If you have been in my office, you might have noticed a picture of horse head in a boat on my credenza door. What you are looking at is my families gift-wrapping contest for Christmas. The horse head was made out of packing paper cut into the shape and painted with the gift stapled inside. There was also a gift inside the oars, the gold boxes that were stacked to make a shape of a boat and all the boxes wrapped in white under the cotton balls that were to represent a bowl. The theme of my display that year was Western Michigan University mascot (a Bronco) rowing a boat (the coach’s motto for the year…everyone has to pull together to win) in a Bowl of Cotton (WMU played in the Cotton Bowl that year). I know…it’s weird…but it was the winning display in 2017 and it’s a tradition!
The tradition started innocently enough. My sister Pat was 14 years old when I was born and got married when I was in 4th grade. She would wrap the gifts for our family all in the same paper and her husband’s family all in a different paper. I loved that all the boxes were coordinated and matched. I was always in charge of wrapping my mom’s gifts in this icky old fashion folded sheets of Christmas paper that she bought to support the church. I couldn’t wait for the day when I was working and could afford to buy my own paper and ribbon…which I did the first Christmas out of college with a real job. The paper was gold with some decoration that I tied up with gold ribbons and bows. I spent hours wrapping. I was SOOO proud of my “display” of gifts for once and wanted to burst with pride. After dinner that evening I said to Pat, (sort of inappropriate but honest) “I think for the first time my gift wrappings were prettier than yours.” Well as you can imagine, having a highly competitive family in nature, a tradition was started. We called it The Competition.
For a few years, Pat and I and sometimes my sister Rosemary, would go the extra mile to see who could wrap more elaborately than the other. That all changed in 1981 when Rosie came up with this idea to wrap her boxes to look like buildings and homes in a New England village (think of Mind Craft in 3-D). She had a church, homes and stores all with doors and windows and even some people looking out of the windows. She used accessories from my nephew’s train set including bridges, cars and telephone poles, to finish the town. There was NO doubt who the winner was that year! At that point Pat decided we needed a trophy, so she took one of her old bowling trophies and tied a red bow of curly ribbon round the ball. The winner’s name and year are written on the wood back, sides, front with a gold pen.
Over the years we have had gift display entries to look like a cruise ship, cars, trains, animals, Statue of Liberty, slot machine, movie titles, video game themes, cartoon characters, nursery rhymes, juke box and holiday themes…Rosie and Pat usually have an idea by fall, I struggle for an idea most years...sometimes as late as the week before Christmas (to date, I have nothing for this year. Suggestions are very much welcomed!) Pat has won 13 times, Rosie and I are tied at 9 wins, with an occasional random win by a grandkid for a total 5 more winners. There have been a couple of years when my mom and dad were still with us, but unable to travel home to MI from AZ due to failing health, that displays were still created but no winner declared since we weren’t all together.
Last Christmas was Pat’s 13 win even though she was in the hospital, having fallen and broken her leg 9 days before Christmas. So Pat didn’t miss Christmas, my sister Kathy and brother Rob volunteered to make Pat’s display for her. Being novices in the technics Rosie and I had developed over the years to create a “display”, we both thought their entry would be a “token”. I was sure I had a good chance of winning with a display of gifts to look like a 6’ tall Wonder Woman that wore the skirt I made for our Halloween costume party. Rosie wrapped hers to look like 2 sea turtles on an island…it was CUTE but no competition. And then there was Pat’s display…Kathy and Rob wrapped Pat’s presents to look like a hospital bed with rolling table and put a Raggedy Ann doll on the bed to be Pat with her leg raised in the air like in an old movie. They called it “Pat’s in Bronson Hospital Room 123”. Seeing it (displays are kept secret until you see them on Christmas morning) I had no doubt I would cheer as loudly as everyone else for Pat’s sweet display, wishing she had been with us! My niece Elizabeth took a laptop to the hospital so Pat could Skype into the voting from her bed. She was so happy and asked someone bring her the trophy to tell all the nurse she “won again”.
It was with great sadness that I shared with many of you over the Thanksgiving break that Pat died Wednesday, November 27. For many years Pat’s health had been on a steady declined as she developed new issues based on poor food choices, refusal to exercise or listen to her bodies warning signs. Based on that, her recovery after the fall was very slow because she had no core strengthen. 2019 was full of ups and downs for her with 5 hospital stays to get thing back in control. 12 days prior to her death she was back in the hospital to reduce the fluid around her heart. She didn’t like the treatment and the doctors told her there was nothing else they could do for her and suggested she go on hospice care. She called me on the Saturday night before she died and sounded really good. We talked about everything, like we always did, including hospice care, have access to in-home health care providers that would save her money, she gave me my mom’s apple salad recipe, asked me to explain to her the purpose of Twitter, her grandkids and had many good laughs. It was a normal call like we have had THOUSANDS of times. You can imagine my shock 2 days later from my brother saying the end was near. I am so blessed to have had that call as my last shared memory of her. We are going to celebrate her life at a mass on December 27 when my whole family is back in MI for the holiday. And of course, we are doing displays not in her memory but in her honor.
Pat was always my champion and would do anything for anyone. Without her, I cannot imagine what career path my life would have followed. Pat got me my first job working at an arena. In school I had a job working as an on-air broadcaster for the college NPR radio station. When I graduated I knew I would lose the job because you had to be a student to work there. Pat was car pooling her son to school with the lady who was the box office manager at Wings Stadium (a hockey arena) in Kalamazoo. Pat told Mariette I needed a job, so one Saturday Mariette called me and asked if I’d like to come to work that day. I said sure. I learned to sell tickets while I looked for a job in advertising. Six months later I was offered the job of Box Office Manager after Mariette resigned and the rest is history.
This holiday will be different for my family and me. I know many of you can share my feelings when I say it is a different emotion when you lose a sibling…someone you have played with, fought with, laughed with, learned from, told secrets to…your entire life. Christmas will be knowing sad at times, but we will have joy together as a family knowing my sister Pat is no longer in pain.
I wish each and every one of you a joyous and Merry Christmas! See you on December 30.