"I miss you tremendously, but the sadness and difficulty has shown me a special meaning of children and being a father. Especially, though, I’ve come to know it as a single father in the past 10 months.”
“Children at any age are a gift. Although at two years old you can’t understand that yet, I want to tell you why you are so special to me.”
In that letter I wrote 31 years ago, I then detail our weekends together. The last two lines – and the memory of writing them during the Christmas season – were what the letter was all about.
“In this single moment I’m always reminded of how much it means to be with you and be your father. It’s a gift I’ll treasure forever. Love, Dad.”
These lines and that letter transfixed and preserved my cherished thoughts over the years. Holidays summon our memories and feelings in them about important times and events.
Whether obvious or subtle, they shine a light on relationships, some brittle or perhaps weakened, others robust and vibrant.
The good ones, though, inspire hope and love, especially during the holiday season, said Dr. Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., in an interview with South County Life.
“Inspiration is strongly associated with these occasions, as they are aligned with hope and love, both at the heart of inspiration,” said the professor who studies the psychological effects of nostalgia and its meaning in people’s everyday lives.
Despite the realities of a brutalizing pandemic, hope and love in memories are sustaining people as they deal with the challenge of changed holidays. Several residents shared their memories of touching moments with other people that deepened the meaning of their holidays through their lives.
Here’s what a few told us about some important moments, including rough times for some.
Rabbi Ethan Adler, Congregation Beth David, Narragansett
He tells the story of one of his regular visits to a woman in a nursing home, when she became essentially unresponsive, but suddenly recited Hanukkah prayers with him.
“When I walked into her room, she was lying in bed, motionless and just gazing at the ceiling. I introduced myself and pulled a chair close to her bed. I mentioned that this was Chanukah and that I came by so we could light the Hanukkah menorah together,” he said, using a battery-powered one.
“I turned on the menorah and began to sing the prayers associated with the lighting. I totally expected to sing solo, which I had done too many times. As I began to sing, I looked at her and noticed, to my disbelief, that she was mouthing the Hebrew words of the blessing,” he recalled.
“I then began to sing the second blessing and once again, her lips moved in rhythm to the song. When I was done, I turned off the menorah and mentioned to her how happy I was that she was able to join me with the lighting prayers,” he said.
She remained silent, motionless. Hearing the words and melodies triggered memories deeply hidden, and for those few special moments, we had connected over words and melodies, he said.
“I left her room emotionally spent, having come to an incredible realization. Just because she has not been able to express her thoughts for a few days, the flame of Judaism was still burning within her. And that is the clear message of Hanukkah – finding a way to bring the spark of Hanukkah to everyone,” the Rabbi said.
Maryellen Santaniello, Bereaved Mother, Charlestown
It was unknowingly the last Christmas visit with her son before he unexpectedly died the following year. Through it, she discovered that little things are just as important as the big things in life.
“Family has always been the most important part of my life. Holidays were always special because they brought us all together. The traditional exchanging of gifts was never as important as just being with one another,” she explained.
Christmas, 2013, was especially memorable because she and her husband, Alan, visited with son Tim and his wife, Jen, and their two children, Sam and Emma, at their home in Tucson, Arizona.
“When I opened Tim and Jen’s gift to my husband and me, my heart leapt for joy. There before me was a framed picture of five pairs of shoes on a large rock with cactus plants around it,” she said, noting that another child was on the way for the family.
“Little did we know that in less than a year, those five pairs of shoes would be down to four,” she said.
Tim died of lymphoma in December 2014, wrenching everyone’s lives and wiping out the holidays that year.
Six years later, Evan has now joined his sister and brother. They “all remind us of their dad. Tim lives on in them,” she said. “As a Christian, I know that God has a purpose in everything, so, even though holidays will always be difficult now, I can still have hope.”
“Losing a child certainly does alter the way you look at life. I hold my family members extra close now. I don’t take little things for granted,” she said.
