I love lights, especially at this time of year. The little white lights are my favorites, although lately I have become fond of the little blue ones. The lights are the part of Christmas that I love.
I was thinking about lights yesterday as I drove home, coming through the neighborhood and enjoying all the lights the neighbors had put up. It was dark, and it made the evening feel soft and glowing. And magical. Like it used to be when I was a little kid and still lived at home. My mom used to decorate the house to make it look pretty and special. My dad used to put up all the outside lights so they would cast their glowing colors on the white of the snow. We lived in Wisconsin at the time, and even though I’m sure we didn’t always have snow at Christmas, my memories of that time always include snow.
In recent years, my parents’ home was always beautifully decorated for Christmas as well. My mom must have loved the soft glowing lights as much as I do because it is the thing I remember most about their current home at Christmas. It glowed with lights, and always felt warm and inviting when I went there, usually on Christmas Eve.
Last year this time was when it started to become painfully obvious to me that my mother was much sicker than she was letting on. For the first time ever in my lifetime, she did not make Christmas cookies. She was not light-hearted and happy as she always seemed to be this time of year. She needed help putting up decorations on one of her favorite pieces of furniture because it is tall and required the use of a ladder to do so.
I got up on the ladder to hang lights, and she asked me to hand down an antique lamp. It is a glass kerosene lamp that has two parts. “Be careful,” she said, as she always did, “the chimney is not attached to the base, and it doesn’t fit very well.
“It never has,” she added, almost to herself, “even at home.” She meant when she lived at home on the farm when she was a very young girl. Like many other rural families in the 1930s, they didn’t have electricity. I remember her telling me the story of when her family finally got electricity. She said it was amazing that the electric light filled the rooms all the way into the corners where you could never see before.
It made me feel sad then, like she was thinking about her life, how many things she had experienced and done, like maybe she knew it was winding down. When it’s near the end, I later thought, you know. You know.
She filled the bottom part of the lamp with water where the kerosene used to go. She handed it to me because I was supposed to put the red food coloring in the water before I put the lamp back up on top. I put a few drops in, and the water turned pink.
“More!” Mother said. “I want it to be a deeper red.” I knew that, and I added more. “Perfect!” she finally said.
I put the base, now filled with the red-colored water, on top of the shelf section. Then Mother handed up the chimney, which I carefully placed on top of the base. I arranged the plastic evergreen boughs around it, and then came down off the ladder. We turned on the colorful lights, and gazed at it together, proclaiming it ‘beautiful.’ The tree, behind us, flashed its lights in approval, and in that moment, all was well. Perhaps it was one of the last times that all was well for her.
I didn’t spend last Christmas Eve with my mom and dad. As luck would have it, I had some kind of cold/congestion thing going on, and knowing that my mom’s immune system was already compromised, I didn’t want to make her sick with a cold on top of everything else she was fighting.
After Christmas, though, I helped Mother and Dad take down the decorations and helped my mom put the tree ornaments away. Her hands were thin, and shaky, and she wasn’t taking the time to put each little ornament in its own special box. Each one was a memory of a place she and my dad had been. Perhaps she knew it was the last time she’d do this, and she was saying goodbye to those precious things, maybe not wanting to admit that she wouldn’t see them again, that someone else’s hands would be the next to touch them.
A month and a half later, she was gone. This is our family’s first Christmas without our Mother, Alice.
When I asked Dad if he wanted any Christmas decorations at all, he emphatically said, “NO!” My eyes slid to the kerosene lamp still up on top of the highest shelf, the red liquid still there, although now slightly evaporated. Of course it sat there undisturbed all year, and probably will for a long time.
“Those things (ornaments) are just the way your Mother put them away,” he said, “and they’re going to stay that way.”
It’s been said that you can’t go home again. That was the thought I had as I drove home Monday night, that there was no longer a “home” for me now that Mother is gone. Our little family is no longer intact, and someday we all will be gone. But that’s the way it is. Death is part of life. The only choice we all have is to try to enjoy the here and now because that’s all anybody gets. Despite what some people may believe, this is it, this is all that we get. It makes me want to cram in all the positive fun things that I can before I can’t enjoy them anymore. When we lost Mother, I found that although we almost believed otherwise, she was mortal after all, and so are we.
Meanwhile, I will remember Mother this Christmas, and try not to cry. I feel her with me every day, and that is going to have to be enough, for now. I especially feel her in the coolness of the fall air, the season she loved best, and in the memories and the reality of golden leaves. I see her in the birds that seem to be much more prevalent than they used to be. They seem to fly near me, and watch me much more than they ever did. I feel a kind of comfort and security, that somehow she is near me.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she is immortal after all, although not in the way people sometimes imagine. I can only hope, and try to see that hope in the millions of tiny glowing lights that are everywhere.