It was the damn bells. Those annoying, clanging, anxiety inducing bells being rung by well-intentioned bell ringers manning their battle stations at every grocery and drug store in town got on my last nerve during this most recent, most wonderful time of the year. It continues to creep up on us, you know, the “holiday season.” No time to savor autumn, we skip right past the maroons, golds and browns of harvest, and leap from jackolantern’s to Santas on the front porch. I’ll lay odds that next year the red, white and blue will morph into red and green commencing approximately July the 5th.
Despite their noble attempts to engage me, I avoided eye contact with the bell ringers when I dashed past them in their polyester fur-trimmed hats. I offered only a perfunctory nod when they upped the ante with kids singing Christmas carols by their side. I’m not that hard hearted, it’s not like it was cold or anything. So okay, when they showed up with a decked out English bull dog, I dug a dollar out of my pocket and put it in the kettle, nudging me momentarily out of my Scrooginess. I’m a sucker for dogs in Argyle sweaters.
This sounds miserable. I admit it. I was. This is what happens when Christmas rolls around and you’re laying awake at night trying to figure out how you can bank roll it. It’s become a familiar yuletide theme around my house, which is increasingly becoming tedious. And I know, I know, you don’t have to say it, I did this to myself. Such are the consequences of dropping out of your work-a-day life for a year or so to write a book. Royalties don’t cover the rent. Yet.
Little by little, though, the jagged, brittle edges of my self-inflicted, misguided, preemptively apologetic, nutcase protective shell began to crumble. It started with my youngest son’s enthusiasm for a big Christmas tree, big enough to fill up an entire corner of our living room. I balked at the ten-footer towering over him that he fell in love with at the tree lot, reminding him of our limited holiday budget. His immediate response was “I’ll chip in. If we’re having a po’ Christmas, we’ll at least have a decent tree.”
Decorating said tree drug me out of my Christmas gloom one step further. Brings back memories, doesn’t it, unwrapping all of those one-of-a-kind ornaments? Whether it’s the four-pack of sparkly, frosted glass ornaments in the shape of bells, that you eagerly snatch up because they remind you of Christmas as a kid, or it’s the ornaments one of your kids makes in school, like the sequined, red felt wreath with a snaggle-toothed six-year old’s photo in the center, this annual ritual is a poignant reminder of the continuum of life.
As was my journal from 1988. I found it wedged in between photo albums I was foraging through to locate a picture of my mother, circa 1955, snapped by a San Francisco sidewalk photographer, as she was striding, debonair in her beret and London Fog trench coat. She was nothing if not stylish. That particular photo had stuck out in my mind because it captured her joie de vivre, although if I could ask her now, she’d probably tell me she was high steppin’ it down the sidewalk because she was late for work. And even though she grinned at the guy snapping the pic, she too was probably worrying about paying the bills. Apple didn’t fall too far from that tree. I made copies of the photo, framed it and sent it to my far flung kids to remind them that Gram set the pace for living in the moment.
The journal though, took me back. I read the whole thing, cover-to-cover in one of those instant, plop-down, cross-legged reads, in which you become so engrossed, an hour passes and you don’t even notice, until you’re so stiff you can barely get up off the floor. What held my rapt attention were journal entries from the time when my babies were little. One story in particular revealed a long forgotten contentment. Christmas morning, 25 years ago in New Mexico, I was pregnant with my daughter, mother to two boys already. I sat in a rocking chair, my hands resting on my pregnant belly, watching my oldest son and my husband play Electronic Battleship in the pre-dawn hours as snow began to fall. Their endearing profiles were back lit by the soft, white light spilling in through the French doors leading to our snow covered patio. I still remember the sonar sounding beeps and determined look on my nine year old’s face. On the coffee table were the flickering candles of the Swedish Angel Chimes, sending up their sweet, steady cadence as the heat from the candles turned the wheels and sounded the delicate chimes. These bells did not bother me. It was a precious rhythm, marking a once-in-a-lifetime moment of serenity which I chronicled in my diary. Twenty five years later, it was a humbling reminder that people don’t get married with the intention of tearing the other one up. They do it for love. Even the worst eventualities don’t undo the good stuff.
Good stuff which my grown kids and I continue to experience in lives none of us could have predicted. I am grateful for this life. That’s what I was thinking about on Christmas Eve, coming back from church, one-thirty in the morning, at a busy, midtown intersection, traffic on this, oh holy night, still moving, cars whizzing by, places to go, people to see — a pace, a pulse, a beat, where I was silently contributing my heart, to something bigger than myself, to something we can not see, some belief that the goodness we possess might in some way evaporate from our pores like so many greenhouse gasses, except this is a purifying, not poisonous vapor, which in the cap and trade volumes we might collect could be repurposed to be spread among the multitudes for something we dismissively relegate to one scripture reading a year, something loosely defined as goodwill. Goodwill. Have you ever felt like this? Have you ever been so full of life you feel as if your skin might explode? And even though this could very well be the most intimate human emotion, reverence for one’s own heartbeat, your joy is such that you want to rub it all over the very next person you meet.
