December 24, 2013

Christmas Memories: the Musical Nativity

Remembering my Mom at Christmas
(updated from a previous post)


There's a musical nativity figurine I take out every December since 2002. It's a pretty ceramic piece that plays Away in a Manger and has beautifully painted figures of the Holy Family in the classic scene: Mary kneeling, hands folded in prayer, gazing adoringly at the Baby Jesus in the manger with Joseph standing watch over them, a staff in one hand and a lantern in the other. The bottom of this figurine has the date, December 2001, and my mother's name, Carmela. And that's the important part.

This particular figurine was not my first choice when I shopped for a musical nativity for my mother that Christmas. I had glanced at it quickly in the store then passed it by, moving on to other stores. My mom loved nativity scenes and musical boxes, and I was looking for one that revolved while playing a tune (this one is stationary), and one that was larger (this one is a bit over 6 inches tall), so my mother could more clearly see the details given her failing eyesight. After shopping for hours and not finding what I wanted, I went back to the first store and chose this one because it was pretty and colorful, and it played one of my mother's favorite Christmas tunes, 
Away in a Manger. I wasn't totally satisfied with it...the melody sounded rather tinny and the music didn't play very long before needing rewinding...but with time running short, I bought it with the idea that it was fine for now and I'd get her a better one the next Christmas.

Although I was raised Catholic with eight years of parochial school (three different grammar schools due to my family moving and my eighth-grade year at a Catholic orphanage due to Mom's illness), I am not particularly religious (although I consider myself to be spiritual), and a nativity was not a gift that initially came to mind for me. I had already purchased several Christmas gifts for my mother that year and thought I was done shopping. On Christmas Eve, however, I felt drawn to finding a musical nativity for her. Perhaps I was inspired by hearing Christmas music played in the stores while shopping, and remembering how my mother loved nativity scenes and music.      

Before wrapping the gift, I wrote the date and my mother's name on the bottom with a magic marker because she was staying in a nursing home. When I arrived to visit, she looked at me with the faraway blank stare that had become her daily expression. She said my name, as she always did, and nothing more. Sometimes you could not engage her at all, as if she just wasn't there. When I handed her the gifts, she reacted slightly, just giving a little head nod in acknowledgement. But when she saw the nativity, she smiled! For her to really smile at something was a big deal; she did not smile often anymore.



Mom opening gifts
With her failing eyesight, I wasn't even sure the figurine was big enough for her to see the wonderful detail in the figures. But no matter, she seemed to see it well enough to smile right away when it was unwrapped, and an even bigger smile that lit up her face when she heard, Away in a Manger.

My mother loved music; she loved to sing. In her younger days before the illness that left her body alone but took her mind...and oh, did it take her mind to places where a dark unreality could turn a warm summer day into a harsh winter night...she sang whenever she could. When my siblings and I were children, my mother sang along to the radio every day. She had a lovely singing voice. Then gradually, the illness took my mother's body, as well as her mind.

"Away in a manger, No crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus, Lay down his sweet head."

Mom lay down her head for her eternal rest just a few months later. I didn't know it at the time but December 2001 would be my mother's last Christmas. Much sooner then I was expecting. Was it a Christmas miracle that she smiled for me that day? Certainly, a Christmas miracle is anything you want it to be. And so it is for me. Every Christmas since then, when I play the musical nativity, I smile and think of my mother on that Christmas Day. The music I once thought sounded rather tinny, doesn't sound tinny anymore. Now it just sounds like a wonderful memory.


Text and photos ©2013 JerseyLil’s 2 Cents.

36 comments:

  1. Wish you and your family a very happy Christmas ! ! !

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    1. Thank you, John Paul! A Very Happy Christmas to you and your family!!

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  2. What a lovely thing to do each year in remembrance of your mother. Although the figurine wasn't your first choice, it turned out to be the right one which put a nice big smile on your mother's face. I believe that for a moment she was able to clearly see it, and knew what it was.
    It was the perfect Christmas gift and I'm glad that you still have it today, so you can look back with fond memories and smile too. And what a beautiful picture of her.

