What’s so great about Christmas?

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Christmas_tree_at_nightBoy, that was fast. One day we’re gathered at sister-in-law Patti’s for Thanksgiving, the next day Tanya and her boyfriend Brandon were setting up our artificial Christmas tree. So we’ll enjoy the fully-decorated tree for most of a month. Actually, more than a month. We don’t take down the tree until after New Year’s Day.

Charles Dickens wouldn’t recognize the way we celebrate Christmas. At our house, we’ve got wooden, painted Santas on the mantle where eight decorated yet still empty stockings hang. Five Santas sit on the piano. Of course, this isn’t the 19th Century. We do things the modern way.

Even before Kroger’s had sold the first turkey for Thanksgiving, the store had decorations and special treats out on the shelves for Christmas. I may be one of the few Americans who doesn’t mind stores and shopping malls getting a jump on the big holiday. Christmas may not be all about money. But it’s partly about money. In fact, holiday spending accounts for a huge chunk of annual spending for most American families.

That’s all right, too. The spending not only means profits for companies and investors. It represents thousands of jobs all over the country. Complain if you will about stores getting a jump start on Christmas shopping even before the Thanksgiving turkey is sold. But celebrate the creation of jobs. It means a great deal for those households that will have money to spend for presents under the tree.

I love our family traditions. After Thanksgiving dinner, we draw names to see what family member we’ll buy a present for. We’ve done this for years. We set a dollar limit so that the exchange isn’t a financial hardship. Nobody has his or her feelings hurt if you decide the sweater you got on Christmas Day isn’t quite your style and you exchange it for a different style.

We host a Christmas Eve dinner for our immediate family. We might attend a service at our Unitarian church in the neighborhood. Some years Christmas Day we celebrate at sister-in-law Vicki’s some 40 miles west of Fort Wayne. This year the gathering will again star Rod and Cassandra’s two small children, Conner and Chloe and Aunt Patti’s 4-year-old granddaughter Mayzi.

Over the holidays, some family members will celebrate the coming of the Christ child and attend a church service. Those who aren’t particularly religious will still join in singing carols. At our house, with a huge hill in the backyard, we’ll help children sled, providing we get a decent snow covering.

When I was growing up in Defiance, Ohio, Dad and I would trudge several blocks north on Jefferson toward the library to a corner lot filled with fresh Christmas trees. Once home with a tree that wasn’t too crooked, we’d bring out the ornaments. Then we’d spend the afternoon decorating the tree. Mom would serve us hot chocolate. Our little family would be ready for Christmas.

If the traditions of the season provide a structure and routines, they also serve as memories that can brighten your spirits any time of the coming year. I have to smile when I recall one gathering of Mom and Dad’s friends at 602 Jefferson. That year an old classmate of Dad’s named Bus Day and I played catch with my new football in the living room. Yes, predictably, we knocked over the Christmas tree.

After so many years, I can still picture both sets of grandparents, pretending to be surprised and pleased at the gifts I had given them, no doubt bought with my allowance and earnings selling Grit newspaper in the neighborhood.

Never mind what somebody else thinks of Christmas, what’s wrong with it, whether we’ve lost the true spirit, whether its origins are pagan. To be sure, the celebration has changed through the centuries. Now it’s our era’s turn. Besides, who really can be confident that the Nativity stories have any historical basis?

In this culture, what hasn’t changed is that we treat it as the most special holiday. It brings families together. It nurtures forgiveness. It promotes sharing. The carols are fun to sing, on or off key. Through the years, Christmas creates precious memories that last long after your favorite toys have broken and your sweaters and jackets have been shipped off to the Goodwill. There’s just a lot that’s so great about Christmas.

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Field of dreams

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2012 Live Arm Champs - Dick's in Foster Park
2012 Live Arm Champs – Dick’s in Foster Park

When I jogged past the Foster Park ball fields yesterday, I guessed it would be too wet for the kids to play today.

Sure enough this morning, one of the Wildcat League coaches was standing on the corner to give the word to the parents driving by. No ball today. I imagine he was letting the mom or dad know that the coaches would have the diamond ready tomorrow, July 4.

I often stop at one of the three fields during my morning run to watch the kids. I love to hear the “batter, batter, batter” chatter from the infield as some tyke with a helmet as big as he is steps to the plate. I marvel at how quickly even kids of eight or nine pick up the routines of America’s pastime. They pound a fist their gloves. They search the sky for the pop ball just past second base as the hitter dashes for first. Are they born just knowing which direction to run or what it means to tap a base-runner with the ball?

In Little League, in the late 1940s, I was the pitcher for the Schatz Motors Little League team in Defiance, Ohio. Larry Pelok was my catcher, who later would go on to be a surgeon in Detroit.

A few years ago, a guy had never met came up to me at the Defiance, Ohio, public library. I was signing the memoir of my years as a journalist for the Fort Wayne, Indiana, paper. This stranger wanted to swap my book for a black-bound volume. The man’s dad had been a Little League organizer when I was a kid. He had compiled newspaper clippings that recorded the stats of each ball game over several years.

I gladly made the swap. And what a treat it was to read the record of my sports career. To my amazement, the record shows, I pitched a few winning games. That easily beat my later career. As a teenager, I pitched for one of the high schools I attended. It was a role noteworthy only for my habit of throwing the ball over the backstop.

