Many years ago, a tradition was born. As the mother of four small children, my writing was put on hold. There was little time for the creative process. Any creative energy went into my care and feeding, both physically and spiritually, of my flock.
One year, a school assignment to write a holiday story inspired me to dust off my own creative process. I had my son hand in my story with his.
The teacher posted the story in the hallway of the school. That year, it was a children’s story about an elf.
The following year, muscle memory kicked in, and in tribute to this wise teacher, the story took a more mature turn. It was about a teacher who years after retiring, discovers the meaning of Christmas and recognized how important he was in the lives of others.
A tradition was born. Some thirty years later, each year I write a Christmas story. They now have a purpose. Each story deals with someone who is struggling with the holidays, and who finds “the Christ Child” or meaning in something unexpected. The stories are inspired by things that happen in my life or the lives of those around me. I never know when the idea for the story will come. Sometimes, it may come in the summer. Other years, like this one for example, it came very last minute. In some years, there have been multiple stories. Each year, I send the story first to my “Christmas Angel,” the teacher who inspired me to write again.
This year’s story was inspired by a “Blue Christmas” service I was part of, where the pastor played violin. The music penetrated my entire being in a way that nothing else had in a year where loss was all around me. My granddaughter is a budding violinist, so that detail was added to the story.
Here is this year’s story, “Strings Attached.” Thank you, Pastor Lynn and Eloise for inspiring me, ” thank you for the original and continuing encouragement.
The phones rang incessantly, adding to a level of sound that ricocheted off Lynn’s forehead. Her head was already pounding, and answering another call from a disgruntled customer was more than she could bear.
The holiday season was in full force. All around, the cacophony of sound surrounded her, from the phones with urgent last minute orders, to the canned music that blasted everywhere. The final straw for her was the live music in the supermarket, replete with off-key choristers and a decibel level that made her bones rattle. Even the Salvation Army bell ringers were too much for her sensitive ears.
Lynn wasn’t normally such a Grinch, but this holiday had her longing for December 26th. Her husband, Mark, was on a business trip overseas, so the onus of all the holiday shopping, decorating and preparation fell on her. He wasn’t due back until Christmas Eve.
She finished placating the woman from Wisconsin who hadn’t received her fuzzy slippers, and let her supervisor know that she was leaving. She hastily grabbed her purse, as she was already late for the holiday concert at her two granddaughters’ school. As much as she adored Rachel and Laura, it felt like just one more task to accomplish on her ever-growing list.
And, of course, the traffic on the Parkway was backed up. She turned on the radio to distract her, but once again she was bombarded with “Jingle Bells,” this one a jazz rendition. She quickly turned it off, grateful that cars were finally moving.
Finally arriving at the school, she found a spot to stand in the crowded auditorium. She instantly spotter the back of her son Michael’s head, so like his father’s. Her daughter-in-law, Molly waved. She smiled, knowing how proud they were of the girls, and what great parents they were.
Lynn glanced at the program, and saw that she hadn’t missed the strings portion of the concert. Rachel had a solo this year, and had been talking about it for months.
The chorus portion was lively, especially the kindergarten and first graders’ rendition of “Up on the Rooftop,” each cherub wearing a Santa Hat. One especially engaging little blond kindergartner turned towards his classmates, expertly conducting them, mirroring the chorus director.
Her youngest granddaughter, Laura, waved to her, blowing kisses. Her third grade class did an admirable job of singing “Winter Wonderland.”
The strings ensemble, comprised of the fourth and fifth graders, played surprisingly well, with only the occasional off-key note. Rachel looked so grown up, sitting very straight and appearing quite composed.
When it was time for her solo, she gracefully stood, and walked up to the center of the orchestra pit. Lynn said a silent prayer that it would go smoothly.
The first notes of “Greensleeves” resonated deeply in Lynn’s heart. She was thankful that the music director had artfully chosen both a simple, but haunting tune, which masked as “Greensleeves” also conveyed “What Child is This,” one of her favorites.
Silently, almost imperceptively, a single tear rolled down her cheek. Something about this tune moved her in unexpected ways. Her grandmother always said that a tear was love made liquid. She obviously felt love for Rachel, but it was also something about the sound of the violin that was triggering these feelings in her.
The notes in the lower range went directly inside her, and she felt a sense of deep relaxation overcome her. At the edge of memory were these very notes, resonating, inviting, calming.
Lynn applauded loudly, whistling in the way her father had taught her. Rachel saw her, and although she didn’t lose her composure, she smiled.
There wasn’t time for more than a few quick hugs and kisses before Lynn had to get back on the road. These last few days before the holiday were brutal for her company, as customers pursued the perfect gifts to be delivered on time.
