Christmas 1960. A bleak, un-Christmasy year. My mother died at the end of May in an automobile accident in the midst of our move to Gary, Indiana where we were strangers. We had family there but I felt disconnected and lonely. It wasn’t Christmas without my mother and our own family rituals. I did not like snow and cold weather when it wasn’t a novelty. I didn’t like the schools. I didn’t like the teachers or neighbors. Most of all I didn’t like the kids that made fun of my soft, gentle Arizona accent.
My grandmother was living with us, keeping the house together, cooking and cleaning. She noticed that I felt left out. One day, she gave me a miracle. It was the miracle of belonging.
She invited me into her bedroom and shut the door. On her bed, heaps of wrapping paper, bows and boxes overflowed. Shopping bags on the floor bulged with any number of secrets and surprises.
“I need a helper,” she confided, “so that I will be ready for Christmas, but it must be a very special helper—one who can keep secrets no matter what the cost. Would you like to be my helper?”
My heart squeezed tight within my chest. Absolutely positively! She patiently taught me how to wrap presents, cut the paper, miter the corners, remove the price tags, mark the names on the gift tags… Looking back, I know she could have wrapped them in half the time it took to teach me, but oh! what a gift she gave me when she trusted me to keep her secrets. For several years, on and off, I wrapped her Christmas gifts. It was my contribution. It meant that I belonged.
Grandmother is gone now. Every Christmas as I wrap presents, I use every skill that she taught me, including her most important one: to look around and notice the person on the fringes of the family celebration and draw them into the heart of the family by allowing them a “special” responsibility.
As my children grew up, each traveled through the “lonelies”—times when they were on the outside looking in. I tried to take care to ask them to serve in a “special” capacity. Individually, they decorated the tree or house, wrapped presents, shopped for the whole family, baked cookies, assembled toys that were labeled “no assembly required.” Each year Grandmother’s legacy lingers in the memory and in the heart.