Thursday, December 20, 2012


Carol, 70, and Elizabeth, 36, share their memories of Christmas.

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Christmas Past - Elizabeth, 36

On Christmas Day 2008 I screamed at God and wanted to know why He gave me a son I never planned only to take him away. And I was granted an extension.

It had started out as ordinarily as it could have. I was homesick in Korea far from my Pennsylvania home, surrounded by family that I was learning to love and that was learning to love me. I was preparing Christmas lunch--eggplant parmigiana--and my husband had taken the boys to my sister-in-law's where they could play and I could cook in peace.

AJ didn't look sick. But he had cried for more than half an hour without a break, and my husband was more than happy to hand him over to me. We ate lunch, me with AJ in my arms. Even then, he always wanted to be held, never wanted to be set down. So this was normal and not cause for alarm. After lunch, I laid him down to change his diaper. He felt warm, and I asked Ilsuk to get out the Tylenol, intending to dose him once his little bum was nice and clean. Only seconds later he began to shake. Then he was turning blue. Not blue tinge. Indigo. New Levi's jeans. Everywhere. Ears, lips, hands, feet.

Thinking that he was choking, I turned him upside down and started pounding his back. I screamed for Ilsuk to call 119 (Korean 911-can you believe it?). I ran him outside. We were next to a church. A church full of people, in a small village filled with people by American standards. Surely someone was a doctor, surely someone would help us. I was screaming in my bad Korean. "Help me! My baby is dying!" It wasn't my bad Korean that stopped them because my sister-in-law was also yelling in her good Korean, and my husband was pleading on the phone for the ambulance to come faster.

I do not even remember what all I pleaded with God. I was angry, so angry. Why send a child to take him away? Why Christmas Day? Why was no one coming? 

I couldn’t understand.  I didn’t know how the people of the town felt about me, but I knew they loved my son.  Every morning, my mother-in-law took him with her through the community.  Everyone loved him.  He had his own stray cat that followed him around.  He had a special place in the heart of Mung-mungey Halmoni (Woof! Woof! Grandma), who raises dogs and even let us borrow a puppy for a morning so he could keep playing with it.  Everywhere I took AJ people came out to see him and talk to him.  And even at eighteen months, he spoke back.  In fact, the little sucker hardly ever shuts up.

Finally, my then-silent AJ started to cry. My sister-in-law and I were overjoyed. The ambulance pulled in and AJ was still enormously blue (although there was color starting to come back) and very hot to the touch. They immediately gave him oxygen and attached a pulse ox. We lifted his clothes and began bathing him in cool water squirted onto gauze from water bottles. His pulse ox became dislodged, and the EMT began chest compressions before feeling a pulse. It was a false alarm, but it still shook me to the core.

You do not forget seeing chest compressions on your child.

At the hospital, they determined that he had had a fever seizure due to a bacterial infection.  They gave him IV antibiotics and fever reducers.  They had us strip him to his diaper and instructed us to keep wiping him with a cool wet cloth.  My husband took pictures of our poor little baby in just a diaper with an IV.

AJ and I spent the night in the special pediatric ER observation room at the local university hospital—a small L-shaped room with about eight beds.  About half of the beds were filled and all of us parents eyed one another anxiously.  We were almost afraid to ask what the problem with the other children was for fear of the answer.  We all knew it could just as easily be us.  I cradled AJ in my arms as he slept hooked up to a pulse monitor.  I woke frequently—every time, it turned out, that his pulse changed even ten beats per minute.  It was a horribly long, panicky night.

The next morning, the doctor gave us three more days’ worth of antibiotics and sent us home.  We parents all said goodbye to the other families in the same way: “Nice to meet you.  Don’t come back.”

Climbing into the car carrying AJ, I looked at my husband. 

“Merry Christmas,” he said. 

We both knew that I was holding our present.

Peace Revisited - Carol, 70

This year (2011) I revived my old Christmas tree ornaments.  For a while, I had been using some elaborate decorations from a store in Oakmont, but I got them cheap at a house sale in an upscale housing development.  I thought I would do an upgrade of our normal Christmas decorations, but after several years, I got lonesome for the old homemade and vintage ornaments that I used to hang on our trees.

