The Balloon Christmas

December 24, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In 1947, my father’s whole family contracted polio, and my grandfather, a professor at MIT with a young wife, a 4-year-old daughter, and 2-year-old son, died in an iron lung. My grandmother moved her children to her home state of Oklahoma for a year after his death, but eventually moved back East, to Amherst, Mass., so that my dad and his sister would know their paternal grandparents. 

There was very little money. I’ve heard stories of planting and tilling and canning and storing vegetables for food and various lore of other hardships. But I actually really don’t know that much about my father’s childhood.

There is one story I think about every Christmas, however. Fact and fiction by now may have become somewhat conflated or have morphed the tale into something idealistically poignant. Nevertheless — and especially as I prepare to wrap pink princessy presents for my daughter that I’m quite sure will be forgotten in a corner of the basement in six months — the tale is worth remembering and telling.

My grandmother, now a single mother who was at the time I believe working part-time as a dietician/nutritionist for the Amherst school system, had no money for Christmas presents. Literally, nothing. She worried about her small children waking up to a void under the Christmas tree, losing their faith in Santa and whatever else they might have a little faith in at that age. She prepared them for the worst. And yet, as mothers somehow know how to do — have always done — she found a way. (If this tale were to take the religious bent my grandmother undoubtedly gave it in her later years, I would write something like “God inspired her.” And maybe he did.)

My dad and my aunt ran down the stairs on Christmas morning, and instead of a bare living room, there was a menagerie of colors and shapes! Balloons! Hundreds of them, twisted into animals and filling every corner. This, to my father, was Christmas — celebration and joy. What more was there supposed to be? The toddler taking in that Christmas morning spectacle couldn’t articulate the idea of love as the driving force of the joy in his balloon Christmas. But as an adult, he knew that love was behind it all: a mother’s love, and, at the very purest level — as we all know inherently but perhaps have trouble accessing — the recognition that giving and happiness go much, much deeper than anything tangibly material.

Merry Christmas. I hope your day is filled, at its core, with joy and with love. While I’m not sure that I believe in God, I do believe in love, and that, if there is a God, God is love.

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