There's no doubt that Christmas is magic. I see it in the eyes of children and the faces of loved ones, and bask in its reflected glow.
But over the decades, that sense of holiday wonder had waned in my own heart, eroded not by age—for Christmas can make hopeful children of us all— but by time and loss.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I thought my happiest Christmases were behind me, lost among years and miles too many and wearisome to count. This year my sweetheart and I bought and decorated a pretty little tree, but with our closest family members multiple time zones away and money tighter than ever, it has been a subdued season.
Then last week, a gift arrived that transformed my Christmas, as magically as Scrooge's spirit visitors changed his in Charles Dickens' 1843 tale A Christmas Carol.
The package came from my mother, Thursday afternoon, in an overnight envelope with a shocking amount of postage. I phoned her on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, where she still lives in our old home place a few blocks from the house where she grew up.
"It's your Big Present," she said.
"Should I open it now?" I asked.
"Sure, why not?" she said, with what I'm pretty sure was feigned nonchalance.
First, the envelope; then, the pretty paper, ribbon and card; then, a moment of incomprehension as I stared at the cover of a spiral-bound book about the size of a small-town telephone directory.
It appeared to be some kind of ... wait, was this the "family cookbook" she and cousin Nancy had been talking about for so long? What a great gift idea, and they'd finally finished! "Thanks, Mom!" I said happily.
Then, phone still to my ear, I opened the book; and as I began to turn the pages I found not only recipes, but a time machine that took me all the way back to my great-grandparents' lives.
Mom and Nancy had gathered their own photographs and recipes, then sweet-talked and strong-armed the rest of the family into contributing many more.
It took them years, but they created a family photo album covering five generations of just about everybody but the ex-husbands.
The pages are rich with much-loved faces from my childhood, and from theirs. Looking through them, I felt a wave of happiness—again like Scrooge, when he was led by the spirit of Christmas Past to the heartwarming sight of his old master Fezziwig's holiday dance.
There is Gran Coz, not wheelchair-bound and blind as I had known her but standing straight and smiling into the camera lens. And there's her son John, known to us as Unkie and the greatest of all great-uncles, whom we still miss at the family table.
Here are my Mom and Nancy and the rest of their tribe of cousins, little children of the 1940s and 1950s; and here we are in the 1970s, the next generation, romping the same island and sailing the same waters. More pictures show us with our own little ones.
The two of them also shared written memories of their earliest homes and adventures, as well as holiday recollections from later years. I couldn't tear myself away from the descriptions of life in Florida grove country in the 1940s, when they were small girls, before the families migrated to New England.
And yes, there are plenty of recipes, some scrawled and stained, some neatly printed, a few virtually illegible—all scanned and printed for posterity.
The famous "cheesy grits" are there, along with the Mushroom Roll-ups and Clam Puffs Mom served the cast of Jaws in her catering days. There's even a recipe for baked beans from the landlady of the house we lived in when I was a newborn and Dad was flying with the Navy. (Somewhere along the way, Mom lost her original copy, so the version in the family cookbook appears in the form of an email from me.)
But while I prize the recipes, what's really special about this gift is that it has brought my family back to me, across thousands of miles, scores of years and the gulf of death itself.
From now on, wherever I find myself at Christmas time, as long as I have this book I'll be home for the holiday.
Thanks, Mom and Nancy!