It has been 15 Christmases since my mother passed. But I can’t help remembering all the lessons she taught me — especially one regarding what Christmas is all about.
It was Christmas Eve, 1987. I was a young naval officer, and I had been at sea nearly 100 days straight escorting U.S.-flagged tankers through the Persian Gulf in the largest convoy operation since WWII. On this particular Christmas, my ship — the aircraft carrier USS Midway — was just outside the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Iran, while Iran and Iraq were approaching their sixth year of war with each other.
It was Dec. 24, and Bob Hope flew aboard my carrier. Of course, it wasn’t just Bob. Oh no. He brought a bevy of beauties, with impossibly perfect bodies, legs that never stopped, perfect smiles and Big Hair. He came with singers and actors and beauty-contest winners.
I was thinking back on previous Christmases while waiting for the show to begin. Christmas was my mother’s favorite holiday, and she always pulled out all the stops. All her Hummel Christmas figurines were paraded out and displayed, depicting Nativity scenes and Christmas characters like Santa and Rudolph. I could remember so many of my mother’s perfectly orchestrated Christmases, but not all distinctly and separately. Many seemed to run together to where I couldn’t remember which Christmas had brought me the Hot Wheels set and which brought me the blue blazer.
But thanks to my mother, there were Christmases throughout my past, when the world around me was still so very new and I had found heroes who caught footballs and swung bats — heroes who I believed were just and fair and played for the love of the sport. Those Christmases were white and cold on the outside, but warm and glowing on the inside. As I waited for Bob Hope’s Christmas show to start, I felt so distant from the wonder of the season seen through the eyes that I had when I was waist-high.
As I waited on the hangar deck, I thought of my childhood home and all of its seasonal aromas. Breads and cookies that spread their scented glory throughout the rooms and struck me in the soul on the first step inside from the winter wind. A smell that said “home” like no other, a smell that welcomed all to the glowing promise of the ancient hearth. A smell that welcomed Christmas. And there were other aromas, as well. Aerosols that billowed from the bathrooms, as the house filled with too many elderly family females for the square footage of powder rooms, mixed with the mist of fogged-up mirrors and invisible-but-staggering perfume clouds.
Eventually, the show got started, with Bob Hope leading the way. I was shocked and surprised at how talented and engaging he was in person. The show turned out to be much better than I had expected. He actually was a very funny man with a wicked sense of looking at the world and twisting his words to make everyone laugh at their own worst weaknesses and gaffes.
But when the laughs were done, the reality of this Christmas and how far away it was from any of the Christmases I remembered — that reality crushed my soul.
After the show, I went to my bunkroom to open the presents that my mother had sent me. She’d sent a little do-it-yourself plastic Christmas tree. I had put the thing up in my tiny and crowded bunkroom. It was something that resembled the little Christmas tree in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Pathetic in a cute sort of way. Mom had also sent a good couple of handfuls of my old and faithful Christmas tree decorations, like the tiny clothespin soldiers I had made back in first grade. I hung all those faithful, Elmer’s-Glue-dried-and-dripping decorations — decorations that had tiny red pipe cleaners for arms and colored cotton balls for hats. I hung all of those decorations on the Charlie Brown Christmas tree and didn’t care if anyone might laugh at it.
So I sat — alone — opening brightly wrapped packages that contained the presents sent by my mother to represent the love and warmth of family. I sat and opened those bright boxes in the glare of the blinking lights of the pathetic tree. And in the flashing hues, I was suddenly swept with loneliness so absolute, so profound and pure — a desperate longing that gripped my soul and squeezed and squeezed, until tears were squeezed from my eyes. And as I sat and stared amid the torn wrappings, so happy in their colors and cheery brightness, I cried.
I cried for the loss of those long-ago Christmases that were warmth and childhood. I cried for times forever fled when I sat between my parents at church on Christmas Eve, warm and safe and oh so large on each side of me, and sang the ancient songs of harking herald angels and mangers that were far and away. I cried for a world that needed men like me, in uniform, in harm’s way, flung across the world, separated and gone away.
In the tear-blurred lights and at that moment, I missed my mother and my family as I had never before. I missed the staggering perfume clouds. I missed the fogged-up mirrors. I missed the cooking smells. I missed each and every one of them in my crystal pure, absolute loneliness. It was the kind of missing that stripped away my outer man, shucking me like a husk, leaving only the naked little boy that still lived inside me, exposed and crying.
I believed in what I was doing. I believed in the duty I had as a U.S. Navy officer. I firmly believed that societies grow and flourish only so long as there are those who are willing to sacrifice on their behalf. My mother had taught me this.
But theories and duty and abstract beliefs can be pretty inconsequential when a man is exposed to the icy winds of his little-boy loneliness. And in the winking lights of my plastic Charlie Brown tree, all blurred with my tears, I wondered if I wasn’t on the wrong path. I couldn’t help thinking that, when it came down to the brass tacks of life, there really wasn’t a whole lot else that exemplified the best of life than Christmas spent with Mom, Dad and family.
But then, I also thought how someone as famous as Bob Hope — who was such an American icon — had traveled so far to give a show to me and my shipmates. How he and so many had given up their families at Christmas to come such a long way to reach out to men like me. Just to let us know that we weren’t alone — not really — and that we were all part of a society of shared hopes, shared dreams and shared striving. Suddenly, I felt that I understood more clearly than ever the beliefs I’d been taught by my mother regarding Christ’s birth and sacrifice: That our God had taken on the frailty and limited form of humanness, that he might share in human joys and pains and lonelinesses and deaths. I suddenly grasped with new insight what my mother had always said: It is in the wonder and hope and belief in the love of a God who would willingly share in the crushing mortality and limitations of his fleeting creations that is at the heart of Christmas.
My mother’s teachings found their mark that lonely Christmas. I came to understand as never before what Christmas was for my mother. For Mom, Christmas was not in the glitter and props and material objects offered and received. It was not in rituals, half-pagan, whose meanings had long been forgotten. Christmas, for my mother — and now for me — would always be in the warmth of family, in the hearts of loved ones and of those who one cares about. It would always be in the drawing together to share the warmth that only we can give to each other and, together, to dare hope for a time when the world won’t be quite so mean, quite so lonely or quite so cold.
Joel L.A. Peterson is the founder and CEO of Student Planning Services, LLC, and the author of the upcoming book “Dreams of My Mothers” (Huff Publishing Associates, March 2015). Learn more at www.dreamsofmymothers.com.