the smell of bacon in the pan. I ran to the kitchen, eager to see if the glass horse looked any better in the light of day. But it wasn’t there. I looked at my grandmother. Before I could say a word, she pointed at the tree and winked at me.
And there it was, hanging on the very front for the whole world to see. I stood right in front of it. The light from the window made it glow. And it looked perfect. Not a crack could be seen.
“Wow!” I said. “It’s so beautiful!”
My grandmother came and stood next to me. She reached out and carefully turned the ornament over so I could see the back. Where the front was beautiful and elegant, the opposite side was a messy collage of cracks and glue. You could see the damage so clearly.
“Look closer,” my grandmother said.
I leaned in, and finally saw it. Right in the middle of the broken glass was a small fragment of white paper with the initials WLH on it. Wendy Lynne Hodge. My grandmother had made me a part of that ornament.
“That’s the real beauty right there,” my grandmother said. “If I hadn’t broken that ornament, I never would have thought to add your name to it. And now it’s even better than it was before.”
I don’t remember what I said to her at that moment, but I will never forget the gift she gave me that day, made with her own hands and her own heart.
“Wendy Lynne, nothing is ever as perfect as it seems. Not people or families or even Christmas. If we all could see the other side of everyone’s life, we’d be amazed at what people endure and struggle through and still come out smiling on the other side. Really looking at folks is when you see the most beautiful things.”
Gussie was right as usual.
This Christmas, my life feels unfinished… like a puzzle that’s missing some pieces. And the thing is, I have an idea of what the finished picture should look like. But I have little control over when I will get to add the last pieces. I know it’s coming, but waiting has never been my strength.
In the meantime, I will remind myself that everyone… every single one of us… has a story that others rarely, and maybe never, get to see. Let’s all be mindful of the breaks and repairs in each other. Let’s take the time to really look and see what makes each of us beautiful and broken. That’s where the real beauty is.
Merry Christmas to my parents, my children, my friends, my dogs and Abbey’s cat.
Merry Christmas to my best friend. There is so much good stuff just waiting for us.
And Merry Christmas, most of all, to Gussie. I can hear your voice to this day, and I am grateful.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.