Filling the Empty Spaces

My father loved Christmas. His generous spirit delighted in gift-giving, and especially in finding creative ways to present the gift. There was often a big “un-veiling” involved - one year he bought my son a pint-sized 4-wheeler and rigged up a concealing cover that Brian lifted off with a pulley. I recall searching through a huge cardboard box filled with scrunched up newspapers and a carbide tools from his shop, finally unearthing a slender box that contained a diamond tennis bracelet. And one year he presented me with an autographed, hardcover copy of Arthur Hailey’s book, Wheels. He stood in line for hours to get it, and must have told Hailey about my aspirations to be a writer, because it was inscribed, “Good luck with your writing, Rebecca.” I was 14 years old at the time. As we opened and enjoyed our lavish Christmas presents, he often recalled his own boyhood Christmas, which consisted of a box from the Goodfellows containing a pair of socks, an orange, and sometimes a rubber ball. “That orange was the best thing I ever tasted,” he said. As a pampered only child, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to get only an orange- something I had every day -  for a Christmas present. Nor could I fathom the kind of life my Dad lived as a child -where there was never quite enough food for all six children, where shoes were handed down from one brother to the next and resoled with cardboard, where he went without prescription eyeglasses even though he was severely near-sighted because there was no money to get them.

My father was a self-made man, the kind of man who symbolizes everything America stands for. The son of Armenian immigrants, he left high school in his junior year to fight in The Great War. When he returned, he learned a trade and, at the age of 30, started his own business. For the next 30 years, he ran a very successful tool and die company, a company successful enough to put oranges on our table every single day and diamond bracelets under our Christmas tree. He was proud of that, and rightfully so, and nothing made him happier than sharing his good fortune with his family.

Christmas was never the same after my parents divorce and my father’s move to Florida. Those first few years were especially devastating. Not only was he gone from our family, but we learned he had a new family to celebrate with.  I would sometimes find my mother sobbing in the aisles of the grocery store, heartbroken by  tinny strains of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” playing on the overhead speakers.

Over the next decade, I learned to survive Christmas without my Dad around. I missed his gag gifts, missed the packages he wrapped for me in the color comics from the newspaper. I missed seeing him at my concerts, missed him at our dinner table where there was always more than enough food to go around.  In 2005 my Dad and I re-connected after being estranged for some years, and we often saw each other during the holiday season when Jim and I went to our house in Florida.

But of course it wasn’t the same.

This is the first Christmas without my Dad being in this world, but it is not the first Christmas I’ve spent without him in my life. Still, I find myself grieving the loss all over again, knowing the finality of it this time. One more piece of my little family puzzle is gone, a puzzle I imagine being like those made for preschoolers, with only three or four big pieces. When one of those pieces disappears, a huge gaping hole remains.

I’ve been trying to fill that hole with music and visits with friends, with writing in my journal early in the mornings, with soft music at dusk and shimmery white lights on a small Christmas tree. I’ve been losing myself in good books, dreaming  about what the new year might bring. I find moments of delight  in pictures and videos of my Grandson which I play over and over because they always bring a quick, happy smile.

One of the things I valued most about my Dad was his constant cheerfulness and positive attitude.  He was very sanguine about life, and he believed in happiness and good times and doing what you enjoyed. When people tell a bereaved person that their loved one “wouldn’t want them to be unhappy,” I know that’s true of my father.

I’m  searching for happiness wherever I can find it - in twinkling lights and candle flame, in strains of beautiful music, in my Grandson’s sweet voice.  Just for a while, I set aside those things that worry me, and let myself enjoy life everything that’s beautiful about my life right now.  I believe that’s a gift he would want me to give myself this Christmas.

So I unwrap it from the layers of colored paper and revel in it.

Merry Christmas, everyone.


One year when Brian was about six years old, a friend gave him an Advent Calendar. Printed on a background of dark blue designed to resemble the moonlit sky, it was a picture of a colorful gingerbread house trimmed with fluffy white frosting and sprinkled with candy canes, festooned with lights and garlands. Behind each window and door, under every candy ornament and festive decoration, was a picture or a saying or a snippet of poem. The idea was that the child could open one door every day in the four weeks leading up to The Big Day, and thus stave off a bit of the excited anticipation that can completely derail small children from their daily routines. It didn’t work that well with my son. Maybe he was too old for it at the time, or it simply wasn’t exciting enough to hold his interest. After the third or fourth day, those tiny cardboard windows weren’t enough diversion from his perseveration about the Hot Wheels cars or Lego playsets that might (or might not) be his on Christmas morning.

This year I found myself more excited than usual about preparations for Christmas. Perhaps in the darkness of grief, I was more eager than usual to shed light on the dark corners of life. As I rummaged through the bags and boxes of beloved Christmas decorations I found myself smiling at each and every one. The paper machie angel my high school students gave me the year they nicknamed me “Angel of the Keys,” stands sentinel in her familiar place on the corner of the piano. A wicker basket trimmed with pine cones, ribbons and bells that my son made in middle school sits on the counter waiting to be filled with bright colored Christmas cards and letters from friends. Large, egg shaped colored lights have been wrapped around the tall pine tree on the corner of our yard, beckoning me home when I’m out after dark as I wend my way down the shadowy street. The huge lighted wreath that hung for many years on the front of our old house on MacArthur Street now shines just as brightly here on Brookwood Court.

It is in these early days of the season, these Advent Days when we’re lying in wait for something wonderful to come, that I find the most pleasure. It’s when my expectations for The Big Event to come haven’t yet been tarnished or shattered by the reality of life in the real world. It’s when every day still holds a surprise, and I still have the kind of excitement about them that the Advent Calendar was supposed to engender for my little boy. Each night when I take Magic and Molly outside for their last potty trip of the day, I stand in the driveway and bask in the reflected glow of those lights, grateful for the blessings of the day gone by, hopeful about the joys tomorrow might bring.

Brian used to ask us “Do you think I’ll get the (Hot Wheels, Lego’s, bicycle, book, video game) I asked for? Do you?"

My reply was always “You’ll have to wait and see."

Of course, the waiting is the hardest part.

But the advantage to waiting is the time in between, the time to rest, reflect, the time to hope and dream. While we still have those hopes, the dreams are still alive and we can nourish them in our imaginations. Perhaps we can even find ways to make them come true.

My wish for you during this Advent season, is that you’ll take the time to enjoy opening all the doors of these days leading up to Christmas and that you’ll find the answers to fulfilling your hopes and dreams behind each one.