    Seasonal Greetings to you and your family during this festive time.

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    1. Thanks RPD! Yes, the figurine I originally overlooked turned out to be the perfect gift for my mother on what turned out to be her last Christmas. I believe you are right that at least for a moment, she saw it with clarity and it made her smile. I really appreciate your kind comment on her photo! Seasons Greetings to you!

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  3. A wonderful story of your mom, and a wonderful Christmas ornament.

    Blessings and bear hugs!

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    1. Thank you, Rob-bear! It is a wonderful keepsake and wonderful memory. Big bear hugs right back at ya! Happy Holidays!

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  4. What a touching story, Jersey. A lovely Christmas miracle that is engraved in your heart. Thank you for sharing it with us: the magical moment when she smiled at you because she acknowledged that you were giving her a special the gift, and then the music playing... that memory is precious and beautiful...
    ( I am not religious either, but I am deeply spiritual...)
    Sending you a bear hug, dear friend.
    Merry Christmas.

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    1. Julia, thank you so much! It was a rather magical moment when my mother smiled at the figurine and recognized the song. The smile that lit up her face said it all! I never knew when I purchased the figurine that even though it wasn’t my first choice, it would become a precious, lasting memory every Christmas. Happy Holidays and a big bear hug to you too! Btw, by your beautiful poetry, I can tell that you are deeply spiritual.

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  5. Did people say you looked like her?

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    1. Hi Donna, I hope you and your children had a nice Christmas! Actually, I look more like my father but I have features from both my parents, so sometimes people would say I look like my mother too. One of my sisters, though, looks more like mom. Happy Holidays to you!

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  6. The information in your article is incredible. Very good article. It is very well written. I am looking forward for your more posts in the future.
    Unique Gifts For Musicians

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, and Happy New Year to you!

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  7. Madilyn, you remind me of a quote from Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson:

    "“You never know when you might be seeing someone for the last time.”

    It's touching how Christmas refreshes your memories of your mother. May her soul rest in peace.

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    1. Umashankar, thank you for your kind words! That Marilynne Robinson quote perfectly describes the way I feel; you really never know when it will be the last time. Now every Christmas I can have that lovely memory. All the best to you in the New Year!

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  8. Must admit Madilyn, to feeling a little teary...a beautiful tale indeed.
    Yes,`tinny' really is in the eye of the beholder.
    A very happy Christmas to you my friend; & all the best for the New Year!
    Cheers, ic

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    1. Ian, I am very moved that my post made you feel a little teary, and I admit to being teary-eyed myself as I was writing it. It’s as if the memory were just yesterday. Yes “tinny” really is in the eye of the beholder. Thank you so much, and wishing you all the best for the New Year! Cheers to you too!

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  9. That is a beautiful story. I wish y'all all the best for the holidays and for the new year quickly approaching.

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    1. Thank you, Scorp, I really appreciate that! Wishing you and yours all the best for the New Year!

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  10. I've not been here in a while. Happy Christmas and New Year! Thanks for the many likes and comments on my FB page. You're a star.

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    1. Robert, I’m so glad you stopped by again. You’re very welcome for the likes and comments on your FB page; what you post is really very funny and I enjoy it. Happy New Year and thank you!

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  11. Madi, what a beautiful tribute to your Mother. I'm sure she's smiling down on you always, just as she did that Christmas Day when she received your lovely gift. All good wishes for you and yours in the New Year.

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    1. Jaime, thank you so much! Every Christmas when I take out the figurine, I remember how my mother smiled that day and I’d like to think she’s smiling again whenever I play it. All good wishes to you and yours in the New Year!

