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Roxane B. Salonen, Published January 03 2014

Living Faith: How we brought Christmas to Grandma

In her younger years, Grandma Betty was a spunky gal who enjoyed daily laps at the pool, traveling whenever possible, playing bridge, and relishing life with her family.

As the longtime matriarch of our brood, she knew all the good stories, and we eagerly gathered round at family events to hear her spin the old yarns with enhanced inflections and details added each time, always delivered with her unique spark.

But lately, closing in on her 100th year of life, Grandma has grown quiet; her world, small. This past summer, after holding on tight to what she’s always known, a fall brought her to the hospital, and from there, a new home offering 24/7 care.

Now, trips to Mom’s in Bismarck include visits to the assisted-living facility to see Grandma in her new digs.

Our young ones speak the words we all feel on some level. “Do we have to go back again?” they ask. No, I say, but someday, if we’re blessed to live a long life, we, too, may be removed from the things we’ve known and loved, and wouldn’t it mean everything to see family or friends walk in the door?

The wheels turn in the eyes of our 11-year-old. He’s a thinker, undoubtedly thinking about that someday time. His protests come to a halt.

Grandma has always been a Christmas gal, planning months in advance to make things merry and bright for all. This year, our family celebrates in her home as usual, and it’s lovely, but something important is missing.

“Let’s go,” someone finally says, cuing up the clan. One by one, we gather our coats and boots, and all 15 of us – Mom, my sister and family and my troop, too – head out the door with songbooks and a few gifts in hand.

As we arrive, someone wheels Grandma out into the hall in front of her room. She’s got blush on her cheeks, a bit of pink on her lips. She’s sparkling. It’s her day, after all.

We form a half-circle around her and start shuffling the pages of the songbooks.

“Let’s start with …” my sister says, calling out the carol and number. Her husband gives the starting pitch with the help of his smartphone, and off we go.

We’ve got three music teachers and several professional musicians in the group, along with a hoard of talented kids. As we sing “Joy to the World,” Grandma sizes us all up, little expression on her face. Alzheimer’s is a new word being attached to her. It’s hard knowing what she’s taking in.

We sing some more, and slowly she begins to smile. “I haven’t heard that one in a long time,” she says, prodding us to keep on.

Back in her room, a small, white ceramic tree with multi-colored lights sits on a nightstand. My mother has brought it from home. Grandma has been marveling at its beauty, thanking her repeatedly, not remembering it used to sit on a stand in her dining room.

Finally, we close our books, pose with Grandma for pictures, and help her over to a table, where she labors over the opening of gifts, yet seems pleased.

The night before, our family attended midnight Mass at the cathedral. Pink and white poinsettias enlivened the altar, along with gold, swaying vertical banners and a glittery evergreen. A star suspended from the tall ceiling fell just above the treetop and twirled magically.

Inspired at the sight of it, I’d taken a photo and sneaked in a quick phone video of one of the prelude carols. Now, these images and sounds provide a way for me to share more Christmas with Grandma. She pulls my phone close, and holding it to her ear, grins.

I don’t know that we did it justice, but Christmas this year was far from Grandma, so we tried bringing Christmas to her. It’s not the same. It will never be the same. But it’s enough for now, and beautiful in its own way.

As we leave Grandma at the dinner table with her friends, I see her beaming as she tells them, “They sang for me, you know. All of them sang.”

Indeed we did, Grandma, for all the times you’ve sung your stories to us.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com.