Believe

Believe

By Judy Dykstra Brown

 believe

I don’t know of anyone who loves Christmas as much as my mother did. She could barely wait for Thanksgiving to be over to put up her tree. Those trees were covered with icicles, bubble lights, angel hair and boxes and boxes of ornaments saved and added to over the years: blue or pink plastic birds whose legs fit over the branches so they seemed to be standing on them, a treetop angel with spun white hair and a face cracked and marbled with age, strands of large lights and later dozens of strands of miniature ones, homemade ornaments, glass balls, plastic stars, candy canes—each year the number of ornaments grew. The tree was always fresh and the largest she could find, screwed into the Christmas tree holder that held water to keep the needles from falling off for as long as possible.

Under the tree was always a skirt of white pull-apart Christmas “snow,” a plastic church that lit up inside and presents, presents, presents: handmade gifts from the church bazaar, clothes and toys purchased in Pierre, 60 miles away or ordered from the Montgomery Ward or Sears catalogs. The tree went up the day after Thanksgiving and came down only after the new year had arrived, but the pine needles in the carpet crevasses and its borders along the wall remained like hidden memories to be discovered for months afterwards.

The year my mother died, my sister Patti could not bear to think of putting up a tree or celebrating Christmas. I was far away in Mexico and it was the first year in her life that she hadn’t celebrated Christmas with my mother. I knew she was grieving, but I was deep in my own sadness of the past year. In January, I had a hysterectomy and on the day I returned from the hospital, I learned that my mother had gone into the hospital.

My doctor had forbidden air travel but we considered putting a mattress in the back of the van and having my husband drive me from California to Wyoming, but my sister assured me there was no need. It was nothing serious—just a bout of pneumonia. We’d been there for Christmas less than a month before and we could come again once my mother returned home from the hospital.

But that trip was never to be experienced, for within a week, my mother had passed away. In March, my husband, Bob, flew to Michigan to be with his mother who had gone into the hospital, and after ten days, she, too, passed away. Then in September, two days before we were to drive down to Mexico to move into our new house, Bob discovered he had cancer and lived just three weeks. All-in-all, a sad year that had been moderated by our happiness in looking forward to a new life in Mexico.

A few months after Bob’s death, I went forward into that new life, but my sister was left in the town where she and her husband lived and where my mother had lived for the last six years of her life. Everything around her reminded her of my mother; and with the advent of Christmas, those memories grew more poignant.

The small Wyoming town where my sister lives is two hours south of Billings, Montana, which is her usual shopping town and where she goes to get her hair cut and to see the doctor. A few weeks before Christmas, when a friend asked her to accompany her on a shopping trip there, she agreed. Even though her heart was not in it, as they browsed in a local store, she bought a few items, paid for them with her credit card and carried the bag to the car.

It was not until she got home and unpacked the bag that she found the small package in the bottom of her bag. She unwrapped it, trying to figure out just what it was—nothing, surely, that she had purchased. As she removed the final layer of paper, this is what was revealed:

Where had it come from? How had it gotten into the bag? She had not purchased it. It was not listed on her receipt. Nor had her friend purchased it, so it wasn’t a case of the clerk putting it in the wrong bag. Was it the last Christmas miracle provided by a mother who over the years had so faithfully purchased the new boxes of fragile icicles to hang above wrapped boxes that contained dolls, new Christmas dresses, ice skates, princess phones, bottles of bubble bath or miniature formals for our favorite dolls? Skunk games and paper dolls and books, first watches, necklaces, music boxes and drop-seat pajamas? With no other explanation, my sister could not help but consider that perhaps it was a little message from my mother, urging her not to give up her faith in and enjoyment of Christmas.

It has been fourteen years since my mother died, and my sister has hung the ornament on her tree every Christmas since. It has been a few years since I spent Christmas with her, and I had forgotten this story, but yesterday, when I arrived in Phoenix to spend Christmas and took pictures of her tree, she repeated the story again.

Her tree is miniature in comparison with my mother’s tree, but it is infused with my mother’s love of Christmas and everything it entails—a childlike sense of wonder that, to this very day, my mother encourages us to share. Tonight, as my sister and I fill stockings for each other, her husband, Jim, and the longtime friends who will arrive tomorrow, I’m sure she feels as I do—both of us “good girls” who are minding our mother by remembering to BELIEVE in the magic of Christmas.

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