By the light of a handmade star
Another black Friday flyer. Dozens line my recycling bin. Small business Saturday, cyber Monday—I’m not tempted to shop on any of these days. What I want for Christmas can’t be bought, it can’t be seen, it isn’t possible. I want my sister Mary to come back.
One spring evening just over four decades ago, an asthma attack woke her in the middle of the night. Mom tried the inhaler, but it wasn’t helping, so Dad rushed her to the emergency room. I went back to sleep thinking the doctors would make her better. Mary died on the way to the hospital, one month before her 14th birthday.
I was almost seven years old at the time, and Mary was my entire world. She loved any excuse to celebrate, and Christmas was her favorite holiday. We started by decorating grandma’s house. Up into the snowy woods we trudged, with a small handsaw to find the perfect white pine. With teaspoons and tiny, sap-covered fingers we dug into the frozen gravel of the driveway, lined a coffee can with cold, grey rocks. We brought the tree into ‘Siberia’, the term grandma used for the lonesome living room that stayed shut after Grandpa died, except when we slept over. Mary and I opened the door, started a fire in the fireplace, wedged the trunk of the white pine into the coffee can, and stood it up, straight and proud, ready for decorations.
We cut red and green construction paper into strips, bent them into loops and linked them together with scotch-tape to form a chain. We popped corn on the wood stove in a cast iron pot and strung the kernels together with a sewing needle and thread. I jabbed my tender fingers so much, that Mary found a thimble for me. We colored scenes from a Christmas coloring book, cut around the figures, threaded ribbon through the tops and tied them onto the thin, rubbery branches of the white pine. Finally, my favorite part --Mary cut out a star shape from an old saltine box, covered it in reclaimed tin-foil, and secured it to the top of the tree with bread ties. Viola!
When my younger sisters were old enough, I rekindled the tradition of the white pine, but ‘Siberia’ always felt hollow and cold, no matter how great a fire I built. Mary was the warmth and light. She crowded out the emptiness that no black Friday sale can fill.
In writing for the past two years, I’ve realized that losing Mary created a hesitance toward trusting the good of life, toward connection. And I’ve realized that I’m not alone. Just this year I’ve met many people struggling with loss, and the shame, guilt, and other feelings that go along with wondering why you survived and your loved one didn’t. And for many, the Holidays are a powerful trigger. Perhaps it’s the year coming to a close – another type of ending, or the pressure to be happy when you are feeling alone and missing someone deeply. This year, I will try to have a little more compassion, a little more patience, a little more understanding for myself and others.
So please, pardon me if I don’t get excited by super sales and holiday bargains. I’ve never found happiness there. Mary and I created happiness with our own hands – not in what we created necessarily, but in the experience of spending time together.
My family never grieved, we never talked about Mary. It was what we needed to do to survive. But at Christmastime more than any other, I remember her. This year I am also remembering who I was when she was alive. Just now I am admiring the small Christmas tree in my living room. At the top of the tree is a handmade tin-foil star that my nieces and I made two years ago. That is what I am reaching for. And if this resonates with you, I hope you reach for your own tin-foil star with both hands. It is something no cyber sale can ever provide.
11/30/2017 01:57:05 pm
Such a touching story. I had no idea. I am sorry for the loss of your beloved sister so many years ago and hope, with the telling of this tale, you can find some peace. Happy Christmas, Julie.
Edmund "Dpoc" Bonneau
11/30/2017 02:11:26 pm
Geez, Julie, I never knew about Mary. I do understand your feelings, and I think you express them well. To me, the meaning of most holidays goes way beyond the external trappings that are associated with them. I use them as a time to reflect and remember. When I look back on my life, everyday is Thanksgiving for me. I have so-o-o-o-o much to be thankful for; I am truly blessed ! I hope you had a great Thanksgiving and have an even greater Christmas. Without the hoopla and the sales !!!!
11/30/2017 02:30:48 pm
So well written! I never knew you had an older sister and lost her. Such a terrible loss while so young. I too have lost most of my Christmas spirit, (most holidays really)since losing my grandmother. Perhaps one of the reasons I am so stuck on staying in retail. The sales rush is fun because it is so hectic, a challenge to keep up, but every year I have at least one little old grandmother that makes my entire year just by helping. The look on thier face when I help them find just what they know thier grandchild wants, brings my grandmother back to me, just for a little while. Enjoy your memories and keep building more with your nieces.
11/30/2017 02:48:39 pm
No one can fully grasp what you've been through , even as your sister I didn't get to share the times with little Mary . I do remember the fun and excitement that was made by cutting down the little tree and making our ornaments . Those are the things we hold dear that no one can ever take away. We have to keep making those memories never fade . Charlie brown, well actually Linus said it best , Christmas doesn't come from. A store, maybe it means a little bit more. Keep telling your story and it will keep the light in your heart and others burning.
11/30/2017 03:04:22 pm
Thanks for sharing Julie, ....not an easy subject to discus, but I know that sharing and focusing on those good times is very healing. So pleased to know you were encouraged to post. Your posts inspire me to look deeper inside myself - so I thank you for that. May the holiday season be happy for you and filled with love and memories. Hope to see more posts in the coming year.
11/30/2017 06:14:48 pm
Julie, your memories are beautiful and your story brings tears to my eyes. I am so sorry for your loss. I know nothing will bring Mary back but i hope when you remember her you feel her prescence around you.. Thank you for sharing this beautiful memory.
11/30/2017 06:16:00 pm
Touching and moving!
11/30/2017 06:44:37 pm
Julie, thank you for sharing. This is beautifully written and keeping her spirit alive is such a wonderful tribute.
12/1/2017 02:56:30 pm
12/1/2017 04:35:03 pm
The electronics are soon out of date and mass of people flooding the stores is the last place I want to be. Decorating the tree and making cookies together are traditions that I hope instill memories with my children. Playing Christmas music together they fill my house house with sound and joy. I can’t imagine the loss of a child and the pain left behind. Faith and prayer help me find peace with those I have lost.
12/1/2017 04:59:04 pm
A beautiful story. Odd, too, because I have been lonely this Christmas for my sister who died. I actually invited her memory into my house and gave several of her things as 1950’s decorations.
12/2/2017 03:30:14 am
Julie, your words moved my heart. I have fought long and hard to stay strong after losing Drew. My soul aches for Gen, Ben, Paige, Jeremy and our family who struggle to live with his absence. Thank you for bringing Mary to life for those of us who never had the joy of knowing her. I did meet her once when Drew wss a baby in the hospital for croup, and Mary wss in for yet another asthma attack..she was an angel,
Scott M Bennard
12/2/2017 08:24:07 am
Oh wow... These types of events made me realize exactly how powerful attachment can be... I lost my dad in 99 and then my college buddy/brother-in-law in 2007... Without even raising it, I had become very angry... But my anger was just a abroad reaction to my unwillingness to cope with these events and my refusal to release emotion... It wasn't until I sought help in 2012 that I found the strength to face my emotions and detach from the pain... I've taken a distant on both of these losses and I'm living much happier...I acknowledge the loss, but I'm more grateful for the chance to have known them and the honor of carrying on my dad's legacy... I know I was loved by both and that week never change... Namaste!
12/2/2017 09:18:43 am
Julie, your story is amazing. It is a beautiful tribute. With your family living next door to my grandparents and being on the same School bus, I remember her, yet never knew what had happened. I too cried reading your heartfelt story. Mary is the star resting upon your tree. Shining down on you and your family. She is part of the strong bond you all have. Merry Christmas!
12/11/2017 10:10:20 am
1/31/2018 06:16:35 am
Amazing story. Amazing woman.
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