Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas By the Book

For all my love of reading, I did not receive a book as a Christmas present until 1965 (4th grade) and then only as a reward for refraining from biting my fingernails. That a child would crave books over toys was unfathomable to my young parents and I think they were taken aback when I would ask for them. Betting against my daily nibbling of my nails, my parents indeed rewarded me that year. While I no longer own the books, I still remember them well: Marguerite Henry's An Album of Horses and The Golden Stallion by Rutherford  Montgomery.

That is the only thing I remember about that Christmas: I finally received books that belonged to me and me alone. By sheer fate, that Christmas turned into a hat trick of sorts when it came to books as I also received a children's abridged and illustrated Little Women. (I still own that book.)

With Christmas just hours away, I have been recently revisiting my memories of Christmas stories and tales. My earliest are oral: singing "Away in the Manger" in church toddler class or listening to Grandma Skatzes recite the nursery rhyme beginning "Christmas is coming."

Once I learned to read, I discovered Christmas in books and learned I could experience the holiday anytime I felt like it. I heard and read the lilt of Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas" and set about memorizing it, starting with the names of the reindeers.

There was The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (Dr. Seuss) and the wonders of Whoville and Mr. Willoughby's Christmas Tree (Robert Barry) and my satisfaction over the mouse family getting the last tip of the too big tree. There was Laura cuddling Charlotte in Little House in the Big Woods, the first book of the series I had yet to discover. When I did discover and devour the series, I found that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a Christmas scene into every single book in the series. My favorite was and remains the time that Mr. Edwards swam the Verdigris River to bring Christmas to Laura and Mary way out on the big prairie.

Wilder had a knack for Christmas scenes: the rag doll, Mr. Edwards, the church gift trees in Plum Creek (the muff) and De Smet (the secret gift from Almanzo), the store bought cap Almanzo received as a boy, the hard winter where the Ingalls family read stories until the kerosene lamp went out.

As my world of books expanded, so did the Christmases I experienced. I joined Sam Gribley and Bando for Christmas day in My Side of the Mountain. I followed the fate of the Christmas tree in Hans Christian Andersen's story"The Fir Tree."

I can never think of Little Women without hearing Jo grumble "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents." And even having read that book hundreds of times, I still thrill when during a later Christmas when Laurie  "popped his head in very quietly. He might just as well have turned a somersault and uttered an Indian war whoop, for his face was so full of suppressed excitement and his voice so treacherously joyful that everyone jumped up, though he only said, in a queer, breathless voice, Here's another Christmas present for the March family."

By the time I was in junior high, I'd added the Christmas chapter from Sally Benson's Junior Miss, Abby Deal's Christmas efforts in A Lantern in Her Hand (which introduced me to the writings of Bess Streeter Aldrich, who was no slouch herself when it came to Christmas stories), and the Christmas celebrations woven though the Betsy-Tacy novels of Maude Hart Lovelace. At about the same time, I first read Dylan Thomas's "Conversation About Christmas"and Truman Capote's evocative story, "A Christmas Memory."

Interestingly enough, there are no celebrations of Christmas in any of the Oz books. Santa Claus makes a cameo appearance at Ozma's birthday party in The Road to Oz.

In my children's young years, I added a few more Christmas tales to the list: Jingle Bugs, a marvelous pop-up book by David Carter, Carl's Christmas by Alexandra Day, and, a little later, Beverly Cleary's Ramona and Her Father, in which she plays a sheep in the church pageant.

There are two other books I would be remiss to skip. The first is Gregory Maguire's Matchless, a retelling and reworking of Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl." Told simply and starkly, it contains a favorite line of mine: "The family was still hard-pressed for money, and dreamed of savory treats to eat, but they had the warmth of one another, and enough on which to live, and in most parts of the world that is called plenty."

The second is, of course, my beloved A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I confess: I do not remember reading it as a child, learning my Dickens from the early broadcasts of "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" instead. I have long since made up for my lapse by reading the book some fifty or more times as an adult.

It is the afternoon of Christmas Eve as I finish this. Somewhere Jo is grumbling about the lack of presents, somewhere a lonely boy is searching the sky for a "lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven." Somewhere Ramona is wiggling her bottom to make her tail wag, and somewhere Sam and Bando are trying out Christmas tunes on the willow reed whistles.

Somewhere it is always Christmas.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Muddling Through

Some of you may remember that back at the start of this year, I became a monthly columnist for The Myeloma Beacon, an online myeloma site. I love writing for the Beacon; I have found a community of friends and supporters there.

