Christmas is not supposed to be a sad time. Here in 2012 in our small-town world and in the not-so-far-away world around us, there is a pervading sadness that has tempered the beauty of what is supposed to be a most happy and beautiful season.
In the past month, we have seen the tragic deaths of two promising teenagers with close ties to our community. We have honored a valiant young Marine, Lance Cpl. Anthony Denier, who gave his life in a far-off land standing up for our American ideals.
And we are trying to come to grips with an unspeakable tragedy in the senseless massacre of 20 beautiful children and six adults whose focus in life has been to educate and nurture children in Newtown, Conn., a close-knit and caring community not unlike our own.
Saddest of all
This has all vividly reminded me of the saddest Christmas of my life.
Four days before Christmas in 1971, my father died. My father loved Christmas like no one else I’ve ever known. He loved it all — the lights, the music, the food, the gifts, the fellowship, the Midnight Mass. Every year, he would get excited all over again getting ready for the Christmas season.
In 1971, I had five small children. On Dec. 21, I sent Tom Jr. and Marty off on their school bus and baked a batch of gingerbread boys for Tom Jr.’s third-grade class party, which would be held the next day. When I got a call from Mom, who was working in Albany at the time, saying that she was a little worried that Dad was not answering the phone, I piled my three youngest kids into the car and went to check on him.
Fearing the worst (he had been suffering from a severe, lingering cold), I left the kids in the car and went inside to see if he was OK. He was not.
Memories that stay
Christmas 1971 was pretty much a blur. People to call, help to be sought, a wake and a funeral to be arranged. But over the years, there are memories that have stayed with me. Christmas memories.
There was my brother-in-law Joe who came immediately to scoop up my little kids and take them home with him. His wife, Nancy, frosted and decorated the gingerbread boys and took them to school for Tom Jr.’s party the next day.
Neighbors Betty and Bill Hannan brought armloads of toys to the house to make sure the kids had a real kids’ Christmas in spite of the sorrow. Family and friends brought food and gave us shoulders to cry on. They shared memories and funny stories and got us through it.
The wake was the night before Christmas Eve. Who would come? No one would take time out from their happy Christmas preparations to come to a wake.
They did. They came in an endless line. They came on their way home from shopping and from work, many of them still dressed in their work clothes. They came out in spite of the snow and the cold and the errands they still had to run and their own busy Christmas preparations.
Dad’s funeral was the morning of Christmas Eve. We laid him to rest in Hudson View Cemetery.
As a family, we had always treasured Midnight Mass at St. Luke’s Church with its music and candles and its uplifting message of the birth of the Christ child.
We went to Mass that night. Tom, Jr., who was just 8 years old, had been training to be an altar boy and his first scheduled Mass was Midnight Mass on that Christmas Eve. In spite of his sorrow, he was determined to do it for his grandfather.
As I watched the little tow-headed boy in his white robe solemnly doing his job on the altar that night, all I could think of was how much his grandfather loved him. Was he looking down on him now?
Resolution for future
I made a vow in 1971 that I would not let the sadness of that Christmas take the joy out of all the Christmases yet to come. I vowed that in honor of the father I loved that I would forever cherish and celebrate his favorite holiday.
And this Christmas, as I light the lights, decorate the tree and listen to some of the most beautiful music ever written, as I gather my family around me with hugs and laughter and more than a few tears, I will pray. I will pray that the families who are dealing with the saddest Christmas of their lives will find solace in the love and support of family, friends, neighbors and even caring strangers. I will pray that they will all find the true meaning of Christmas and hold onto it forever.
Sandy McBride lives in Mechanicville. Her oldest son, Tom Jr., is a copy editor at The Gazette.