catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 24 :: 2009.12.11 — 2009.12.24


A wonderful life

Rituals are at once burdens and gifts; this is what makes them worth doing, and having, and keeping.

Aleksandra Crapanzano

Last Christmas infused my family’s gathering with the gift of joy and the burden of sadness; young love and the shadow of death hovered over us, prompting me to consider my family’s relationships more intentionally. Looking back at that bittersweet day in light of all that has happened since, I realize that it prepared us for 2009 by showing us that the joy of knowing and being known is fully worth the difficulty that such transparency requires. By coming together each year from whatever situations we are in, we learn from each others’ struggles as well as each others’ stories of grace.

Early last Christmas morning, my brother proposed to his girlfriend. We began the day light-headed from sleep deprivation and joy over the first official extension of the family. Chip is the third of the eight Heidel children, but at age 21, would be the first to marry and pass on this name (I am the second child and couldn’t resist teasing him for “butting in line”). Maybe years from now Chip and Ellen will tell their children about how they married young with hardly anything to call their own, but supremely content because they never wanted to be united with anyone else. I was sorry their children couldn’t see what I could see on that day: the joyful tears in the eyes of the in-laws, the wonder in my widowed grandmother’s eyes, the speechless admiration on my cousin’s face.  My dad’s oldest sister, another guest that day, has cancer. Her broken sentences and red eyes made no secret of the uncertainty we felt about 2009. As we raised our glasses to one newly shared life, we also wept over one that is trying not to wane.

Most of the gifts exchanged between the adult siblings were revivals of gag gifts from their childhood — inside jokes we laughed along with, but couldn’t fully share. I watched my father unwrap an ornament that was his childhood favorite: an angel aiming a slingshot. I imagined him as a little boy crouching by the Christmas tree, choosing a target for his angel (Sue? Or Dianne? Or the dog?), and dreaming up an epic battle in which Chuck and the cheeky angel would triumph over weaponless sisters.

My mom’s family also gave nostalgic (though less violent) gifts steeped in the memories of past family homes and childhood toys. While they unwrapped and exclaimed over each item, I realized that despite preserved photographs and letters, there are many things that I can only pretend to know about the people who handed life to me. Though they are still a tangible presence, they are simultaneously legends, mythical beings. They carry a whole past that is only shadows and tales to me, but that is called to the forefront every Christmas to remind them of who and why they are.

We didn’t know that day as we celebrated together and exchanged gifts that 2009 would bring us not only a wedding, but also a cycling accident that has left my father paralyzed from the waist down. The accident was another event that will shape who we are and will shape the story our children enter. It will give this year’s Christmas gathering a painful contrast to last year’s. But we must come together all the same, because the pain is part of the power that family gatherings have to teach me about identity and generational relationships — things that I can only learn in transparent community. I learn from what has shaped my predecessors, why they are the way they are, what tragic or splendid strands of their lives they have chosen to preserve, and how those choices affect my generation. What strands will my siblings and I hold onto? What tapestry of legends and lessons will we fold around our children before ushering them into their own stories?

Pondering these questions has become an essential part of Christmas for me. The older we get, the more bitter-sweetness our reunion holds, but even that burden of sadness is worth bearing. It all reminds us of who we have come from and who we must help each other to be. It also makes it so much sweeter to meditate on the night long ago on which all Heaven broke loose, ushering forth the One who would ultimately conquer all the powers of evil that blight our story.

This year, Dad may need help cracking open the pistachio nuts that are always in his stocking; the boys will have to untangle the Christmas lights; Dad’s gifts might consist of “warm things” to combat the chills his paralyzed body endures. However, some of our traditions won’t have to change. We will still watch It’s A Wonderful Life like we do every year, and it will make us cry a little more than usual. We will still light the Advent candles and rest in their reminder of the great Light that has shone down into our darkness. Dad will still be able to lift his deep voice in prayer on Christmas morning as he has every year to lead us in adoring the One who has given each of us — with all of our sins, virtues, rituals, beginnings — a place in the story of redemption and the family that is a kingdom.

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