Tuesday, First Week of Advent

See, the former things have come to pass,
      and new things I now declare;
      before they spring forth,
      I tell you of them.
      Sing to the LORD a new song,
      his praise from the end of the earth!
-- Isaiah 42:9-10

The End is the Beginning

Christmas 1979 was the year everything changed, everyone grew up, and everyone went away…

I was raised in what might have been called a hyper-nuclear family, at least around the holidays.  Normally, any and every kid was welcome at the James house for a game of kick the can or a long day of rehearsing our latest neighborhood variety show.  But at Christmas, my parents closed up shop.  No more bologna sandwiches doled out the sliding glass door or impromptu sleepovers when a friend just didn’t feel like walking home after “Love American Style.”  With no relatives nearby, Christmas was always just the five of us.  From Christmas Eve morning through the day after Christmas, we went to church, then hunkered down, ate good food, played games, read books, and stuffed ourselves with candy.  My only outside contact was an annual phone call to Wendy, my best friend who lived down the street.  At a certain point my brother’s girlfriend – and future wife – was welcomed happily into the fold.

But in 1979 this all came to an abrupt halt.  My sister was studying abroad in Nice, and most likely spending her Christmas Day doing something sophisticated and exotic.  My brother and his wife, by then expecting their first child, had gone to celebrate Christmas with her family in Florida.  So, home after my first semester at college, I was left to fend for myself.  And although I enjoyed my parents, I anticipated this with what was admittedly a small bit of dread.

On Christmas Eve, my mother handed me a package from my brother and told me I had to open it that night.  In the package were letters, about 12 of them, which were to be opened at every hour on Christmas Day to assuage my potential loneliness.  He was never at a loss for words or humor, and his letters were by turn touching and utterly ridiculous, complete with crude drawings of our family, Christmas trees, candy canes, the dogs, Santa, and whatever other random object may have popped into his head.  Oh, and they were all written in crayon.  I dutifully opened them every hour, and took the remaining ones with me when I left the house later that afternoon – perhaps the first time I’d ever left the house on Christmas Day except for long, frozen forays into the yard to construct mammoth snow caves.

That Christmas afternoon, my college boyfriend – coincidentally from the next town over – came to pick me up and take me to his house where I spent most of the rest of the day with his parents, brother and sister, an aunt and uncle, cousins and his beautiful grandmother.  I still remember, as we drove the back way over rolling hills and snow-covered farm fields, being awash with feelings I could not name – an incredible cocktail of joy, sadness, hope, nostalgia, some youthful ardor, and maybe a little twinge of guilt.  At that moment  I – like my brother and sister – saw my childhood home receding in the distance as I wound through the country roads into someone else’s world.

That year was the year I acknowledged with some regret, and maybe a little excitement, that I could not go back.  Somehow until 1979 we had kept it all intact, our nucleus safe from the forces of time.  But when suddenly everything changed, it was okay.  My brother’s letters reminded me that our connection would prevail, even across states and oceans apart, and that we always, always have to embrace change with humor.

It was the end of an era, a time of saying goodbye to traditions, but that day everything seemed new and strange and possible.   I felt like a shepherd following a star I could not yet name, anticipating something mysterious and good.

-- Amy James, Director of Community Outreach