Each December brings me special memories of my mother, Peg. Her birthday was December 19th, 1927, and she left this life on December 7, 2015. In between those two dates, she embraced the Advent and Christmas seasons in very determined and creative ways. I was remembering her this month and found myself grateful for three gifts she gave me.
She taught me the importance of baking and decorating Christmas cookies.* It was a Bourland tradition to make: peanut blossoms, snickerdoodles, spritz cookies from a cookie press, and something called icebox cookies (heavily laden with chopped nuts). The most fun for us five kids was to work on the sugar cookies: rolling out the dough, using the cookie cutters, baking, and then icing the reindeer, wreaths, and stars. All of these were carefully stored in tins, ready to serve anyone who dropped by, or to take to neighbors as a small treat.
Mom also gave me a passion for music. As a young child, I listened repeatedly to her LPs of Gilbert and Sullivan and modern musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “Oklahoma.” But what really brought me into the world of music was her own piano playing. In December, she mostly played and sang along to Christmas carols. One of her favorites was “Love Came Down at Christmas,” which articulated the deepest belief of her Christian faith: “God is love.”
This core belief shaped my mother in the ways of “practical Christian service.” In my childhood and youth, I observed the attention she gave to young children. Through such domestic tasks as cooking, singing, traveling, reading, sewing, gardening, and laundry, she built structures and routines for her own family. But she also moved beyond our family to church and Sunday School, PTA and Girl Scouts, and the entire town to provide places for all children to flourish. Her focus on children’s development came to its fruition in her work as a kindergarten teacher in the public school.
After retiring, she felt called to establish a community-wide, ecumenically-based food pantry. Founded in 1990, the Glade Valley Food Bank has now served thousands of people. My quiet and competent mother tackled the organizational logistics–provisions, legal, personnel, and financial–with careful thought and a sensitive heart. Over 23 years, she served as a volunteer in the roles of the staff trainer/coordinator, intake specialist, and county-wide representative, and helped to procure the food from government agencies and supermarkets. I think of her and the food bank during the Thanksgiving-Christmas season because she was so committed to obtaining and then providing all the items needed for each of “her” families to have an abundant feast for these holiday meals.
I thought again of my mother while reading Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by social psychologist Brené Brown. She writes: “Why am I working so hard to decorate my son’s birthday cupcakes like cute little Despicable Me minions when there are so many Syrian children starving to death? What difference do these stupid cupcakes really make? They matter because joy matters” (page 156).
Decorating cupcakes or Christmas cookies, singing carols, or donating spiral-cut hams–all these activities matter. Because when we sing about Love Divine becoming incarnate in a human baby, we open our whole selves both to receive that love and always to share it with others. Brown sums up God’s call on our lives: “working to make sure that everyone gets to experience what brings meaning to life: love, belonging, and joy.”
*My mom also had a HUGE Epiphany baking project: fruitcakes by the dozens. She gave each one regular soakings of brandy for about 10 months so they’d be ready as gifts for the following Christmas. Somehow I have never been attracted to the dried red and GREEN maraschino cherries of fruitcakes.