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Christmas Memories...
by Lisa Velez
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November 27, 28 & 29, 2004/January 2005
By: Lisa Velez

“Christmas Memories”

Today is Saturday, November 27, 2004. As I sit here at my computer under the dim light of my living room and Christmas Tree, two days after Thanksgiving, I’m filled with memories of Christmases recently past and long ago. “In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas” are the words echoing from the stereo at my side, as Johnny Mathis fills my house with holiday cheer and awe. In my mind are my Mom, sister and I as we shop for gifts under the falling snow, holding hands to make sure that we all stay together, like we did when Jenny and I were little.

I remember a Christmas when I was a little child, a few years before my sister was born, around 1978 or so, when in the middle of the night I heard a noise. I quietly crept to the bottom of my bed to sneak a peak out in to the living room to find out what that noise was. There were bars on my bed so I wouldn’t fall off, since the year before I had my last surgery performed on my hips. So, knowing I could crawl real well, that’s what I did. At four years old, as I peered out of my room I saw a figure that to me appeared to be Santa Claus dressed in his red apparel with a white beard flowing beneath his chin, putting gifts under the tree. Could he have been my Daddy, I don’t know, but that sure has always been a favorite Christmas memory of mine from what seems like yesterday, but was years ago; about twenty-six to be exact. I know I’ll never forget that memory. I think of it every Christmas.

There are many Christmases I remember where the snow was almost above my Daddy’s knees as he awoke early before any of us to shovel with my Aunt. Looking at pictures of those times makes me wish for snow like that again sometime. But, even if it never comes, my Mom and Dad have the pictures to prove it existed.

I remember decorating our Christmas tree together, me my Mom, Dad and sister, as we listened to Christmas music in the background, usually sung by Andy Williams, the Beach Boys, Johnny Mathis, The Carpenters, Barry Manilow, or Perry Como, singing to ourselves, not caring who was listening. I remember fancying the shiny, mirror-like colored balls that I searched for in the ornament box, which was actually an old gift box, to hang on the tree. Red, blue, green and even a yellow gold I seem to recall scrambling for to complete my tree art as I hung them. I wonder if my Mom still has those Christmas balls? They were always my favorite.

And who could forget the Christmases where we broke and shared blessed bread and honey with Grandma Z, my Dad’s Mother, upstairs from where we all lived. (My Mom, Dad and Sis still live there.) Grandma would light a candle, turn off the light, and then she’d call out the names of family and friends that we missed but wished were with us, and whisper prayers in their memory. We did this every year. After our prayer vigil, we would all sit down together and enjoy some of Grandma’s special Christmas Eve, homemade perogies that she always topped with buttered breadcrumbs and fried onions; makes my mouth water just thinking about them. I still think of Grandma when I eat perogies, especially because no one will ever live on this earth that could ever cook them as delicious as she did.

And no one will ever forget how my Uncle, Dad and Aunt would argue, fuss or fight as they ate their perogies, usually over the dumbest things. And many times, all the rest of us could do was laugh because there was nothing else we could do, or we’d wind up right in the middle of the storm.

My Mom’s Mother, Grandma Fea, was also another welcomed guest in our home during the holidays. She lived in New York, but would usually come and stay with us for a few days For Christmas. I remember she would always bring my Dad and I our favorite mint, Ande’s Candies®. Well, those didn’t last long, I can assure you.

I remember how Grandma Fea and Daddy didn’t get along too well. Yet, nevertheless we always enjoyed having her around. She would always tell us stories about Grandpa Fea, and many times, shed tears as she remembered days they shared together. She would tell us how much she loved us, and how much Grandpa did as well. He would always call on the phone and sing, “You Light Up My Life,” to me, and that was something Grandma would always reminisce about, even though she didn’t know it was something I needed not to be reminder of. It was a gift to me, given with love from my Grandpa, that’s always stayed with me, and I know will continue to until I die. And then, I’ll share it with the Lord, as I get my chance to sing it back to Grandpa.

