Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Christmas Babe in My Family

The Christmas Babe in My Family
Nearly every family has a Christmas baby, the baby born in December. It might be your grandfather. It might be your aunt. It might be your brother. It might be your second cousin twice removed. It might be you, a child whose annual birthday is nearly forgotten in the bustle of celebration surrounding the birth of the Original Christmas Babe. I have several friends who were born in December. They all say the same thing. “With all the fuss about Christmas, I might as well not even have a birthday. My birthday present and my Christmas gift seem always to be lumped together.”

In my family, the story of our Christmas Babe is a different story. She was born the first day of December, six years ago, in Yokosuka, Japan, where my daughter Dee Dee’s husband, Chris, a Navy man, was stationed. Antoinette Jean Marie Robart, was an early bird. She was born in trauma, not breathing, diagnosed with a brain bleed, and a concern of cerebral palsy. The Navy doctors rushed her to the neo-natal intensive care unit at the nearby Japanese hospital. There Toni spent her first weeks. Although she was still in danger, the doctors released her, figuring she had a better chance of recovery at home with her mother. Dee Dee, who had spent every moment at the hospital with little Antoinette, was physically, mentally and emotionally depleted. She needed help.

Fortunately I had planned to be there for the birth and had my airline ticket. I arrived in Tokyo late on the night of Christmas Day. I expected Chris to be the one to pick me up. Instead, the whole family arrived to meet me. Antoinette, swaddled in a pink blanket, nestled snugly in her mother’s arms only as long as it took for me to dislodge her into mine. That fragile little girl immediately stole my heart.
We rode the Navy bus back to the base where they lived in a high-rise apartment overlooking Yokosuka Bay. I had arrived with no agenda for the next month but to help whenever and however I could. Being there with my daughter and her family was my best Christmas present.

What do babies do? Babies cry. But the doctors had ordered that this little baby, who was in constant pain, was to be kept from crying. Crying could induce bleeding. We needed to avoid that at all costs. We took turns walking the floor with the little mite in our arms. Chris, when he did not have duty, could induce her to sleep against his chest. We were jealous that Chris had that magic touch. Jessica, just entering the terrible teens and gone a lot, took her turn when she could be corralled. I was the newly arrived helper. We took turns spelling Dee Dee, who though still exhausted, bore the brunt of baby duty. We sang to Toni, lullabies and love songs and rock and roll. We told her stories. We watched soap operas in Japanese and made up the plots, laughing as we inserted our own dialogue. Sometimes we quietly watched the twinkle of the Christmas tree lights.

Every day it was touch and go. Once, in a moment of insight, my daughter said to me, “Mom, I feel like she is trying to make up her mind whether she wants to stay or not.” I could only nod my head that I understood. We constantly told our baby that we wanted her and loved her.

The Japanese health care system is phenomenal. Every other week the hospital sent a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and other health care personnel to the apartment to work with our little baby. When I had been with them three weeks, it seemed that Toni had turned a corner. She seemed stronger. She slept more. She seemed to be in less pain.

By the time I had to leave Yokosuka for home, we could coax the occasional smile from Toni. Dee Dee was still exhausted. I knew it would be months before she got to have proper rest.

Thanks to the constant care and therapy, both in Japan and Stateside, today Toni is healthy and happy. As a precaution, she is periodically checked for any symptoms of cerebral palsy. Toni has one speed and that is full ahead. She runs to meet life fearlessly.

Our family will always have two big December birthday celebrations, one for our special little girl on December first and the other for The Special Little Boy on the twenty fifth.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
December 22, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

‘Tis the Season: The Magi, the Santa and the Jaguar

‘Tis the Season: The Magi, the Santa and the Jaguar
One night last week I risked the icy streets and walked downtown for the Harlem Christmas Stroll. The Harlem Civic Association sponsors this delightful annual event enjoyed by the entire community. It was a perfect night, neither too cold nor too windy. Harlem streets, stores and homes were festive with decorations. Chestnuts roasted over an open fire. A gentleman from out Chinook way had brought in a matched team of horses and a hay wagon and treated the children to rides around town. What most delighted me were the kids dressed up as Christmas presents. Businesses held open house. Several places served food. Over at the library a book sale was in progress. Many people had come garbed in costume. A group of children enacted a live nativity scene. And Santa held court at KB’s Deli.

Santa was the reason I walked downtown. Lately I have been yearning for a special gift. There is scant money in my “car jar” (a line item in my budget). So I reasoned that Santa might bring my heart’s desire and leave it parked in my driveway. I stood back in the corner and waited until there was a break in the line of youngsters who, perched on Santa’s knee, tried to pry loose his beard or eyebrows, yanked his cap, giggled, cried, wet their pants and otherwise created mayhem. They were darling. A young woman took pictures of the little ones with Santa. Everybody beamed.

