12/22/2014 11:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Christmas Cap

2014-12-20-papashat.jpgThere it was on top of the armoire, quiet in the dust of the years, the bright red newsboy cap that had been my Father's favorite as long as I could remember. Like the tin soldier in Eugene Field's poem Little Boy Blue, "awaiting the touch of a little hand, the smile of a little face," tucked away long ago and then forgotten in the crush of every day needs and the inexorable turning of the years.

Touching it with reverent fingers, I was a child again, the years dissolved, my father's hand in mine, laughing with me in the snow. God's in his heaven, all's right with the world. I felt suddenly buoyed with that astounding sense of loving safety only childhood allows. The safety a wonderful Father can embody for his child, that says, "Don't worry. Everything will be alright. I won't let anything harm you."

The Ghost of Christmas Past

The red wool cap, so Irish in its newsboy shape, was always the harbinger of winter days when along with his Christmas red jacket, the cap would make Papa easy to spot in the snow. It was so much a staple of his daily life it seemed to contain his essence now -- the strength, the kindness, the wisdom, the gentle smile, the courage in the face of the odds, the acceptance of life's rocky road as a great gift to be savored as long and as deeply as possible -- all of it alive again through the magic of this Christmas cap.

How could a simple red wool hat have the power to unleash such an abundance of love and memories? How could I ever put it away again, when its very existence filled me with a comfort I'd believed had seeped away forever with the cumulative losses of the years?


2014-12-20-PapaPortrait300x204.jpgI'd found it in the midst of resurrecting holiday ornaments from their year-long hiding places, a lifetime of memories unpacked each December in anticipation of a sacred season. Christmas had become a more complicated compendium of memories in the years since losing my parents and my two older daughters, but it remained my favorite season, like life itself an amalgam of sweet and bittersweet.

Papa-PortraitI climbed down from where I'd found it, the sudden comfort of holding Papa's hat in my hands too beautiful to relinquish, a spar to cling to in a sea of complex memories. Then, on impulse I hung it on the front hall mirror, my spirits lifting. Casually hanging there, it seemed Papa might be walking in the door any minute, tossing the cap to the rack, eyes crinkling with delight at having been in his beloved snow. I could always spot him from my kitchen window, cheery in his Christmas red jacket and cap as he shoveled, pausing every once in a while to throw a snowball across the yard just for fun.

One year after seeing a news report on TV about people having heart attacks from shoveling, I'd bought him a snow blower, then to my amazement, found him outside the following morning happily shoveling at 5 a.m. Sheepishly, he explained he'd started clearing the driveway before I got out of bed, because he didn't want to seem ungrateful for my snow blower gift, but truth was, he loved to shovel. "We all have to die of something," he said cheerily, "If I died of a heart attack shoveling snow, I'd die happy." I knew he meant it.

Christmas Present

Papa-Christmas2So the hat stays perched at the door for the indeterminate future... alive with the magic of memories too abundant and wonderful to explain, too precious to let be lost again.

The keepsakes of those we've loved in life are so sacrosanct, so redolent of love and trust and incalculable awareness of the incomprehensible complexities of life's journey -- a letter, a book, a sweater, a bright red cap. It occurs to me now that these keepsakes are always the simplest of things. Not items valuable by the reckoning of the world, just priceless to us in their magical ability to make our hearts brim over with love that time cannot take from us, no matter what other losses deplete our spirits as the years accumulate. In these strange times we live in, when the distance between the 1 percent and the 99 percent threatens the fabric of our lives and dreams, I wonder if those who give each other diamonds and jet planes for Christmas have memories like mine to treasure... and if all the material security in the world holds a candle to the strength that comes from a parent's gifts of nurturance, and the forever joy we hold inside ourselves as a legacy to that unselfish love.

Riches come in many guises. I feel very rich this Christmas.