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  12. Oh, another memory of mother that brought tears to my eyes! It reminds me my mother's last a few days of her life.
    The nativity figurine looks elegant. No doubt it made your mother smile. I found this music "Away in a Manger" from youtube. it is beautiful! I can imagine your mother singing it beautifully. I wish you mother saw her name at the bottom of figurine, as it is such a beautiful name!
    A wonderful Christmas memory! I wish you a wonderful holiday season!

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    1. Yun, it is special to me that sharing my memory of my mother reminds you of your mother and brings tears to your eyes. Thank you so much! The nativity figurine actually is elegant, beautifully carved and colorfully painted (since we are both fans of Van Gogh, you know how much I am drawn to colors). In her younger days, my mother did sing “Away in a Manger” beautifully. Wishing you all the best for the New Year!

      Btw, I’m glad you found “Away in a Manger” on YouTube. I was going to add it but at the time I did this post, my new computer had not yet been set up and I didn’t have a working sound system. It is a lovely Christmas tune.)

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  13. Another outstanding post, Madilyn. You always write with such warmth and tenderness, every word so genuine, so true. Nothing can match music's power to connect us to our saddest and yet most beautiful memories. Wising you much love and joy in the year ahead.

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    1. Marty, I sincerely appreciate your wonderful words, thank you! I absolutely agree that nothing compares to the power of music “to connect us to our saddest and yet most beautiful memories.” So well said! Wishing you much love and joy in the New Year ahead as well!

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  14. I was really touched by this post, Madilyn. It makes sense that you were drawn to the musical manger scene. The innocence and fondness with which you remember your mom's singing and her love of nativity scenes crystallized in her smile of recognition upon receiving this gift, like a final meaningful connection with her. In the pictures I've seen of your mother, there's a painful beauty. I hope that you and Chuck have had some time to relax over the holidays. Here's to a wonderful 2014! *clink clink*

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    1. Thanks so much, Kris! I believe you have really hit upon something here. My intuitive desire to connect with my mother manifested itself in being drawn to that musical nativity. Because of my mother’s bipolar illness, there was no real mother-daughter bonding, little nurturing from her, and I was often frustrated trying to connect with her on a very basic level. (This was true for all of my siblings.) So my good memories of her go back to remembering the joy with which she sang. Yes, there is a “painful beauty” in my mother’s face; I can see it in all her photos.

      Thinking about what you wrote made me realize that in a deeper sense, the posts I write about my mother are also my personal search for a motherhood connection. Since I never had mother-child bonding, and sadly was unable to have children myself, it’s about the mother I never had and the mother I never got to be. Writing is my connection.

      Happy New Year to you and Brad, and may you have a wonderful 2014! Kris, I truly appreciate your perspective and your friendship!

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  15. Madilyn, Wonderful post...you don't post often enough! I hope you make it part of your 2014 resolutions. Yes, I always think of my dead mother at different times. You know there will never be someone who is as wholeheartedly interested in everything you do. A fitting tribute and these flow of comments are also a fitting tribute to your place in all our hearts. You embody what this blogging support community is about.

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    1. Neil, thank you for your wonderful words and encouragement! Yes, I believe I should plan to post more often in 2014, I do love blogging and writing. Happy New Year and wishing you all the best in 2014, and much success with your excellent writing!

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  16. Powerful and touching, Lil. Thank you for sharing that with us.

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    1. Thanks so much, Big D! Happy New Year and a great 2014 to you!

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  17. What a wonderful post. I missed it at Christmas time, I haven't been at my computer much over the holidays, but it touched me. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and will have a bright New Year.

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    1. Thank you, Jenny, and wishing you a bright New Year too!

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  18. What a poignant lesson - your simple gift, nearly overlooked, was just the thing to unlock the miracle of Christmas. That last heart connection to your mother will stand you in good stead for years to come as you wind it up each holiday season... May your new year bring you many more memories to build those crucial bridges linking your past to your present!

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    1. Melody, thank you! Yes, that nearly overlooked musical nativity was the last heart connection to my mother and turned out to be the perfect gift. I always appreciate your insightful comments. May you have a wonderful and happy New Year!

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