Ruminations at Year’s End

Snow gauge
Copper Snow Gauge at

I had an odd thought yesterday while I was out walking my dog. I’d put on my winter standby coat – a lined wool Winnie the Pooh letterman’s jacket I bought from the Disney Store when I was in NYC in 2001, standing with co-workers on line in Times Square in below-freezing temperatures, hoping to get tickets to The Lion King.

All of a sudden, I realized that I had owned this jacket for 17 years. I had worn it every winter since 2001 and lost six friends and a husband, a house, and two jobs in that time. What a strange thing to think, I said aloud. And yet, like most of my seeming non sequiturs, it has a context.

This year, I had Christmas dinner with a family friend and another guest was a recent widow. This was her first Christmas without her husband of more than 40 years and she was dealing with it better than I think I had. She had still baked Christmas cookies, gone to a cookie decorating party, celebrated the season. I had not celebrated for years. In fact, this 11th year since my husband’s death was the first time I took any real pleasure in Christmas and the first I made more than a half-hearted effort towards enjoying it.

My husband died on December 6th, so that first Christmas was a complete mess. I bothered with no decorations, no Christmas dinner, no gifts, no cards.

This year, my hand-stamped cards were completed in November, addressed, postage affixed, and mailed the first week of December. The effort reminded me of how much time I had spent 20 years ago on finding just the right cards, carefully calligraphing the addresses, writing a humorous holiday letter, and getting everything out on time – an endeavour that my husband’s relatives said only pointed up the fact that their guy had truly become a married man because cards for any reason had never been seen before with his return address on them.

An article I read today spoke to how many widows and widowers had to find new traditions for the holidays. For me, contemplating an old tradition, like Christmas cards, or something new like a watching a different holiday movie, meant using a pain gauge. Did the idea of doing this thing cause me pain and if so, how much?

For quite a few years, my husband’s death alone was the pain gauge. But as other people disappeared from my life for one reason or another, the pain gauge also became about memories and relationships other than having been a wife. Losing friends I had known even longer than I had known my husband became part of the equation.

When I was very young and fascinated with life, I heard that old people sometimes welcomed the idea of dying and I found that mystifying. At 66, I don’t feel old and yet I find I understand that thinking much better. It’s hard to lose those with whom you were close – with whom you shared a particular set of moments in time, events, other people. It’s the same as losing a part of your life – a piece of your soul and history entwined forever is ripped away and it leaves a mark that can’t be erased. When it happens a lot in the space of a few years, it can be overwhelming. The pain gauge pegs in the red and all you can think about is getting away from the pain; part of you shuts down.

This year has been a mixed one for me. I’ve had a couple of blessings and some challenges that have pegged that pain gauge more than a few times. But I also enjoyed Christmas this year and that brightens me in a way I didn’t expect.

For the first time in the 11 years since my husband died, I didn’t mark this December 6th with tears and a sense of loss. I acknowledged the day, but the pain gauge needle didn’t move much. And that’s probably a change I still don’t realize the immensity of. I probably won’t understand it for a few more years as I approach future Christmases.

I expect that in those future holiday times, I will once again pull out my Winnie The Pooh letterman’s jacket against the cold weather. Probably when I do, I will be reminded of those who have left this life since I have owned it. I hope when I recall them, it will be with wistful fondness and the pain gauge will register that feeling appropriately.

What a Day!

line at the post office

“Oh, what a day!” the old lady said with a frown, and clutched her Christmas parcels closer to her wide and generous bosom. She eyed the line stretching from inside the Post Office out through the door and into the lobby of the building and halfway down the aisle of post office boxes.

She edged carefully to the end of the line, avoiding the piles of packages on the tiled floor. “I wonder what everyone is here for?”

“Maybe we all have these,” another woman said to her, waving a long yellow piece of paper. “Maybe we’re all picking up packages.” Several others in the line waved their yellow papers, too.

“I don’t,” the old lady said. “I’m mailing packages.”

“It’s always busy this time of year,” said someone else.

“They only have one clerk at the counter,” said yet another.

“Oh dear,” the old lady said. “What were they thinking?”

“Probably not their fault,” a younger woman, her face nearly obscured by the tower of brown packages she held, said. “I hear they’re cutting funds to the post offices so they don’t run as well, then they can make a case for privatizing them.”

No one replied to that.

“I remember,” said one old man with a Veteran’s cap “when we used to have two postal deliveries a day.”

“Yeah,” another older man said. “Wasn’t Calvin Coolidge president then?”

Everyone laughed.

Someone came in through the door; a middle-aged woman in a Christmas sweater. She looked stunned.

“C’mon in,” another lady with short curly grey hair said. “We’re having a party.”

The woman beside her laughed. “She’s serving refreshments later.”

“Oh no,” the curly-haired woman snorted. “The refreshments will be down the street. Unfortunately, I won’t be there. I have to stay in line.”

There was more laughter.

The newcomer smiled shyly and took her place at the end of the line while a dark-haired man, his arms full of packages, squeezed through the line to walk into the post office and leave his boxes on the counter.

Some of the people looked puzzled.

“He’s already put postage on those,” the man in the Veteran’s cap said. “You can do that from home, now.”

“Really?” asked the old lady.

“Oh sure,” he replied. “Just get yourself a postal scale and print out the postage on your home printer.”

A younger woman near the front of the line was nodding. “That’s right. You can even buy a scale that connects directly to your computer so you only have to type in the address.” She pointed at a display on the wall where a box labeled ‘postage scale with USB plug’ hung.

“I almost bought one,” a slender woman in bib overalls and a flannel shirt said. “But I only do this once a year and I don’t mind waiting in line.”

Several others nodded. No sense in wasting money.

A young professional woman smiled brightly. “I work from home. This is a good opportunity for me to talk with other people.” Many smiled back at her.

“Hey,” a young man with long-hair was reading the local paper and scooting a box ahead of him with the toe of his hiking boots as the line moved. “The newspapers say there’s a big storm coming in late tomorrow night.”

“How big?” someone at the back the line called.

“As much as four to six inches of rain,” the young man replied.

Everyone thought about this.

“Guess we’d all better get our windows closed and keep our batteries handy and make sure our generators work,” the man in the Veteran’s cap said.

Everyone nodded. “Probably be a power outage here in the mountains,” someone said. Everyone nodded again.

The old lady was putting her packages on the counter and answering the postmaster’s questions. “Nice of you to help out,” she told him. Every bit of counter space and nearly every bit of floor space behind the counter was covered in layers of boxes. “You must have a lot of paper work to do.”

The postmaster smiled wryly and admitted that he did.

“Is this kind of a break for you from that?”

The postmaster laughed. “No, just a different kind of paperwork.” He finished processing her packages, handed her two sheets of Christmas stamps and a receipt.

She turned to the others still in line. “Merry Christmas,” she said. “Happy Hanukkah.”

“Merry Christmas!” “Happy Holidays!”

The old lady put the receipt in her bag and walked through the post office door, smiling. “What a day!” she said.