A CHRISTMAS MEMORY TREE AND ALZHEIMER’S

A Swedish tradition Santa Lucia

Dressed in white with a crown of lit candles, the oldest daughter serves breakfast drinks and rolls in the  Swedish tradition of Santa Lucia.

December 21, 2012 – There are times, even with Alzheimer’s being a permanent resident in our home, that memories of a Christmas past opens in such a happy, vivid reverie they could be hung on a tree and be equal to that of any bright and colorful ornament.  As memory serves me well I doubt that Ken and I could find any of our Yuletide Holidays colored with anything other than the cheerful shades and hues of Christmas often found in the paper chains our children made in those early years of elementary school.  Stuffed into a lunch box or just carried in their arms the chains were usually pretty bedraggled by the time they got home.  No matter, a little paste at the torn places and they were good as new.  Carefully they were draped through the branches adding that extra something known only to parents.  And it was, and is, those same parents who strive desperately to bring the birth of the Christ child, tinsel, trees and Santa all together in an understanding that presents received were, and are, symbolic of the adoration and gifts from the Wise Men of old to the babe in the manger.

TRADITION

So much of what we remember about the Holidays is steeped in family tradition which is constantly changing as the complexities of family living change.  Nonetheless, the indelible memories of long ago are treasures: buying the tree, decorating, stringing outdoor lights with dad or one of our sons, delivering plates of cookies to friends, inhaling the sights, sounds and fragrances of Christmas everywhere.  The smell of pine in the house was pungent, garlands of green laced with holly where hidden elves brought good luck to the family and the spirit of giving and love was almost tangible.  Then there was that one present opened on Christmas Eve revealing new pajamas so the children would be presentable on Christmas morning for home movies.  And always there was a visit to Grandma’s house either early Christmas Eve or in the afternoon of Christmas Day.  

Even with Ken’s Alzheimer’s I still strive to make the holiday as festive as it always was although I’m not sure if Ken notices.  It doesn’t matter, however, whether he remembers or not, it’s all here for him to absorb as best he can – or not.  The effort is to add another Christmas memory to our tree and make it as cherished as possible. 

BEING YUGOSLAVIAN 

At Christmas time I always remember how exciting it was for our children to know their Grandpa Nick was born in Europe.  When Nick spoke of his homeland he would tell his wide-eyed progeny that he was from Yugoslavia in the area of Austria.  His English was very good, but there was still a strong hint of his first language when he told his tale to the children. 

I could hear it and when Ken and I were dating I asked, “Where was your father born?”  Puzzled, he looked at me and answered, “Yugoslavia.  How did you know he wasn’t born here?”  “I could tell by his accent,” I answered. Surprised, Ken replied, “My father doesn’t have an accent.”  The conservation continued and my “important date” finally had to admit that he had grown up with his dad’s speech and couldn’t hear what I could hear. 

Ken went on to explain that his mother’s family was also from Yugoslavia so he was one-hundred percent Yugoslavian.  First generation American I could see Rose’s specialty cooking told of her foreign heritage: a deep-fat fried Christmas cookie covered with powdered sugar, her famous Holiday bread, potica, and the family favorite kielbasa with sauerkraut and mustard over mashed potatoes.

For me, though, we were all Americans and other than for genealogical purposes it didn’t matter where your ancestors were born.  My children, however, were captivated by their grandfather and his stories of sailing to America.  They identified with their foreign-born grandparent, and concluded they were also one-hundred percent Yugoslavian.

BEING SWEDISH 

As our nest emptied with two remaining teen-age boys at home our youngest, Kenney, mentioned his grandfather’s heritage exclaiming that he too must be one-hundred percent Yugoslavian.  “Excuse me,” I answered.  “I did contribute a little something to your entry into this world, and I’m Swedish.”  Shocked is the only word I had to explain the poor boy’s disillusion.  “But I don’t even like the Swedes,” he exclaimed.  “Too bad,” I told him, “you are what you are, and in addition to being Swedish you can add a good mix of Anglo-Saxon, French, Irish and Scottish.”

I hadn’t realized his – their – assumption of being pure vintage stock.  And to be honest I was a little miffed that my side of the family appeared to be less important to them as was that of their father.  Had Kenny – the others — never tuned into my own mother telling of our Swedish pioneer ancestors?  Apparently not was all I could conclude, and in my own feelings of “rejection” and popping their bubble I mentioned the conversation to our oldest, Debbie, who was well aware of her Scandinavian (plus) heritage – and proud of it.

SURPRISE IN THE MORNING 

About a week before Christmas Debbie called very early in the morning after Ken had gone to work and suggested I remain in bed until she got there – which would be shortly.  So I scrunched back down under the covers and made myself comfortable.  Before long I heard noises in the kitchen as Debbie and two of her children arrived.  “Stay in bed,” Debbie called.  I surfaced from my warm nest, arranged the pillows to a comfort level and sat up in bed waiting for whatever was coming.

THE TRADITION OF SANTA LUCIA 

There was Pamela, our oldest granddaughter walking carefully into my room holding a tray filled with goodies and a cup of hot chocolate.  Dressed in white with a red ribbon at her waist the child wore a wreath of greenery on her pretty blond head rimmed with candles bringing me the love and tradition of Santa Lucia.  Peeking around the corner watching his sister I could see Pam’s brother Sean watching the lighted candles in hopes her hair wouldn’t catch fire.  In spite of my smile a tear trickled down my cheek as this beautiful young girl (coached by her mother) honored an age-old Swedish tradition just for me.

If my great grandmother Helena Hogberg Swaner filled with spiritual and physical determination — and intestinal fortitude beyond my wildest dreams – who is my main link to Sweden had practiced the Santa Lucia tradition in her native land I do not know.  Neither my grandmother Sarah nor my mother Irene were taught or practiced that tradition of their Swedish heritage.  Perhaps for Helena, 26 and single, walking the plains of the United States with a handcart company, carrying a wicker basket holding all of her personal belongings, including a 10-pound iron so she could support herself as a tailoress and glove maker, held more importance for the necessities of life than a wreath of greenery rimmed with candles and a white dress tied at the waist with a red ribbon.  In her history of coming to America she never mentioned celebrating Santa Lucia in her new country.  Nevertheless, my golden memory of Debbie and Pam’s special gift to me still fills me with warmth, happiness and appreciation of those who came before compiling my genetic makeup.  I suppose I could call it my gift of recognition: that mom — me — a grandma — was also a person.

THE MEMORY TREE GROWS

So it is as the years pass ever so quickly and Alzheimer’s continues to rob me of the man I love I find that I do cling to memories of happier times.  Yet, my cup of gratitude does run over as I not only continue to hang thoughts of better and happier times on my memory tree, I am also blessed beyond measure in having Ken at home with me as our caregivers, Ben and Crizaldo, continue to love and care for this good man to whom I am married – and me. Even in the adversity with which we live I know there will be tender moments and memories that I will, one day in the Decembers still to come, hang like glittering stars on my Memory Tree which will live in my writing far and beyond our journey through the fog of Alzheimer’s.  “Merry Christmas to all.”

Originally posted 2012-12-23 05:41:22.

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