For several years now, I’ve been trying to simplify Christmas in our family—without much success. I would especially like to reduce gift-giving to a minimum. “We don’t really need more stuff,” I repeat. “It’s about being together.”
People agree with me in principle and keep on shopping. Especially my daughter who shops year round for this favorite holiday. “Could we just do one gift per person?” I negotiate and she shakes her head. “Maybe next year.”
This past year has been a hard one for me, with the loss of three cats in nine months. When the third one died, I was in despair—not only about cats but about loss itself. The cumulative effects.
I was grateful for the kindness of family and friends. Some weeks went by however, before I heard from a granddaughter who is going to school in Mississippi. “I was at a loss for words,” she wrote. “I didn’t know what to say.” She is not alone, of course. I’ve felt the same and what I’ve learned---by getting it wrong more than once—is that it’s okay to be at a loss for words. It’s not okay to be silent.
Tell someone you’re at a loss for words. If you know the person (or the pet) who has died, share a memory. If you don’t know them, ask. “Tell me about your mom.” Or, if you’re writing to someone, you can say, “Your mom must have been a special person because you’ve turned out so well.”
Nobody said it was easy, for the giver or the receiver of sympathy. But even if you’re at a loss for words, you can say something healing.
When I was growing up, our family went to visit Grampa Anderson every Sunday afternoon. He lived alone in a fusty old house on the other side of town and didn’t have much to entertain young children—so my brother and I played outdoors.
There was a horse chestnut tree in Grampa’s backyard and in the fall we could find dozens of chestnuts buried in the grass. Bob and I collected them like treasures—so smooth and glossy, shining red and gold and brown.
On a bright fall day, my husband and I are canoeing the Betsie River. Our favorite stretch is the flooded area above the Grass Lake dam which was created as a habitat for waterfowl.
We steer between high walls of cattails—against a strong wind. My head is down in fierce concentration but when I glance up, I see how the cattails are dancing. They bow and sway with such grace, I stop cursing the wind and celebrate this perfect partnership.
High above the river in a dead pine tree, we see two bald eagles—watching us as we watch them. Further on, we notice a fresh beaver lodge and stare at the swirling water, hoping to see a neat brown head appear. Oh, there he is. No, he’s gone.
Suddenly a great blue heron leaps out of the reeds and soars over the river. We meet him again and again as we paddle around each turn. He is always standing on a muskrat house—and each time we glide a little closer before he jumps into the sky. I wish he could trust us enough to stay—to have a conversation. And then I realize that this is what we’re having.
Elon Cameron studied photography, printmaking and bookbinding at the Art Institute of Chicago but wasn’t sure that was her life work. “I had a longing for a career calling but I didn’t know what it was,” she says.