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In the year of pandemic and death, the comfort of enduring Christmas memories | COMMENTARY

Visitors walk under the lights on McCurley Drive in Carroll County, a street with no outlet that has become a holiday destination.
Visitors walk under the lights on McCurley Drive in Carroll County, a street with no outlet that has become a holiday destination. (Karl Merton Ferron/Karl Merton Ferron)

After the recent snowfall, I took an afternoon hike across farmland and through some woods to a creek in northern Baltimore County. The snow crest had frozen enough to put a crackle in each step, and — if you would indulge a boyhood memory — the sound of crackling snow underfoot reminded me of a long-ago December.

It reminded me of an afternoon hike alone along a river in my New England hometown. I was there to experiment with a plastic camera I had received that morning as a Christmas gift. Rain had come after snow, ice had come after rain, so my boots cracked the crest with each step. Bushes and trees were lacquered with ice. Panes of ice formed against the rocks along the river, and the river made a soft tinkling sound where it tickled the ice.

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I found bird nests encased in ice, like glass ornaments; there was no birdsong, but the squawk of a jay. The only other sounds came from the river and my boots crunching crusted snow.

That familiar sound also brought to mind a long-ago Christmas Eve: My little brother walked with me to church so we could serve as altar boys for midnight Mass and maybe earn $5 each from the pastor, who was grouchy every day but Christmas Day. We had never been out so late at night on our own, and the road to the church was cemetery-quiet but for the crunch that our boots made.

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There now, I shared a couple of Christmas memories, and I hope you don’t mind.

I’m not being nostalgic, yearning for yesterday. I’m just savoring memories. To me, they are like old toys that need to be taken from storage and wound up to make sure they still work. If you don’t do that, they stop speaking to you, and one day you’ve forgotten the sound of your father’s voice.

So I let memories take me places, and Christmas always seems to get things rolling.

One Dec. 25 in the 1970s, I worked the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift writing obituaries at my first newspaper job in Massachusetts, telephoning and questioning people who had just experienced a death in the family. At first, it seemed like the absolute worst way to spend Christmas Day. But I soon realized that, without exception, each relative wanted the opportunity to talk about a mother, a father or grandparent they had just lost.

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This Christmas, there are thousands, millions of Americans who experienced such loss during the pandemic of 2020, the deadliest year in U.S. history. Most have been deprived of the traditional rituals of mourning and release — no funeral services, no gathering of family and friends, no way to celebrate a life lost in the crowded field of death.

I frequently hear what Jewish friends taught me to say when someone dies: “May [his or her] memory be a blessing.” Wolf Blitzer says it on CNN every night after briefly describing the life of people who died from the virus. Maybe it strikes you trite by now. But I think it’s wise advice and as beautifully consoling a wish as you’ll find.

A friend of mine has a simple year-end ritual that will probably resonate with all who feel isolated from friends and family this Christmas: He opens the photo app on his smartphone and runs through dozens of images from the past year, finding the faces of people he cares about and picking up reminders of moments that might otherwise slip away.

It sounds ordinary: Who doesn’t look at the photos in their phone from time to time?

Still, it struck me as good therapy for any of us — and probably most of us — who feel exhausted by the horrible pandemic and trapped in prolonged quarantine from the interactions and relationships that make us human.

Many of us will still be with family, though not our extended families, and we will miss the rituals of good cheer and friendship, parties and drop-by cocktails.

Feeling some degree of the big chill as this very long, awful year comes to a close, our memories comfort us.

So yes, in a private moment, open the phone. Savor images from the past year — the last time you got with your friends before face masks, the kayak outing in spring, the bike trip up the NCR Trail in summer, the dog you adopted in the fall.

If you haven’t done so in a while, open a photo album and see the dress your sister wore to junior prom, maybe the first car your brother owned, how your mother looked on your wedding day.

Photographs are helpful, but they’re not necessary. Some memories are built in an instant and stay with you forever.

One Christmas Eve in the early 1990s, while driving along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with my family, I looked up at the old high-rise public housing projects that were to be torn down a few years later. I had done some reporting on the poverty and crime in those buildings, and had met a single mother who yearned to get her son to a better neighborhood and school. While stopped at a red light, I noticed how, on the side of one building, there was but one sign of the holiday — a small, lighted Christmas tree in a window 10 or 11 floors up, someone’s faith burning in the December darkness.

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