Sean Corrigan, Narragansett Police Chief
A young patrol officer’s chance encounter 18 years ago with a motorist saved a life and started a strong friendship that renews every Christmas.
“I was a patrol officer on Nov. 2, 2002, working a DUI enforcement detail. I had observed a motorist driving very erratically, so I conducted a car stop and made contact with the operator to conduct a DUI investigation,” the chief said.
The motorist, Harold Ray of Narragansett, then 65, was impaired, but not from drugs or alcohol. Some serious medical issue was affecting him and quick action was needed.
“I called for a rescue, and when it arrived, medical personnel confirmed this and transported him to the hospital,” he said, pointing out that medical staff told him the emergency would have been fatal without the swift assistance.
“Later that month, a letter was forwarded to me from the Chief’s office. The letter was from this motorist and he told me that he had suffered a ruptured aneurysm,” the chief said.
Ray wrote, “It was your quick and caring response that enabled others to contain and repair the extensive internal damage that had just occurred. I will never forget you. Thank you for saving my life.”
The chief said, “In my mind, I had not done anything extraordinary. I was simply doing the job I was trained to do, so I did not think about it beyond this.”
Then something else happened that confirmed Ray would never forget him.
“That Christmas and every Christmas since then, he includes me in his family Christmas letter,” the chief said. “In these letters, which he sends to people closest to him…Every year he thanks me for saving his life.”
In return, Corrigan and his wife have shared with him cards and stories about their children growing up. They have become friends over the last nearly 20 years.
“Being a police officer can be very challenging, but it can also be very rewarding,” the chief said.
“He (Ray) reminds me that life is precious and fragile. He reminds me of the importance of trying to do the best you can each day, regardless of the challenges. He reminds me that when I was dealing with that motorist 18 years ago, I was also dealing with someone’s husband, father, grandfather, brother,” the chief said.
The now 83-year-old’s notes are also a reminder of how important – and kind – it is to tell people they are appreciated, he said.
Lily Santa, Narragansett High School Junior
This teenager finds a special time celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas and treasures the memories of spending holiday time with her grandmother, feeling the love both share.
“Every year I go to my grandmother’s house, or as I call her “Bubbe,” and bake Hanukkah cookies with my older sister and little cousin. We serve these cookies at the Hanukkah party my Bubbe throws every year, and our whole family loves them,” she explained.
The teen said, “The best part about our cookies is seeing the final product. Each cookie is always so unique and different, depending on who decorated it. I love seeing the reactions from different family members when we hand out our creations, so proud of the way they turned out.”
She said that after lighting the menorah candles and finishing dinner, the family gathers in her grandmother’s music room with a fireplace and snuggles into chairs or other places to sit and play “Yankee Swap.”
It’s a gift-swapping game where each participant chooses a number that determines the order for selecting a wrapped present without knowing what it is or who it’s from. The fun begins, she said, when people decide to either open the gift or “steal” one someone else had opened.
“I love seeing everybody have a blast stealing presents from one another and laughing hysterically until it comes time to go home. At the end of the night, we are all full from our holiday meal and pleased with our new gifts,” the young girl said, adding that she gets excited knowing she has more days left to celebrate Hanukkah.
However, she said, she does have some curiosity about what it’s like to wake up on Christmas morning to a tree with presents underneath.
“I have always been grateful and content with the religion I celebrate and the practices I am a part of, but it could sometimes feel like I was missing out on something when it came to Christmas morning,” she said.
Some of her family members are not Jewish, so she spends Christmas Eve and occasionally Christmas Day celebrating with them.
Special moments, like baking cookies with her grandmother, make her appreciate Hanukkah.
“The memories I have from our Hanukkah parties will always make me feel special about the way I spend my holiday season,” she said.
Michelle Little, JonnyCake Center South Kingstown
Giving and receiving have been important parts of her life, and both have been rewarding to her during the Christmas season.
She grew up in the Goodyear Heights section of Akron, Ohio, a blue collar neighborhood which largely housed the working class of Akron’s rubber and aerospace industry.
