Christmas Presence

One of my earliest Christmas memories is of sitting at the kitchen table with my father, working together to make “shadow box” nativity scene.  Shadow boxes were popular at the time, and as far as I can remember, they consisted of a box that housed knick-knacks or scenes in a decorative wooden box covered with glass to protect the contents.  Since I was about five years old at the time, we were making our shadow box out of a cardboard shoe box.

We had gone out into the back yard to cut some dormant, yellowed zoysia grass, which we glued on the bottom of the box to represent straw.  We glued strips of brown construction paper to the walls for the stable beams, and added a blue square window complete with gold star stickers on the back wall. Then we glued down the ceramic figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in the manger, with a little plastic angel standing guard.  Finally, we taped on clear plastic wrap to cover the whole front of the box.  I thought it was absolutely beautiful.

Our family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, but we always got a nice pile of presents for Christmas, and almost always got the gift we wanted the most of all (not counting the Shetland pony I was always secretly hoping for).  But as much as I looked forward to unwrapping my presents on Christmas morning, as happy as I was with the presents I received, I have forgotten almost all of them by now.  Sometimes my memory is helped by looking at an old photo and thinking, “Oh, that was the year I got the Chatty Cathy doll,” but I can’t remember that on my own, or even a few days after I look at the photo.

What I do remember, easily and clearly, is sitting at the kitchen table with my father, working together to make that cardboard shadow box.  I remember how special it made me feel that he was taking the time to teach me how to make something beautiful out of some dried-out grass, construction paper, ceramic figures and a cardboard shoe box.

IMG_0938I have no idea how long that cardboard shadow box actually lasted…our household had lots of rambunctious kids, so the chances are, it didn’t last very long…but I still have the figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the angel.  And even though they are old and chipped, I still put them out every year, to remind me that the best Christmas gifts aren’t the ones we put under the tree.

Legacy

IMG_0911I love a good estate sale.   Nothing is quite so much fun as spotting an estate sale sign when I actually have time to stop and check it out.  I’ve found good pieces of older furniture, lovely glass serving dishes, antique Christmas ornaments, books, tools, old linens that I can donate to the Humane Society, and lots of other useful stuff.  I especially like going on the second day of the sale, when there isn’t quite as much to choose from, but everything that remains is marked “half off.”  I’ve found some terrific bargains that way.

But even though I love estate sales, wandering through the houses in search of bargain-priced treasures is also just a little bit sad.  I can usually get a pretty good sense of who lived in the house, even though I’ve never met them.  As I go from room to room, I can see what the person’s taste was in books, home furnishings and clothing.  Sometimes, looking through the remains of their worldly possessions, I can even tell where they went to church, what their hobbies were, or what they did for a living.   I am reminded that the items for sale belonged to a real person at one time, and some of those things were probably very special to them.  And yet now they are sitting in an empty house with a price tag attached, being pawed through by total strangers.  I can’t help but wonder how that would make the person who owned them feel.

IMG_0346Even though I’m a minimalist at heart, I know that sometimes I still spend way too much time and money acquiring possessions, especially the things that are special to me.  I have certain authors that I love and I buy every book of theirs that I can get my hands on, and I have eight prints hanging on my walls by my favorite local artist.  Even though the two Christmas trees I put up every year are already loaded with glass antique ornaments, I still buy more, if they are in good shape and reasonably priced.  Every single room in my house has at least one thing in it that I treasure. And yet I know that some day (hopefully in the distant future), any and all of it could end up in my estate sale, priced to sell quickly.

The thing is, no matter how much “treasure” we manage to accumulate in our lives, there’s no guarantee that any of it is going to be valued when we’re gone.  Our stuff is not who we are, and it’s not what people are going to remember us by.  When I shop those estate sales, I can understand only a little bit of the person whose possessions I’m sorting through.  I may see their tastes and some of their life story, but I have no idea how they acted, how they treated other people or what their deepest values were.  Because I didn’t know that person, and I only see the stuff they’ve left behind.

So I don’t want to make the mistake of putting too much value on my things, even the things I value the most.  When I’m gone, I know that what I’ll really be remembered by was whether I was kind or cruel, generous or selfish, willing to take risks or always playing it safe, etc.  In short, I’ll be remembered by how much I was willing to try, in my own clumsy way, to make the world around me a better place.  That’s not something that will be put in my will or sold at my estate sale, but ultimately, it’s the only legacy that really matters.

 

 

 

Precious Memories

Martha at EasterThe church I grew up in and attended when my children were young is closing at the end of this month, and today they had a special “heritage” lunch as a final gathering for everyone.   It was enjoyable, if somewhat bittersweet, to spend time with so many old friends, and see people I knew as little children all grown up with kids of their own.  They had five tables filled with old photographs that people could take if they wanted, and I spent a lot of time sorting through the photos, searching for pictures of my family.  I was thrilled to find lots of photos of my kids, but I was shocked by how many people either didn’t look at the photos at all, or picked up a photo of a member of their family, looked at it with mild interest, then put it back down again, knowing that all the unclaimed pictures were going to be thrown away.  How could they not want those pictures of their grandparents, their parents, their sons and daughters?

