The highlight of the TV season this winter for me will be the return of Downton Abbey on PBS. To prepare the way, UNC-TV has been re-running the first season episodes. When I returned home on Sunday from a jolly Christmas celebration in Asheville with many members of my family, I was happy to snuggle into my comfortable recliner and spend an hour and a half back in the early nineteen hundred’s with the upstairs and downstairs folk who people the mansion. In one scene two of the senior staff are having a conversation about the housekeeper’s decision not to accept a proposal of marriage from a man she had turned down once before when she was young. Now he is a widower and has proposed again, but she has decided to decline.
“I’ve changed,” she says. “I’m not that farm girl any more.”
The butler responds, “What would be the point of living if we don’t let life change us.”
I’ve had an episodic Christmas season so far this year as I made plans reflexively based on an earlier me, and then had to keep changing them as nearly every day unforeseen circumstances derailed the hoped for pre-Christmas preparation. I had planned to make several gifts, do some cooking and baking of traditional holiday food, decorate the house; in short, I was going to replicate at least some of the old family traditions. Last week, I had a liberating moment when I just let go of it all. I spent a little time asking myself what would actually be possible and what was necessary for my own contentment. I decided that “nothing” was the answer to both questions. The half-done presents will be finished for other occasions in the future, and the presence of my children and their spouses, my grandchildren (some with spouses) and my great-grandchildren was all I needed to be content.
By letting go of the preparation for traditions of Christmases Past, I made time and space for several holiday gatherings before Christmas and a more leisurely preparation for the family members staying here in my guesthouse. I also had time to help and support several friends facing unexpected problems and to get my annual Christmas letter in the mail. On Saturday morning, I listened at leisure to the Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England; that service has been my Yuletide church since my husband Bill died.
My holiday celebrations this year included Hanukkah, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and some of us will be together for New Year’s Day. Because I let go, it has been easy for me to be part of these gatherings without any quivering sense of responsibility for the outcomes. I was a listener and an observer, and whenever it was easy, I was a participant.
My grandson Miles and his wife Polly drove me home on Christmas evening from the overnight stay in Asheville where we gathered on Saturday afternoon and moved back and forth between two houses. We picked up my dog Nigel from his visit with a household that includes three other poodles and drove through soft darkness to my carport, well lit with my LED ropes. I savored a bowl of hot oxtail soup, the gift of a neighbor, delivered the day before. I was wrapped in the aura of comfort and contentment and contemplated the joys of the past 30 hours.
In my mind’s eye, I saw the faces, remembered funny comments, heard again the sounds of the baby and the small children and relished the easy interaction among generations. With the passage of time my children and their chosen spouses had become parents and aunts and uncles. My grandchildren are cousins to each other and four of them have chosen spouses. So many traits run through the mix reminding me of Bill and seeing some reflections of myself. But I also see the less familiar interests, personality quirks and particular graces brought to this rich mix through marriage.
I can recognize so clearly now how life has changed me. There was a time I could not have let go of my plans, but would have worked late into many nights and been exhausted on Christmas Day and quite possibly down with a cold by New Year’s. The last ten years have brought the most change as grief, illness and my slow, but determined recovery have deepened my spiritual journey and re-ordered my priorities. It’s comfortable for me to be the watcher, storing up the pictures and impressions and small joys to ponder in my heart during the winter. It is a great relief to have others creating the magic of Christmas and to have Polly sing the prayer of gratitude for light while she is lighting the candles on the Menorah. Bill and I shared many dreams and he lived long enough to fulfill most of them. Now I am grateful that I have lived long enough to see the generations flourish as they now dream their dreams, make choices, and let themselves be changed by life.