When my turn finally came, I scooted close and whispered, “Santa, I want a Jaguar. Bring me a yellow Jaguar.”

“A what?”

“You know, the car, a Jaguar. It is the car of my dreams. I want a yellow one.”

Santa held his fingers about two and a half inches apart, raised his right eyebrow, and asked, “Do you mean . . .”

“No, Santa,” I interrupted. “Not a Matchbox toy. I want the car, the real thing.”

Santa shrugged. A wild look came into his eyes. He frantically gestured for another baby to hoist on his knee, a distraction to rescue him from the predicament in which I had placed him. A young mother with a toddler stepped forward and placed her little boy in Santa’s clutches. I slunk out the door.

I am back to plunking spare change into my “car jar”. Many long years ago I learned that if I want a gift of impeccable taste, a gift of unparalleled beauty, I will have to buy it for myself. I cannot rely on someone else to give it to me. Then whatever gift I do receive is a bonus, a surprise. I am not disappointed if I receive an electric skillet instead of an agate ring, because the agate ring already decorates my hand. I bought it myself, just the one I wanted.

Listen closely, you Wise Men, muddling over what to get the special woman in your life. Seldom do I give advice, but since I am on the subject of gifts, I cannot help myself. I give you two rules. Don’t buy an item for her because it is something you want for yourself. Never will I forget the Christmas I received camping gear of the meal preparation variety. I don’t camp. But he did. And, secondly, don’t buy it because she will find useful. In other words, not the electric skillet, the new set of steak knives or the tire chains.

A good rule of thumb is, the more impractical, the better. One can hardly go wrong with gold (in any form), frankincense (translate that into a rare and wondrous perfume) or myrrh (although it might be rather hard to find around these parts and she’d probably rather you bought her cashmere).

Flowers are a great gift for any day. Always choose cut flowers over a potted plant. She might say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have. These blooms won’t last any time at all.” But you know that the center of her heart of hearts just melted into a puddle because you, possibly the stingiest man on earth, would buy for her, the one you love, a gift of such fragile beauty.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep dreaming of my yellow Jaguar. For my own practical present under the tree, I bought myself four pairs of woolen boot socks. And for my impractical gift, the gift to warm my heart, the gift of exquisite taste and unparalleled beauty, I robbed my “car jar” and splurged on an airline ticket to Mazatlan, Mexico.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
December 15, 2011

The Christmas When It Was More Blessed to Receive

The Christmas When It Was More Blessed to Receive
The year was 1980. I was recently divorced. I had been through a few rough years. I sold everything I owned and moved myself and my children from Chicago back to Harlem to make a fresh start. Ben was two, Esther four and Dee thirteen. I rented a tiny house in town, furnished it with items scoured from friends’ basements, attics and barns. A one pound Folgers can propped one corner of the broad-armed mohair sofa. Dee and I each slept on lumpy rollaway beds. The babies had bunks. A friend sold me, for fifty dollars, a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville, the size of an ocean liner, which I quickly dubbed the “Queen Mary”. Of all the things I have let go in my life, I wish I still had that sofa and the Queen Mary.

For Christmas I had just enough money to buy one special gift for each child and a turkey for our dinner. I wrapped the gifts and hid them in my closet high on the shelf. I would not start work at my new job in Chinook until after the holidays. We would have to do without a tree, I figured. Our lights and ornaments were among the things we sold so we could move back to Montana.

On Christmas Eve we went to church. When we returned home, a huge tree was propped against the front door. We eased it inside. I borrowed a stand from the neighbors and we set the tree in front of the living room window. The pungent evergreen smell permeated the house. Dee had begun popping corn to string when we heard a knock on the door. On the steps stood Blue Bear, her arms piled high with boxes of lights and ornaments. “I bought all new Christmas decorations this year,” she said. “I thought you might be able to use these.”

I thanked her profusely and explained that without her gifts, popcorn was the only thing we had to put on this beautiful tree that some anonymous person had generously given us. I told her that I had been unable to buy Christmas decorations this year because my new job would not start until January. The kids and I hung bulbs, icicles, strings of lights and popcorn on our new tree. I still have ornaments that Blue gave me that long-ago night.

Later that evening I opened the back door to check the turkey thawing on the porch and walked smack into the branches of another tree. This is too bizarre, I thought. I dragged the second tree into the house. We hacked off the branches with an old butcher knife I found in the basement, decorated each room with pine boughs and formed a wreath for the front door.

Christmas morning our gifts were piled under the tree. Santa had left for Ben, the baby, a set of giant Lego blocks and a plastic tool set, for Esther, a play kitchen just her size and for Dee, a longed for radio/cassette player. My friend Gail had mailed each of us an entire outfit of clothing, including shoes and coats for the children. She explained that when her mother was struggling to raise five children alone, a friend had done the same for her.