It was hard, sometimes getting used to our house smelling like cigarettes, though, as Grandma Fea smoked entirely too much as well as drank beer. And though I hated the nicotine and alcohol she used, I would have risked anything, just to have her there with us, to spend some time and love and laughter, with someone we didn’t get a chance to see every day.

Usually, I would go with Daddy after Christmas to take Grandma Fea home. I liked going with him, but many times didn’t really want to because I knew it would be awhile before I saw her again and it was hard to see her leave. I missed her when I didn’t see her. And every time we greeted each other or parted ways, she always took my hand very, very tightly and hugged me even tighter before she left to go in to her apartment building in Astoria, Queens. I never stopped her from hugging me the way that she did, because I knew how much she loved me, and I wanted to feel it, and let it leave it’s imprint on me, which it has, deep inside. And every time I hug my Mother, I can feel her love shining down upon me, because my Mother loves as she loved. Even though they too had their hard times, my Mother and Grandma, they never stopped loving each other. Mommy was Grandma’s joy; only growing up, Grandma had a hard time showing it. But at the end of her life, in 1997, Grandma made things right with her only daughter, my Mother. And I’m sure that was the greatest gift she ever gave her. Love.

One thing I’ll always remember and see in my mind’s eye about Grandma Fea is how every time we dropped her home, whether it was from her visiting us during Christmas, or when Mom, Jenny and I would bring her home from one of our bus trips to see her, she would always go upstairs to her second floor apartment, open her window, and wave, telling us how much she loved us.

Since Grandma Fea died, I haven’t been able to go with my Mother to see Grandma’s old apartment building. I’ve wanted to, but I know something in me will break down, when I look up at the window where Grandma once sat and blew kisses, waving at us. To me, it will always be Grandma Fea’s window, and she will forever hold a permanent place in my heart. And so will Grandma Z.

Something my family and I always loved at Christmas, is something my Dad, every year, gave us. They were magnificent Christmas memories, as he would take the whole family on rides to see the Christmas lights all decorated on people’s houses and pine trees. Some of those houses were so incredible; they looked like they were adorned in diamonds. Of course my Dad usually got annoyed when we asked him to take us for a ride to see the Christmas lights because he was tired after a long day at work. Still, he should’ve remembered that it was him, in the first place, who started the tradition of Christmas light watching to begin with.

Even in the Winter, we would all go to Applegate Farms, this old place in Montclair, NJ that makes their ice cream fresh, every day. And, after getting our cool treats, we, my Mom, Dad, sister and I, would take a walk around the neighborhood and gaze at the beautiful houses and how each one was decorated with lights and tinsel. We didn’t care that by the time we got our ice cream the sky was totally decorated itself with starlight. My Mom and I would even stop and peek inside some of their windows by squinting our eyes to see what it looked like inside. We only hoped that we didn’t get caught. Not like we were burglars or anything. Besides, we did it from the sidewalk so it was hard to see anyway.

It’s a shame how today, driving down a street, only about three houses, give or take a few, are even decorated to celebrate the holiday at all. It makes me sad, because when I was growing up, it was very rare to see even one house unlit in celebration of the Lord’s birthday. Why have so many lost their joy, I wonder? And why do they not care enough to bother to search and find it again? Life is too short to let the lights out on the joy God wants to bring us, especially around these special times of our lives.

I’ve always loved holiday television shows and movies, as did my entire family. They put me in the spirit of Christmas and gave me the feeling I could soar above the clouds. Such an indescribable feeling I would get when my Dad played one of our favorite Christmas episodes of “Little House On The Prairie,” called, “The Christmas They Never Forgot,” where the whole family, including Laura, Mary, their husbands, and a family friend, Hester-Sue, gets snowed in from an enormous blizzard that dumps it’s furry on Walnut Grove. It always made me cry because each of them sat around the table telling stories of Christmases gone by and what they learned from each one. And at the end, Charles, played by Michael Landon tells his wife, Caroline that he could ask for nothing else, because he was snowed in with a house full of loved ones. It’s one episode that I’ll always hold close to me in my heart and in my video cabinet. I look forward to sharing it with my children, whenever God gives them to me.