I am reprinting my December column, which just ran on Monday the 16th. I have another December blog post in the works on an entirely different topic, but after you read this, you will understand when I say I don't yet have the energy to finish it off.

I had to do a lot of driving earlier this month. I had four days of mediation training packaged in two-day blocks with a weekend in between. That took me up to northwest Ohio and back twice in a short period of time. To keep myself company, I turned on the car radio and let it serenade me down the road.
It’s the holiday season and the airwaves are saturated with Christmas music. The sacred songs, the secular songs, and the gimmicky songs play in an ever flowing, unstoppable stream.
One often played holiday song is rarely played in its original form. That’s too bad, because the original version is my Myeloma Holiday Song 2013.
In 1944, Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to a distraught Margaret O’Brien in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis.” One particularly poignant verse goes like this:
Someday soon we all will be together,
If the Fates allow;
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t recognize those lyrics, there’s a reason for that. In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked lyricist Hugh Martin to “jolly up” the line about muddling through. Martin obliged and substituted “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Never mind that the line is a non sequitur to the preceding line. It stuck.
Almost every artist recording “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” since Sinatra sings the revised lyrics. A welcome exception is James Taylor, who resurrected the original lyrics in his version.
I’m glad James Taylor bucked the trend. When he came on the car radio, I turned it up extra loud. James recognizes that sometimes we get to this time of year and the best we can do is muddle through somehow.
I’m muddling through right now, with some extra help from my myeloma.
I saw my oncologist just before Thanksgiving. My lab numbers continue their slow, steady drift in the wrong directions. I’m tired all the time, way beyond “57+ years old tired” or “busy day tired.” And my wedding ring is now several sizes too big, causing my oncologist to speculate there is catabolic muscle loss going on.
What a muddle.
I have a lot of labs scheduled for late December, along with a skeletal survey. I meet my oncologist in mid-January, and we will map out where I go from here. According to my doctor, it is highly likely I will go back into treatment.
I’m definitely muddling right now. Even before my oncologist put his stamp on the situation, I knew my energy levels did not begin to meet my holiday plans. And as we draw deeper into December and I assess the upcoming holidays, I am acutely aware that my energy levels continue to drop like our current temperatures.
That’s a whole other muddle to deal with this month.
So back to my song. I love the original lyrics. I don’t find them bleak. They actually buoy me with the message that I can and will muddle through somehow. Despite the uncertainty of this disease, despite my children and grandchild being impossibly far away, despite my husband’s hectic December performance schedule, despite my huddling on the sofa every night reading because I have no energy to do anything else, I am muddling through.
I plan on having a merry little Christmas, myeloma and all.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Grandma's Tree

Grandma's tree without the lights turned on

I have written before about my Grandma Skatzes and her love of Christmas. This year I heard a story about Grandma that gave me a little more insight into Grandma and Christmas.

One of my vivid Christmas memories is that no matter what the size, the Christmas tree in Grandma's house was always heavily hung with lights, ornaments, and tinsel. For several years in the 60s, her house tree was a small aluminum pom pom tree, so the shininess factor was even greater.

I always thought the brightness factor was because of my grandmother's very dim eyesight. I just assumed Grandma made her tree extra bright so she could see it better.

Maybe so. Maybe not.

My grandmother was born in 1893, long before electric Christmas light were readily available for home use. In those days, the Christmas trees were lit by candles in most homes. Candlelit trees must have been beautiful, but must have posed huge safety hazards as well.

When Grandma was a little girl, probably before the century turned, her family lit their annual tree with candles, just like everyone else. Grandma's mother, my great grandmother Strickler, was deathly afraid of fire. One Christmas, despite her diligence, the tree caught fire.

Great grandmother Strickler was not a very tall woman and she was terrified of fire. All the same, she picked up the burning tree, hurried to the door, and threw it out into the yard.

Great grandmother Strickler saved the house and her family from a fire that day. But she never allowed another Christmas tree, candles or no, in the house.

When my Aunt Ginger told me that story earlier this year, I stopped her. "Grandma never had another Christmas tree all the years she was growing up?"

We looked at each other and both reacted that same way. "So that was why Grandma always had a Christmas tree with every ornament and light she could fit on it."

We probably won't bring a tree into this house until just before Christmas, given Warren's performance schedule this month. We may get it on December 21, which would be fitting as that is Grandma's 120th birthday.

Whenever we get it, I will make sure it is ablaze with lights and shiny ornaments. Grandma would have wanted it that way.