I was actually pleased to pull an ornament out of the box and think about the memories attached to each one.  They had all been wrapped carefully in pieces of newspaper and placed in their boxes, and there are 3 file-box sized containers of them, so it is quite an undertaking.  It is amazing how many memories are brought to life by these sometimes battered or tacky but always interesting decorations.  A lot of them I made in the 1970s when I needed something to do in the long evenings alone.  I even painted plaid shirts on my Raggedy Andy ornaments, which shows you what kind of evenings I was having.   

I finally got to my three favorites, as always with great anticipation.  Don’t ask me why they are my favorites, because they don’t have any fond memories attached to them, but I always smile when I unwrap them – especially when I see Peace. 

I love Peace most of all.  She is a red velvet bell with that beautiful word embroidered in gold thread, and I have always called her Peace because of that.  Her unnamed sisters are a purple choir girl with an open felt mouth to show she is singing and a pale blue felt angel with white wings kneeling with praying hands.  They appear to be homemade – but not by me. 

As I’m putting them on the tree, I relive the day I got them as a gift, and I can remember Peace flying across the living room.  I find it remarkable that an ornament with that name would have been subjected to her violent introduction to my home.

I received these three sisters from the father of my children.  I never call him by name or by the designation of first husband or any other normal thing that he might be called.  I prefer to neutralize him and disconnect him from me and only hook him into my life by way of the children.  Thus, he is always known as the father of my children, and after this, I will refer to him as “he”. 

He went on a weekend hunting trip.  I don’t remember or may not have ever known what area of the woods or mountains he was visiting.  I was just told it was a hunting trip.  After this marriage ended and I had my rose-colored glasses permanently removed, I realized that his hunting may not always have involved guns or walking in the woods. 

At the time of this hunting season, however, I was still not as aware as I could have been.  However any of this happened, in my world, the weekend hunting trip extended into a 5-day absence with no phone call to inform me of a change of plans.  Needless to say, by the time he returned home sans any deer strapped in the bed of his truck, I was somewhat concerned, mightily overwrought, and I was loaded for bear.  I was now going to go hunting.

As he stepped into the house with some trepidation, I believe I uttered the standard mantra of neglected wives, “Where have you been?”  I no longer remember or care what his answer was, but as he followed me into the living room, and as I turned to ask another question, he tentatively handed me a small bag.  He knew that I loved Christmas ornaments and in this bag were nestled the three decorations that I have already described. 

The contrast of this thoughtful gift combined with his thoughtless absence was more than I could stand.  I had no recourse but to rip the ornaments out of the bag and, without examining them, throw them across the living room.  I believe I even picked Peace up again and threw her a second time.  I now think about my lovely Peace making her first trip through my home.  She didn’t know at the time that she was going to be a much-loved addition to my Christmas holidays, and that certainly did not happen until years after she took up residence.  Now I just find it so delightful that such a beautifully named item should have had such a windswept introduction to her surroundings. 

Ah, I am so glad that I made the decision to return to my old ornaments and leave the stylish but lackluster decorations behind.  I am sure that those upscale ornaments have a much greater monetary value, but they offered no solace to me. When I stood back and looked at this year’s tree, I saw that Peace again was in her place of honor front and center.  She now hangs there as acknowledgement of the peace I have found with her and within myself.   I am thrilled to have each and every ornament back with all the memories they inspire, but as odd as it may seem and for whatever convoluted reasoning, I will always love Peace the most.      

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Pat, 77, and Barb, 60, share their memories of Christmas.

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My Christmas Memories - Barb, 60

As with every kid I know, Christmas is the Absolute BEST Day of the Year! So it was for my sisters and I. We spent a lot of energy everyday from Thanksgiving looking forward to it! We involved ourselves with friends and school activities and, of course, church activities. But the best were those we made at home within our family.

My sister, Kathy, was only 20 months younger than me. My sister, Cheryl, followed nearly six years after her.  Kathy and I were very close and did most things together. The excitement at school rose daily. Everything involved Christmas, from the stories we read to the songs we sang for Music class. The school usually had a Christmas Assembly and a classroom Christmas Party on the last day before Christmas break.  Kathy and I both played the violin and soon started playing Christmas carols in school as well as church.

