Merry Christmas

To Sandy, From Henry: A Christmas Story

Great-grandma Tangen, surrounded by her great-grandchildren, around 1955

About his paintings, Norman Rockwell said, “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be.”

I grew up in Norman Rockwell’s small town America, where celebrating Christmas was wonderful and beautiful. This is a Christmas story, but its lessons could come from any holiday in any place or time.

My family on Christmas Eve after having opened our one present per child, 1959.

By Christmas Eve in my northern Minnesota childhood, the pile of presents under the tree had grown beyond the tree’s circumference.  In the late afternoon, we would have a light meal, to tide us over until later.  After that meal, we six kids were allowed to pick out one present each to open. With that done, Mom and Dad would pack us into the car for the drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house where all the aunts, uncles, and cousins would meet up.  Grandpa and Grandma had 36 grandchildren so the house was well filled by the time we all arrived. Our family lived the farthest away so we usually arrived last.

Once there, we’d eat the real evening meal.

Waiting for Santa, 1960

In no time, the suspense grew nearly as high as the pile of presents under Grandpa and Grandma’s tree. But we had to wait until Santa arrived to hand out the presents.  Santa was usually Uncle Marvin, dressed in a remarkably awful Santa suit that didn’t fool any of us.  We made a game of seeing who would first notice Marvin was no longer in the room.  His absence meant Santa would arrive soon.  Once Santa arrived, there was great jostling to see whose present would be passed out first.

Once the presents were opened, we spent an appropriate amount of time playing with the toys before we all headed home late in the evening.

At home, my brothers, sister, and I got to open the rest of the presents under the tree.  In the morning, there would be more presents, this time from Santa.  That was our ritual, our celebration of Christmas as a nuclear and extended family.

Waiting for Santa, 1958. This Christmas we celebrated in our basement and Mom arranged for a neighbor to be Santa, so we wouldn’t know when he was coming. Uncle Marvin is at the extreme left of the photo.

But when I turned 12, the routine changed slightly.  Grandpa and Grandma started spending the winters in Arizona.  With Grandpa and Grandma no longer in town for Christmas, Mom and her siblings rotated hosting the family on Christmas Eve.  That’s how we ended up one year for a special Christmas at Uncle Marvin’s house.

Uncle Marvin lived on the farm that had been home for Mom and her siblings while they grew up.  That house held more memories for their generation than the house in town that we cousins thought of as Grandma’s.  So it was appropriate that a special gift was waiting there that year.

When my family arrived at Uncle Marvin’s house, nearly all the cousins who were old enough to walk and talk ran out to our car with one question–“Who is Henry?”  And they were all asking me that question.  I had no idea what they were talking about.

They nearly dragged me into the house and up to the tree to point to the envelope laying on one of the boughs.  “To Sandy, from Henry” was written on the envelope. I had NO IDEA who Henry was.

For the first time ever, there wasn’t any competition about which present should be handed out first.  Everyone wanted to know what was in the envelope from Henry.  When Santa handed me the envelope, every eye followed his hand.  I opened the envelope; I pulled out a heart-shaped locket on a chain.  And nothing else.  I still didn’t know who Henry was.

Mom and Dad
Aunt LaVerne and Uncle Carlton

Then I heard my mother laugh.  She turned and pointed at her younger sister, LaVerne, and explained to those few who didn’t already know that Henry had been her boyfriend before she met my father.  Henry had given her the locket for Christmas.  When Mom met Dad, she gave the locket to LaVerne.  LaVerne kept it until Mom’s oldest daughter–that’s me–turned 13 when LaVerne decided it was time for the locket to be passed on–from Henry, to Sandy.

When I got married, I gave the locket to my sister, Joan.  And I never gave it another thought. I assumed Joan still had it.

That is until Joan and I found it in my mother’s jewelry box after Mom died.  As Joan and I stared at it in the box, we gasped simultaneously and spoke the same words, “We’ve got to pass it on.”

Kathy and her husband, my cousin David

You see, even though Mom married Dad and not Henry, Henry had become part of our family.  Henry’s daughter, Kathy, married Mom’s nephew, David, making Henry my cousin’s father-in-law.  And Dad’s best friend, Norman, had a sister who was Henry’s wife, making Norman Kathy’s uncle.  A few weeks later, when Kathy and David invited Dad and Norman for dinner, the two of them delivered the locket to Kathy, to return it to the family.

LaVerne, Mom, and Henry died within four months of one another.  But every Christmas, they are with me in the story of the envelope labeled, “To Sandy, from Henry.”

“To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.” –Clara Ortega

May all your holidays be blessed with rich family traditions.

Book Review: The Liars’ Club

theliarsclubMary Karr’s The Liars’ Club set a new standard for memoirs when it came out in 1995. In it, Karr tells the story of her well-educated, artistic, alcoholic mother and the uneducated, hard-drinking, doing-the-best-he-can dad her mother married as they struggled with life in east Texas and Colorado.

