KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–A cold wave of emotion overcame me as I sat immobilized in a sea of dark blue plastic containers scrambled across my cramped living room. It didn’t matter that these containers were relatively new. They were full of the bits and pieces, the remnants of nearly 20 Christmases.
For several days I had sat rocking in my chair with Nana’s afghan, playing on my high-tech computer, watering the bare, live tree. But I foraged only lightly into the boxes, never reaching in deep enough to uncover bittersweet memories. Instead I’d flick the television on, put clothes in the dryer or check the caller I.D. for the umpteenth time to see if anyone called.
He must have sensed my mood, even four states away. The phone rang. “Did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world? Tell her I love her …,” he crooned off-key. I almost lost it, but he quickly put me on the speakerphone with others in the car. I had to smile, but my voice sounded strange even to me. Forced.
“So when are you coming to Georgia?” asked my husband’s new friend.
“In two weeks.”
“I mean for real?” he tried again. “Not just a visit.”
“I thought two weeks would be better than six months,” I quipped, doing some quick fuzzy math. “As soon as school’s out in May.”
Neither John, nor his friend Roger, or the others riding in the van could see the never-ending hot tears watering the blue plastic box by my feet.
Gone for over a month, John had accepted a call to minister in a growing Georgia church, leaving my 17-year-old son and I to finish out the school year in Kansas City, Mo. It had been a grueling week since his short visit for Thanksgiving. For the first time since he left, I realized just how long the next months and days could be.
The bittersweet pain of sending our daughter off to college in Tennessee the year before paled in comparison to what I now felt. Everywhere I looked were memories of our family together. Our family, which remained strong despite an almost bohemian lifestyle we’d adapted in order to answer God’s calling to the ministry.
In the season of thankfulness and humility, when we begin to reflect on the wonder of God’s greatest gift, it appeared I would be incapable of meaningful reflection until I decorated the fragrant, perfect tree gracing our small seminary apartment.
At the high school where I teach, the season raged. My classroom boasted a fiber-optic tree, a huge orange string of lights, Santa Claus and a precious nativity scene. A door-decorating contest yielded our administrators and staff caricatured as Santa and his elves. In no time at all, students were coming by my room see my unabashed celebration of Christmas. Undeterred, a few invited me to their concerts or special events at church. Worship on Sunday was poignant and replete with the requisite singing of “O Holy Night.”
But still the blue plastic containers remained.
Then Billy Graham came on television. George Beverly Shea sang the words to “How Great Thou Art,” and all came back to me full circle.
Twenty years ago I was but a young enlisted woman in the Navy. After a long night of soul-searching brought on by mindless drinking, I vowed to find a deeper commitment to God and to his service. The next day, my future husband spotted me in an Air Force mess hall. An Army sergeant who prided himself on attention to detail, ironically he didn’t notice the dark circles under my eyes, the greenish tint to my skin or the lack of make-up on my face. He said he knew I was different from others and he wanted whatever it was that I had. In fact, he wanted me too.
A few weeks later, after he was saved and baptized, we were married. Within the year, both my husband and I, stationed in the Washington, D.C., area, took leave to become part of the co-labor corps serving the Billy Graham crusade in Baltimore.
It was one of the most memorable and awesome times in our lives. Working late into the night, we were so blessed by the ministry that we hardly slept. A few days into the crusade we discovered a child would be born to us right about Christmas day. Almost a year to the day we were married. Thus, the bright and blinking Christmas lights, hot chocolate and presents under the tree not only bring the memory and reflection of our Savior and his love, but they also bring the sweet, endearing memories of my marriage to my husband John and the birth of our firstborn, Belinda June.
Mostly though, in this time of reflection, I was thankful, grateful and happy for the opportunities we have had to serve our Lord together. For the many times we’ve told our children, “God is in this. This will be OK,” I too now needed that assurance.
Billy Graham gave it to me. I began to think if Shea could still lead thousands of voices in song, then surely I could open the boxes, unwrap the memories and somehow pay homage to our living God.
Celebration wasn’t long in coming. First, I eased open the tin of ornaments my grandmother had made for me in the ’80s. All still there. Familiar pangs resounded deep inside, but I brewed a cup of French vanilla cappuccino and forced a smile. Next came the stained glass ornaments John and I cooked in the oven in our early years. Other memories exploded with each box opened, each lid removed.
Finally, I gingerly lifted the lid to a box appearing empty but for a dozen wads of crumpled tissue paper. Carefully peeling back layers, I was surprised to see the tiny wood shaved ornaments from Israel. These mementos, brought to us by our pastor, served to remind us of the simplicity of the real Christmas message.
Soon the tree twinkled and glowed. Precious ornaments took on a new life of their own.
“Mom, the tree looks great,” my son Jon said, staring at the tree after coming in from a late night at work. “It looks better than ever.”
It does, I thought, glancing at the memories. However painful, my tree would stand as reminder that a tree without ornaments and lights is like a heart without the love of our Savior. Empty and forlorn, my tree took on life with each memory, as do our lives with Christ, taking on purpose and meaning as we celebrate his presence year-round.
John and Joni Hannigan were married Dec. 12, 1980, in San Angelo, Texas. Joni is a freelance writer and high school journalism and English teacher in Kansas City, Mo. John is the new minister of education/administration at Bethany Baptist Church in McDonough, Ga.