I pulled out a Christmas star and a string of old lights. I set the star on top of the tree, then plugged the lights in to see if they still burned. The small glass bulbs sputtered and came to life, and in just a moment, the old rituals, memories, and dreams spilled out in rainbow twinkles as thoughts piled up of Christmases past. For a few moments I left the here and now and rewound the clock.
The holiday season started for the Boggan family when I carried boxes down from the attic and began to decorate.
Hands brushed, shoulders touched, as we reached in and pulled out familiar ornaments and decorations that we'd had for a long time. For many years we were one of those families who went to the woods and cut our own tree, usually not too long after Thanksgiving.
We had wood fires so pungent our lungs burned. So I wouldn't mess up my clothes I wore a green apron made by my grandmother Ferguson that had been kept in a drawer all year. Our kitchen would be fragrant with the odor of cinnamon and cloves from the spiced tea we loved to drink as I cooked our favorites; macaroni and cheese, wild rice casserole, summertime lady peas that had been pushed back in a corner of the freezer and saved, candied apples, stuffed eggs, cornbread dressing, pecan pies.
Patients brought husband Willard food; sugary divinity crunchy with walnuts; fruitcakes drenched with the woodsy smell of bourbon; soaked turkeys and hams. And there was always a cake made by the mystery lady, Model T.
Shortly before Christmas, the neighborhood children would come in to view our shedding and ugly star-crowned cedar or pine tree that had been cut down weeks before, the ornaments hanging on like pitiful possum babies.
I would reach down and plug-in our aging Santa Claus. Every year we held our breath to see if the Santa that was in the window at Brent's Drugs since the year my daddy's drug store opened would still nod and roll out his welcoming hands on our hearth. This Santa may well have been the first moving figure some people ever saw, me being one of them. His crimson suit was faded, the velvet nappy, his beard tinged with black specks, but after a brief hesitation and a deep creak, Santa would come to life. Bending over from the waist, he nodded his head and began the yearly ritual of rolling out his elbows, spreading his hands in welcome.
All was not sweet nights and twinkle lights; there were charred sweet potato casseroles; blue-jeaned, bored teenagers sprawling in chairs; stiff cocktail parties where you look for a corner and a familiar face. And there was always the person you forgot to buy a present for.
Many mornings, I would hear a heavy tread and know that duck hunters with muddy boots were coming in and would slop, heavy-footed through the house. After they gutted their birds, I chased wispy feathers around the kitchen and cleaned bright red innards out of the sink. Christmas Eve would slip up. Church bells rang for candlelight services. There was a breathless feeling as you moved from a black silk night into the shawl warmth and comfort of church.
Even before we lost so many of our family members, sadness and joy mingled as the church choir, holding flickering candles, glided down the aisle.
Now, some years later, I remember something I wrote in 1970 when Christmas changed for us.
"I had all the family over for Christmas dinner. While everyone was in the den drinking eggnog in front of the fire, I called Willard into the living room where I had our tables all set up.
I was sad and had a strange feeling I wanted to share with him. I put my arms around his waist and leaned my face against his chest. My throat was tight, and I started crying and whispered," If someone is missing next year, I don't want Christmas to ever come again." He squeezed me, and I think he felt it too because tears came into his eyes. We lit the candles; I called everyone in, and we held hands while we blessed the food to nourish our bodies and us to the service of the Christ Child.
A month later we had lost a child, Linda Gail Boggan (Tootie) in a car wreck. Some years later, Willard and I had said goodbyes to our other daughter, Pat Cummings, and granddaughter Brent Riddell.
This year, past Christmas memories are even harder to think about. A few months ago, our beloved granddaughter, Lindsay Lee Boggan, was killed in a car crash.
Now on this December day, raincoat wrapped around me in a blowing, damp wind, the western sky a gun-metal gray, I've just left a vase of artificial flowers and had a brief Christmas visit with Willard, the one I hold dear in my heart.
Back home, sitting on the sofa, doggie Roo Roo at my feet, and poochie Petey Poo beside me, I reminisce and return a few years ago, to other moments, when my husband was in hospice, the last Christmas we had together. For long weeks he had been quiet, as if lost in times past, perhaps seeing his cherished girls, Pat and Tootie, granddaughter Brent, and his brother Bobby, the young B-29 pilot who was shot down over Yokohama Harbor close to the end of World War II.
That Christmas morning, I had felt a need to hear carols. I had a nurse bring a radio into Willard's room and found a station playing twenty-four hours of Yuletide music.
I had no idea whether or not he could hear, so I turned up the volume. As I crawled into the hospital bed next to my husband I heard the faint roll of drums in the background. The drums grew stronger.
Then came my Christmas gift for a lifetime.
"Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum,"
As soft voices began singing, Willard opened his eyes and looked down at me.
"A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum."
His chin kissed my cheek, he was back again with me. Other family members, his children, and grands had a short visit that day, each one knowing it would be the last time he would be with them.
When they left, I gently squeezed my loved one's hand. "And oh, you did. You played your best for your King. Your whole life."
Too soon, my husband grew as still and quiet as a fallen tear; there was only an echo of music in the room.
Now, it's 2021, six years later. The artificial tree that I wasn't sure I'd ever put up again is back in place. Sunday morning and not quite time to go to church, I turn on the gas logs in our fireplace.
"Don't know when I'll be back again," I hum to myself.
A few more days 'til Christmas, and I'm all packed for a Colorado ski trip with family.
I plug in Santa Claus, sit back and catch my breath. There's a long hesitation, a loud creak. Santa bends, rolls out his arms, and I look up.
The Star is still on top.