The most important person at our Thanksgiving feast this year wasn’t even at the table. Before the first morsel of turkey was gobbled, my cousin Megan proposed that we raise our glasses to my mom, who passed away in February, one month shy of her 89th birthday.
Art Boy and I had spent the day in the car, driving from Santa Cruz all the way down to Hermosa Beach. We much prefer to stay firmly rooted to hearth and home—our home—for the holidays, if at all possible. But this was going to be the first big holiday without Mumsie, and I thought it was important to be there to share it with my brothers, Mike and Steve, who lived with Mom in the house we all grew up in at the end of her life. It was a bittersweet time for us; we felt my mom’s fun-loving spirit everywhere in the house she lived in for 56 years, but we were so sorry we hadn’t organized one last, big family feast like this a couple of years earlier, before my mom’s last series of strokes, when she could have still been with us in person, alert and mobile, to enjoy it.
At this holiday time of year, we gather with our family unit, put aside those inevitable differences, and try to remember what it is that unites us. And as we advance through life, we begin to realize that the holidays are less and less about presents (seriously, does anybody need more stuff?), and more about presence—sharing that most precious and finite of commodities: time together.
Since March, I’ve been slogging through boxes of Bader and Jensen family photos, snapshots of history that we brought back from our last trip down south to clear out Mom’s things. The thrill of discovery as I’ve gone spelunking into this treasure trove has been tempered by the sadness of not having Mom around any more to tell me what some of them are.
I was lucky. My mom shared a lot of these things with me over the years, especially old family photos. Unlike her afflicted Virgo daughter, my Mom lacked the organization gene; her photos were mostly loose and uncaptioned in envelopes stashed in drawers. But later in her life, I was able to put a lot of them into albums for her, date them, and most important, hear my mom’s stories. She and her five siblings moved around a lot as their minister father was transferred from parish to parish, but Mom always knew which tiny Nebraska hamlet any given photo was taken in, the date, and the occasion. Still, since then, I’ve unearthed plenty of images and other scraps of ephemera I’d love to know more about.
As kids, you never think your parents had lives before you came along; you just assume they were in some kind of dormant state, like the stasis chamber in Alien, until your arrival activated them. But there’s nothing like old family photos, tattered letters of ancient vintage, and yellowing newspaper clippings, carefully preserved, to prove otherwise.
Just before her last, debilitating series of strokes, Mom gave me a precious item I’d had no idea existed. It was the diary she kept as a 23-year-old Navy bride in New York in 1944. In it, she recorded her days and thoughts, copying favorite song lyrics and humorous poems out of the Saturday Evening Post for Daddy to take with him when he shipped out, to feel closer to her. She wrote a dedication on the first page and signed it “Red,” his nickname for her. On the plain, fraying cloth-bound hard cover, I can just make out Daddy’s untidy pencil scrawl: “A. J. Jensen, USS Missouri.”
Tucked away among her things, I found a letter Mom wrote for me in 1988 about her own mother, my grandmother. In detailing Grandma’s life as a young woman, “gently reared” in Worcester, MA., Mom writes that she was meant to go to Smith College until a family emergency drained the funds; instead, she married an “impecunious Methodist minister,” my grandfather. What if she’d gone to college instead? Where would we all be now?
Stuffed in with a letter from a niece on the Jensen side of the family, among some old clippings charting my dad’s Naval promotions, I found a notice that Daddy’s ship (the USS Colorado, at that time) had been deployed to the Pacific to join the hunt for Amelia Earhart. Who knew?
And just last month, after we lost another beloved Jensen relative, her longtime companion called to tell me another amazing story about a precious Waterford crystal bowl passed down from the family matriarch known to one and all as “Grandma Mike.” At age 24, emigrating to America by boat in 1910 with her husband and children, my Grandma Mike evidently carried the bowl on her lap in steerage all the way from Denmark—while wrangling three small daughters and 6-month-old infant, Astrid. (Destined to be listed 10 years later in a Sioux City, Iowa, census as “Ester”—born in America.)
Everyone has a unique story, full of action, drama, romance, pathos—even your relatives. Now, when you’re all gathered for the holidays, is the perfect time to share those family stories, while you still can. Trust me, your presence in the process of midwifing these stories from one generation to the next will be worth a thousand presents.
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