Another best day
We stepped out of our front door for our Christmas Day walk and were greeted by the trumpeting of two swans flying overhead. It was a grand Christmas greeting. Trumpeter swans don’t sound like the Canadian geese which were so familiar in our South Dakota home. There are Canadian geese around here, but also snow geese and lots of swans: trumpeter swans, tundra swans and mute swans, which aren’t really mute. But the grand sound comes from the trumpeters. While I can see why others associate the call with a trumpet, what comes to my mind is a klaxon, the antique car horn that is sounded by squeezing a bulb to force air across a reed and through a tube with a bell.
It was just a couple of blasts, but it was enough to get me to look up at the birds as they flew overhead. Swans look graceful in flight, with long necks that stretch out ahead of their wings, making them appear to be very fast, like a supersonic airplane. On a clear day, with blue sky, the white swans stand out against the sky. On gray and cloudy days, there is less contrast, but the birds still appear magnificent in flight.
I thought of people I know who were experiencing “firsts” this year: a first Christmas without a loved one who died during the year; a first Christmas in a new home; a first Christmas celebrated alone because of restrictions on travel and gatherings caused by the pandemic. It is a first for us as well - the first Christmas of our retirement and the first Christmas in a new home in a new place.
As we walked, however, we weren’t talking about firsts. We were talking about our memories. For both Susan and me, there is something comforting and natural about being able to see the mountains nearby. We loved our home in the Black Hills and the hills are a wonderful and beautiful place. We miss the deer and the turkeys and the unique sound of the wind in the pine trees. But even though we lived in South Dakota and loved that place for 25 years of our lives, we both know that the hills aren’t mountains in the sense that we knew growing up. Susan spent part of her childhood in Libby, where the Kootenai River winds through the high country of Northwestern Montana, just west of Glacier National Park. I grew up in Big Timber, on the east slope of the rockies with the Crazy mountains appearing to be right at the end of main street. Snow capped mountains with craggy peaks thrust up above the tree line are different and have a different feeling from the more gently rounded hills of our South Dakota home. Both of us find that being able to see the mountains rising 20 or 30 miles to the east spurs some deep memories. It is more of a general feeling than it is a specific story, but the memories make us feel at home in this place. It is easy to feel north, south, east and west once you know where the mountains are.
After we had finished our walk, just after noon, our house was filled with energy and excitement as three of our grandchildren arrived, bubbling with stories of the gifts they had opened that morning. They had things to show us and stories to tell and it seemed for a moment that everyone wanted to talk at the same time. It was difficult for the children to settle down enough to enjoy the gifts we were exchanging. We like to open gifts one at a time at our house and the children soon discovered the pattern as paper was torn and gifts revealed. After a while we settled down to a grand feast with both ham and salmon as main courses - a kind of “surf and turf” Christmas dinner - a new menu for a new home.
There was tradition present in our dinner as well. Susan had used a set of Christmas tree moulds to fashion dessert trees out of mint chocolate chip ice cream - something that she has been doing for many, many years. And we shared the table grace that was most common at our family table when I was a boy growing up. Giving thanks for rain and sunny weather, for food and for the joys of being together always stirs a thousand memories for me, including memories of those with whom we once gathered, but who are not present at our table this year.
As they were gathering things to go back to their home, our grandson said, “It was a perfect day! A best day!” When he was only two or three, he used to call nearly every day a “best day.” His enthusiasm was delightful and inspiring and we found that just being with him made for a lot of “best days” for us all.
It was a best day, but we have had the joys of many good days in our lives.
We have a friend who lives in Maine, on the opposite side of the country, who also retired last June after a lifelong career as a minister. He is continuing his tradition of posting a prayer for each of the 12 days of Christmas. I’ll read them as another way of honoring tradition and remembering the past. It has been a long time since we were college students together, but we have remained connected. Neither of us live in the shadow of Montana mountains any more, but we remember the place of our birth and growing up. And our prayers grow out of a shared tradition that began hundreds of generations before we showed up.
I never took it very seriously before, but at this stage of my life, it is helpful for me to sometimes think of the seasons of our lives like the seasons of the year. We’re entering a new season of promises and challenges. And as we do, the trumpeter swans are calling us forward.