Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nana Kay's Christmas Secret

After celebrating my first Christmas without Dad I came home from my sister's house, put on warm pajamas, poured myself a glass of wine and grabbed a box of old photo albums from the basement. I felt the need to reminisce, remember Christmas and times long ago. I laid the box of photos next to me on the floor, wrapped myself in a warm blanket, stretched out on the couch while Raider snuggled at my feet. I smiled as I looked at images of my sister and I when we were younger. I chuckled at the photo of me when I was eight years old in my first pair of glasses, white cat eye glasses. When I finished browsing through the first album, I reached down for the next. It was Grandma's brag book, Nana Kay's photo album. The album contained photos from the summer of 1973 and Christmas 1972. My mind was no longer seeing the photos, it was wondering back to days of ole, Christmas 1972. The time I woke up in the middle of the night and discovered Nana Kay's secret. The night when I first learned no matter how much time passes the heart never forgets, it always longs for the one it loves/loved. The night Nana Kay first taught me it is not the number of years we share with a person, but the depth of the love we shared with them. Thirty eight years later I wonder if Nana Kay would be upset if I finally shared her lovely secret?

Nana Kay lived in a wonderful old duplex on Weidman Street in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Behind her house was the Bethlehem Steel factory, down the street was a playground, a corner drug store sat two blocks away. The back door lead to a porch that overlooked a beautiful side yard. In the summer the yard was full of blooming flowers and trees. In the winter it seemed to always be covered in peaceful white snow. Her front door had a nice stoop where as a young child I would often sit and talk to the neighbors as they walked by. At Christmas time it seemed like every stoop in the neighborhood had greens and Christmas lights adorning their railings. To me it was the most beautiful sight. Nana Kay lived in what could easily be described as the picture perfect American working class neighborhood. Everyone knew and looked out for each other especially during the holidays.

I loved Christmas at Nana Kay's house, it overflowed with Christmas spirit. Looking back I realize it must have taken days to remove all the nick knacks from her numerous shelves and curio cabinets and replace them with Santa's and Angels. The banister leading to the second floor was always perfectly wrapped in holly and lights. In the living room the nativity sat on top of the television, the main Christmas tree sat in the corner next to the window. Every room had a tree and was decked out in beautiful holiday decorations, even the bathroom. It was pretty marvelous to take a bath in the old claw foot bathtub with a small Christmas tree in the corner. Nana Kay allowed me to turn the lights off so the only light in the room was from the tree and the three candles that warmly glowed in the window. I often thought this must be the way royalty lived as I bathed myself in the wonderful glimmer of the blinking Christmas lights. The phonograph in the parlor always serenaded us with Christmas carols being sung by Dean Martin, Burl Ives or Bing Crosby. Norman Rockwell could not have painted a better portrait of Christmas.

Christmas 1972 I was nine years old. The world to me was perfect. I was oblivious to cancer raging within my Nana Kay. We arrived late Friday night to find Nana Kay still putting up some last minute decorations. No matter what time of year, Nana Kay always had a small gift waiting for my sister and I on the bed in Uncle Bill's room. The room we shared whenever we visited. After a quick hug, Debbie and I darted up the stairs to see what spectacular surprise awaited us. We quickly turned the corner at the top of the stairs nearly wiping ourselves out, my eyes first caught sight of the two feather trees Nana Kay had placed on the nightstands on either side of the bed. I felt grown up, it was the first time she put a tree on my side of the bed! I stopped and stared in amazement at 'my tree' when I spied two wooden boxes laid upon our pillows. I jumped over the foot board and bounced onto the bed next to my respective box. Inside the box was an old fashioned Santa Claus with changing faces. Each face matched a country, some had short beards, others had long. My sister of course put the American, traditional face on her Santa and stood it next to her tree and headed back downstairs. I sat there for several minutes changing each face trying to determine which one I liked best. I was not like my sister, I knew my Santa was breakable but I was not going to leave him standing alone next to the tree, I took him downstairs with me so I could continue to play with him. I sat Santa on the table next to me as my sister and I enjoyed homemade Christmas cookies and hot chocolate. I sat in the kitchen watching Dad help Nana Kay hang the Christmas Bell lights in the front hallway. It was then that I realized for the first time since I could remember Nana Kay did not have the house fully decorated.

