By Helen Cassidy Page:
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire is all good, but not everybody rocks Christmas. At least not 24/7 like the songs and ads for stuffing piles of gifts under your tree would have you believe.
Speaking of gifts, I read a good book last month. Stay with me here, I’m not unraveling from too much spiked holiday punch. Books are a big deal with me, and they make me think of two people who also loved books: my beloved sister, Rita, and my best friend of sixty-one years, Wendy.
Rita, older by fourteen years, read to me before I could hold a book by myself. She helped me fill out the form for my first library card, and many years later, she proofread the books I ended up writing.
Wendy? Well, she was a prodigious reader, as many as a book a day when she was on a tear—and Wendy was often on a tear about something or other. Especially about a book she loved, or one she didn’t. We’d spend hours on the phone comparing our lists of fave reads.
So when I saw an article on the website Medium.com last month on the five best books of the year, as you can probably imagine, I jumped for it. My reading tastes have changed since Rita introduced me to fairy tales and The Three Little Pigs. Now I seek out western realism, stark drama with a few serial killers thrown in. I’m turned off by sugary romances with happily-ever-after endings and feel-good self-help tomes where everything is a journey. I’m 80 years old. I know how the world works. It’s not a journey. It’s a slog and, please, stop with describing picking out face creams and new colors for spring as a "journey."
So I skipped over the first four books on the list and was about to move on until I saw number five: 29 Gifts by Cami Walker, an account of her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis at 35 and having a spiritual advisor yank her out of her self-pity stew with a challenge of giving 29 gifts in 29 days. The title spoke to me as if through a megaphone.
Though I don’t have a serious illness, I knew in my bones this was the real deal. I’ve had enough experience with giving to know Cami had been given the good goods. I spent the most rewarding five years of my life during the height of the AIDS crisis volunteering for an organization that provided services to that community. All I can say is if you want to find purpose and meaning, give yourself to a cause greater than yourself.
I downloaded the book from the library and began listening to it at the gym as I pedaled my stationary bike. By the second chapter—when Walker described how she began crawling out of her depression by giving gifts of positive actions to others—I’d decided to embark on the same challenge.
I kind of knew what I was after when I volunteered back in the ‘80s. I didn’t have a clear picture of why this challenge appealed to me. I wasn’t ill or facing tragedy, but I didn’t question the call.
My first gifts seemed simple enough. A batch of homemade muffins for a neighbor who always leaves my Sunday paper at my door. An hour of my professional-writing coaching time to a writer who’d hit the wall. A New Yorker right out of my mailbox without reading it went to another neighbor who loves them and does many favors for me. And so it went during November when I ended the first week.
When December rolled around, I began to wake under a dark cloud, which is unusual for me. I picked apart my feelings and realized the holiday blues had hit me because, as you may have guessed from the way I’ve used the past tense in writing about Wendy and Rita, both of them passed away this year. I’ve lost enough loved ones to know that these anniversaries can hit hard. Put that anniversary on top of Christmas, and no chirpy Christmas scene was going to pull me out of my funk.
Let me tell you a little about Wendy and Rita.
My friend and my sister knew each other, of course. Wendy and I were so close that we shared almost everything in life. We went through marriage, motherhood, divorce, the dating marathon again, work-life, aging . . . Celebrations with one another’s families. We loved one another’s children. Wendy was on Rita’s Christmas gift list and sent her a box
of her favorite candy each year. Wendy faithfully wrote to Rita encouraging cards when her husband had his strokes.
Helen & Wendy (1976, 1991, 2003)
So it’s not unusual that I think of these two women this first Christmas without them. One thing they had in common was their love of Christmas trees. Wendy put her tree up early and spoke every year of the joy that she had just sitting and looking at her decorations. My sister had a tree on her deck until April. Together, their enthusiasm for Christmas trees could have kept the tradition going for the next century.
Me? I gave up Christmas trees almost ten years ago when they became too expensive for my limited budget, and I no longer entertained during the holidays.
