22 December: Christmastime. The calendar tells me it is three days till Christmas, and the roads surrounding my aunt’s house in St. Louis are packed with last-minute shoppers. We join their ranks, popping into a book store and Target, stopping at the iconic Ted Drewes that sells milkshakes and fragrant Christmas trees. Eggnog and Christmas cookies seduce us from the kitchen counter. A Christmas record plays, and a tree might still get decorated tonight or tomorrow. In Vienna, Christmas markets buzz with activity – subdued, I dare say, but not stifled, by the Christmas market tragedy in Berlin….
I don’t feel quite like Christmas. Mind you, not un-Christmassy, exactly – more just that feelings seem stifled, or at least confused. Everyone I know can’t help but assume it’s a difficult season…. They see a mountain of change, of loss, in the months past, and rightly assume that the path is steep; just far enough removed, they can see the jagged peak and guess the trail. But, I’m the hiker, just starting out; the mountain is too close, too in-my-face to see it, to guess its height, to absorb its colossal weight. Slightly dazed, I gratefully accept the trail supplies offered – listening ears and helping hands – but wish for space to access the mountain that has moved across my path.
The sadness I feel is largely the blank ache of not feeling like there has been room to be sad. The out-pouring of help and company (joyful, wearying, life-giving), travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations in different states (anticipated and enjoyed), booking flights to return overseas (stressful and a relief), and packing up a house that was Home for 33 years (enlightening and burdensome) – none of these lend themselves to quiet and self-reflection. I feel a desperation for quiet, but have simultaneously cultivated an impressive ability to avoid stillness. Maybe if I were incapacitated by tearful grief, things would make more sense.
So here I am. Here we are. Here He is. To be honest, the Babe in the manger seems about as incongruous with the drift of my thoughts as the superficial cheer of secular holiday charm. Any theological ponderings coming from my mouth are going to be about as dry as the hay He lay in. But maybe, just maybe, He will show up again. I don’t really expect it. But, I guess the shepherds weren’t exactly expecting Him either. The world is cold and shocking still, like it must have been to Him that first Christmas. And, if He is unchanging, long-suffering of the changing world, perhaps He will come again this Christmas, as Prince of Peace….
Christmas Eve: Candles burning, Christmas music playing, cookies – shortbread, peppernuts, date pinwheels, and fruitcake, which we Holder women bake every Christmas (this year, I’m three-fourths indebted to Hannah). It’s well past midnight, and Aunt Susan and I lounge on the living room couch, savoring the moment and reluctant to head to bed. We’re home from the Christmas Eve service – one of the most beautiful I’ve been to. In the morning, I’ll put on the breakfast spread of what has so many years been the best meal of the year – home-made cheese Danish and bacon and oranges and coffee, enjoyed with unhurried delight in the company of family, any excitement over presents only heightened by the decidedly slow approach to the meal and breakfast dishes and turkey roasting preparations. Despite the incongruity of the present abundance and obvious absence, I feel warm and happy for the moment, even if not quite at peace – quieted in my aunt’s home, a place already accustomed to the tensions of grief and trust and even gladness.
Christmas has a way of sneaking up on me. Funny, with all of Advent to be preparing. Whatever blankness I felt about the holiday, there were a number of specific joys or “Christmas-y” events that the season did hold.
One was an afternoon with my Aunt Pat baking Mom’s fruitcake recipe and cooking Austrian Eierlikör – a rare time to have my aunt to myself and the only time we’ve ever spent an afternoon in the kitchen together!
I played the piano for a few Christmas events — at my home church in Knoxville, for a couple of house parties, and for a Christmas Eve service in St. Louis.
For the Christmas holidays themselves I decided to visit my Aunt Susan in St. Louis. Really truly it was the first set of days since I got home in July that I could really rest, body and mind. As strange as it sounds, given the preceding months, it was one of the best Christmases I recall. We slept in, sat around in our pajamas drinking coffee and talking, played cards, walked the dog in the park, visited with friends from church there, visited with my aunt’s old German professor and his family, cooked, enjoyed special church services, and stayed up late talking or eating cookies or watching a movie. Thank you, Aunt Susan!
Back home to Knoxville, I had just two whole days to finish everything. Wednesday I packed madly, and most of my boxes went to a friend’s place for storage (thanks, Matt, and Ivy and Patrick!). One important part of the day was doing one of two things I had on my to-do list before leaving – sit on the front porch in the sun, enjoying the view of the mountains. (Thanks, Sarah!)
After four hours’ sleep, I was ready Thursday morning for a truck from Knox Area Rescue Ministries to come pick up donations – multiple (!) boxes and a bit of furniture. Mid-day I posted packages to half a dozen family and friends – mostly letters family members wrote to Mom and were interested in reacquiring. Early afternoon I picked up the 16’ Penske truck I’d reserved (thanks, Vicki!), and by 3:00 I was less than fully ready for a cousin and two friends to load the truck with all the furniture and boxes. They were a patient crew – engineering the best fit while I kept packing boxes (and visited with a dear friend) inside. At last, it was all done! I even managed my other wish – climbing the tulip poplar tree that Dad and I planted when I was in 4th grade. (Thanks, Stephen!)
The next morning I checked and rechecked for misplaced items, took photos of each room, and with a certain amount of nervousness, climbed in the big truck and headed north to Pennsylvania. Eleven hours later I arrived tired but intact at Hannah and Peter’s. They had pizza hot and waiting and both ran out to meet me when I pulled in about 8:30. Whew.
The New Year’s weekend was spent there – a long, relaxed, rather delicious (and sleepy!) New Year’s Eve. A fairly quiet New Year’s Day, and then Monday Hannah and I headed to Philly for brunch with cousins and on to New Jersey/NYC to see other cousins.
The following week I spent three days in upstate New York with friend Kathleen and her family. Besides meaningful conversation, the trip was made memorable by trying out Saratoga Springs’ famed mineral baths, playing endless cooking games with her two-year-old, and visiting the exquisite New York state capitol in Albany.
Then, there was the delight of several days with cousins Ben and Franci, and their three girls – a fitting bookend to the time with them at the beginning of the summer. Always a highlight: good late-evening conversations over tea. More picturesque, though, was a bit of snow and the fun for all ages:
By the time this blog entry is posted, I’ll be in Vienna, back to some knowns, plenty of unknowns. Hopefully the new normal will mean I make time to blog before another eight months disappear – so much for that 2016 New Year’s resolution about posting monthly.
The blog’s about helping me record and remember, about hopefully entertaining or otherwise interesting my readers – and about keeping up. I don’t want it to be a one-way street. So, I do hope you’ll keep up via email or skype or snail mail. …One of the most surprising things of the last months is how friends in Knoxville, and afar, have loved the Holder family – in authentic and sacrificial ways, above what I could have imagined. I am more aware of this community of friends, this Home stretching between continents, than I was last spring, say. So, let’s stay in touch across the miles – and do stop by if you are in town:
Neustiftgasse 10/3/52, 1070 Wien, AUSTRIA