Friday, December 14, 2007

The Third Sunday of Advent - Part I - And Wise Men from the East

Dear Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar,

I received my first wise man card of the year yesterday. It is a nice one, fortunately, for it is that one which we must look at every day all year long above our doorframe. I didn't learn that tradition from my family, but from my mother-in-law, stepmother of my husband.

She was an odd duck. She lived by the grudge, holding fast to wrongs, real or imagined, committed against her by family members one-by-one. Were you related to her, Melchior, she might have found the perfume you presented too strong a scent and spitefully chosen, the myrrh a redundant gift (after all she just got plenty of frankincense) and, the cash, Kaspar, not quite enough.

But, lo, the grudge, formed predictably and nursed diligently, would disappear arbitrarily and in preparation for her attentions to be drawn to another hapless member of the family whose actions or non-actions were drawn into her focus.

Mom D was also a hospitable woman, a good friend to certain people, and the woman to whom we attribute the salvation of my husband's father from the clutches of Jack Daniels, so she remains ever sweet in our memories. And we think of her fondly at Christmas, wishing she were here for one last party, but she is gone now and did not go without the histrionics she found or created in life with her consecutive grudges. Her last Christmas was spent in California with her son, and on her return flight, she passed . . . not silently, not calmly, not hushed, but with drama and to do somewhere above Albuquerque.

But that is not exactly what I had started to say in this letter. I meant to talk about my family, for they are the ones for whom your names are most beloved. Each year they wait with bated breath for the gifts they might receive from Kaspar, Melchior, or the tasteful Balthasar.

But, perhaps, I must explain. My family gift tradition was most established by my paternal grandfather. He died at age 93 and apart from that last year (which was not completely pretty), he was a quiet, hard working, non-dramatic person. He made false teeth for a living, which, for those of you who cannot readily conceptualize the process, is a bit of art in porcelein and wax. It is accompanied by a memorable odor that is acrid and, for me, poignant. I say it is an art, because the final false product must adequately mimic the former teeth of the detoothelated patient. There is, and I have some knowledge of this, nothing more hideous than poorly sculpted false teeth.

So this man, my grandfather, sat day by day for 65 or 70 years, excepting when he was serving in Europe during World War I, artfully and quietly creating the future mouths of people across central Pennsylvania. But at Christmas, his quiet art was transformed into the chief entertainment of our Christmas afternoons. For his holiday preparation included writing poems for each of his children, their spouses, the grandchildren, and whoever else might be seated around the great dining room table. His poetry was always creative and funny and personal. It was also always signed with a flair. . .from "Old Nicky Boy," from "Old Jelly Belly," etc.

From this heritage I hail and so, when my children became old enough to read gift tags, I wished to somehow mimic the sense of Christmas art that Pap R had so generously demonstrated. I dispensed with the poems, but always chose some Christmas character from whom the gift was given. To wit, my children each year wait for the best gifts, the very special ones, chosen with love and particularity, which come from Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

Thanks for always being part of our Christmas.


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