Monday, December 22, 2014

Mother's last Christmas

By Chuck Bauerlein

            Back in February my mother's doctor in Wisconsin told my sister, who lives near her, that Mother's Alzheimer's disease had progressed to a final stage. My mom could no longer chew her food, a sign that the end of her life was approaching.

            I went out to visit with her in July and had several memorable days with her, but it was sadly obvious to see she was fading. She slept half the day and wasn't eating much. It would take me 60 or 70 minutes to feed her a small container of yogurt and some cut fruit. She would wake up and smile once in a while and on one or two occasions, she seemed to  laugh at something I said.

            About a month ago, my sister wrote to us that Mom was losing weight and now sleeping about 18 hours a day. We should prepare ourselves for the news of her passing at any time. There is little reason to doubt next Thursday will be my mother's last Christmas.

            It is impossible to know what this loss will feel like, especially on future Christmas mornings. Her children will wake up on those days and realize Mom has passed and all we have left of her are memories of the many Christmases she made feel so special for so many years.

            We came of age in a large three-story stone house my dad christened "Kidzaplenty Place." Christmas day would start with the smells of a very special breakfast wafting up to the third floor bedrooms. Coffee brewed on the stove and the oven over-flowed with the smells of a Dutch treat my grandmother had passed down to her daughters, saucejzenbroodges.

              These were small pork sausages wrapped in a delicate blanket of flaky baked and glazed flour crust. The crust would melt in our mouths before we could bite the sausage. Mother only made them on Christmas, so these treats seemed magical because they were so rare. When we arrived downstairs, her other baked delicacy already had been placed carefully in the center of the family dining table: a large Dutch stollen (a foot-long Christmas cake crammed with jellied fruits and walnuts, sprinkled with powdered sugar).

            We came down to the kitchen one by one, wiping sleepy dust from our eyes and reaching for coffee mugs. Mother sliced grapefruit using the curved blade of a grapefruit knife, carefully carving each pod of the juicy flesh of a pink grapefruit, flicking the seeds into the kitchen sink. So adept was she with the blade, she could carve six or seven of them in the time it took me to carve one.

      She would send one of my sisters scurrying into the dining room carrying two at a time, placing them with care on small plates at our assigned places at the table.  Breakfast was ready to go by 7:30 a.m. The grapefruit, two large plates of scrambled eggs, coffee or hot chocolate, the sausages and the stollen. A feast fit for royalty.

      After the blessing my father would ask each of the children to say something we were thankful for that year.  With 11 hungry mouths staring at this mountain of exotic food, this last chore seemed like torture. We had no choice but to endure it. When we all complained, my dad pointed out it had been a year since the last such feast, what was 10 more minutes?

      We trotted out the usual tropes. Our thanks tended to be the same year after year: we were thankful for our friends; our pets; the new clothes we wore; the new bike or baseball glove or rag doll we received for our last birthday. Then one of the younger children would thank the Lord for her sister or brother. The table chatter stopped and we watched my mother and father glance knowingly at each other. The older kids would feel foolish (again) for taking so much for granted.

      This was the blessing of Christmas and our family. That moment when Dad looked at Mom and she at him, both of them surveying the domestic tableau, taking in its sights and fragrances, the children waiting impatiently for one minute more. That moment when love shined in their eyes for one another and all the hard work of their marriage was realized.  Here was the real blessing, an unspoken, magnetic bond of enduring love and gratitude. Look at this! Look at what we made!

      There was a lesson there for all of us, if we could just see it. This is what family is. This is what marriage looks like.

      We lingered at breakfast for at least an hour while the blinking white lights of the Christmas tree in the library and the sweet smell of the pine needles called to us like sirens.  Piles of presents circled the foot of the tree. Opening them would wait. We all knew breakfast was part of the special ritual, too.

      Finally, around 9 a.m., the youngest among us would feel the irresistible pull of the main event. We would all leave the table full of dishes, retreat to the library and gather in a large circle on sofas or folding chairs, the young ones sitting crossed legged nearest the tree and retrieving presents for everyone else. 

      A family rule was that each of us had to buy at least one small present for every member of the family, so there were at least 125 presents to be unwrapped. My parents insisted we open them one at a time, and that we formally thank the person who gave it to us. This was also part of the family tradition. It made the spirit of Christmas last for hours.

     When it was done, my parents let us congregate around the tree, laughing and playing with new toys or trying on new clothes. Then they would go do the breakfast dishes, she washing, he drying.

      They would smile and listen to the sounds of Christmas from all corners of the large stone home they called Kitzaplenty Place. Squeals of happiness and laughter and of the pounding of small feet racing up the staircases, barking dogs chasing after them.

      After the dishes were dried and stacked up on the kitchen counter, my dad would carry them all into the dining room and set the table again. Mom would start the Christmas dinner.

      Paul and I, the two oldest, would sidle into the kitchen and find the left over saucejzenbroodges. The flaky crust would melt in our mouths. But the real meat of the sausage was like the day itself. Tasty, filling. In a word: unforgettable. The very essence of Mother's Christmases.

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