After a long day, Lynn didn’t have the heart to do any of her baking. She poured herself a glass of Malbec, and plopped on the couch to open the mail. The usual flyers advertising toys and groceries went into the recycle pile, as she opened the Christmas cards, spending some time catching up with those she didn’t see often. When she was addressing their cards this year, she realized that time was passing way too quickly. There were several names in her address book that had passed away. That was a sure sign of aging, when you found yourself crossing off names.
This time of year was bittersweet. She was grateful for the blessings she had. She and her husband, Mark, had a mature love that few could claim. Her son and his family lived relatively close, and were thriving. Her daughter, Annie, had a successful career as a chef, and was in a new relationship. She would be with everyone on Christmas.
Yet, there were the empty places at the family table during the holidays that reminded her of Christmases past. Losing her parents had been hard, but the loss of her brother last year was beyond painful for her. They had been best friends, and she still found herself wanting to call him to tell about things that they shared.
Lynn took his picture from the mantle.
“You would have cringed at that band in the supermarket!”
Andrew had been a talented musician. Growing up, he amazed everyone with his ability to learn songs on the piano by ear. He was a musical prodigy.
Lynn had not inherited any musical ability from her father, who was an accomplished guitarist. She was more like her Mom, who always said she was the only one thrown out of the junior choir at church because “she couldn’t carry a tune in a wheel barrow.”
As she put Andrew’s picture back on the mantle, she glanced at the photo on the far left. It was a picture of her sitting on her beloved Nana’s lap. She had spent so many glorious hours sitting on her lap, while her grandmother read her stories. They had traveled together across the world, and to the world of the fairies and princesses, all without leaving Nana’s favorite chair.
Her grandmother had died when she was only seven, so the few memories she had of her were fleeting.
Lynn had a sudden burst of energy, and headed up to the attic to try and find the nativity scene. For some reason, the box was not with the other carefully labeled boxes.
The attic was a maze of boxes. She promised herself every year that she was going to go through the myriad of cartons and get rid of things they no longer used. Every year, the idea of that task was so overwhelming, that she put it off.
Looking for the carton containing the Nativity set, she saw the boxes labeled “Nana.” They had resided in her parents’ house, and when they passed away, she had lugged them up to their attic.
Lynn lifted the flaps of the top carton. Inside, she found a stack of drawings and cards she had made for her Nana. She was touched that she had kept them. She lifted up a book of uncut paper dolls.
A “sign of love” rolled down from her eyes. Nana had spent hours cutting out paper dolls for her to play with. She used to tease that she could have taken up residence in the local mental hospital, where they had “arts and crafts.” At least there, she would note, she could have her hair done once a week.
Lynn smiled at the memory.
Under the drawings and the paper dolls was an instrument case. Lynn lifted it carefully, bringing it under the bare bulb in the ceiling so she could see it more carefully. Opening it, she found a violin. Lynn inhaled the distinct smell that emanates from inside an instrument case. It smelled like promise.
She lifted the instrument from the case, and a memory of her playing with her dollhouse people and moving them into this very case came flooding into consciousness. She would pretend that the red felt interior was a palace.
Closing her eyes, the strains of “What Child is This?” seemed to come from the instrument she cradled in her arms. The familiar song washed over her, and she saw her Nana standing by the bay window in her house, playing this very instrument. In the corner, Lynn saw herself as a very little girl, sitting under the tinsel adorned Christmas tree.
Lynn had forgotten that Nana played the violin. Her more recent memories were of her grandmother’s hands being bent from severe arthritis.
She would take the instrument and wrap it for Rachel as an extra Christmas gift. It would be a fitting tribute to her Nana.
As she began to set the violin back in the case, she saw an envelope wedged in the corner. Lifting it out, she saw her name written in Nana’s distinctive script.
Lynn sat down in the rocker in the corner of the attic, and opened the envelope.
“My darling Lynn,
I want you to have my violin. Unfortunately, my hands have grown too gnarled to play. I realize that you are not as proficient as Andrew in learning music, but that doesn’t matter. You feel music in a way he doesn’t, and this violin transmits feelings as much as it does musical notes.
You have a music all your own, dear Lynn. You play a tune for everyone with your smile and your innate sweetness that is every bit as elegant as a sonata. Your symphony will be one that touches people’s hearts.
Share your gifts with others, and play your own tune always. Love, Nana.”
Love rolled down Lynn’s cheek. She knew now why the sounds of Rachel’s violin had touched her so dramatically.
She realized, too, that Nana’s legacy was more about resonating in the hearts of those around her than it was about her music.
Long after her fingers were unable to make this violin sing, her kindness and the patient time she took with others was music enough.
Lynn realized that all the sounds of Christmas had annoyed her, because this was the tune she was seeking, the tune that remained long after the life of someone we love was over, the song that eternally played in our hearts.
It would be a wonderful Christmas, filled with the music of the heart.