Dad would always make my Mom, sister and I laugh when he would play, “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” He would sit on the couch and sing with Magoo, “I’m All Alone In The World.” We’d giggle all the time, and even sometimes we’d just sing right along with him. And then my sister and me would sing the ever so loud, “La, La, La, La, La, La, La,” as the cartooned mouths, some with broken teeth, sang them on the screen. Let’s just say that some things never change.

Other holiday shows we always loved were some of our favorite sitcoms doing their annual Christmas episodes like, “Family Ties,” “Growing Pains,” “Who’s The Boss,” “Full House,” “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,”-(the one with Burl Ives’ voice as the narrative snowman), and many others that at this particular moment I can’t think of. Those shows made us laugh, and brought us together to share in the love of family. It’s a shame that my family rarely sat all in one room, as my Dad was always watching TV. Still, watching those shows together, in one room, laughing and enjoying each other’s company, are times I’ll remember forever. Not to mention the fact that we get to watch those videos, whenever Dad lets us use his VCR that is, to bring back all those holiday memories with episodes of Christmases past and present, because he has every single one, and then some on video cassette. We were always happy that their was a place for us in the house, with all the room those videos took up. My Mom and I always thought that my Dad needed a separate house to keep his books and numerous videos, as he always taped mostly everything on television, and still does. Now when I visit, I’m surprised there’s stillroom for air. But, I digress.

I even remember our dogs, Cooper and Snoopy, our two Springer Spaniels, enjoying every minute of opening their own Christmas gifts all by themselves, using their paws and teeth to complete the task. I wished I could have gotten them on video doing it because when I tell people today that my dogs used to open their own gifts, they look at me like I just imagined it all. That’s okay; I’ve got still photos. And the mind is the best camera there is because the scene can play again, over and over until we’ve had our fill.

I remember visiting the NBC building, Times Square, FAO Schwartz and the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City with my Mom, Dad and Sister during the holidays. We even continued the tradition with my husband, Ramon when I met him and we were just dating. Once, all of us even went to the top of the Empire State Building and overlooked the city, just about a week or two before Christmas; I believe it was about 1992 or 1993. As I look at pictures of that day, I remember how much it feels like only yesterday, and how much those times really meant to me, and how precious they always will be.

One of my sister’s and my favorite holiday traditions was baking cakes and cookies. We especially loved making cakes because after helping Mom mix the ingredients in her silver mixing bowl and we poured it out on to the baking pan, Jenny and I got to lick the remnants of the batter with our fingers or from the spoon we mixed it with. It was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted, or so it seemed at the time. Christmas always makes things seem more wonderful than they really are. It just fills a person up with happiness that words cannot explain. Baking with our Mom is still a favorite pastime; only I don’t get to do it too often anymore since I live with my husband, which of course is an awesome thing in itself. Still, I hope one day to bake with Mom and Jenny again soon. Baked goods always taste better when they’re made with love, like with the hands of a Mother and her girls.

Christmas Eve 2001 I’ll always remember. It was the first Christmas after 9/11, only about two and a half months after the deadly attacks on our country, which included New York City. So, before Ramon and I went to our usual early midnight Christmas party at his sister Maritza’s house, we drove, in the middle of the night to “Ground Zero,” in New York, where the horrible attacks of that sad day in September had knocked down our twin towers that once stood so tall and grand. Ramon and I knew that the street where they used to stand would be blocked off, but we still wanted to go, like so many others and pay our respects.

When Ramon and I got there it was a sad but beautiful sight, to see hundreds and hundreds of candles all lit and a long cloth that so many people had signed with their sympathies and words of hope and love. I signed it for Ramon and myself.

Ramon and I tried to get close enough to the blockade on the street so we could see some of the remains of the twin towers. Only the police officer that was standing there, with tears streaming down his face, couldn’t let us through. But his tears were all we needed to see. They were enough.

We placed a candle next to everybody else’s. As I walked up to see some of the things that everybody had written, I came across some of the “Missing” persons flyers posted around the shrine. I almost started to cry as I stood there, feeling sad for all the others, and enormously blessed that my husband, who but a year earlier had gone for a job interview in one of the towers. I hate to even think about if he would have made it out alive that awful day in September, had he gotten the job. God’s hand surely was upon him.