So, go ahead, ring those bells, ring them loudly! I am grateful for this life. Grateful too that in yet another, “get with the program, Mom,” my kids talked me into hosting our annual Boxing Day party this year. Perpetually a day late and a dollar short, it is fitting that I couldn’t pull off a Christmas party before Christmas, so we’ve been honoring Boxing Day (in Great Britain the day when the domestic help gets the day off and the leftovers) for about ten years now.
Over the course of a decade, the party itself becomes a marker, a snap shot of the number we just happen to be standing on when the music pauses on this cake walk we call life. How indeliberately prophetic this metaphor, which I was concocting in my brain even as the party was in full tilt, (it’s a sickness with writers) would become by the very next day. On this night though, during this particular episode of The Day After Party, I was aware of the changing tide — there were a dozen new faces and some familiar ones not present. My good friend Bobbie, who was always the first guest to arrive, died in August. Cancer. My son’s high school friend lost his dad to leukemia in November. A couple I know, whose son died from a drug overdose a few years ago, did not attend the party. They were in Spain. Their flight landed just in time to race to the hospital where their daughter was in labor. They welcomed their granddaughter into the world on Christmas morning. Unparalleled joy. A former girlfriend of son number two, sashayed in looking red hot in a black dress, showing off photos of her new niece, she’s the proud auntie now. I used to think she’d be the mother of some of my grandchildren. One of my youngest son’s friends, an eighth grader when he first started coming to our Day After bash, who played bass with the house band in the basement, appeared this year totin’ a twelve pack and an appetizer he’d made himself. Delicious. His mom, one of my best friends on the planet, didn’t make it. She was in the throes of arranging hospice care for her mother, not the number she wanted to be standing on that night, I’m certain. No cake, all heartache.
One friend texted to say she wouldn’t make the party because she had an ice skating date that night with her boyfriend. He’s a good guy. She deserves it. She’s been through a lot since her husband died suddenly a few years ago. She is one of the bravest, sweetest people I know, generous beyond measure. While I was still cleaning up from the party the next day, I got a call informing me that her brother Lex had just been killed. He was crossing a busy street to get a cup of coffee and was struck by an inattentive driver in a pickup truck. He was only fifty-two. I reached out to her later to tell her how sorry I was to hear it. She replied that I’d understand just how awful this feels. I suppose.
There was a time, when I used to ring the bell on my back deck for Garrett. He was the first of my brothers to pass. I can not tell you why I was drawn to do that. Initially, I guess it was an expression in my own simpleton way, of hope for his soul. I rang the bell to help lift his to heaven. After time, ever the pesky little sister, I’d go out and ring the bell, disturbing the neighbors in the process, as a symbolic wake-up call, a noisy, jangling alarm clock, to disturb Garrett’s slumber to say, “Hey! What in the hell are your up to? I haven’t forgotten you, BTW.”
I extended this offering to the fine gentleman who erected that brass bell on the pole on my deck in the first place. He was the guy who sold this house to me. “Good way to call the boys to supper,” he explained on the walk-through on the day of his open house. He was a cop, but a rancher at heart, had spent many a summer herding cattle on his uncle’s Colorado ranch, a true outdoorsman, a manly man. Biggs was his name. He was killed along with five other people in an ambush by a crazy man in an infamous City Hall shooting in 2008. The murders made national headlines, my bell ringing did not.
After my mother died, and indeed, after my oldest brother Don died, I performed that same homespun ritual on the day of their passing as well, unorthodox in its timing and application as it may be. It’s not even novel; Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, just to name a few hundred millions worshippers, ring bells to denote all kinds of things — I just did it because I felt like it. Loss is a difficult thing. Hell, I drove all over the whole goddamn country trying to deal with mine and I discovered something quite profound. It’s a privilege, this breathing.
On my nightstand there are three bells, a reminder. They came from my mother’s house. I found them among her belongings, just like the black-and-white photo of her looking band-box sharp on a San Francisco sidewalk. Three bells on the nightstand, one for each of my dear family members gone. I ring them when I dust the furniture, which is pitifully rare these days. But man, when I do, I do so with vigor! Tonight, I will ring them all, inside, outside, neighbors be damned! I will ring them all for Lex, my good friend’s little brother, taken too soon.
Ring the bell. Ring the bell loudly, passionately, fervently, purposefully.
Ring the bell, because we still can.