The Ache of Presence

Christmas cookies

During the holidays, as we gather with our families, observe our favorite traditions, and mark the passage of another year, we are surrounded by the memories of those who are no longer with us. Here, Becky Allender writes about taking a moment out of a very busy day to let herself soak in the presence of family members who, though no longer physically present, were very, very near. This post originally appeared on Red Tent Living.

I knew I had to bake a cake and be present to the past. It was not at all what seemed possible on these busy few days before the holidays. Everything within me wanted to stay disconnected from the weight that was creeping into my “to do” list. And the last thing I needed to do was add a fifth dessert to our feast. I was attentive to the aisles of the grocery store and the rhythm of finding each item on the list; I had thought of way too many things to tackle, and of all things—I kept thinking of my mother’s apple cake. I instinctively found the cream cheese for the frosting and the walnuts that were conveniently packaged in a center aisle. In my head I kept saying, “This is nuts, I have too much to do!”

I am not sure if I had ever actually baked it by myself, but I remember helping my mother peel and chop the apples and walnuts. I remember the delight our family had enjoying her culinary artistry in our ‘60s kitchen with aqua appliances. I can see her with a white and orange terry cloth apron and hear her ask, “Did you cut three circles of waxed paper for the cake pans?” I smiled at the fact that I didn’t have three nine-inch round cake pans and she did. Of course she did. And somehow, I knew in my gut that there was healing to be found in the baking of this cake.

I drove home on an unexpected sunny November day on our island and felt tears come to my eyes. How many holiday meals did I even spend with my family? Once we moved to Colorado, summers were the only time we returned home. In a quick calculation I gathered that I had been around for 30 Thanksgiving meals with my family, and the first 20 years were usually at my grandparents’ home in South Charleston, Ohio. Subtract the years Dan and I lived in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, where coming home for Thanksgiving was not possible, there could actually have been only six short Thanksgiving meals at my parents’ home on Oxford Drive!

I parked the car and began unloading the cedar garland, terra cotta pots of Paperwhite sprouting bulbs, and greenery of various kinds of eucalyptus branches for napkin nosegays and, for the center of the table, flat green leaves.

The forest smells of our backyard and misty, slanted, shining sunlight highlighted the glory of each grocery bag strewn throughout the car. My ears heard each footstep I took on the gravel, and tears once again sprang to my eyes. I did not want to succumb to the weight of feeling so much: “Jesus, please help me not to feel so much of what is now and what is no more.”

I did not want to succumb to the weight of feeling so much.

I sat down on a wrought iron patio chair and picked up a bunch of boxwood branches that I had reclaimed after backing up too fast last week. I decided to wrap them into small wreaths for each place setting. I put them to my nose and began to breathe in for five counts, hold, and breathe out for five counts. I put my feet on the brick patio and closed my eyes. I remembered a Rumi quote from Jean Masukevich’s last Red Tent entry: “The wound is where the light enters.” I lingered and searched for the wound. I felt the rhythm of my heart beat and I even heard the beautiful sound of an eagle’s wings as it soared above our garage! Stunning!

I chose to be still with the reverence that comes whenever I see an eagle. Eagles remind me of my dad. And then, I honored that young girl of so long ago. I honored that “almost teenager” who found life with her friends. I closed my eyes and remembered some of the priceless few photographs of myself in the sixth grade. I took time to remember Judy, my older sister, in her mid-calf flannel nightgown, who carried my apple spice birthday cake to the family room at my slumber party. I remembered each friend who had come and I tried to recall what we might have done together that evening. I wondered where my dad and Tom, my younger brother, had been in the house, given all the squealing twelve-year-old girls would have made with a television and stereo to themselves. Such freedom and joy was had at that party.

I sat feeling full and so alive and so thankful. It was an extravagant thing to do during a very busy day. My heart literally ached with the remembering.

My heart literally ached with the remembering.

I got up and carried the groceries into the foyer and placed them on the white farmhouse bench we bought after selling our Queen Anne dining room furniture and the twin lens camera I used for my photography course at Ohio State University in 1972. We sold most everything to live in a depressing garage apartment while Dan got his Ph.D. at Michigan State when Annie was 18 months old. I took off my Sorel boots and put on my Ugg slippers and walked to the kitchen. I opened the pantry door and began unloading the groceries. I saw a taped quote from a church bulletin I had forgotten about. Not sure if I had liked the photo or the quote and, unfortunately, I had cut off the name of who had written it: “The people who related to God best—Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah—treated him with startling familiarity. They talked to God as if he were sitting in a chair beside them, as one might talk to a counselor, a boss, a parent, or a lover. They treated him like a person.”

So with my heart so full of “love-ache,” I began: “God, thank you for your presence always. Thank you for this present moment that allows me to remember and hold so much. I can hardly take in your goodness to me. Thank you for not answering my prayer to take away all that I thought I couldn’t hold. I can hardly wait to rock one-year-old Grace on Thanksgiving day just as my mother rocked her mother, Amanda, 31 years ago. Thank you for four-year-old Elsa who will get to help me peel the apples over the sink and make an apple cake tomorrow. Thank you for my husband of almost four decades who will carve the turkey (which will take an extra hour than we calculated). Jesus, be so near to my sister whose husband George is with you this Thanksgiving in heaven. Hold her. Comfort her. And Jesus, be with my brother who I haven’t spoken to in so long. Help me take the time to call him. And Jesus, hug my parents and let them know how I miss them and love them. And Jesus hold me because sometimes being so present hurts and feels so good all at once.”