It isn’t a story of a financial struggle; Karr’s father had a steady job and her mother at one point inherits so much money that buying fur coats for both daughter and herself and then living it up for lunch at a fancy restaurant in a big hotel seems almost commonplace.

It is the story of the complex relationships we humans get entangled in as we look to someone else to make our dreams possible instead of taking responsibility ourselves or adjusting expectations into the realistic range.

The Liars’ Club sets a high bar for wannabe memoir writers. There is a meltdown moment for conflict and drama when her mother’s Nervousness (always capitalized to acknowledge it as a euphemism for a severe mental breakdown) destroys much of their possessions and removes her from the lives of her daughters for many months. But most of the tale is of a slightly unorthodox upbringing of a feisty child and her more traditional older sister. Karr’s father includes the younger in the rituals of his drinking and fishing buddies who make up the liars’ club, exposing her to language and behavior some would consider inappropriate even were she many years older. That Karr addresses everything in her life openly, not hiding behind secrets imposed from outside, provides the charm of the story.

The sisters, the author Mary and Lecia (pronounced Leesa), end up fending for themselves from time to time, proving that children understand more than adults around them assume and make adult decisions when the adults around them behave like children.

I loved Karr’s story. If you enjoy family stories, especially stories involving secrets adults have chosen to hide from their children, you’ll love it, too.

Genre: Biographies and Memoirs
Length: 354 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics; 20th Deluxe ed. edition (November 10, 2015)
Publishing Date: 2015

Book Review: The Glass Castle

Five StarstheglasscastleIn The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells of her unorthodox upbringing by her artist mother and inventor father, during which she and her siblings—older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and younger sister Maureen—survived frequent moves across the country, inconsistent access to school, and long periods of poverty so severe the children had nothing to eat and survived by foraging. Her parents believed children needed to learn to fend for themselves instead of being watched over and protected. In spite of the resulting challenges, the children were identified as gifted in most schools.

Throughout her childhood, Jeannette believed in her father, even when she knew he was lying to her and was willing to take the little money the family had for food in order to buy liquor. She recognized his brilliance at the same time as overlooking his destructive behavior, at least until she and her older sister Lori were able to devise a plan to escape and live on their own. Yet even after all four children had escaped their parents’ influence, Jeannette kept in contact with her parents, accepting that their lives were consistent with their principals even though Jeannette, Lori, and Brian at least, rejected their parents’ free-thinking foundation.

The Glass Castle is a tale of the resilience of children under extreme circumstances, an optimistic story of life moving forward. It is story of love, love by parents of their children and by children of their parents. It is a story of survival against bullying, the effects of poverty and hunger. It could have been a depressing story, but Jeannette’s warmth and humor come through, turning it into a story of redemption and optimism.

Genre: Biographies and Memoirs
Length: 288 pages
Publisher: Scribner
Publishing Date: 2005

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Five StarsathousandsplendidsunsDuring years of occupation by the Soviet Union and inter-tribal warfare in Afghanistan, two Afghan women of different generations and regions and very different socioeconomic situations find marriage to the same older man the immediate solution to stay alive when each loses her parents. But marriage brings its own problems, including brutal beatings by the husband for minor or even just perceived infractions of his rules. When their plan to leave him is discovered, both fear for their lives and realize they must take even more extreme action for the sake of their children.

Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns explores what it means to be a family. By placing the action in the context of thirty years of changing governments, political systems, and international sponsors, the novel also explores what it takes to develop a stable nation where rival tribal leaders undertake serial switches in allegiances in order to gain power.

Hosseini tells the story well, engendering sympathy for both Mariam, the love-child of a wealthy businessman in Heart and his made, as well as for Laila, the youngest child of an educated man in Kabul and his wife. It was well-paced for the most part, though the final section moved more slowly than I expected.

Genre: Literary fiction
Print Length: 379 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (November 25, 2008)
Publication Date: November 25, 2008
Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Book Review: The Accidental Truth

theaccidentaltruthFive StarsLauri Taylor’s story of discovering her mother’s secrets and the secrets surrounding her death is masterfully told. Taylor unveils the distress of her mother’s disappearance and then the discovery that her body has been found in Mexico, bringing the reader with her for the suspenseful ride. The death is ruled suspicious, then a murder. Each step in this journey affects Taylor, her husband, their children, her sisters, and especially her nephew and mother’s business partner. The story serves as a gripping reminder that families come in many sizes and shapes and that the connections are important, even when they have been tested to the point of near breaking. It is more than just a tale of what happened to her mother. It is a story of what she learned and how she has put those lessons into practice to help others heal from devastating life choices.

Lauri will be one of three debut memoir writers on a panel at the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild on Monday, March 28, 2016, at 6:30 p.m.