Mary Stanik: Upon reflection, reflecting … to see flashes of joy

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“Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.”

These words attributed to Winston Churchill have been on my mind a lot as the year’s biggest holiday makes its final approach. Usually, I’m big on the rejoicing part of Christmas. This year, I’m joining countless others who aren’t feeling totally holly-jolly, old-Andre-champagne-TV-ads Christmas joyful. At least not in full. I’ll get to the not in full part soon.

I’ve written for this paper about the twists, turns, and cross-country moves (plural) I’ve experienced since I became my now 91-year-old mother’s full-time caregiver following her June 2014 stroke. In late August, her decline went into red alert and my brother and I added our names to the list of those who have had to put a parent into skilled nursing. One month later, we had to put her into inpatient hospice.

Now none of this was unexpected. And at 91 years and nine months, it can be said my mother not only had a very long life but, when measured in full, a mostly decent run on this orb. And even though it’s been rough seeing her go within weeks from serviceable mobility to nearly silent and almost complete bedbound status, what my brother and I are paying in dues to the circle of life is fairly slight compared to what so many others are experiencing this season. With murder, violence and war aflame in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine, with the United States becoming so divided that even usually non-hysterical people fear a real civil war, not to mention those who are tending to seriously ill or dying children or spouses or experiencing their first Christmas without parents, children or spouses, I have tried to heed Churchill’s words and concentrate on perspective and worthy reflection.

But not always. While reflecting on things such as what to do once I’m not a caregiver anymore, I thought I needed some diversion. Instead of seeking out, for instance, Churchill’s many works of history, I decided to look at some of the hordes of holiday movies that now appear on television before Halloween. One of them, 2022’s “A Christmas Story Christmas” was one I watched a few times when it came out last year, as it was heavily promoted as a most worthy sequel to 1983’s “A Christmas Story.” Extensive promotion aside, the reviews were not unworthy but few critics thought the film capable of displacing a classic like “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

After another day of doing what I can to help the staff help my mother exit this world as safely and comfortably as possible, I decided to see once again how a now grown, aspiring novelist Ralphie went back to his Indiana hometown following the death of his father just a few days before Christmas 1973.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and if you think you might want to, stop reading now. Okay.

Anyway, as I saw Ralphie/Ralph drive into a neighborhood that looked not all that different from the Milwaukee area one I grew up in (and only about 120 miles from the movie’s setting), have fun drinking too much in a tavern run by his childhood friend, a tavern very, very much like ones in my neighborhood (and, come to think of it, quite a bit like St. Paul’s famous/infamous Gopher Bar, which I went to some in younger and more mature days), and proceed with his mother’s wish to honor his Christmas-loving father by making their Christmas as happy (if not extravagant) as possible, I went into a different type of reflection. It wasn’t quite like the Grinch thinking Christmas wasn’t about buttons, bows and stolen trees but it was revelatory all the same.

As I watched the film to the end and smiled wryly when Ralph didn’t get his novel published but instead received an offer to become a columnist for his hometown newspaper, I almost felt like the Reformed Grinch when I thought, well, how could a movie, of all things, make me feel so much better? Did my late father and brothers want me to see something that would remind me of days when we all were together at Christmas? Does someone want me to still find happiness even while on a sort of death watch? Was I meant to be reminded how much my own mother loved Christmas and probably wouldn’t want to see me depressed if she were able to realize as much? I don’t know.

All I can say is that for me at least, life won’t get easier in the short term. My brother and I know our mother could even die on Christmas Day, though such wouldn’t be as sad as it was for a St. Paul-area friend who lost her mother on Christmas just four months after having her first child.

So, upon further reflection, I’m going to continue to try to create at least a few bits of rejoicing for myself. If it takes television movies to do the trick, well, okay.

Though I believe it would be wise to avoid the drinking too much in a tavern run by a childhood friend part.

Mary Stanik, a former St. Paul resident now living in Tucson, Ariz., is a writer and a full-time parental caregiver. 

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