As we drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, back toward New Jersey, on our way to Maritza’s place, I looked at two of the shiny stickers with photographs of the towers I had placed on my steering wheel in remembrance of those lost on that tragic day. I felt especially sad for the families who’d be spending the day’s festivities without those they loved who had died. I thought of how they’d spend the day crying and trying to hold on and gain composure for their children and the rest of their families. I could only imagine how I would have coped with it all. Not too good, I guarantee.

Many Christmases are good, but yet some are sad, for things can happen that remind us of the blessings that we really have, but have forgotten, the hard way. My prayers will forever go with those families and friends who lost loved ones on September 11th, 2001. May Jesus console their hearts with His never-ending peace and love; the only love that can heal any broken heart and put it back together. May they always know and never forget that they are never alone and that He is holding on to everyone they’ve ever loved and lost. And may they be reminded, especially during the hard times, like the holidays, that they will see those so precious to them that they miss so terribly again in Heaven, where they will be parted no more.

Ramon and I cheered ourselves up a little on our way to Maritza’s, by going on a ride, near her apartment in West Paterson, to see some of the houses decorated in their lit Christmas attire just as my family and I did when I was little, and just as we’ve always done and will do every year because simply put, “old habits die hard,” yet some of them bring one to life, as they do for me, bringing joy to my soul. We even videotaped some of the houses with Christmas music in the background as a little gift for my Mom. We knew my Dad hadn’t been in the mood to take her on her favorite ride, so we brought the houses and joy of Christmas to her heart on video later on that day. Praise God for their creation!

By the time Ramon and I got to Maritza’s apartment that early Christmas morning, we felt better. We felt blessed. We felt alive.

A great Thanksgiving/Christmas season I remember was not too long ago, but only last year, in 2003 when I went to see my sister in Chicago, where she was living as a child counselor. I went to visit her for Thanksgiving break, right around this time, and I’ll never forget it. It was cold and windy so we couldn’t go to the planetarium, but it didn’t matter. My sister Jenny, just like my Mom knew her ways around; my Mom in New York City, and now my sister in Chicago; I was impressed.

Jenny took me all over on what Chicago calls “The Orange Line,” which is almost like the subway in New York, only this train takes you anywhere you want to go, as you watch the skyline go by outside at every turn, whereas in New York, you’re mostly traveling inside a tunnel, which isn’t that much fun when you compare it to this train’s trip to “The Loop,” which in Chicago talk is, “downtown.” The sound of the repetitive loud speaker still echoes in my head as I write this, “An outbound train for the loop, will be arriving shortly.” Oh man, can that drive one crazy, but it does make a pretty funny memory.

I had so much fun riding the Orange Line, I would have been happy just riding that back and forth a few more times, but in a matter of minutes, Jenny and I were arriving at our destination, State Street in Chicago, a main strip where you can go in to all kinds of department stores and shop or just window dream.

State Street sure was beautiful all decorated for Christmas; I couldn’t wait to get to look around.

Jenny’s main destination that she was taking me to was, “Marshall Field’s,” a huge store, almost like a mall in itself, with about four floors of food, music, books, gifts, candy and a huge Christmas tree that went from the bottom floor all the way up to the fourth. I’m not sure if the tree began on the first or the second floor, but either way, it sure was one of the biggest trees I’d ever seen, except for the one in Rockefeller Center, at Times Square in the heart of New York City. I remember liking the Marshall Field’s tree better, because it was all decorated in white and had the most beautiful icy blue lights all over it. It looked like something out of a movie. You know, one of those trees from “It’s A Wonderful Life” or something. It just took my breath away, and I’m sure glad I captured it on video. It still fills me with wonder as I rewind and watch the film over again. It was such a wonderful experience visiting this tower of beauty that I hated to leave it. Time feels like it just goes too fast sometimes.

As we left Marshall Fields’ there were horses and buggies carrying Christmas travelers and tourists around the city in between shopping for loved ones; it was such an amazing sight, I wanted to stay forever and bask in it.

