I’m going to spend Christmas Eve this year at the Super 8 Motel in Fond du Lac, Wis., and I’ll eat my Christmas dinner in the cafeteria at St. Agnes Hospital sometime between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Quite honestly, I can’t think of a better way to spend Christmas this year. I’ll be visiting my 94-year-old stepmother, Ruth, now in an assisted living/nursing home facility. Since my father died 16 years ago, Ruth has chosen to spend Christmas alone in her house.
I’ve never been quite sure why, but she’s resisted my offers to visit over the holiday. She said she was happy to make her own dinner, a Cornish game hen, read her Christmas cards and field the well-wishing phone calls. But when I offered this year, she said, “Come. I’d like that.”
My stepbrother and his wife, who live 30 miles away, are graciously and generously tending to his mother on an almost daily basis. Now it’s my turn.
Ruth and I have had a few scratchy times over the years, where we bristle and bluster (at least on my part). Those times have dwindled with the growing awareness that our days are also dwindling.
So I’ll be coming with some grace and gratitude, for all of the things Ruth’s done. First among them was her care and treatment of my father after his sight was lost to macular degeneration and his mobility to osteoarthritis. She read the evening paper to him, spending an hour – not missing the obituaries or the box scores. When he finally went to a nursing home, she was there every day, making sure that he was clean and comfortable.
She and my dad married when I was 25, four years after my mother died. Ruth always welcomed my friends to their home in Fond du Lac. When my Minneapolis Star colleague The Bear (Bob Schranck) headed to Elkhart Lake to cover the speedway races, he’d stop over for the night. He’d also keep both of them up half the night pounding on his portable typewriter, finishing a story he should have finished hours ago. Ruth and Dad would send him on his way with a sack of sandwiches, a hunk of cheese and a couple of beers for the cooler.
Her accommodation of my friends is matched by her acceptance of me. During a visit this fall, she told me she doesn’t refer to me to the nursing home staff as her stepson. “I always tell them,” she said, “that you’re my ‘other’ son.” I felt a little guilty about asking that same staff, in my daily phone calls, how my “stepmother” Ruth was doing.
Mother or stepmother, she’s the one I’ll spend Christmas with, and my gift will be a warm, fleece throw from L.L. Bean with her name embroidered on it. She doesn’t move around much anymore and always complains that she’s cold.
I’ve never been a great gift giver – or receiver, for that matter. None of that matters this year because the important thing is just to be there. So, from the Super 8 along Highway 41, halfway between Green Bay and Milwaukee:
I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas.