A risk that seemed like a must, that’s how I described an October plane trip to visit my mother. Coronavirus restrictions had kept me from seeing her for nearly nine months. Less than a month later, on Nov. 19, I was back in the sky, then back at the Spokane care facility where she died the next day.
Jeanne Ahrens, a mother of three and our dad’s elegant wife for 73 years, was less than a month shy of her 99th birthday. She lived all her life in the hometown she loved — except for girlhood summers with relatives in Eastern Washington’s wheat country, and family getaways to the lakes of northern Idaho.
Blessed to have had Mom for so many years, I also know how fortunate I was to be at her side on her last full day of life. We were all there, my sister, my brother and our father. She did not have COVID-19. It’s with sadness that we think of countless families who’ve been unable to say final goodbyes.
In the few weeks since losing Mom, we’ve been sifting through photos and memories. My sister shared one Christmas memory that took me back to my ninth-grade year, more than 50 years ago. Like this year, it was a sorrowful season, especially for our mom.
Her own mother, my grandmother Loraine Lavigne, died April 4, 1968, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
My mom, an only child, was always extremely close to her mother, who lived just blocks from us on Spokane’s South Hill. Our vivacious, adventuresome grandmother — we kids called her Nan — was a lifelong horsewoman. She’d vacationed in Cuba before Fidel Castro’s takeover and took trout-fishing trips to Montana. Nan racked up speeding tickets in her black Chevy Biscayne — with her dachshund Himmel riding shotgun.
That ’68 Christmas was hard for our mom. Our grandmother’s passing left an empty chair at our dining room table, and in the magical little house where Nan was a hostess extraordinaire every Christmas Eve of my childhood.
Without our grandmother, where were the traditions she’d created?
Our mom would throw tradition out the window that Christmas Eve. In advance, Mom gave us all an assignment: We each had to draw a name of someone in the family, then buy that person a 27-cent gift. It had to cost exactly that, with a receipt, or have enough penny items to make the math add up.
We opened those silly gifts on Christmas Eve, not in Nan’s pretty dining room but around our own kitchen table. We had a cracked-crab Christmas Eve dinner, something new. And we laughed about the wacky presents — things like individual walnuts, pencils or cheap pens, bubble gum, candy canes, nails, a plastic comb or bargain condiment.
At a sad time, it was so much fun.
This new tradition continued year after year, until I had my own family and didn’t make it to Spokane for Christmas. Some years, names were drawn without us being there. Over time, price totals would change — we’d vote on it at Thanksgiving. The highest I recall was 67 cents, although my dad usually argued in favor of setting it over a dollar. He always lost that fight.
“Remember the 27-cent gift?” my sister said by phone one night, not long after our mom died. Of course I did. My sister reminded me how, one year, Mom had insisted to some overworked grocery clerk why she absolutely needed proof of a penny purchase.
Tradition and family. For me, those are the ingredients that bring real comfort and joy, whether it’s holiday time or anytime.
This year — wow. People are mourning. Or they fear, with cause, getting or spreading life-threatening illness. Some are alone, or jobless, or homeless. We face uneasy questions and hard choices. Travel? Attend church? See family?
I don’t have answers. Yet I know, in sad times, there can be much to celebrate.
Julie Muhlstein: firstname.lastname@example.org