My kitchen window paints pretty pictures when the temperatures drop below zero.(Humor me here, and pretend you don’t notice that what the window is really telling me is that it’s not fully protecting us from the cold and needs replacing.)
The single digit temperatures are the reason that my Sunday morning began so early today. My dad had duties to fulfill as his church’s deacon and was on deck to deliver the homily at both the eight and ten o’clock masses today. He did the five o’clock mass last night too, and Mom attended that mass with him. But it’s not good for her fragile health to go out in this cold unnecessarily, and since Dad can no longer see well enough to drive, I was out the door at 7:00 this morning to pick him up and take him to church for today’s masses.
I didn’t mind playing taxi driver for my dad this morning. It gave me an excuse to get my day rolling early and get things done once I dropped him off. ‘Tis the season and all that, you know? Lots to do. So my mind was already on the time just after I would drop Dad off and could be on my way. But the car ride brought something unexpected. It was a comment about the fact that even for Minnesota, this seems early for such drastic cold. My dad agreed and started reminiscing. I remember years ago, when I was still working at Brown and Bigelow. We had to work Christmas Eve day back then. They didn’t allow us a day off as part of the holiday. We probably got to leave early that day and it had been snowing, one of those snowfalls where the flakes are big and wet. I could just wipe them off the windshield with my glove. It was snowing, but it wasn’t so cold that day.
Nothing earth-shattering in this story. You’d have to know my dad today to appreciate it. See, these days, his thoughts come more slowly. His words take a while to form. It’s painful sometimes to wait for his meaning to make itself clear while I try to be patient and resist hurting his feelings by finishing for him. It occurred to me that I was enjoying Dad’s little story so much because his words just flowed naturally and it brought me back to a time when he was young, when he was strong, when he was the one who took care of us. I wanted him to go on.
And then right after that Christmas, I remember working New Year’s Eve day. And then it was cold! Really cold. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to go out and celebrate the new year on such a cold night, but I suppose people did anyway. And I don’t think they were as strict about drinking and driving back then.
“Probably not,” I agreed peering through the windshield as tiny snowflakes battered against it, trying to read the street signs. I hadn’t wanted to interrupt him, but I was pretty sure I’d missed the turn to his church. I told him so and he took closer notice of our surroundings.
Oh. Yeah. I think that was it there, he pointed over his shoulder at the side street I’d just passed. My eyes aren’t so good anymore.
“That’s okay, Dad,” I said. “It’s still a little dark out and the snow coming down doesn’t help.” I made a u-turn and then turned on the correct street. I pulled into the empty parking lot that would soon fill up with church goers and then walked Dad up the steps and into his church. He clutched the manila folder containing his homily that Mom had printed for him in huge type. I was a little disappointed that our ride had come to an end so soon. But Dad had things to do and so did I. I was on my way back to his house to spend the morning with Mom, putting up Christmas.
Because Dad is so dependent on Mom, there’s rarely a time when I get to spend time just with her. I meant to go to my parents’ house and get right to work, doing a little vacuuming and dusting and then putting up the tree. But Mom was sitting comfy in her chair with Little Bear (the dog) on her lap. We started talking and before I knew it, an hour had gone by. I told Mom that I had probably better get something done before Dad was back home already. I laughed and said I especially wanted to make sure I was done with any vacuuming and mopping, since Dad has a tendency to stand and hang around wherever it is I’m trying to clean.
After I’d run the vacuum around the floors, we went to the basement and Mom pointed out the boxes that needed to be brought upstairs. First, I assembled the artificial Christmas tree in the family room and Mom helped me fan the branches out so it didn’t look so smushy anymore. The Mom sat with Bear in her lap again while I fished ornaments out of the box and decorated the tree. Mom commented on the memory that each ornament held. There’s an entire set of bulbs with hand-painted depictions of local churches on each one. Dad receives one each year in honor of his donation to the Annual Catholic Appeal. Mom said that someday, us kids might want to divide them up. She clearly considers the ornaments to be special, but I hated the implication. Someday, when we’re gone…
The final touch to the Christmas tree is, of course, the Nativity set. Mom showed me where she wanted the stable to sit under the tree, then I took out the box of figurines and began to unwrap them. They’re a motley crew of pretty gold and pewter pieces as well as some old, painted ceramic figures that my dad made sometime years and years ago when he was a kid. The ceramic pieces aren’t the most artistic figures you’ve ever seen, but Mom and Dad have used them for as long as I can remember and their Nativity scene just wouldn’t be the same without them.
“Uh oh, Joseph fell over,” I deadpanned as I picked up the figure that had immediately fallen as soon as I placed him in the stable.
Maybe he’s been drinking already today, Mom joked and we laughed at our own irreverence. Mary, Jesus, the wise men and animals all behaved themselves and stood upright on the first try. The crazy angels with Pepto Bismol pink gowns and aqua blue wings took their place in front and soon the Nativity scene was complete.
I had brought my iPod along and Mom and I had been listening to Christmas tunes. I picked up the docking station and carried it up to the living room. It was time to assemble the ceramic village and Christmas trees in the front window. The biggest ceramic tree has fake plastic light bulbs that have to be placed in their holes one by one. Mom and I continued talking, about I don’t know what, while I tried to make sure that the colors were evenly disbursed on the tree. Then one more Nativity scene needed assembly. This one is a clear acrylic set of figures that stand on top of a lighted base. I wrestled with a small broken piece, trying to figure out where it had come from. I couldn’t tell for the longest time, then finally realized that Joseph’s hand that was supposed to be wrapped around a staff was missing from his wrist. This clearly was not Joseph’s day.
“I’d glue it back on if I could figure out how it’s supposed to connect,” I complained.
Don’t worry, as long as he can stand up, no one will notice he’s missing a hand, Mom said. And she was right. Joseph will have to manage without one hand for this Christmas season.
I’ve always admired this set. It’s very peaceful and pretty. Mom remembered this too. Don’t forget, that set is yours, if you still want it, when I’m done with it.
“Yes, I still want it,” I said. “But not for a while yet.”
The house looked good and festive by now and I had time to take the boxes back to the basement and run a mop around the kitchen before my sister showed up with my dad. I had all the kitchen chairs back in place when they came in through the front door, just in time for Dad to come and stand – not on a rug – and let the snow melt from his shoes all over the clean floor! I laughed inwardly because there had been no doubt in my mind while I was mopping that this is exactly what would happen.
Hun? Mom said. Can you take off your shoes? Terri just mopped the floor.
Oh. Yeah. Dad said, not making to move in the least. But eventually, he did. It was lunchtime by that point and I had Christmas shopping to do so I said my goodbyes. My sister and I walked out to the driveway together and I said, “I had such a good time with Mom this morning.”
“Are you being sarcastic or serious?” She asked. I guess she thought I couldn’t be serious about having fun doing housework and putting Christmas up for a second time this season.
“I’m serious,” I laughed. And as I thought about it, I realized how grateful I was for the simple pleasure of spending time with my parents without rushing, without thinking how much I needed to be somewhere else or about all the things I wasn’t crossing off my own to-do list. This morning was a gift, one of those times I hope that as my parents continue to age and slow down, I will always remember as simple and unexpected and joyful.