I first saw the painting in December of 1992. My Aunt Polly invited me to come to her house and pick out presents for my sons for Christmas. She loved all her great-nephews and nieces and had purchased toys, books, and candies to give the seven of them. I was surprised to see paintings lined up on her mantle and hearth– flowers, southwestern landscapes, and one that stood out; Joseph leading Mary through the dark night to Bethlehem.
“You painted these?” I asked, remembering her stories of taking art classes. “I love the way you illuminated Mary’s face.”
She seemed surprised at how I was drawn to the painting. Polly had always been a perfectionist and had difficulty receiving my complement.
“I painted it for Mama’s Christmas present in 1954,” she told me. “But she died before Christmas and I never got to give her my gift.” Something I didn’t know, a new discovery of another way that Polly and I were alike.
Polly and her younger sister, Eula, had moved to Denver in 1950 where Polly took art classes at the University of Colorado and Eula worked as a nurse in a children’s hospital. My Aunt Polly, my Daddy’s older sister, had mostly been known to me through letters and cards.
But then she moved back East in the fall of 1965, when I was in fifth grade, and lived with us. I saw ways that I was like her– unlike how I felt toward most of my family. Polly was artistic and a dreamer, impractical by the Rosser family standards. She relished setting a beautiful table, enjoying nice dishes and serving pieces versus the everyday plates and bowls we normally used.
Before Christmas, I’d tromp with her through the woods to gather cedar, holly, pine, and magnolia to decorate our home. She used some of the evergreens to create small woodland scenes on pieces of plywood, tucking in ceramic rabbits and birds and spraying snow on her creation to give the feel of a winter wonderland.
She loved to read and I admired the stack of books beside her bed, knowing that she always read before falling asleep. She gave me books of poetry and prayers and wrote memorable comments in my cards. Polly was considered ‘too sensitive’ by some, and again, I could see that same quality in me.
Polly died the May after I first saw her paintings that Christmas. Mama remembered how I’d loved the one of Mary and Joseph and made sure it was earmarked for me. Now, when I look at it, I think of the sadness that can be part of Christmas, longing for those who are no longer present. My Daddy died of a heart attack on December 13th when I was twenty-two. I remember how my heart ached and how I always associated his death and Christmas. I hadn’t poured myself into making Daddy a present, but I’d bought him a pair of tan-colored corduroy pants that were already wrapped and under the tree.
While I was the unintended recipient of Polly’s gift, it has been a present that I’ve been blessed with every holiday season as it hangs on my wall. I feel connected to the intended receiver, my Grandma Rosser who died that Christmas before I was born in March. It reminds me of Aunt Polly’s bravery in moving across the country and studying art– not something she’d been prepared for in her farm family. When I tromp through the woods to gather greenery for my home, it’s as if she’s beside me, anticipating the joy of making our home festive, celebrating that special family time of year.
How about you?
How do you remember special family and friends who are no longer with you during the holidays?
Are there activities in which you feel they’re present, participating in spirit?