This week I’m pleased to introduce you to Beth Havey as my guest blogger while Thom and I are traveling. Beth is actually a neighbor of mine here in Southern California (about 150 miles away)—but we haven’t met in person—yet! But I do feel like I know her because I have been reading her blog Boomer Highway for several years now. There she writes about many things that I believe are heart-felt and SMART. Thank you, Beth, for filling in for me and sharing some of your ideas about relationships during the holidays.
Ebenezer Scrooge said: “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” That saying is just one of the hundreds of memories in our hearts that help build our traditions during the winter holidays. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukka, Kwanzaa or other traditions associated with the winter solstice or eastern religions, it is a time of year that gathering friends and family together helps create a warm environment of food and friendship. Clearly, such gatherings help us deal with the bleakness of winter. Christmas, like the other holidays, is most often about the people in your life.
For me, Christmas is about family. The music of the Robert Shaw Chorale brings back memories of many family gatherings, as does a music box gift from friends. A copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, decorations made by my children and grandchildren, and every plate, bowl and glass that will be on my table—gifts from my mother, aunts, and grandmother who are no longer living, all share the season with me.
Of course, these cherished people who once filled my life never truly leave. Photos take me back as do specific memories from my childhood: how ever did my mother find the time to do Christmas, when she our only breadwinner? One year she actually sewed a tiny bra for the anatomically correct doll that I had asked for, but that arrived without the proper foundation. If something needed to be assembled: a toy airplane or a pup tent—there was no one else but Mom to make sure things were Santa-ready. And she always came through.
But I also know that for some, this time of year can descend like a gray cloud because of personal memories—maybe parental loss, or the loss of a spouse or child. When my mother had dementia and was living in a senior facility, I had to rethink how to approach Christmas so that I could bear it and she could too. No longer could I start a conversation with: “Do you remember the year the tree fell over…when the cousins got snowed in…when Santa forgot to eat the cookies and Bill cried…?”
Just never forget the love in that relationship is still there for you, vibrantly beating in your heart, but possibly dimmer in that of your parent or relative. Knowing this, I came to some conclusions that helped me communicate my love and also helped my mother get through the days that might have felt like all the others.
First, be patient and engaging with a person who has dementia, smile often and be tender. If I needed to repeat and clarify what I wanted to share with my mom, yet still couldn’t reach her—that was okay, that was part of my gift, one I could certainly offer her after the years she had given to me. I knew that what touched her the most was the gentleness in my voice, the love in my posture as I leaned toward her, and always the smile on my face. Words might not matter, but visual actions of love spoke volumes, created a space of security and calm.
My family and I tried to plan ahead and consider what Mon could tolerate. But it wasn’t always easy. For quite a few years after Mom developed dementia, we would go to a restaurant on Christmas Eve. That worked out very well. We had a quiet room at the back of the restaurant and helped her choose a meal that she could eat. But this yearly event was eventually canceled after my mother became uncomfortable, confused and then truly angry, wanting to leave. None of it was her fault—and I regret we did not handle the situation as well as we could have, attempting to hurry through our dinners and keep her quiet. Even with dementia, my mother would have her say! But that debacle will never erase the memories of all those other beautiful Christmases we shared with her.
My advice to help keep these relationships warm in your heart—do bring gifts! No matter the age or the mental ability of the person you are visiting, gifts are a great idea. Think tactile, something that arouses the senses. Holiday foods and sweets are also a good choice if your loved one’s diet and chewing abilities can tolerate them. Lotions with citrus scents can be comforting. Warm and soft shawls, socks or sweaters are great ideas—because no matter what their health status, older people are nearly always cold.
And remember to comfort yourself with knowing that your acts of love and kindness are appreciated only “in the moment.” You are sealing your love in this relationship IN THE MOMENT. That’s a memory you can cherish because you made a difference in someone else’s life. Sometimes that person will not remember it. But YOU WILL. And if you walk away on a given Christmas feeling bereft because Mom doesn’t remember you or confused you with someone else, she didn’t mean to hurt you. One year our mother accused my younger brother of being in the Navy and forgetting her. My brother was never in the Navy. It can be painful, but forgiveness will get you through.
Finally, don’t forget to gift the caregivers who help you with your loved one. During the holidays, these relationships might be some of the most important you will make. As you journey through days of concern about your mother, father, aunt or uncle—know that when you cannot be there to accentuate the importance of a holiday and to show your love—caregivers will be. They will be there, helping your relative while they are away from their own.
So, even though some holidays are more challenging than others, remembering the people and traditions that have been part of our lives will always make the season brighter. And never, ever forget to celebrate those who are still here to love!
No matter how you celebrate this year, and no matter who you celebrate with, may you treasure those relationships that help make your holiday special.
Okay, your turn. What relationships do you most treasure currently or in the past? Have you found a special way to deal with loss or sadness during the holiday season? Please share these or other thoughts in the comments below.
About: A former teacher of English and a registered nurse, Beth Havey is a writer who infuses the essays she writes on her blog Boomer Highway with the memories her life has given her. Some of those memories also fuel her collection of short stories, A MOTHER’S TIME CAPSULE, available on Amazon. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Better Homes & Gardens and the Des Moines Register. This holiday season she prizes her gifts even more, as the fires in California, though nearby, did not destroy her home, holiday decorations or the writings she was unable to take with her when she evacuated. But life springs anew when blessed with family, friends and good health. She sends a hopeful message that we all experience a “Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday, Be well. Keep reading and growing.”