Over the years, I have found it almost impossible to distinguish one year of Christmas photos from the next.
They blend together as a collage of happy times with the same people opening different presents.
So when I consider the ghosts of Christmas past, the photographs are no help. Thankfully, the memories are still vivid, with some reaching early into my childhood with those since passed.
I remember my Uncle Jack and Aunt Eileen never worrying about the element of surprise. Uncle Jack wrapped a basketball one year in Christmas paper and seemed unfazed as I dribbled it — paper and all — around the Christmas tree. Years later, my Aunt Eileen was equally unperturbed as I tapped golf balls with my wrapped putter.
I remember sitting in the living room of our new home in Connecticut, listening to astronauts James Lovell and Frank Borman read Biblical passages while circling the moon and knowing mankind was at the dawn of a momentous accomplishment.
I remember driving home from Kentucky on Christmas Eve after being laid off from my first newspaper job. It was during a gas shortage and there was concern I could find enough gas to make it home. When I finally walked in the door, I realized I had given my parents the best present ever — I was home.
I remember the road years after I was married and the countless trips to be with our families. One year, we would wake up in Connecticut on Christmas morning and drive to Long Island. The next, we would wake up on Long Island on Christmas morning and drive to Connecticut.
I remember cramming our two families into our tiny little house on Ridge Street — along with eight dogs — when we first moved to Glens Falls.
Other memories are more recent, yet no less significant.
I remember my son’s first Christmas and the mountains of presents he received.
And I remember deciding on the spur of the moment one Christmas Eve to make a movie of my attempts to catch Santa Claus breaking into my house, and my little boy’s unbridled glee the next morning watching the videotape of his father being outfoxed by Santa.
But there is one Christmas memory more powerful than the others.
Our neighbors across the street were celebrating their first Christmas in their new house. I was just 11 or 12. My father heard our neighbor had been laid off from his job. He suggested to my mother we should go over for a visit. As the story was retold years later on multiple Christmas Eves amidst mounds of food, drink and merriment, our neighbor had hit rock bottom. There were few presents under the tree and only the bleak prospect of an unpaid mortgage in the new year until a neighbor came knocking on the door with good tidings and a bottle of good cheer.
Our neighbors retold that story every time we were all together.
I can’t think of a better memory or a better legacy for my dad.
You see, it’s not the presents you remember, or the lavish dinner, it’s the people and the experiences and what they mean in your daily lives.
And if you are truly blessed, there will be one time when you truly make a difference on Christmas Eve.
We will celebrate with a houseful of friends and relatives again this year. It is bittersweet after the passing of my mother-in-law, Mavis.
But the boy is home from college and we have found ourselves parked in the kitchen more than once, talking late into the night about life and the future.
He continues to be a joy.
Earlier this month, my wife and I answered a call from her oncologist. She sat the phone down on the table and turned on the speaker.
He told us her scan had come up clean. The cancer she had battled through nine months of chemotherapy this past year was gone.
So we already know this may be the best Christmas ever.