Her name was Carol, as in Christmas.
A wonderfully energetic and slightly bohemian spirit, my most cherished memories of Mom involve her leading a group of energetic children along the streets of tiny Naco, Arizona, singing Christmas carols by candlelight, huddled together to fend off the chill from another cold winter’s night.
Those memories remind me that of all the beautiful symbols associated with celebrating this time of year, perhaps one stands as truly the most significant: an open heart.
While not associated with commercial symbolism of the holiday season, an open heart signifies collective desire, unifying holistic aspirations to both honor tradition and embrace a mutual hope for peace and understanding.
Not to say that was her original intent.
No, Mom loved people, loved to sing to the heavens, and loved sharing her belief in the potential for everyone to experience joy and happiness in their lives.
Especially when that joy is channeled through the voices of children.
She Went to Paris
Born and raised in Chicago of Polish descent, Mom spent the carefree summers of her youth on a relative’s farm in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin.
It was an opportunity to experience the beauty and freedom of nature, embracing her love for animals, and instilling a sense of self-confidence among patchwork dreams of romance and adventure.
Losing her father at an early age altered those plans. She felt emotionally and financially responsible for two much younger siblings, motivating her to graduate from high school by the age of sixteen.
A variety of occupations followed as she managed to balance providing for the family with pursuit of her dreams. When her siblings were old enough, Mom spread her wings, joining the State Department, and traveling on assignment to Paris, France.
That’s where she met a dashing young Marine stationed at the U. S. Embassy. Like a script from a Hallmark movie, the two fell in love and were married before leaving Paris.
She fully embraced the role of loving wife and mother, dutifully creating a sense of home whenever and wherever the Marine Corps decided home would be.
When I Say “Southern”
Dad’s final assignment was at Fort Huachuca, an army outpost in southern Arizona. He purchased a house about four miles south of Bisbee, just a stone’s throw north of Naco.
To add perspective . . . when I say “southern” Arizona, picture the back property line of our elementary school being the international border between Arizona and Mexico. Yeah, that is really south.
The move was a paralyzing shock to my siblings and me. We had spent our early childhood living in densely populated communities, where any number of friends and playmates were accessible through a simple knock on the screened door.
Now, we were in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, separated from other homes except by car, and immersed in an unfamiliar culture that thrived on speaking a different language. The closest my eight-year-old self had come to speaking Spanish before moving to Naco was saying “San Diego” and “El Conquistador.”
With her children dazed and confused, Mom set about acclimating herself with the local culture and community.
She was quickly embraced for her warmth and genuine ability to make friends, despite speaking what is best described as broken Spanish, often speckled with bits and pieces of both Polish and French.
Bless the good ladies of Naco . . . they did their best to keep up.
While Mom developed deep-rooted and lifelong relationships among the adults in her life, it was her love of children that would become her most endearing legacy.
A Christmas Carol
St. Michaels Catholic Mission is on West Martinez Street in Naco.
Today, it has a Facebook page to advertise upcoming events and a schedule for First Communion.
Back then, we relied on the resonant faith and determination of Mom.
She noticed a void and offered to teach catechism (pronounced ‘kadə kisəm), a structured series of classes that prepares children and young adults to carry on the sacraments of the Catholic faith.
This is when I learned the power of perseverance. There was no excuse, no convenient place to hide when it came to attending catechism. We had a Chevrolet Brookwood station wagon that was her response to, “Mrs. Shamrell, I don’t have a ride.”
I can remember piling a dozen kids into that cavernous mode of transportation, layered in the back like sardines in a tin can, just to make sure every child had an opportunity to learn and grow.
It was perhaps the second or third year of catechism that mom decided to try Christmas caroling.
This wasn’t something from a Dickens’ novel. I suppose Fraulein Maria from the Sound of Music would provide a more suitable silhouette if we were searching for a cinematic reference.
Mom never relied on prose or followed a script . . . she followed her heart. Caroling was among the many ways she could share her faith and a joy for life with her community.
After printing several barely legible booklets of a dozen or so carols, she led us by candlelight through the streets of Naco like a Polish Pied Piper. As with most new experiences, we didn’t know what to expect or how the community would react.
But we were ready to sing.
There Is Room At The Inn
Unlike the genesis of the Christian holiday almost 2,000 years earlier, Naco proved to be warm and welcoming to our traveling band of pint-sized carolers.
There were no specific plans to stop in anyone’s home that first year. But when the chattering of teeth overwhelmed the ability to sing, a couple of families invited us indoors to warm ourselves before resuming the journey.
“Oh, I wish I had prepared something for you, Carol” became the rallying cry of an almost competitive spirit thereafter. Families longed to share their gratitude by inviting us in for a break.
What was originally planned for an hour or so turned into an almost three-hour event on consecutive nights.
As kids, we scored big on the holiday caroling circuit, stuffing ourselves with tamales, Christmas cookies, and Mexican Hot Chocolate, spiced with cinnamon to warm you from the inside like a thermal blanket.
Mom never had to solicit sponsors or ask for a place to pause and seek warmth. Families were eager to share in the experience, to express their love in a communal faith, and perhaps snap a polaroid picture to capture the moment in their hearts.
Caroling followed into my high school years, when teenage hormones and a growing sense of maturity let me know, it was time to step aside. Mom continued blissfully leading the next generation into the chilly nights to sing hallelujah.
I did miss the Mexican Hot Chocolate.
O Holy Night
Mom passed away in August of 2013.
We had moved to our current home in Central Florida less than two years earlier. The holidays provided opportunities for extended time off, which I would devote to my self-imposed mission to clear surrounding brush and bramble further away from our house.
I was still close enough to power a radio via drop cord, something I don’t do currently. Guess I prefer the sound of nature in those moments.
Although I have fond memories of caroling, I’m not one to listen to Christmas carols and holiday music 24/7. But if cornered into picking a favorite, it would be “O Holy Night” . . . a song based on the French poem Minuit Chre´tiens penned centuries ago.
There is a bridge to the chorus that Mom loved to belt out:
“Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born”
It’s a powerful and emotional crescendo.
I will admit that clearing the property is exhausting, manual labor.
So, fatigue may have played some part in it, but when that song came on the radio, I began singing along at the top of my lungs before falling to my knees and sobbing uncontrollably.
Then I sat there, staring into the forest, feeling the incredible pain slowly dissipate into the peaceful stillness of a cognizant awareness.
Mom was gone, but the loved she shared would remain to light our lives forever.
A Legacy of Love
Her name was Carol, as in Christmas.
She opened her heart to the world and let actions speak above words.
When I survey the symbols of the season, I’m encouraged by what they genuinely represent. A hope for peace and understanding, for universal joy, and the freedom to passionately pursue your faith in a better tomorrow.
It’s easy to get lost among the symbolism and commercial ambitions of the holidays. For me, memories of caroling with Mom is the gift of a lifetime, a constant reminder of the power of an open heart.
Embrace perfection among the imperfections. Leave yourself vulnerable to the emotions of the moment.
It can bring you to your knees . . . but the resulting awareness will have your spirit breaking out in song.
I still miss the Mexican Hot Chocolate, though.
This is Tall Tim Wishing You the Happiest of Holidays!