I’m pulled over to the side of the road, looking through the sagebrush and tumbleweed expanse of the desert canyon that stretches between my parked vehicle and my childhood backyard. There are four homes between me and the one I grew up in, and I’m straining to see if the yard remains the same as it was 20 years ago when I left it at the age of 15. Two pine trees, planted when I was shorter than my mother’s kitchen counter, have grown wide and tall, making it tough to see if the property looks the way I remember it. I can see a bit of the weathered backboard of the basketball hoop on the end of the concrete slab my dad poured sometime near my tenth birthday. I’m unable, however, to determine whether the original deck is still wrapped around the back of the house, or if the stairs that once connected the upper level of the property to the sunken backyard are still there. Memories of all kinds rush to my consciousness as I study the few details I can see from the driver’s seat of my 12-passenger van a hundred yards away.
I’m quiet for several minutes, trying to sort out the feelings that wash over me. I close my eyes and scenes from my childhood flash through my mind: a handmade swing set in the green grass, my dad’s oversized wood-hauling truck parked at the corner of the property, our family dog chained up to a post and the overturned bed of a disassembled truck that made up his doghouse; my brothers huddled in the dirt on the hillside, burying their large collection of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurines.
One of my sons pipes up from the back seat and snaps my eyes open, ‘So many good memories in that house, right mama?’
I don’t say anything. Tears are threatening to spill over.
I want to say, ‘Yes, there were many good memories,’ because truly there were, but what I feel most sharply is the wave of grief that hits me over everything I lost in that home.
He says it again like a declaration, unaware of the still-tender tear in my soul. ‘So many good memories in that house.’
I finally say, ‘Yes, son. There were many wonderful memories there.’ I emphatically turn the key, start the engine, and leave it behind once more.
In winter, we sometimes fielded two feet of snow. With giddy excitement, my two brothers and I traipsed out in our snow gear. We fell back into the blissful powder without a care in the world, moving our arms and legs to wear the shape of an angel into the snow. On more than one occasion, we crafted our own bobsled track down the stairs that led from the house on the canyon’s edge to the sunken backyard in the valley below. We’d scoop and pile snow from the entire yard as high as we could on and around the stairs to strengthen the structure of our run (and to ensure that we didn’t feel the bumps of the stairs under our bums).
I was always quick to lead the way, giving commands to my brothers who were two and six years younger than me.
‘More snow over here! Pack it down! Fill in that thin spot on the stairs!’
However, being the cautious, risk-averse sort, I usually sent one of the boys down the hill first on the green plastic sled my dad had picked up from the local sporting goods store. Guided by the resulting sled marks, we’d pack down and hollow out a track with snow embankments on either side, eager to make this bobsled track bigger and better than last year’s.
Each one of us would take turns carrying out a saucepan full of warm water from the kitchen. I waddled awkwardly from the house to the yard in my red snowsuit coveralls and temporarily shed my puffy fleece-lined gloves for the glorious heat of the pan against my cold, bare hands. I strategically applied the warm water to slick down the inside of our track so we might achieve the fastest possible ride down the hill. The goal was always to score a ride that would send the rider all the way through the two pine trees at the edge of our property, the position of the trunks having just enough space between them that if we aimed right, we would sail through without being hit by the branches, provided we stayed on course. Most of the time, the sled would come to a halt a little short of the goal, but that didn’t stop us from trying to maximize our speed and trajectory to achieve it. We certainly maximized our fun.
We always had a Christmas tree harvested from the woods. It was never from a lot in town and I never saw a dedicated tree farm until I was an adult. There was a sort of magic for me being out in deep, pristine snow, in search of the perfect tree. One year, as my dad and I trampled through the woods on our quest, he taught me about how to avoid accidentally choosing a tree that would be several feet too tall to fit in our house, which is always a risk when you’re harvesting from wide-open spaces. He would stand near the tree, and I’d stand back a ways, evaluating whether or not the tree was more than a foot taller than him. If it was, the tree would prove to be far too tall to fit comfortably in our little home. To this day, I measure our prospective Christmas trees next to my six foot two husband and apply the same wisdom. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve only ever had to trim a few inches from the bottom to get them to fit, if at all.
The chosen trees over the years showed all the perceived imperfections one might expect to see in completely wild-grown specimens, but in my eyes they were perfect, as was my perception of our family.
Every year my dad would wrangle the tree into a metal stand in the most central location of our little house and my mom would string up the multicolored lights we’d been using and reusing for years. We’d open the boxes of mostly homemade ornaments, each with its own story. There were dough angels, sculpted and painted by my mom, a marshmallow snowman on popsicle skis that I made in the third grade (and somehow had never deteriorated), and many other handmade treasures that sparkled more of sentiment than of beauty.
It was simple. Humble. Light on consumerism and heavy on love.
The Broken Pieces
I was about 12 years old the last time I remember feeling this kind of uncomplicated joy during the holidays. The years that followed were a blur of grief and anger, clouded by profound disappointment in the reality that my life and family would never be the same again. My parents divorced, my dad and brothers moved out, and I started a tumultuous decade spent looking for my lost bearings, as well as the fractured pieces of my deeply broken heart.
We haven’t had a Christmas together since.
Sorrow has colored the joy and good times I’ve shared with new faces in new seasons, and I’ve never been able to recapture the same full-and-satisfied feeling of those early, simple years.
Even in my adult life, Christmas is one part joy, one part sorrow. When my kids are lit up with wonder, I momentarily forget the heartaches I’ve held close for many years, and I find myself caught up in their excitement. I grasp for their boundless enthusiasm and try to borrow some for myself, but inevitably, when the house grows quiet after bedtime, the glow of multicolored lights shines from the corner of our living room and illuminates my privately held heartaches, and the tears come.
My soul—full with the life I now live in a home with a faithful husband and six exquisite children—is the same soul that longs for relief from the pain that took root in the past and continues to bear fruit in the present. It is the same soul that throbs with desire for the heaviness of this broken world, and all its sorrows, to be lifted once and for all. I languish in the grief, loneliness, disappointment, and agonizing pain of my broken-down soul—desperately in need of redemption.
I struggle during family-oriented holidays because it seems like these deeper, harder emotions have no place in the story, as if the scene is supposed to be all joy, all the time.
Hardship and Hope
In children’s books, the very first Christmas is illustrated with a warm glow, animals lined up peering into the manger, a bright white cloth swaddling a squeaky clean baby Jesus. There is typically no mention of blood, placenta, sweat, manure, or the tears Mary shed throughout the labor that brought her newborn son earthside. For all the hope the world would find in that one baby, the actual scene was the epitome of humility and hardship. I am strangely comforted by the image of Mary wrung out from giving birth in a barn. It is somehow validating to know that perhaps the most important woman in history also experienced hardship, and maybe everything is not supposed to be perfectly merry and bright.
Maybe Christmas is supposed to be messy and multilayered, heavenly and human, hopeful and hard, all at the same time.
Maybe those tensions are inescapable.
Maybe it is at the intersection of our hope in Jesus and our present sorrow that we most authentically rejoice in the promise of rescue from darkness—with eyes closed and tears falling.
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