The best holiday of my life was Thanksgiving Day 1951, and the worst was Christmas Day 1948. I will describe the worst one first, in order to save the best for last.
In 1948, I was in my senior year of nurse’s training and I was very unhappy. My mother had just been diagnosed with the breast cancer that would kill her five years later; I was in a state of blind adoration for a very troubled, hostile but handsome doctor-to-be; and I knew well, after three years of hard work, that I really, really didn’t want to be a nurse.
That Christmas, like the two preceding it, I was assigned to work in the hospital, during the 3-to-11 shift. I had promised a friend that I would go with her on Christmas morning to visit her father, who was a patient in a state mental hospital, an hour’s bus ride from Buffalo.
Although we had worked hard until midnight on Christmas Eve, we got up early, rode the bus to the mental hospital and visited her father. He was deeply depressed, did not respond to her or acknowledge her at all, and would not even look at the little gifts she had brought him. After an hour or so with the almost mute man, my weeping friend and I made our way back to the bus station and to Buffalo.
We had to report for work at 3 p.m. on the dot, and it was now about 1 p.m. After the morning’s activities, we were physically and emotionally drained, and we were hungry. Very hungry. On Christmas Day, none of the little restaurants in our hospital’s neighborhood were open. Finally we went from saloon to saloon and located one that had some sandwiches available. As we sat swallowing the stale pieces of bread, the jukebox suddenly burst into life and we heard Nat King Cole singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” By the time he got to “Merry Christmas to you,” we were both in tears of self-pity, of loneliness and of the despair so often felt by young people when they anticipate and yet fear the future.
And now for the best holiday. Only three years, but many major life events, later, it was Thanksgiving Day 1951. I had graduated from nurse’s training, and had finally found a specialty I liked. I had married the hostile doctor–to-be and then learned what real misery was for the 17 months the marriage lasted before it was mercifully annulled. The day the annulment papers arrived, in July 1951, I met and soon fell in love with the kindest man I have ever known.
On Thanksgiving Eve that year, he gave me his mother’s engagement ring, making me a part of his family from that moment on. As usual, I had to go to work on Thanksgiving Day. While I was happily showing my engagement ring to my patients and co-workers, he had the dubious pleasure of staying home with my mother, who had come to share the holiday with us. After a full day of future mother-in-law/son-in-law conversations, my mother told me, “Honey, he seems very nice, but he’s always going to be a college boy.”
And she was right. Sixty years later, full of academic honors, admired and respected for his research, writing and professional work, he is still absorbed in writing and research.
So that was the worst of times and the best of times, in a life that was so much more fortunate than the life of anyone who was directly involved in the carnage of the 20th century. How important our own little lives are to us.