Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas Photographs

This year I broke a 30 year-old tradition that I've always cherished. I didn't send out Christmas cards. It wasn't a conscious decision, but rather a slow slide away from a ritual that I had attended to all of my adult life.

The problem is that for the last half a dozen years or so we have included a family photo in each Christmas card. Distant family members looked forward to seeing how much our little family had grown. I looked forward to the annual ritual of squeezing the six of us into a single frame. As long as I could do that, my family was safe and intact. At times, it's been a lot like herding cats, and yet somehow, somewhere, we've always managed to get the perfect family photo. Even after our eldest son joined the army we found a moment at some point during the year when we were all together and had a group picture taken.

Until this year. Christmas leave brought our son home to us on December 16th. I had already made up my mind I would make getting a picture a priority as soon as he arrived. The cards would go out late, I told myself, but at least we would have that one brief shining moment when everything that I hold dear ~ our family, our dog, our home ~ was held together like a precious jewel in my hand. But even as I tried to hold it, the jewel was changing, flowing through my fingers, as life flows from one generation to the next.

Earlier this year my mother-in-law passed away. The job of organizing her huge collection of family photographs fell to my husband. For the last several months Brian has lovingly sorted through a hundred years worth of photos, each one capturing a moment of a much simpler time ~ distant cousins on a sleigh ride, a Sunday picnic at the church, the old barns that have long since disappeared, a pet goose being chased around the yard.

The process is a slow and painful one. There are times when remembering what is lost, what has gone before, becomes too overwhelming. And yet there is joy in the task. Each tiny black and white image is a link to our past, culminating in the vibrant living color of my family.

Someone much smarter than I once said that time is what keeps everything from happening all at once. It helps us separate the days of our lives into manageable chunks and gets us through the toughest of times. We sort the good days from the bad, happy moments from the sad ones, joy from pain.

Toward the end of her life, my mother-in-law would often sit near the bay window in our kitchen and look out over the fields that she played in as a child. Her memories would flood in around her, sweeping her backwards in time to a place of endless sunshine. Her legs, no longer crippled with arthritis and age, would carry her across the apple orchard and into the valley below where she would dance among the flowers, full of energy, her whole life lying ahead of her like a bright shiny ribbon.

Charles Dickens wrote, "Remembrance, like a candle, burns brightest at Christmas time." Perhaps this is why I have given up on the idea of taking a family photo this year. Our lives are already such a rich tapestry of so many seasons past, so much love and remembrance, that the light from that candle is almost too brilliant to look at, let alone hold. Instead I will hold my family, both near and far, as close as I can to my heart, and I will celebrate the bittersweet joy of loving.

May the love of family, the joy of remembrance and the promise of hope for the future fill your heart and home this holiday season. To borrow from Dickens once again, "God bless us, everyone."


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