Christmas memories
John Norberg, humor columnist s

Lately people have been asking me if I'm ready for Christmas. I don't know how to answer that and I think I know why.

It's because I don't really do anything to get ready for Christmas.

I took the question to someone who would know the answer.

Me: "Are we ready for Christmas?"

Wife: "No and I'm glad you asked. Here's a list of things you need to do."

I should have left well enough alone.

One of the biggest jobs in getting ready for Christmas is buying gifts for everyone on our list.

My wife and I share the Christmas shopping. I shop for her and she shops for everyone else.

I didn't say we shared it equally. I said we shared it.

Amid all the rush and tension of getting ready, Christmas is an incredible time.

My 92-year-old mother is in a memory care, skilled nursing home. She's forgotten many things, although she remembers my sister, brother and I.

And she remembers Christmas. Such is the power of Christmas memories that while today she doesn't recognize that the holidays are upon us, she can still remember when she was a girl growing up in Chicago during the Great Depression with her mama and papa.

Her mama and papa had a mixed marriage. He emigrated from Norway, she was born in Sweden. These were countries that had warred with one another for centuries. But America was a new world, filled with new possibilities. Filled with love, they threw caution to the wind.

Along with her parents, my mother had an older brother, Cliff, and sisters Marie and the youngest, Giggs – which was short for "giggles" a name she used all her life. What a happy name, Giggles. It always makes me giggle.

Mom is the only one left now. She is the caretaker of the memories. And they are fading.

Thirty years ago she spent many long hours at her computer writing the story of her life. She wanted to share her memories with us. It was an incredible gift.

Now, I am reading mom's memories back to her.

On my last visit I read to her about Christmas.

"I'm going to read from your book," I said. "Do you remember Christmas when you were a girl?"

She straightened up in her wheel chair.

Mom: "I remember on Christmas Eve that Papa would take us kids to shop for a tree."

Me: "Why did he wait until the last day?"

Mom: "The closer it was to Christmas the cheaper the trees. Papa was an out of work. We didn't have any money."

I read from her Christmas story.

"Papa would walk around the lot, picking up trees, looking them over carefully. When the salesman told him the price, he would throw the tree down in disgust and we would all run away from him because we were embarrassed. When he finally thought the price was right he would pay the man. And we had a very cheap and very scraggly tree. Then papa would walk around the lot picking up branches that had fallen off other trees and he would carry everything home."

Me: "Did he use the branches to decorate the house?"

Mom: "He didn't decorate the house. Mama did that."

Me: "So I inherited this honestly from him!"

I read on: "When he got the tree home he took out his hand drill. He cranked the drill and put holes in the trunk and stuck in the branches he'd gathered to make the tree look more full. Then we decorated it."

Mom: "It didn't look like much in the tree lot, but it was always beautiful when were done decorating."

I continued reading her story.

"Mama got up at dawn on Christmas Eve to begin preparing super. She and Papa had walked a long distance to a Swedish butcher the day before to buy sylta (head cheese) and lutefisk, which had to be soaked in lye for several days before cooking."

Me: "When we were kids I don't remember you ever serving us lutefisk at Christmas."

Mom: "And unless you like food soaked in lye you should thank me for that."

I went back to her story. "Mama made rice pudding, meatballs, Swedish rye bread and Julekaka (wonderful Christmas bread). She baked kringlers (pastries) and mandel kakors (butter cookies). When supper was well under way she walked to Lustig's Dry Goods Store to shop for us. Our Christmas gifts were always flannel pajamas and underwear."

Me: "That's all you got for Christmas?"

Mom: "There were other things. Cliff was working and he got a little gift, like candy, for each of us. One year I worked for days walking from house to house trying to sell subscriptions to the Chicago Tribune. If I sold four I could get a Shirley Temple doll and I wanted that doll for Giggs. I'll never forget the joy of going to the Tribune Tower to pick up her doll."

As I read and we talked my mother gazed toward me. But I realized she wasn't seeing me. She was seeing her childhood home on Kamerling Avenue. She was seeing the scraggly Christmas tree with extra branches stuck in hand-drilled holes. She was seeing new flannel pajamas and a Shirley Temple doll hiding behind tinsel that hung from low branches of the tree. She was seeing her mama and papa, her brother and sisters. She was remembering.

And she smiled a smile that came from her heart.

As we rush around getting ready for Christmas-- it's important to remember that amid all the toys, electronics, games, and clothes buried beneath mountains of torn wrapping paper, ribbons and bows there are two gifts on Christmas morning that are absolutely priceless.

One of them is Christmas memories.

The other is love.

May the love of family and friends fill your Christmas with memories that will bring joy to your heart for the rest of your life -- whatever trials you might face.

And one more thing as Christmas draws near.

I wish you Julekaka as well.

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