The next morning, Mom and Debbie went shopping, Dad and Herm (Nana Kay's friend)hung the last of the Christmas lights and decorations while Nana Kay and I made more Christmas cookies. I remember Nana Kay apologized over and over to Dad for not finishing the decorations before the family arrived. She was feeling more tired than normal and was thankful for his help. She wanted everything perfect for her girls (Debbie and I). Dad called me into the living room and I felt so special when he lifted me up and for the first time I was the one to put the star on top of the Christmas tree. I stood there in awe of my "star", it seemed higher than normal and I had done that! The rest of the afternoon was spent with Nana Kay filling tin canister with homemade cookies to be delivered the next day to neighbors and friends. After a wonderful family dinner, I stayed in the kitchen watching the adults play cards while my sister watched television and read a book in the living room. I always wanted to be part of the 'fun'. At bedtime Nana Kay accompanied my sister and I upstairs and knelt with us as we said our nightly prayers. Dad came up a few minutes later to tuck us in and wish us sweet dreams. My sister was soon fast asleep. I laid in bed staring at my feather tree counting all the shiny red balls on it. I could hear the laughter from the floor below me. I soon climbed out of bed, grabbed the blanket from the rocking chair. I spread it out on the floor next to the coal grate and fell asleep watching and listening to the card game in the kitchen below. A few hours later I was awoken by the shift change whistle of the Bethlehem Steel factory. I rubbed my eyes, noticed the lights were off downstairs, the house was quiet and peaceful. Everyone had gone to bed.

I folded the blanket and when I placed it back on the rocker I noticed Debbie's Santa standing next to her tree. I suddenly realized I had left my Santa downstairs. Not wanting to get in trouble for being irresponsible I quietly opened the door and headed downstairs to retrieve my Santa. I had tip toed halfway up the stairs when I stopped, I heard Christmas music. I stood there for a few seconds trying to determine if the music was coming from the adjoining house or Nana Kay's. I placed my ear against the wall, there was no noise from the neighbor's house. They were all asleep as well. I continued up the stairs, the soft music became a little louder. When I reached the top I saw Nana Kay's bedroom door was slightly ajar, her light was on and Bing Crosby was softly echoing from her room. I walked down the hall and spied into her room. She was unpacking a box and laying it's contents neatly on her bed. After a few moments I heard my Nana Kay say, "Well come in my little Christmas mouse."

Nana Kay's room was her sanctuary, her place where no one was allowed to wander, explore. Since I was the inquisitive grandchild this was stressed to me on more than one occasion. Before that night I only remember being in her room one other time. My eyes were wide open in wonderment as I entered. She continued to unpack her box as I ran my fingers down her dresser. I walked alongside it and admired all the photographs. There were school portraits of me, my sister, my cousin Janet, a picture of mom and dad's wedding, my uncle Bill in his Air Force Uniform and several portraits of my Grandfather. I noticed placed in front of each of my grandfather's photos was a poinsettia bloom with greens. Nana Kay's voice broke into my silent thoughts. She asked me if I could keep a secret? Since I was now older, named after her, she thought now was a good time as any to share her special Christmas tree with me. I smiled, shook my head yes I could keep a secret. I asked her if my sister Debbie knew the secret, I felt even more special when she replied no. What she was about to tell me would be our secret alone. If I was good, kept our secret, it would be our Christmas tradition from then on. I felt so wonderfully adult when I promised not to tell anyone.

I helped Nana Kay as we removed the small lamp and ceramic dogs from her night stand, wrapped them gently in a cloth and placed them in the now empty box. In their place on her nightstand we began to put together a small Christmas tree. I helped insert the branches in the holes on the trunk of the tree. She handed me a small handmade tree skirt to wrap around the base. I can still see the small gold stars sewn on the red felt skirt. As we put the tree together Nana Kay explained to me this was her tree of love. A tree she put next to her bed every Christmas for Marlin, my grandfather. A reminder when she felt lonely at Christmas of how lucky and blessed she was.

For the fist time I can remember my Nana Kay talked about my Grandfather's death, how deeply it hurt her. He had made it safely through the war, it was 1946 and she was no longer worried about his safety. They had a lifetime ahead of them to share their love, have more children. She explained how shocked she was when she received the telegraph that my Grandfather died of a heart attack at the Army base. It was November a short time before Christmas. My Grandfather was not old, he was a young man. Men of thirty six never have heart attacks, yet her Marlin did. The last letter she had received from my grandfather he wrote how excited he was to be coming home from Camp Lee and spending Christmas with her. After the war, after his time spent away in military, he was happy they were finally going to be a family again. After he died, she felt overwhelmed with emotions. She was depressed as Christmas approached. She was filled with doubt, not sure how she was going to raise their children alone, without the love of her life.

I listened intently as she told me the story of how the tree came to be. How one afternoon when she was feeling especially despondent walking to the corner store. She was lost in a moment of self pity when she noticed the number of Gold Stars still hanging in the windows of homes along the walk to the store. Seeing those stars, understanding what they stood for reminded her how lucky she was. Yes her Marlin had died, but so many of these stars represented young men, boys who never married, never had children. Young men who had never experienced the love she had shared with my Grandfather. She reminded herself as she continued to the store of the many wonderful years she had shared with her Marlin. She was walking aimlessly through the store, lost in thought remembering my Grandfather, when she saw a stack of boxes. She looked up and saw a sample of what was in the boxes, a small Christmas tree. Next to the trees were boxes of satin Christmas ball ornaments. It was then she came up with her idea to decorate a tree for her Marlin. She bought a tree, a box of red ornaments, 3 boxes of the white ornaments and 4 boxes of blue ornaments. Nana Kay said she didn't really have the extra money to spend on the tree but "then and there" she needed to buy the tree. She needed a reminder of their love. She needed a tree for her Marlin.