It occurred to me to break my Christmas tree drought of the last decade and this year decorate a tree to the rafters in honor of Wendy and Rita, who loved them so.
Even though I do my big celebrating with friends and my daughter and her family, maybe I’d invite a friend or two in for some tea or cheer to look at the lights while I explained about my two beloveds and their love of Christmas trees. But I looked at the prices of even three-foot trees and yowza—way out of my fixed-income budget!
Now, though, I had talked myself into a Christmas tree jones. I fantasized about having a tree and imagining these two dear women looking down and seeing a tree again just for them, decorated in their honor. Maybe it’s nonsense that they are hanging around, their spirit I mean. But maybe not.
I write supernatural suspense novels about ghost hunters and witches and spirits. I make up these stories, but how do I know? Maybe they’re true, and Wendy and Rita could peek in my window and see a tribute of my love for them. But alas, it didn’t matter. I had a come-to-Jesus moment with my bank balance. No Christmas tree in my little apartment this year. I’d have to honor Wendy and Rita in my thoughts and my heart.
Meanwhile, I continued to give my gifts each day, mostly giving my time, which I guard zealously. I write for Medium.com, and they recently changed the way they pay their authors, and it hit poets hard. I decided as one of my gifts to read all the poems of a woman I’ve become fond of so that she could earn more from my reading.
Each day I seemed to find some way to give something of value to someone and ended my day with a renewed sense of the good things in life. I began to see what Cami Walker talked about when she said the gifts she gave came back to her two-fold.
Though I had stopped reading the book, I was well on my way to completing the challenge, though not doing well lifting the holiday gloom. And then a few days ago, I left my apartment to run an errand. When I walked out of the elevator, I saw that someone had left a small Christmas tree on the bench in the lobby.
How nice, I thought. The management is going to decorate the building for us. When I returned, the tree was still there. I assumed someone left it for one of the tenants. I entered the lobby later that afternoon, and the tree was there, as well as a member of the janitorial staff. I asked her if she knew anything about the little tree.
“Oh, it’s free if you want it,” she said. “There’s a note on it.”
Sure enough, someone had put a post-it on the back: "Free. Merry Christmas."
Well, there I was with a Christmas story as syrupy as the ones I always hated. I’d taken a journey through a list of books, book lover that I am, and picked a book that was an odd choice for me. I’ve done good things in my life. Why had this one called out to me?
So I began giving gifts, and when my wish for a Christmas tree became so potent I could cut it with a knife, there on my doorstep was a Christmas tree, free for the taking, so that I could have my tribute for the people who wouldn’t be here this year.
And, of course, take it I did.
It’s small, barely three feet. A little lop-sided and will have dried out to the point that its needles will no doubt cover my floor by the 25th of December. Rita, my very fussy sister, would no doubt complain that the wiring for the set of lights I saved after giving all my best decorations to my daughter sticks out. But I know if I push it back to disguise it, the dry branches will break off. But it’s wrapped in a garland of lights and the last of my ornaments, some of which were given to me over the years by Wendy and Rita.
I bow to their expertise in tree-decorating brilliance. If the tree doesn’t measure up to their exacting standards, the miracle of its delivery and love with which it was trimmed has to make up for its awkward beauty.
I’m not sure if my two dears wrought any magic in conjuring up the tree for me or aided in soothing my tender, grief-stricken heart. But when I placed the little tree on the small table in my living room, it was if Wendy and Rita came in behind us and made themselves at home. For I have not had a moment of melancholy since the tree arrived. And my mood lifts even higher each time I turn on the lights.
As I plan my gift for today, day 16 in my challenge of 29 gifts, I thank from the bottom of my heart whoever gave this gift to me.
Helen Cassidy Page is a writer, editor, and life coach in San Francisco. She has 55 titles on Amazon and has Top Writer status on Medium.com. Her work has appeared in the former Gourmet Magazine, Bon Appetit as well as other national publications.