We had several mutual friends at church and were much closer to them, really, than our school friends. Several families had children our ages. Our entire families became friends. We were involved in so many of the same things and had similar interests. We saw each other every Sunday morning for church and Sunday evening for Youth Group. During the school year, we went to Youth for Christ every month with Mr and Mrs Brenneman and their sons, Brent and Brice. We loved going to the Cupie, a local fast food restaurant, afterwards for hamburgers and chocolate malts. Carolyn and Cynthia joined our group when they moved to the area when I was in Junior High. We all visited each other at our homes on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. In high school, Kathy and I spent a week with them in the Summer while their parents attended a National Church Conference. My parents checked in on us, as well as, Mrs Brenneman and the ‘boys.’ We all remain good friends to this day.

Getting back to Christmas memories. The Sunday School Leaders always planned a Christmas program. We all had a spoken part. As we got older, Kathy and I played carols on our violin. We always ‘poo-pooed’ it, but the Church loved it so we played every year. In our teens, we had enough kids to have a small girls choir. We learned different parts and sang special music as well as for Christmas and other holidays. The program was usually the Sunday evening before Christmas. It was always exciting. As every child walked out of the door, they were given a little box of candy. It was only 6-8 pieces, but they were special: Chocolate covered creams, colorful hard candies, and jellied fruit. One year my parents were chosen to make the little boxes. Mom and Dad were very organized.  They chose special little boxes, scouted the stores for special types and priced the candy. They even added some of their own money so we could get the special chocolates! That year we got TWO mountain shaped chocolate covered vanilla creams, colorful hard tack, big gumdrops, and some other special candy. I remember the kitchen table covered with little white boxes, newly folded, with white paper bags sitting around, the candy spilling out of them. They count the boxes the candy and then counted them again to make sure none got missed. That night I was still awe-struck when I opened my box! I was so proud when I overheard the adults words of praise when they Mom and Dad for their work. I don’t recall that they ever did it again.

Home, school, and church became interconnected. My Mom and Dad both worked full-time so Kathy and I were ‘latch key kids’. We watched out for each other and came home after school by ourselves. Cheryl went to a sitters’ until she got older and would behave for Kathy and I. Our Christmas traditions started when Kathy and I would take Cheryl to see Santa come to town the day after Thanksgiving. This was before Black Friday. We stood in line until Cheryl sat on Santa’s lap. Kathy and I were to keep our ears ‘peeled,’ so we could report to Mom what Cheryl told Santa she wanted.

We really looked forward to Christmas vacation from school. Mom always had a list of jobs for us to do. We did those in the morning and spent the afternoon doing what we liked, reading books and baking cookies for our present to Mom and Dad. They knew what we were doing. We baked them every year. But we went to great lengths to hide all signs of that activity! We cleaned up everything! We ate what we wanted and hid every other cookie in a place we were sure Dad would not find. There wasn’t a crumb to be found anywhere! We had five or six different kinds of cookies in a large suit box that sat on my Dad’s lap while we opened our presents. It was the first gift he opened, and he ate his fill watching us open our gifts. He shared the cookies, but the box never left his lap.

We had such a hard time going to sleep Christmas Eve! Our house was built in 1901. It had two furnaces, one in the kitchen and one in the family room in front of the closet. They were under the floor and covered with a grate. The heat would radiate from there to the rest of the house. We entered the family room from a large front porch with big banisters and a knotty pine ceiling, In addition to the family room, downstairs was the formal living room, kitchen, and bathroom. The steps with their beautiful cherry banister led from the family room turned to the left 3 steps up and met the landing on the second floor that led to 3 bedrooms. Kathy and I slept above the family room where Mom was wrapping presents and Dad wad watching TV before nodding off in his chair. We would listen to them talking in hopes of hearing what we were getting. Mom always whined while complaining that Dad wouldn’t help.

