Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 19, 2005, Herald Journal

Looking for the magic


Christmas was a magical time when I was growing up in Duluth.

They called it The Christmas City of the North, and the atmosphere was so special, the phrase did not even seem commercialized.

Each December, our house was transformed, with packages of all shapes and sizes cascading in regimented disarray around a real Christmas tree.

My mother was the engineer of the change.

She would take paintings off of the walls and wrap them in holiday paper, and add ribbons and bows, before hanging them back in place.

She would haul out boxes and boxes of decorations from some secret place, and hang them in every room.

During the year, Ma earned her money by baking wedding cakes and other items.

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, every spare surface was covered with stacks of containers of every variety of Christmas cookie.

She sold hundreds of dozens of the treats, but we only got to sample the ones that were broken or not up to her standards.

She made dozens of gingerbread houses to order, and the house was filled with the glorious aromas of her baking.

There was a tremendous sense of anticipation as we walked through the snow to find small treasures for our family and friends.

Duluth was always a city of lights, but at Christmas, it was extra special. The splashes of color reflected on the drifted snow as we crunched along the frozen sidewalks in the dark made it feel like we were walking through a Currier and Ives painting.

It was the one time of year when the entire family got together to just relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Years later, when my wife and I bought a hobby farm in rural Carver County, we carried on part of that tradition.

Friends and relatives would come and spend a day or two in the big old house, eating and drinking and sharing some holiday cheer.

Ma spent her last Christmas in that house in 1999.

She was ill at the time, and had to carry around an oxygen tank.

I was unsure of whether she should travel in her condition, but the excitement in her voice over the phone answered the question.

It was her life, and she deserved to spend the time she had left in whatever way made her happy.

I drove through a blizzard to pick her up in Duluth. I bundled her up, and brought her back home so she could spend one last Christmas in the country.

She had told me many times how waking up and looking out over the fields reminded her of her childhood in northern Minnesota.

Ma was always happiest when she was around family and friends. Any excuse for a party, was her motto.

We arrived on the afternoon of Dec. 24. The rest of the gang was already there, and the house was filled with laughter.

We had a big dinner and opened some gifts.

The evening took an unusual twist later on.

Ma’s condition got worse, and we ended up taking her to the emergency room.

A hospital waiting room at midnight on Christmas Eve is a strange place.

An odd assortment of characters in disheveled Santa Claus suits were scattered among the other patients and anxious families.

It was a surreal environment, where my wife and sister and I sat and waited and made strained attempts at conversation.

Ma had to stay in the hospital, and she held court there in the days to come, entertaining the parade of visitors who came to see her.

She died, alone in her apartment back in Duluth, a few weeks later.

I was glad that we were able to share one last Christmas with her, but part of the magic of the holiday died with her that year.

I don’t seem to have the enthusiasm for decorating or preparing for the holidays that I used to.

I have tried to carry on some of Ma’s spirit of the season, but the years since her death have been marked by smaller, quieter Christmases.

The house in the country is up for sale now, and my wife and I are parting company.

As we prepare to spend our last Christmas in the country, I can’t help but think about all of the people out there who do not have family and friends around them at the holidays.

I try to remember my mother’s enthusiasm, and the way she shared the season with everyone she met, including strangers.

It seems like a spirit that should be carried on, but I can’t help wondering where I will find the magic next Christmas.

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