At a crucial point in “The Great Gatsby,” Nick turns to Jay and says, “You can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby disagrees, and because of his mistaken belief, he winds up dead in his pool in the next chapter. Thankfully, I’ve been able to learn this lesson in a much less painful way.
My grandmother was in a rehab facility recovering from surgery when I got the call a few years ago that her house was burning and it looked like all was lost. As I drove over, I mentally raced from room to room, hoping to save a few of her treasures: the photo albums, the chair with the cushion that her mother had embroidered, her travel journals.
But none of that could be salvaged, and when Gram died a few months later, I found myself thinking about that house and her things more and more. I remembered how the handle of her favorite pot felt in my hand – smooth and heavy – and could see her knitting bag next to her chair.
As Christmas neared, I searched online to try to duplicate certain items, to have her near me again in a way, and I was so excited to find an exact match for something she always had near her doorway each December: a ridiculous felt elf head with a huge plastic face. When you pulled the string at its chin, it played “Jingle Bells,” and we grandchildren would always vie for the privilege.
I paid an exorbitant price and couldn’t wait for it to arrive. And when it did, it was such a piece of junk. The felt was faded, the string was broken and it didn’t play the happy tune. It just wasn’t the same.
It’s become my metaphor for what happens every time I try so hard to re-create something “perfectly.” It generally becomes one big, expensive, ugly, tacky elf- head of a situation.
But when I focus on the many gifts of the present, instead of obsessively trying to repeat the past, I can only be grateful.
My other grandmother was famous for a dessert she made each Christmas: stack cake. It involves lots of layers, lots of apple butter and lots of brandy. I made it last year after conferring carefully with my aunt, and while it wasn’t the same as Grandma’s, it took me back 25 years to the time I’d last tasted it. Now it will be part of a set of new traditions we’ve cobbled together recently.
We now have our big family shindig on Dec. 23 – what my niece has dubbed Christmas Eve Eve – and after we eat, but before we open presents, we each hold a candle and sing “Silent Night,” my brother reads the familiar verses from Luke, my dad usually says, “God bless us, every one” and we all end up feeling like the richest people in town. It isn’t the same as it used to be, but it’s still a wonderful life.
This year, I’ll be thinking especially of my mom, my two grandmas and my mother-in-law, who just passed away on Dec. 11. Our mailbox is filled with cards: some to wish us sympathy, some to wish us Merry Christmas, all to remind us that we are loved and part of a wonderful community.
May your holidays be filled with fond memories and special times with your favorite people. May you have beautiful moments and not one disappointment. And may the people you miss live again in the joy that you feel as you celebrate.