Christmas morning always found the bedrooms freezing cold. We all snuggled deep under the blankets trying to stay warm. We kids woke at about 5 AM. (Mom told me later that she and Dad often stayed up wrapping gifts until 3:00 or 4:00 that morning.) We talked among ourselves until we got the nerve to wake Mom in preparation to get up and open presents. We all needed to use the bathroom, but only one of us was to go into the living room to turn up the heat. We were not supposed to look at the tree or the presents. All 3 of us would traipse down the steps and slow way down taking in everything visible while we paraded past the living room. The Chosen One would step into the living room to reach the thermostat. We only needed a brief glance to turn the dial. We spent several seconds taking in everything around that tree! We congregated in the bathroom whispering about what we saw. Then we went back to bed moving very slowly past the living room door checking out what the others saw. We never went back to sleep and were finally able to go downstairs when we became too loud for Mom and Dad to sleep.

When I was sixteen, my dad bought my mom a top of the line Singer sewing machine as Kathy and I we beginning to sew a lot of our clothing.. It was beautiful! It came with an oak cabinet and stool. I was able to drive to the store and pick up the machine while Mom was at work. Grandpa went with Kathy and me to help load the machine into the car. Cheryl told Mom EVERYTHING! We were lucky, she was still in daycare, so we were able to keep our secret.  We got the gift home and used two rolls of paper to wrap it. We really ‘dolled’ it up with beautiful curled ribbons flowing down the side of the box. The stool did not come in a box so we just sat it in my sister Cheryl’s closet. No one ever used that closet, and the stool would be safe in there until Christmas. Mom always wanted a dishwasher, so that‘s what we told Cheryl we got. It wasn’t long before we heard the word dishwasher spoken around the house. The rest of us just smiled to ourselves. Mom was in that room every chance she had feeling the box, trying to read through the wrapping paper (We wrapped newspaper around the box under the wrapping paper.) and asking every type of question trying to trip us up into telling her a clue. The Sunday afternoon before Christmas, my Mom was trying to find a rarely used garment, and she was asking us if we had seen it around. She finally determined it was in the closet in Cheryl’s room. I was a lazy teenager and deserved the comment my Dad used, that he needed a microscope to see me move.  My Mom was only a few feet from the stairs when I ‘fell’ out of my chair trying to get to the stairs in front of her. To this day, I can’t believe she didn’t realize something was amiss. I never moved that fast, much less volunteering to stop reading my book to go upstairs for someone else.

On Christmas morning that year Mom woke everyone at 5 AM announcing it was time to go downstairs to open gifts. She had already turned up the heat. We were all so tired! Mom led the pack down the stairs.

As she opened the package, she cried, “Where’s my dishwasher?”

In the end, Mom really liked the sewing machine and was pleased that all of us used it so much. She couldn’t believe it that we lied to my sister Cheryl and had kept the secret from her until Christmas. Cheryl never forgave us, even to this day!

Following our extended family tradition, we all took side dishes and desserts to the home of the designated maternal family member for a large turkey dinner and gift exchange. My mom had seven brothers and sisters and we always had upwards of 40 aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws present. A touch footaball game frequently followed in the afternoon. It was an awesome time.  Even though my current family is not in a position to be a part of that extended family, those memories play in mind as I work to make meaningful memories for my children and grandchildren today.

Christmas - Pat, 77

Christmas in our house was always such an exciting time.  The anticipation always began in earnest in November after Thanksgiving. First came a good snow, then choir practice for Christmas mass. It was great when we would come home from school, open the kitchen door, and smell fresh baked cookies.  It was just a teaser because Mom would have hidden them. We could count on Dad to find them.  He would take a sample or two. We, of course, followed suit. Two weeks before Christmas there were hardly enough to lay out for visitors. My sister and I would secretly make gifts for Mom and Dad. Christmas Eve would finally come. We would eat our evening dinner.

In the 1940's we could not eat meat on Christmas Eve, so we always had mac and cheese.  Mom made oyster stew for Dad.  Ugh!!!!!!!  After dinner we would gather around the Christmas tree and open all the personal gifts we made for each other and all the basic things like underwear, socks, etc. Then overnight Santa Clause came with all the things that we really wished for.