When my son John played Little League in Fort Wayne, I was one of the coaches. One year we were assigned to the Pizza King team. Another year it was the Barber Shop team. That bunch of kids went the season undefeated. I imagine John recalls more than I do about those happy summers. But I do look back with pride at being a part of such an important time in his childhood and that of his teammates.

We are a such a country of team sports. In school, we choose up sides to play Red Rover and run relay foot races. When I was in first grade one fall, the neighborhood guys divided into teams for a scrimmage with the football. No helmets, no padding. (That’s how neighbor and best friend Davy Morehouse ended up with a broken collar bone.)

We can learn so much in sports about getting along with others. We learn about playing by the rules or get yelled at when we get caught trying to cheat. When our games are organized such as in Little League or Wildcat, we accept the decisions of the umpire – the judge – even when we think he or she is wrong.

“It was a strike,” we’re just sure. “He was out,” we’ll believe the rest of the week. No, the judge’s decision stands. No wonder that in senior government class studying the federal courts seems so familiar.

This workshop in democracy runs all year. Every American takes his or her turn one time or another at the game. It’s there we can acquire the values of democracy. It’s there we can
look past differences in background, in ethnicity, in race and gender. It’s in sports, organized or not, we learn about winning. And, just as important, we learn about losing.

So these days I find it hard not to stop and watch the kids at the ball fields. A few of them likely will end up playing ball in high school or college. Then there’s that rare player who will turn pro someday. It’s just hard to say what will become of a nine-year-old third baseman.

But every child who plays will be a better person and, I trust, a better American.

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From the obit desk

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My wife Toni knew Helen as “Jo.”

For more than seven years Toni provided respite care on Tuesdays so Jo’s daughter Kathy could shop, visit the library or see friends.

I only met Jo a couple of times. That was in the earlier stages of the Alzheimer’s that claimed her life at 87. Even in those years, it was clear that she suffered a serious loss of memory, the ability to think.

Jo died at home. Toni was there to comfort Kathy during an evening that ended a long and heartbreaking chapter in the life of a good person.

The obituary didn’t give us much of a glimpse of Jo’s life beyond her job and her family. It might have seemed such an ordinary life. Not so.

At the funeral service, Toni spoke up to note that Kathy’s devotion to her mother gave eloquent testimony of the mother. Here the daughter committed a big chunk of her life to caring daily for her mother, a woman so special she aroused such love from her daughter.

I saw such devotion when Toni’s mother also was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. She and her sisters acted as “The Committee” to see that Marge, who developed the disease in her 50s, had the best of care in nursing homes, with regular visits and vocal complaints if those were called for.

Just days after Jo died, an old friend, also in her 80s, passed away. Sally had been one of my first wife’s best friends. Jo had two children. Sally had six. A daughter-in-law is the daughter of my barber of maybe forty years.

Once again, Alzheimer’s enters the picture, not only for Sally, then in the early stages, but also her husband Jack who no longer knows his family. Like the obituary for Jo, Sally’s gave us the minimum of details, listing children, grandchildren and 14 grandchildren. I’m was happy to see the obituary cited her volunteer work as a chaplain at the county jail.

You just about have to be a prominent person to rate a detailed obituary. You might be a local judge, a former mayor, a congressman or, maybe, a minister. Prominent. My mom, like Toni’s, Jo and Sally, battled Alzheimer’s. Mom died at 91. The obituary didn’t tell us about her genius at bridge, her golf, how she ran an office for a judge, for attorneys, for an accounting firm.

We don’t learn of her mischievous sense of humor, her legendary people skills, her empathy for others. We don’t learn of how she took care of Dad at home for three years as he suffered from colon cancer.

I read the obituary section of the paper first every day. Usually I don’t know any of the people whose death is noted there. But I’m curious about people’s lives. So this gentleman loved to fish, although there’s no mention of the 8-pound bass he caught trolling at midnight in a lake north of the city. I mentally fill in what’s missing.

If the deceased is an elderly woman who devoted a part of her long life to making quilts, you probably don’t discover that she had filled two bedrooms with quilt material or that she was devoted to the dog she had trained to do tricks when he was just a puppy. I can imagine such a life.

Once or twice a week, I’ll read an obituary of a young person. The obit doesn’t say he died in the hospital or a car accident. It doesn’t say to send memorial gifts to a foundation that raises money for leukemia or some other disease that might strike the young. Then I think the death might have been by suicide. That conclusion, no more than a guess, can lead me to sad thoughts. Now I’m reading the name of somebody with great personal troubles, likely major depression, with a loss of hope.

Mostly in obituaries, we get a person’s name, age, a list of names of spouse and of family members, maybe his or her job, sometimes a hobby. It’s not much. We deserve more. We all know there’s more.

For that, loved ones, family and friends must depend on the memories the person left. That’s the person’s legacy. The daily obituary column is for the public record and accomplishes little else.

I don’t believe the circumstances of the person’s death is the most important thing. The ravages of disease? An auto accident? A suicide? A murder? A war? That person’s death so often seems so wrong, so unfair. Especially that of a child. Yet everyone has made a mark, touched the lives of others, did some good – often much good. That good can linger for generations.

The sadness we feel at a person’s death speaks to the value we place on every person’s life. That value is profound. Remembering those who have died reminds us to care for those who are living. We’re all so precious.

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