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand people not wanting to bring home more “stuff.”  By the time we’ve reached middle age, most of us already have more material possessions than we need or want, and our main problem is how to get rid of it, not how to add to our collections.  But in my opinion, there is simply no such thing as too many photos of family and friends, and the older they are, the better.   I may fill a donation bag with clothing every time my closet gets full, but if I run out of shelf space for my photo albums, I just know it’s time to add another shelf.  Because photographs are a recording of my life up to this point, and that’s not something I’m willing to let go of.

Martha Mollenauer (2)The way I look at it, that’s my history in those photo albums.  Those old family photos remind me of where I came from, and just who I came from.  The pictures of me growing up remind me of all the different stages of my life.  The photos of friends remind me of how many good people I’ve been lucky enough to share my life with, from the time I was a small child right up to today.  And the photos of the pets I’ve had, the houses I’ve lived in, and the places I’ve visited are all reminders of my own life’s journey .

I don’t keep the photos because I’m trying to live in the past.  I’m perfectly happy living in the present, even with my middle-aged face and body.  It’s just that I sometimes enjoy looking at pictures of family members who are gone, or pictures of my children when they were babies.  It brings back memories of a different time in my life, and those memories are special to me. And I believe that they’re certainly precious enough to keep.

Moving Forward

IMG_0040Sometimes I have a tendency to wallow in nostalgia, especially during the holidays.  I decorate my Christmas tree with antique ornaments, and my house with Santa Clauses, nativity scenes and other knick-knacks mostly from the 1950s.  I have lots of old family photographs and have used them to create memory albums, carefully noting the name of each person in the pictures.  So I definitely get the attraction of living, at least now and then, in the past.

I also know that the past has shaped me, for better or for worse, and that who I am today is mostly the result of everything that I have experienced so far in my life.  When something provokes a particularly strong memory, it can seem as if the past has reached out and touched me, like when I hear Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” and am instantly transported back to a fun night out with my college friends.  The same thing happens when a perceived slight can make me feel like a solitary child on the playground, watching her best friend linking arms and walking away with someone else.  Whether good or bad, it can feel very real, even though it’s just an illusion.

By the time we’ve reached our middle age, I think most of us have learned that life really is a journey that moves relentlessly forward.  Returning to the past isn’t a choice, whether we want to or not.  We can’t return to the days when our bodies were young and the world seemed full of endless opportunities.  We can’t change what we’ve done or not done; we can’t take back our mistakes; and we can’t erase any damage that was done to us.  The past is over and done with, and the only we we can ever revisit it is through our memories.

All we have, and all we ever will have, is the reality of our present and the hope of our future.  The past may have shaped who we are now, but the present is what we can control.  And I think that’s a good thing, because the present…our actions, our words, our choices…is what will determine our future.  Which means that, even at this point of our lives, we still have quite a bit of control over what our life will become.

We may be middle aged, but if we are lucky, we still have many miles to go on our life’s journey.  I have come to believe that the best plan is to look ahead and search for that spot on the horizon where we want to be, and point ourselves firmly toward it.  Because we are always moving forward on this one-way journey, and the direction we take is ultimately up to us.

A Mid-Century Life

I was watching the show “House Hunters” on HGTV the other morning, and the young couple trying to select their new home ended up choosing what was referred to as a “mid-century house” because it had been built in the 1950s.  Which is, of course, the exact same decade in which I was born.  As soon as they bought the house, the couple began a full-scale rehab to bring the incredibly “old” house “up-to-date.”  Needless to say, I turned off the TV.

I’m used to thinking of myself as middle-aged, and even as the tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation.  But mid-century?  That just sounds so old!  Yet there’s no getting around the fact that I came into this world in the late 1950s, over half a century ago, and a completely different era.

When I was a young child, our family had only one car.  We were luckier than most of our neighbors in that my father took the bus to work most days, thereby leaving my mother with a car to use when she needed to go somewhere.  She spent a lot of her time driving not only my sisters and me around, but often the neighbors as well.  I remember many trips to the zoo with my mother and her two friends, Peggy and Rosemary, in the front seat, each with a baby in her lap.  The older children, and there were usually at least seven of us, were stuffed into the back seat.  No one had ever heard of car seats or even seat belts for children back then.

When I was in first grade, the teacher once asked the class what we wanted to be when we grew up.  The boys gave a variety of answers–policeman, doctor, lawyer, truck driver, etc.–but each of the girls answered either teacher or nurse.  As far as we knew, those were the only two choices available to us.  We also wore dresses or skirts to school each day.  Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants, which always made swinging around the monkey bars at recess without showing off our underwear a bit  of a challenge.  Television sets were black and white, and had about four channels which only worked when the antennae on top were placed just so.

When I think back on my early years, I have to realize that it was indeed a long time ago and a very different world from the one I live in now.  So maybe it isn’t such a mystery why I sometimes feel just a little bit like a stranger in a foreign land.  Adjusting to change is a natural part of life, but dang!  Women in my generation have adjusted to more than our fair share, even when most of the changes have been for the good.    So I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little patience and consideration as we cope with it all.  And by the time we reach the full-century mark, we’re going to be needing a LOT of patience and consideration.  Consider yourselves warned.