One Christmas Eve I remember so well. We were all sitting around our tree when a knock came at the back kitchen door. Dad went out to the kitchen, turned on the back light, and there, standing on the back stoop, were our two parish priests. In the last 6 months, they had backed out of their garage in the back alley, demolishing our metal garbage can. Every weekend,  Dad would have to take a hammer to either the can or its lid. It was at the point of no return. It stood in our alley, looking like a demented lump of metal. The pastor and his assistant had a brand new shiny metal can with a big red bow on the top.We all had a good laugh and Christmas treats.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Very Special Christmas Tree - Nancy, 79

Thanksgiving has come and gone.  With frantic Black Friday a memory and many families beginning preparations for Christmas, I am reminded of Christmases past.  One of my most memorable Christmases was the year we almost didn't have a tree.

In August 1944, my mom had moved my brothers and me to State College, PA.  In 1946, we were living in our third apartment in that town.  We lived on the second and third floors of a house owned by two "maiden lady" sisters.  That house across from the Penn State campus is still standing.  In fact, I was easily able to find it two years ago, when my cousin Janie and I made a side trip to State College.  We had been tracing our roots in Central Pennsylvania where our maternal grandmother had grown up.  I could not be that close without heading for State College.  I still remembered the address—216 East College Avenue, just across the street from the site of Old Main.  The lower level is now a restaurant with apartment buildings on the upper floor.

As we ate lunch, I told Janie about the Christmas we spent in that house.  Mom was working as a waitress at the famous College Diner—home of the well-known sticky buns.  World War II had ended in August 1945, and the college had an influx of new students attending on the GI Bill.  The diner was a hangout for students, and although Mom was always busy, tips were minimal.  (College students didn't have much money!)

I did not realize at the time how tight our family finances were.  What child knows—or even cares—how much (or how little) money parents have?  In September I had told Mom that I thought she should buy me a watch for my birthday since I was now a teenager.  Instead of telling me she couldn't afford a watch, she teasingly told me that I should not have asked her for it.  She didn't actually say, "No, but told me I needed to wait another year.

As Christmas approached, Mom told us we were staying in State College for the holiday instead of traveling back to Wilkinsburg to be with our family.  With the wisdom of age and hindsight, I now believe she probably could not afford the bus fare for the four of us.  She explained we would not have a Christmas tree as we had no lights or decorations.  Dave, Bill and I were disappointed.  It wouldn't be Christmas without a tree.  To this day, I don't remember whether we talked Mom into buying a tree or whether she surprised us with it.  What I do remember is the beauty of that tree when we had finished decorating it.  No lights?  No problem!  We made shiny ornaments to reflect the light in the room.  We cut and pasted paper chains of red and green construction paper, decorating them with sparkly stick-on stars.  Mom came up with some old Christmas greeting cards which we cut into pieces and hung on the tree.  A couple of boxes of icicles, some cotton at the base and fake snow shimmering in the ambient light in the living room, and we were mesmerized by the beauty of that tree.

Perhaps I have embellished my memory of that Christmas, but I still believe that tree was one of the most beautiful ever.  It was certainly one of the most unforgettable trees of my childhood.


Nancy, 79, and Janet, 64, share their memories of Christmas.

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A Gift of Love - Janet, 64

It seems like Christmas memories are almost magical.  The smell of pine and a cooking turkey blend quite well to create an aroma that sends a message to the heart—there really is no place like home for the holidays.

Family traditions and our loved ones gathered together binds us tightly with cords of gold.  Treasured, precious memories bring joy as each year is remembered for its unique celebration.

I have many, many memories that I could write about, but this Christmas in 2012, I am remembering you, Dad.  My hope is that heaven has eyes and ears that will grant you a brief peak from the curtain of our separation.  I would like just a little time for us to remember with each other the only lasting thing here on earth—love.  Love is what we leave behind and love is the only think we can take with us when we return to our Creator.

I remember standing in line at the Post Office that year to buy some stamps when I spotted a wall of gifts for sale.  Since the line was long, I asked the person behind me to save my spot.  I was drawn to one particular item that was so cute it needed a closer look.  I picked it up and when I discovered the surprise it held, I knew it was to be my gift to you.

I have to admit I was a little nervous on how you would receive the gift.  Dad, I know your generation experienced some terrible times.  There was the Depression, WWII, and you have shared with me how you had to quit school to go work in the coal mines.