As I recall, Jenny and I looked inside other shops, but not too many more after, since after leaving “Field’s” we had no more shopping energy left in our female bodies. Even though we females love to shop, we too have our limits. It’s power dragging, yet good exercise for the out of shape, like me.

Jenny and I, soon after started realizing that it was beginning to snow. Oh it couldn’t get any more perfect for me, I thought. The snow just gave an extra special touch to our evening. The sun was almost gone behind the clouds and the moon was beginning to glow. It felt like a winter wonderland as the ground began to glisten like crystal beneath our feet.

The snow began to fall harder and harder with each passing minute, yet still we decided to walk to Lake Michigan anyway, which wasn’t that far from where we were. It was so cold and all I had was my winter jacket on but no earmuffs or gloves, so before we started our journey to the lake, Jenny and I stopped in a discount store to purchase some so that I wouldn’t freeze to death on the way. Boy, was I glad I did, and so were my ears and hands as they stayed warm as toast during our walk.

On the way towards Lake Michigan we passed an outside ice skating rink and watched some of the families skate for a while under the falling snow. I took some videos, because not only was it beautiful but it also reminded me of some of the Christmas festivities in New York.

And the Chicago skyline, oh it just took my breath away. The snow was falling rapidly now and touching the tops of the buildings and skyscrapers. It was beginning to look like the remnants of a blizzard or something. My sister and I began to videotape each other doing a weather forecast just to make a joke of it. And every time I watch it I just burst out laughing because I can’t believe that I did it myself.

Soon, Jenny and I got to the lake. It must have been below freezing by then because I felt like my face was frozen stiff. It didn’t matter though, because standing there, in the dark, watching it snow over Lake Michigan, together, as sisters and friends, is a memory that I know I’ll never forget and one I know I’ll always treasure.

So, this afternoon, before Ramon left to DJ he took our six foot Christmas tree out of the basement and placed it’s box in the dining area so we could put it up tomorrow after Church.

Well, when Ramon left, My Mom, my sister and myself decided to surprise him by putting up and beginning to decorate the tree and some of the house. Jenny put green, shiny garland on the light post outside, while my Mom hung the remaining garland outside of our bedroom door. Jenny and I also hung the Christmas lights together on the tree, as I played a song on the computer that we always listened do during these special times growing up, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” by Andy Williams. It sure felt like old times, only we were making new memories.

Even though I couldn’t find most of my Christmas ornaments for the tree, it was still I time I will always remember as we three girls together tried to find anything we could to make my husband’s and my tree become unique and one of a kind and a joy to decorate. Mom hung two little old candy canes from last year on the tree, and I placed some angels that I received for my 30th birthday this year beneath it.

All in all, our Christmas tree began to resemble Charlie Brown’s, only ours had a little more fullness and life to it. But we tried our best and I know that my husband will love it just because we did it to surprise and make him happy after a long night’s work.

One of the saddest things about the Christmas season for me, I mean besides missing loved ones that are now with the Lord, is when it comes time to take down the tree, the lights, etc. It makes me want to cry, that's why I always hesitate in doing it. My husband surprised me and actually took it down for me this year, January 2005. I'm sure glad I didn't have to do it. However, I am already looking forward to doing it again come November.

I know that there will be many, many more Christmas and holiday memories that my family and I will make this year and in the years to come. Yet, I know I will never forget the ones already made because they’ve shaped who and what I am. Because of those Christmases the child in me remains vividly alive and will never die.

The most important reason that Christmas means so much to me is not the shopping or the receiving of gifts, or the holiday sweets and treats that we receive. The reason is Jesus. For without Him we wouldn’t even have a reason to celebrate. Actually, we wouldn’t have a Christmas at all, and it’s one of the many, many, many things that I’ll thank Him for now and always.

And now, as I look at the lights on my Christmas tree glowing beautifully, I look forward to the holiday ahead, holding on to my memories, keeping them close beside me with every breath. And I look forward to the chances my family and I will get to make new ones last a lifetime.

Happy Birthday, Jesus; You are the reason we rejoice, after all.

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