Empty chairs and envelopes

One of my favorite holiday rituals is dusting off Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” CD and putting it in the musical rotation. Guaraldi’s nimble hands dance on the keyboard in “Linus and Lucy” and before long I’m toe-tapping, shoulder-shrugging and head-bobbing my way around the hardwoods.

The classic recording serves up a combo platter of emotions: generous portions of cool jazz, sprinkles of childhood joy, all swimming in a thick soup of  nostalgia.  I’m reminded of what the holidays are really about. I’m reminded of what I like about the season and what breaks my heart.

What kills me are the empty chairs. Consider my holiday ruminations: It is often lonely to be married to an only child of divorced parents who live far away. It is also lonely to be the daughter of one living parent and the sister of an unmarried, childless sibling who almost never comes home for the holidays. It’s a little heartbreaking to be the parent of one child whom I must relinquish each Thanksgiving as dictated by custody agreement. It’s frustrating to be the parent of another child who cannot understand what a custody agreement is and why she can’t see her sister. This past weekend had mental moments reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge slurping cold gruel in his drafty apartment.  I longed for a brightly lit room filled with laughing children. I longed for the Ghost of Christmas Present.

In the midst of this contradictory state of dancing and moping, two envelopes — not two ghosts — came into my life.

The first, a white business-sized envelope slipped to me at a holiday party,  contained a set of reprinted photographs from Independence Day weekend and other events from the mid-1970s. Back then, my brother and I were scrappy kids with bony knees and gapped teeth. My parents were a young couple, both smooth-faced and seemingly joyful. My dad had a mostly full head of auburn hair and huge sideburns. My mother’s long locks reached halfway down her back.

The pictures stirred long-buried memories and a deeper understanding of the swift passage of time and its sweeping changes. I admitted out loud that I missed my father, or at least the concept of having one around. He was both the party giver and the life of the party. He had a way of gathering a crowd while he spun one of his hyperbolic tales of work and life. He loved Christmas, singing Christmas carols off-key, getting into character, and lots and lots of crazy dancing. Christmases have never been the same since he died.

The second envelope arrived in the mail, a card of thanks and encouragement from an unexpected source.

I’ve learned a lot from this person in the last two years, made a lot of mistakes and probably went over the top in an effort to prove myself. I never knew if any of it registered. I figured my journey is mine alone and it’s not about the accolades. So, to get  a pat on the back like that out of the blue? Well, it was better than a double serving of pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Way better than cold gruel.

Dance like the Peanuts gang, my friends. Dance every day.

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