While the turkey roasted in the oven, Esther made “dinner” with her play kitchen. Dee and I prepared the rest of the Christmas feast while we listened to music on her boom box. I looked around to see what Ben was up to. He had quietly crawled beneath the Formica table and, with the plastic screwdriver from his tool kit, removed every screw from the legs. It is a wonder the heavy table top did not fall and squash him flatter than a bug.

Dee and I had just finished screwing the legs back on the table when we heard a knock on the door. It was Blue Bear once more. She balanced a tall stack of clothing in her arms. “You said you are starting your new job soon so I wondered if you could use some clothes for work. These are just some old things I don’t wear anymore.” When I invited her for dinner she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t stay. My family is coming over.” And off she went. Later, when I looked through the clothing she had brought me, I saw that everything was in perfect condition.

When my children and I sat down to eat turkey and all the trimmings that Christmas Day, we bowed our heads in full gratitude for the gifts we had received. Our festive little home was truly blessed. I never did find out who gave us the two Christmas trees. Must have been Santa. I suspect he had too much eggnog that night and came around twice.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
Dec. 8, 2011

Holiday Traditions—We Create Our Family Culture

Holiday Traditions—We Create Our Family Culture
My father, who dreaded Christmas, was happy to turn all the Christmas chores over to me, his elder daughter. I was a motherless girl. We lived far from the possible help of cousins, aunts and uncles. The first time Dad took me to the store to buy Christmas presents, I was seven years old. I had to choose gifts for everybody, including myself. So much for Santa.

I was in charge of everything. Decorating the tree meant I perched precariously atop a ladder. I placed the ornaments and layered on tinsel until the tree shimmered with silver. I was a little tyrant. I insisted that each strand be pulled out of its cardboard holder one by one and placed evenly over the branches. If I had to do the job it was going to be done my way, the right way. I stayed up late nights struggling with gift wrap, tape and curly ribbon. I kept the list and wrote a personal note in each Christmas card and addressed the envelopes. For days my fingers were smudged with ink.

As time goes by we change our family patterns. We move. Children marry. Babies are born. People die. The good news is that we replace old ways with new practices, some of which stick year after year, becoming tradition. Like me, my children also spent their holidays far from extended family. Unlike me, my kids never had to shop for their own presents. In an unspoken family agreement, we keep the myth of Santa alive. Ask them. To this day they will tell you, “Of course, Santa lives at the North Pole with his elves, busily making toys in his workshop. He’ll be coming down the chimney Christmas Eve. He’ll want his glass of milk and plate of cookies.”

Our family Christmas trees have not always been traditional. Sure, we decorated the usual cedar, pine or fir; then one year a naked Alder branch, and another year, a gigantic tumbleweed. In search of the perfect tree, we tromped through the woods, ax in hand, or drove to the Christmas tree farm. Other years we picked trees from the Boy Scout lot on the corner. All were glorious. Perfect, no. I lost my need for perfection somewhere along the way. Each child decorated the branches he or she could reach in a rather random way, tossing on handfuls of tinsel. The bottom of the tree was every bit as wonderful as Mom’s precise branches at the top. One lean year, our tree was a construction paper cutout my son had made in Head Start. For decorations he had pasted on confetti-like bits. I treasured that tree. After my son was married, I gave it to him. He still has that faded tree, and in the tradition we began years ago, tapes it to his refrigerator door every Christmas season.

Once my children were grown and on their own, I enjoyed dipping into our family past at our holiday celebrations. I gathered my adult kids around me and read to them their favorite childhood nursery rhymes from Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child”. I have made sure my grandchildren have their own copies of these treasured books.

Even when I could, I never heaped gifts beneath our tree. But each child always had a gift Santa had left on his midnight run through the heavens, usually a much-desired toy. And a gift or two from Mom, always including clothing and some item I had made myself. The paper and ribbon were never perfectly done. Today my children are as apt as I am to wrap gifts in newsprint or brown paper bags decorated with crayons.

Our most memorable Christmas, the time I chose the very best gifts, was the year I sorted through my boxes of photographs and divided them into piles for each of my children, now adults with partners. I purchased albums and photo file boxes for each, put all this into larger boxes, wrapped them and placed them beneath the tree. When assembled for breakfast, I read those old favorite stories. Then we opened our presents. My kids spent the entire rest of the day sharing their photos. “Remember the day this was taken?” And “Oh, I’d forgotten about that.” Or “Look at the expression on my face.” Each picture triggered recollections. They especially loved their baby pictures, which gave me a chance to tell them about times they were too young to remember.

We are now scattered to different parts of the country. But I know each of my children carry on those family traditions that they loved most, blend these with the customs generated from their spouses’ families, and create their new customs along the way, continually building a living family culture.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
December 1, 2011