Last Christmas Present

images-2In August of 1992, my mother was diagnosed with a virulent lung cancer. By early December, it was clear that there wasn’t much time left. I was living in Naples, Italy. My parents were in Austin, Texas. I’d arranged to come home in early January but wanted to send a Christmas present. In this circumstance, what?

I decided to give memories, to write everything I remembered about the house where we lived, happily I recall, from the time I was four until I was nine. Not to put too fine a point on it, this was not yesterday. Memories flooded in so thickly that I decided to do just the living room, beginning to the right of the corner that held our Christmas tree and working around the room until I came to the tree.

Astounding what is in the mind. The rusty brown rug (fortunately a color rarely used now) and all the games we played on it, the castles built, the human pyramids made, the books read, propped on pillows. The bookcases and their holdings, the Encyclopedia Britannica I used for homework, done on the attached table of the Danish modern (my mother’s favorite style) couch which she so often re-upholstered. The hours I spent on that couch (I was sick a lot). Holding my baby brother and sister for the first time on that couch. Having winter gloves and boots put on. The door to the kitchen, the stairs to the bedrooms, the games there. The fireplace and mantle, the objects it held. The Chinese prints of four seasons on the wall and how I dreamed of entering each one. Chairs and ottomans. Who sat there. On and on. In the end, I wrote ten pages, single spaced, with a page for the Christmas tree alone, the pleasures of decorating it and the gifts it sheltered, including a puppy for me when I was nine. The process was slow. I stopped often, overcome by the intensity of memory, sometimes by tears, often by joy and gratitude.

My mother was too weak to read the pages when they came, so my father read them to her. Bonding and strong emotions were difficult for her in later life, a little foreign. “I almost cried,” was all she said. As a daughter and—I admit as a writer—I wish she had overcome the “almost.” Still the process, the meditation, was a gift, certainly to me, to my father, and to her, I hope. She died two days before my flight home. But she had read my memories. She knew how much she’d given me in those precious years of childhood.

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

Posted in Just life

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“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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