I watched as she gently wrapped a small string of white lights around the tree. First we hung fifteen white satin Christmas balls on the tree, the number of years she had been married to my Grandfather. White because their love was faithful, pure and eternal. I was asked to count out twenty seven blue satin Christmas balls. 1972 was the twenty seventh Christmas she would spend without her Marlin. As we hung the balls together I remember saying to my Nana Kay that it was so sad, there were so many more blue ornaments than white. Nana Kay asked me to count the number of white satin balls that hung on the tree again. When I answered fifteen. She explained to me fifteen was a mighty big number, it was better than fourteen, much more wonderful than one or none at all. She was indeed sad that my Grandfather had missed so many Christmases but she was blessed to have shared so many glorious Christmases with him. So many people spend their lives searching for true love, but she found hers. She would always hold the memories of her Marlin close to her heart. If it wasn't for my Grandfather I would have never been born. Their love together gave my Nana Kay two wonderful gifts, my Uncle Bill and my mom. If my mom had never been born, neither would I or my sister. She continued, she knew if God had given my Grandfather a choice, he would have to die or my Nana Kay. He would have said without hesitation to God, take me. He loved Nana Kay so much he would never want to take the joy of watching their children grow up from her. She knew my Grandfather was upset he missed watching his kids grow to become adults, meeting us. She was positive he wished he could be here with us but God called him home, he was with Jesus. One day we would all meet in Heaven.

Together we placed seven red balls on the tree, one for each of the joys in her life. My Uncle Bill, his wife, my mom, my dad and her grandchildren. Next I was handed seven gold stars, the number of years my grandfather proudly served full time in the Army. In his short life he had accomplished his goals. He graduated college, thanks to ROTC he had escaped the future of the coal mines. He found his home in the Quartermaster Corps, he was an officer in the United States Army. I was surprised when my Nana Kay handed me the small Angel to place on top of the tree. She put her hands on my waist and balanced me as I stood on her bed and placed the Angel on top of Marlin's Christmas tree.

She explained to me as she helped me off her bed, on top of the tree in the living room was a star, a reminder of the star that lead the wise men and shepherds to Jesus. On top of Marlin's tree was an Angel to remind her my Grandfather was in heaven with the Angels watching over all of us. She had faith, she knew her Marlin was always with her. If I was still I would be able to feel my Grandfather as well. Nana Kay was happy knowing he was making a place for her, for all of us in heaven.

After we finished decorating the tree, we packed up the left over satin balls, placed them in the box. I sat on the bed for a few moments staring at the beauty of our secret tree while Nana Kay carried the box up the stairs to the attic. I remember walking over to the dresser, staring at the photograph of the man I never met, the love of my Grandmother's life, my Grandfather, Marlin Robert Kopp. I picked up his photograph carried it back to the bed and began to talk to him. I thanked him for loving my Nana Kay, for my Uncle Bill and mom, for watching over us. I promised him I would try to be still so I could hear him but if not it was okay I knew he was there. Nana Kay walked in, I looked up afraid she would scold me for removing his photograph from her dresser, but she didn't. She smiled at my last remark, then took his framed picture from my hands, patted me on my head, then remarked how handsome my Grandfather was as she placed his photograph back where it belonged. She walked over to the switch and turned out the lights. She told me the first year she decorated Marlin's tree it only had fifteen white ornaments, two red ones and a single blue ornament on it. Then remarked at all the life and love the tree had on it now. Then asked what I thought of my Grandfather's tree, our secret tree. The white lights warmly filled the room as I smiled proudly and told Nana Kay there was definitely a lot of love on my Grandfather's tree. I fell asleep that night laying in bed staring at my Grandfather's tree curled up in the arms of my Nana Kay.

Sadly my Nana Kay died the following August from cancer. Christmas 1972 was the last Christmas I shared with her. It was the last time my Nana Kay would decorate her secret tree for my Grandfather and I was blessed to have shared that night with her. It is a night, a memory I will cherish forever.


  1. I was googling Christmas photos from the 70's and came across your blog. What a beautiful story, and what a wonderful woman your Nana Kay must have been!
    Thank you so much for sharing.


  2. Thank you so much Cheryl for reading. Yes she was, in fact I named my daughter after her. I took an absence from writing but am back, hopefully you will stop back by and read more.
    Merry Christmas!!