I was emptying the dishwasher, one of the most mundane of household tasks, when I came across a bowl. Nothing fancy. A plain glass bowl for a dinner salad, or morning cereal. As I returned it to its shelf I counted its set. Five, five glass bowls. Not six, or four, but five bowls nestled in the cupboard. Oh yes, I thought to myself, I had purchased them years ago after we had moved my mother-in-law to our Wisconsin community from New Jersey. I knew she would be often having dinner with us and I wanted enough bowls for us all. So, five bowls.
There was an envelope on the kitchen table with the rest of the mail when I came home from work one evening this past fall. I recognized the name on the return address immediately, the husband of a good friend and college roommate, who had died a couple of years earlier. As soon as I picked up the envelope I knew what it contained. Photographs.
It’s Christmastime again. And I can’t help thinking about these two things and the people they remind me of. They are both gifts of a sort. Inadvertently placed in my hands and challenging me to see their worth.
My friend Barb was many things. Really smart, very short (shorter even than me) and a prolific picture taker. Armed with her Kodak camera she was famous in our college circle for taking pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Later we would learn she would catalogue the pictures into albums with copiously hand written captions of who, what when and where in her famous ,fine, (nun instructed, she always added) small print. She created huge photo albums of our college years that sat on her desk. The first time I visited her in her hometown, I saw she had even more albums. Her family life and high school years all recorded in color, and a sprinkle of black and white.
So, I knew what was in that envelope that day. Inside were more than a dozen pictures of Barb and I through our college years and the early years of my marriage. Lifted carefully from her albums, along with a note “I thought you would enjoy these.” from her husband. And I thought about what those pictures meant and about what I learned from Barb.
Likewise that plain glass bowl reminds me of my mother-in-law and what I learned from her. She was different from me in many ways. In other words she was quiet, very quiet. In the early years of my marriage I was certain that she did not know me well enough to dislike me, certain and sad that our relationship would always be distant. But after a few years, two grandchildren she adored, and many salads we found our friendship. Her quiet acceptance of her immersion into our midwestern cold winters, big golden retrievers, and our family life taught me to try quiet and steady as attributes. And while I still would never be described as quiet, I know how to use that muscle. A gift indeed.
And what did I learn from smiling for the camera in all of Barb’s photographs? Well simply to smile. And really anyone who knew Barb would tell you that was one her strongest dearest qualities. She was a smiler. She chose to be happy every day that I knew her.
Back in the day before selfies and cameras in phones, Barb was an unintentional historian, to our lives and friendships. And unlike most people she arranged and curated her pictures rather than boxing and forgetting them. People and memories, were to be cherished and remembered, in Barb’s world. So that is what she did.
My husband and I recently made our annual trip to Chicago to view the Great Tree in the Walnut Room. It’s the old venerable restaurant on the seventh floor, in what used to be the flagship State Street store of what used to be, Marshall Fields. Lately absorbed by Macy’s, and now no longer with an eight floor viewing site, the tree was beautiful but the shrinking of its home was sad. Despite this, we enjoyed the tree and made the predictable comments on changing times and old traditions changing or disappearing.
Christmas marks many things including the end of one year and the passage of time. Gift giving has long been a part of the holiday but sometimes Christmas gives us a chance to ponder the gifts not wrapped in colorful paper and bows. Rather it gives us an opportunity to look back and see the gifts we received from those no longer with us that we may not have recognized when received. The Christmas song Happy Happy Christmas sums it up,
I hear them singing outside my door..
But I know you’d want me to sing in the snow
Live well and let go
Happy, Happy Christmas
Love the ones who love you too,
They say time flies, baby it’s true so
Happy, happy Christmas to you
I’m just say’n.