It was a tough time, and you had to be tougher still to get through the difficult days.  I think somewhere as you developed your spirit of endurance, you decided there were things that showed weakness in a man.  One of them was to express love; therefore you repressed the words and embraces that would say, "I love you."  You were expressing your love by being a devoted, hard-working, and faithful husband and father.  I am so thankful for that.  But, honestly, I missed the words and hugs that disappeared as I left childhood.

Now here you were sitting in my living room at the age of 90 to celebrate Christmas.  Everyone in the family was exchanging and opening gifts.  It was a wonderful chaos of flying paper and ribbons as the smaller children ripped through the wrappings.  However, by now you had macular degeneration and only viewed the night through cloudy eyes.

I placed the gift into your hands, so sad that you could not see the exchange of presents between all of us.  Feeling a little awkwardness, I said, "Dad, every time you think of me I want you to squeeze this and know how I feel."

I watched you unwrap the gift, thinking you would be embarrassed.  Although your eyes saw only a blur of something, you seemed to enjoy feeling the softness of it.  Then when you squeezed the furry stuffed animal, out came a tender, childlike voice saying, "I love you. I love you."

Dad, you did not see my tears when you said, "I love you, too, Janet.  Always have, always will."  That expression of love I longed to hear was my Christmas gift from you.  A tiny stuffed animal opened the way for us to say what has always been on our hearts...that we loved each other.

I miss you, Dad.  I treasure this memory of love between us that will remain in my heart for all the Christmas days ahead.  Merry Christmas with Jesus, Dad.  I love you.  Always have, always will.

Monday, December 17, 2012


JoAnn, 72, and Marlene, 72, share their memories of Christmas.

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Two Days of Christmas - JoAnn, 72

As a child growing up, holiday memories consisted of two diverse Christmas celebrations.  My father was Catholic so we celebrated on December 25th, and my mother was Serbian Orthodox so we celebrated on January 7th.  For the longest time I thought everyone in the neighborhood celebrated two Christmas’s, and as I grew older I found out that was not so.  Back then I didn’t think to ask my friends if they shared the same holiday customs.  I just assumed that on December 25th Santa Claus brought gifts to all the good little girls and boys, and on January 7th the actual holy day, according to the Julian calendar, everyone went to church or visited their grandparent’s house.  Never any presents on January 7th!!  Looking back, I can still feel the excitement of Christmas Eve, December 24th at our house, because Santa would be arriving with gifts for my sister and me on Christmas morning.  Our home was an “open house” filled with a constant flow of neighbors and kids coming and going, eating and drinking all of the goodies my mother had skillfully prepared.  On the other hand, I did not feel that same excitement about January 7th.  There were no presents, just religious rituals spoken in Serbian that I didn’t understand and my Dad was never there.  Not sure why, but he always stayed home.

On January 7th as usual, my mom, sister and I were off to grandfather’s house.  The atmosphere when you entered the kitchen felt ceremonial and somewhat somber.  The table was always covered with hay and a white table cloth on top of that.  It was difficult setting things down on the table because of the uneven surface.  On many occasions I spilled my drink, forgetting about the hay placed beneath the lumpy table cloth.  When asked about the hay, my Mom would say that the hay was there to remind us of Christ’s simple birth in a manger.  There were also floating candles everywhere which I liked.  These were just wicks floating on oil in a small cup which gave the room a soft spiritual glow.  A loaf of sweet bread sat in the middle of the table, and a silver coin was baked inside, which was said to bring luck to the one who finds it.  The bread was torn, not cut, into as many pieces as there are guests.  I never found the coin.

As I grew older, around my early teenage years, the whole idea of two Christmas’s became an embarrassment to me.  I found out that no one else in the neighborhood celebrated two Christmas’s, just us.  This was just too weird.  Then my grandfather died, and so did the January 7th Christmas ritual.  Although a few of my mom’s sisters tried to continue the custom, it just wasn’t the same.  Life wasn’t the same without Grandpa.  From that time on, I was down to one Christmas and all grown up.  That’s when I asked myself, how was I going to pass these wonderful customs down to my children?  Should I put hay under the tablecloth at Christmas?  Perhaps bake a coin into a loaf of bread or buy floating candles.  Lastly and most importantly, I asked myself would their father be part of the Orthodox ritual—he was Catholic.