It was Christmas 1994. We were in a small village in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico with Marty’s family. Her parents had a wonderful home there that often served as respite from the Texas heat and flat geography. This Christmas, in Penderies, there was snow on the ground and it was ice cold.
I remember the crisp, clean cold; I remember the marvelous house in the mountains with the huge balcony overlooking a deep, long valley. I remember being with Marty’s parents, I remember being with Marty’s brother and his family, I remember our family. I remember an almost impossibly idyllic Christmas with family and the small mountain community of full time and part time residents. I wish I could remember the details.
Our kids were barely or not quiet teenagers, a wonderful, horrible age. We made them pay homage to our music, Ann Murray, John Denver, Linda Ronstadt and Peter, Paul and Mary during the 13 hour drive from the flatlands of Waco Texas. Our son complained and pouted about the aural assault but we just played it and Marty intentionally turned the music loud enough to penetrate his earphones.
When we got there we skied, we talked, we played games, we ate, we played in the snow and we rode thin plastic sleds down some of the steep snow covered dirt roads and trails. It was pristine; it smelled of fires burning pine logs, ice and clear air. You could hear the crows; you could see the squirrels chasing their tails and you could feel the ice crystals in the air.
Marty and I loved being in the mountains even when the thin air made it hard to climb stairs or walk very fast. It was far away from the flat semi arid land of Texas, it was away from work, from reality and our family fit into the environment like a comfortable pair of slippers.
Being with her family, who really were a lot of fun, watching her then 65 year old father riding a three feet long sled made of purple plastic down a steep grade covered with snow and piling into a snow bank, was a great time in a life of great times.
That Christmas Eve in Penderies Village was one of those seminal moments you carry with you your whole life.
This small New Mexico village has a small log non-denominational chapel, yes, a log chapel, for the residents. It is rustic and tiny with only about eight pews in it and a very small chancel area. The heat was spare and there was no electricity. I remember the cold, the kerosene lanterns casting a slight, pale, shadowy light along the walls of the chapel.
Marty always loved Christmas Eve candle light services at our church and on the odd years we weren’t home she missed that fellowship, she missed the carols, the homily, the singing of “Oh Holy Night”. On this Christmas Eve we were 8,000 feet above and 700 miles from that church. She had long ago planned to bring a little Presbyterian fellowship to the little chapel in the mountains.
Marty lifted an order of worship for Christmas Eve from our church and adapted it to a short, small service. She recruited, i.e. assigned, all of us, all of her family, to roles in the service. She brought a key board, she made sure we could use the chapel, she got word out to the residents of the village and she led us in our own Christmas Eve service.
We read scripture, we read prayers, we led prayers, and we sang songs, with family, with strangers in a small chapel in the mountains. Marty, me, our children, Marty’s parents, Marty’s brother and his wife and their children, we all read, we all participated, we all worshiped, led worship and recognized Christmas in a way I had never experienced.
I don’t remember exactly how I felt as I sat in that chapel, as we all sat with each other and a small room full of complete strangers. I know I was probably too distracted to enjoy the full impact of the service and how memorable and touching the service would be.
As the service ended and as we slowly left I took Marty’s mother’s hand and arm and helped her walk down the steep wooden icy steps of the chapel. She was wearing a long, full length, over stuffed parka holding it tight against the cold mountain air. She didn’t say much but I knew she filled with pride and love over what she had just seen her little family do in front of God and everyone else in Penderies Village.
We didn’t know it but she was one day away from the emergency room, we were one day away from Marty and I beginning to see our own future, we were one day away from breaking the aura of that special night.
Christmas day was peaceful. Christmas night Marty, her father and I drove her mother Jean, into the small Las Vegas, New Mexico hospital. Jean was dizzy, sick to her stomach and having a hard time getting her breath. The mountain air was taking a physical toll on Jean.
Marty and I sat in the emergency room waiting area completely unaccustomed to the idea of the hospital emergency room. We didn’t know, we couldn’t know, that our future held many nights sitting in emergency rooms waiting to find out the fate of people we loved.
Jean was okay that night, she simply needed supplemental oxygen, but it was really a clear early warning that we were on the cusp of dealing with her overall frailty. The trip to the hospital, her illness abruptly pulled the curtain closed on a sweet, gentle holiday, a Christmas I wish I could remember better than I do, a Christmas I wish Marty could help me connect to even though it was years ago.
I wish I could really feel, both tactilely and emotionally, all of the details of that Eve, of that entire holiday. I wish I could remember how it felt to have Marty sitting next to me, how Marty felt, what it really looked like as our family sat together, worshiped together, prayed together, and lived in those precious moments together. I wish I knew then how important it was to feel, to grasp and truly remember each of those moments.
I remember the big feelings, I long for the details. I didn’t think I would have to always keep the details because I had Marty to do that, I had Marty to full embrace and remember the moment. Life changes, hopefully we learn to capture, engage and caress the moment. I try harder now.