Our family got a glimpse of the true meaning of Christmas one year, when without warning, our Christmas was put on hold, and our traditions turned upside down.
Christmas 2002 we bought our tree from a lot not far from our house. We brought it home, fit it into the stand and dragged it in the living room. We gave it plenty of water to drink and planned to start decorating the next day. Out of the blue, we received a phone call that changed everything.
My husband’s Grandmother, Florence, was living in southern California in a mobile home retirement community on a golf course. She was hospitalized and would no longer be able to care for herself. We were surprised to learn she had sold her home and was moving back to Oregon. Adding to the urgency, the people buying her home were traveling from Minnesota to sign the paperwork. They would be arriving there in two days. There was no telling if Grandma would be released from the hospital in time -- or if she would be of sound enough mind to take care of the business at hand.
With no one else to help, we packed up our van, our kids (seven and nine years old at the time), and right after the school Christmas program on December 7th we headed for southern California. We left our beautiful Christmas tree naked and alone, not knowing when we would return.
As it turned out, we would not only be responsible for closing on Florence’s home, but also for packing it and moving her back to Oregon.
I have the world’s most flexible, understanding, and gracious children. They were away from home, in an unfamiliar environment, and without many choices for activities. God’s grace was evident, but it’s not easy being a kid in a retirement community. The rules are strict. It seemed the residents were watching and just waiting for us to break one. Some of the people there made it really clear they were not comfortable with the presence of humans under the age of sixty-five being "in the neighborhood.” There we were, faced with a seemingly impossible task, and no choice but to buckle down and get the job done.
I thought I would die, when I looked up one sunny afternoon and saw the kids dashing passed the third hole of the golf course. They were sporting Grandma’s teapot covers as hats, at least a dozen of her scarves flew behind them as they ran with the mink heads from her stole like puppets on their hands… priceless. I quickly ushered them back into the house and took a bunch of pictures.
Florence’s place was filled with a lifetime of treasures. The treasures were mixed with a bunch of stuff that just needed to go. We gave to the needy what we knew Florence would not want or miss. There was still so much to pack.
My husband and I took turns working through the night. As I worked, my mind wandered to the Christmas tree we had left behind. I knew it was probably all dried out and dead by then, and if we ever did make it out of the hell we were in, it would simply be fodder for the yard waste container. I tried hard to see Christmas in the desert, but in the midst of our circumstances, shiny red balls stuck to a cactus just didn’t do it for me.
I think the hardest part of our adventure was having Grandma Florence around when she returned home from the hospital. She didn’t understand what was going on. She had forgotten what she had done. The day before we left town she asked for the 14th time,
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
I reminded her again she had sold her house and wanted to move back to Oregon. She turned her head in disgust and as though it was my fault said,
“Well, no one told me that.”
It was the day before Christmas Eve when we finally set out for Oregon. Thank God for our van (which was packed to the gills). Grandma rode shotgun. The kids took up the middle and I sat in the way back. There was a little hole just big enough for me to fit in. I didn’t mind; I had a small patch of window to look up and out of, and through it I could watch the sky. The limited nature of my surroundings gave me plenty of time to sleep, and pray that we would make it home in time for Christmas.
We drove 10 hours the first afternoon. We spent that night in a little motel in a town called Weed. Early Christmas Eve we set out once again. With 12 hours left to drive, we were hopeful we would make it home late that night.
From my little space I made a few phone calls to my sisters and my mom. I told them it looked as though we might make it home for Christmas. I begged them in desperation to please run over to the house and pick things up a bit. Grandma Florence was coming to town, and we had left the house a complete disaster! My family, being who they are, happily jumped in to help.
At 10:30 Christmas Eve night we arrived home. I could not wait to get in the house, no matter what it was going to look like. As we walked in the door, we heard the sound of Christmas music coming from the stereo. No one was there, but there were fresh baked Christmas cookies on the dining room table and the house was spotless! I will never forget the moment when I stepped into the living room and saw the tree we had left for dead. I was overcome with emotion. There it was, decorated more beautifully than any tree I had ever seen. The presents I had gathered in the months before Christmas were wrapped and waiting. There was no holding back the tears. We had made it home in time for Christmas, and my family had taken their Christmas Eve to give us a moment we would never forget.
The gift my mom and sisters gave us that year is what Christmas is all about. Selfless giving, willingness to serve, and sacrifice are the most important Christmas traditions we can pass down through generations.
Our Christmas turned upside down, and had an upside that would bless us forever.
Grandma Florence settled back in Oregon, and a few years later moved on to Heaven. I hope when she arrived she finally realized the truth… the move from southern California really was her idea.