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Christmas is a holiday many people anxiously look forward to for a
variety of reasons.
To many it is a religious holiday to remember the birth of Jesus
Christ. For others it is commercial cacophony froth with retailers’
reality checks. Children look forward to the annual time-out from
school and the prospect of gifts — giving and receiving.
Christmas frankly offers an opportunity for us to observe the best
and worst in all of us.
The holiday season, for many of us, means visiting with family
members from whom we may have been separated throughout the year. It
can be an annual blessing, and/or a curse.
For the Metcalf’s the holiday season traditionally has meant
traveling across the country from California to New England. My family
lives in Rhode Island, and my wife’s family lives in Lexington, Mass.
This year, for only the second time in 19 years, we will be separated
from family by some 3,000 miles.
Previously we have made a lot of cross-country holiday trips. The
annual cross-country Christmas jaunt, and some elements had become
consistent axioms for us. We would routinely fly 6,000 miles by air
(3,000 each way). We would usually log another thousand miles or so
schlepping back and forth between Lexington and North Providence, R.I.,
with usually one special trip to Kennebunkport, Maine, to visit my
brother. Inevitably, and routinely, we would try to make vain futile
efforts to see as many friends and relatives as the limited time
allowed. It has always seemed strange (but a grim reality to be
accepted) that we are expected to go to friends and family
instead of them coming to see us.
One year (during a summer trip) we tried reversing the equation and
we rented a house on Cape Cod and told everyone who wanted to see us to
come and visit. It was a miserable failure. Friends wouldn’t
inconvenience themselves to make the trip, and family that did, itched
and moaned about the inconvenience and are still complaining two years
Occasionally we’d try to slip in a one-day trip to New York City and
the formula was then complete in which, despite our well intended
concerted efforts, expense, time and best intentions, the only thing we
routinely accomplished was to succeed in having someone we love PO’d at
us all the time.
My family is invariably annoyed when we spend time with my wife’s
family. My wife’s family is annoyed when we spend time with my family.
And all those friends and associates who look forward to our annual
pilgrimage are annoyed if or when we don’t get time to visit them.
Despite the inevitable tension, frustration and attendant negative
aspects of this pilgrimage, it has been an event we actually (albeit,
perversely) looked forward to each year.
Upon reflection, part of the anticipation of the holidays is the
classic case of anticipation exceeding realization. Still, even with
all the hustle and bustle, itching and moaning, yin and yang — for me,
all the negative stuff (including icy roads inhabited with lousy
drivers, the crying, coughing baby on the airplanes which virtually
guarantee a new winter cold) is quickly overshadowed by those special
moments that no Hallmark card will ever capture:
- The smile on the face of my 96-year-old grandmother as she
surveyed the dinner table surrounded by her children, grandchildren and
great grandchildren during her last Christmas with us.
- The gleam in my mother’s eye when I catch her proudly staring at
my brother and me — even when supplemented with her 30-year-old refrain
for me to shave off my mustache.
- My dad’s enthusiasm as he recalls a fish I caught with him 40
years ago (as if it were last week), the horse that threw me into the
mud 35 years ago, and the mix of pride and sadness the day I drove out
of our driveway for Fort Benning in 1971.
- My brother’s laugh and his promise to get his godson (my son) a
bigger fish than the one he helped me catch (it was
pounds. Check out
the picture ).
- My wife’s smile that never seems to burn brighter than Christmas morning.
- The overwhelming personification of joy and love seen as my son opens present after present surrounding him in a sea of crumpled wrapping paper and sticky bows.
To me, the holidays are more a tool than an event. A tool which serves to crystallize all those important strong elements of family, which we tend to either take for granted or overlook during the workaday course of our lives.
The holiday tool makes us focus on friend and family, and perhaps (hopefully) allows us to recognize the very good and important things with which God has gifted us. To those of us who live and work distant from our native roots, friends become family. Those of you who have adopted surrogate families are blessed and don’t diminish your biological family but add to it with the love of one time strangers who have become central to your lives.
Regardless of how much scar tissue we have accumulated, or how unfair life may seem at any given moment of crisis — this is the time to reflect, and appreciate the blessings large and small, and to remember (as Garth Brooks sings) that sometimes “God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
Next week we can worry about what our elected officials are doing with our money. Next week we can fret about whether or not our new president will or won’t move in the right direction to cure the republic of the neglect and wounds suffered. For now, however, I just want to bask in the gentle warming glow of family and loved ones. Because, frankly, family is more important than anything any rascal who works for us in a loaned mansion is going to do or not do this week.
Please accept my most sincere and heartfelt best holiday wishes to you and yours. The athletic director at my high school (LaSalle Academy) had a line I often use in toasts. In the words long ago spoken but not forgotten of Brother Anthony, “May the coming year result in your greatest wish becoming your least achievement.”