“If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.” That’s a line from the 1990 movie “Avalon,” which comes to mind every Christmas season because it’s a time of year that prompts me to reflect on the past and the best gift I ever received.
It was Dec. 24, 1980, and the wait was grueling. My 11-year-old self had asked for the popular “large size Star Wars action figures” for Christmas, and I couldn’t wait to find out whether they would be under the tree.
There were already a couple of gifts there so, being a little sneaky, I put saliva on my finger and rubbed it on the wrapping paper thinking it would become more transparent. No luck. My mother is a gift-wrapping ninja who encased my presents in so much paper, not even Superman’s X-ray vision could see through it. The only solution was to wait it out. A nap would be a good idea, I thought, so I lay in bed telling myself to fall asleep.
Finally, it was time to go to the Christmas Eve vigil Mass at St. Raphael’s, Sunnyside, with my mother, father and maternal grandparents, who lived a few doors down from us. Despite difficult challenges, like my grandfather’s advancing Parkinson’s disease, we always went to church as a family. It was never seen as a burden, but as something special and necessary to live a good life. Also, my family had survived some harrowing experiences in Yugoslavia after World War II before they immigrated to the United States, and they attributed that to God.
Mass was so festive that it distracted me from my preoccupation with presents. We got to sing carols instead of Advent songs – and a feeling of palpable joy emanated from everyone wearing their finest garb in an overflowing church. After Mass, we made the traditional rounds: first to my paternal grandparents, then to my maternal grandparents and finally back home. Sure enough, I hit the action-figure motherlode. There was Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca and more. At the time, I thought those were the greatest presents I ever received.
Adulthood brings a different perspective, though. While the toys provided me with hours of fun, it’s the memories that I truly treasure because they were grounded in love. God blessed me with two grandmothers who loved to bake, so their affection was displayed through crescent cookies, made out of ground almonds and dusted with sugar – and through apricot cakes and linzer cookies that made the house smell divine.
I’m also overwhelmed by everything my mother and father did for me that Christmas and throughout my childhood. They worked hard to support our family: my father as a customs broker at Kennedy Airport, and my mother as a coat-check attendant at the Waldorf Astoria. I never lacked love growing up and I know now that gave me a great advantage in life. I’m grateful to still have my parents with me.
Middle age has also taught me that time actually passes very quickly, not slowly, like my 11-year-old self believed. So when you gather with your family and friends to celebrate Christmas this year, take it all in, even the smallest details. In other words, “remember better.” Those moments will be the best Christmas gifts you’ll ever receive.