Decades ago neighbors knew one another, sat on porches most nights and treated the neighborhood children like their own. Lives centered around, faith, family, and high school sports – often in that order, Little recalled.
“Goodyear workers were periodically laid off. One such Christmas, when my father was out of work, my brother and I knew it was an especially difficult time for my parents,” she said.
The nearby Annunciation Church and its school were a huge part of her life. There, too, families looked out for one another. One such Christmas, they were looking out for her family.
“I remember a knock on the door. My mom, brother and I were home and went to see who came to visit,” she said. “In came a neighbor, also a fellow parishioner, with the biggest box of wrapped presents I had ever seen. I was about eight years old.”
“Though I don’t remember what was in those packages, I will never forget the look on my mother’s face, the compassion in our neighbor’s eyes, and the grateful tear that dropped down my mother’s lovely face,” she said.
Most important, she said, the experience still makes she and her family feel respected.
“And I remember the humility and gratitude I saw in my parents that Christmas, as well as their ongoing example of caring about others in whatever way they were able to be of help,” she said.
Then, another knock came on the door. An elderly neighbor who lived across the street had made something special for her.
“I can still remember him standing on the back stoop holding out to me an illuminated white wooden church complete with a steeple. I have taken that church out every Christmas since and the music box inside it still plays O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Little said.
Challenges and trials contributed in later years as a mother, wife, teacher and principal to create a safe space for people, including parents, children and other teachers, she explained.
Listening to others’ worries, especially about children, is a sacred privilege of non-judgment, confidentiality and trust, she said. In turn, this has led her over the years to harness resources through school and community to help others.
“We are all links in a chain,” she said. It’s what holds people together.
Amanda Varone, South Kingstown High School Teacher
Sixteen years ago her father, her best friend, died from cancer. The hole in her heart was large and looming. Then a simple haircut revealed the long-lasting insight about generosity at Christmas and started the healing process that has recently enabled her to enjoy the holidays again.
Her father, Kenneth F. Varone, passed away shortly before December 6, 2004 – just a few weeks before this Italian family’s festive Christmas get-together – from pancreatic cancer. As the death of a parent can do, it devastated her.
Thanksgiving was the last holiday they celebrated together, yet the disease ravaged him and robbed him of his outgoing personality.
“Christmas Eve – which, coming from an Italian family, (means it) was filled with tradition, so it was my favorite – and Christmas were the first holidays without him,” she said about having lost both her father and a sense of tradition all at once.
“For a while, every year that passed I went through the motions during these holidays. The season was just a constant reminder of watching him die, that he really is gone and how empty I felt,” she said.
There came a time shortly afterward that she needed a haircut. Her father’s friend, Thomas “Tommy” Calabro, was the stylist who cut it. In the past, whenever she told her father that she planned to get a haircut, he would surprise her by paying for it in advance.
“I’d go to pay and Tommy would always say , ‘Oh don’t worry, your father took care of it,’” she said.
So, in early December, after her father died, she went for a cut. It was hard, gut-wrenching to walk into the salon. She wanted life to go on as before, but that couldn’t happen. Tommy tried very hard to make casual conversation.
“When the haircut was over, I walked up to the counter to pay, when I felt a touch on my shoulder,” she said. “Tommy looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry, your father took care of it.’”
“Speechless, holding money in my hands, tears filled my eyes even more,” she said. “But I didn’t break, I just tried to pay again and then graciously left. Instead of driving to my dad’s store, I drove to his grave and sat there, in the dark and cold, for a long time.”
A realization came to her in those days before Christmas 2004 and in this random decision for a haircut.
“How amazing that this man, Tommy, who owns his own business, that survives on clients, gave me something for free,” she said. “It was selfless, generous and maybe him doing something one last time for his friend who he was also grieving.”
That moment returns to her, she said, at holidays and during the year when thinking about her students who may be facing their own troubles or grief, perhaps on the brink of an emotional collapse.
“A simple kind gesture, especially during the holidays, can go a long way,” she said.