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Is It Possible To Enjoy Christmas While Grieving? Remember The Little Things

Christmas traditions, childhood memories

Uncle Richard, also affectionately known as Choo Choo

Last week, the team here at Strollerderby asked me what my parenting resolution was for 2011. My top resolution was to be more present when with my family and really enjoy each moment whether we were at a fun event or just home doing homework.

With Christmas just days away, I found myself running from one obligation to another, working, buying, wrapping, and trying to create memories when I realized I was doing something that couldn’t be done.

Can we really create the ultimate Christmas memory for our kids? After all, it’s never the ideal gift, perfectly trimmed tree or plentiful meal that our children will cherish. It’s the people in our lives that we center our memories around and it’s usually the little things that we remember most.

My sister has a traditional Christmas breakfast of freshly baked cinnamon rolls. I don’t have anything special or planned. By the time breakfast rolls around, we are probably three hours deep into opening presents and putting together toys. I’m happy to serve anything that is easiest to make. The bulk of our time is spent getting the actual toys unleashed from their packages because it seems they become more embedded in their original packaging as the years go by.

My childhood Christmas mornings were the same yet different. After a fitful night of trying to get to sleep but desperately attempting to see Santa himself, my sister and I would get up just after dawn and wake up my mother. My Uncle Richard, my mom’s brother, lived with us and that was our family. Uncle Richard would just be getting home from working the night shift at that time. He’d sit at the head of the dining room table to help us open boxes, place batteries, hand out more gifts, and assemble toys. Then when it hit 9am, he’d go back to bed until dinner, but not before our toys were ready to go.

I still have a picture of him sitting there surrounded by a mound of pink Barbie dolls and purple dress-up clothes as I gleamed with excitement in the background.  Growing up with my just my mom (who had to work an awful lot to support us) his presence was a comfort. As a kid, he was always there when I needed him. As I got older, he remained a large part of my life. He was there for every event that was important to me, no matter how big or small. He was at my pre-party prom, college graduation celebration and he gave me away at my wedding.

Later in life, he gave the same attention to my kids. Uncle Richard eventually moved to Queens and would travel to Brooklyn for every one of my kids’ birthdays and special events. A diabetic, he suffered from physical ailments resulting from the disease and often had trouble walking in recent years, but still did what he had to do to get to my house for holidays and celebrations. When my kids were baptized or had a school event, you could find him on the sidelines somewhere, camera in hand, snapping away. Each Christmas he bought them the year’s collectible stuffed animal from Macy’s. So we have a Christmas Kermit, Garfield, Grover, and Snoopy.

Before my oldest daughter could pronounce his name, she called him “Choo Choo” and the name stuck. Choo Choo never married and didn’t have his own kids.

A simple man with simple tastes, his typical day was spent working as a manager for a survey company during his senior years. Weekends consisted of relaxing with a bagel, some coffee, and Law & Order repeats. If it was Sunday morning, you could bet that around 10am, he was on his way to the laundromat where he’d call me to catch up on the week’s news. He’d ask about the kids, how work was going, was I getting that promotion, what should he buy my mother for her birthday … typical conversation.

I was sitting in my Manhattan office one quiet September morning on my way to a meeting when I got the call that Uncle Richard had passed away. It was a sudden heart attack and he likely died in his sleep. I don’t even know how I made it home. The shock and disbelief was huge but the pain was encompassing. After I went through the motions of the funeral, I dove full-force into work to avoid thinking.

My Uncle Richard was not my father but yet he was. He did everything a father would, including treating me and my kids like his own. His absence was engulfing.

A few months after his death, I passed by a house that had the entire collection of Macy’s Christmas stuffed animals displayed in the window and it actually hurt to see them. I hadn’t unpacked them that first year. This will be the third Christmas without him and it does not get easier but I’m learning to live with the loss. Now I’m trying to remember the good stuff rather than block it all out. But holidays are always hard.

It took me a full year until I could bear to hear one of his favorite songs, No More I Love You’s by Annie Lennox. He would blast that song from the top of his speakers and I remember those little things the most. I keep in mind all the childhood Christmas mornings of him assembling toys and telling stories about what happened at work or in the bank or on line at the store. I still feel his presence when I sit in church during an event and imagine him off to the side holding his camera.

It is the odd little memories that affect me at unexpected times. Where did I hear No More I Love You’s for the first time that I didn’t have to turn it off or leave? In the supermarket last Christmas. Where did I hear it again the next time? At the airport when I was nervous about flying. Coincidence, probably, but not to me. Now I find comfort in the memories and the thought that he is still with us in some way.

I hang his favorite cap on the handle to our China closet so when we sit down to dinner, we’ll feel like he’s here. Garfield and his friends from Macy’s are proudly strewn across our living room this year. We will likely talk about Choo Choo over Christmas dinner and it will hurt less. We’ll rehash his favorite stories and imagine what he would think about the world in 2011, and along the way each step of the way, we’ll create new and special memories without ever forgetting the old ones.

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