The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Serendipity has always been my favorite Webster word. To me, it is the hope that whatever gets thrown at us we have choices in our path to take the right turn or the left turn, and the one we travel is the right one, with lessons learned. It also says to me that within the chaos of the world, other’s paths intersect with ours for reasons we don’t always know why, but has meaning, big or small, magical or mundane.

Years ago an elder cousin, who recently passed away, gave me Ancestry as a Chanukah present. She was a generation older than me and we seemed to be the ones who passed on the rich history of our family’s migration from Ukraine to Chicago, to Los Angeles. Over the decades, some stayed in Chicago while others moved on to Los Angeles.

Recently, I got a message on Ancestry from a woman in Chicago, saying, “I think we’re related.” She writes that she’s pretty sure that her great uncle is my maternal grandfather’s father, as the last name for everyone was the same. It was an unusual last name, not Cohen or Levy or Shapiro. I never knew my great-grandfather, as he died when his wife and five children got off the boat at Ellis Island. (That might explain that my memories of my great-grandbubbe were of a bitter/not-so-nice person!) The woman asked me my great-grandfather’s name, along with some of the other relatives.

I stopped in my tracks and realized I had no idea what my great-grandfather’s name was! No one had ever talked about him, made reference to him or had stories to share about him. I felt so sad for a life left so behind.

I immediately contacted the daughter of my cousin and asked her if she knew our great-grandfather’s name and instantly she replied, “I have no idea!” Before her mom died, she created a family tree along with pictures and, sure enough, the name my new relative mentioned was one in the same of her great uncle and my great-grandfather! She confirmed the family connection after I emailed her a picture of him, of which she had the same one.

Here’s the serendipity of this: 24 hours after I got the email about my great-grandfather, I was with my 17-year-old granddaughter who was telling me about a WWll project she was doing for a class. She was aware that my Father was in Europe during the war and kept a diary while in fox-holes in Germany and France. I have shared many of the writings with my kids and grandkids. She asked if she could use the diary as part of her presentation and I agreed and told her I had other WWll artifacts that I would give her.

One is a Good Conduct medal with my Father’s name engraved on it and the other is a piece of paper (that I had framed) but as I closely looked at it, I realized I had not paid too much attention to exactly what it was. Upon closer examination, I noticed how fragile it was, how very small the printed words were and that the handwritten info was so faded that I could barely read it! I took a flashlight and realized the name on this USA Registration Certificate was from 1918 and had my Dad’s father’s name on it!

I had always thought this item was part of my Dad’s WWll memorabilia! But here was my paternal grandfather’s army registration card for WWl! I never knew my grandfather as he died when my Father was nine years old. No one had ever talked about him, made reference to him or had stories to share about him, other than he was shot and killed in his Cleveland gas station by the Jewish Mofia. I felt so sad for a life left so behind.

Within a day’s time span, two men I did not know, nor had any presence in our family’s stories, who were my great-grandfather and my grandfather, but left their legacies on our family trees via me and my various family members, serendipitously appeared, reminding us they had existed!

This has been one of those Twilight Zone moments for me, kind of weird, sort of feeling haunted by two ghosts showing up for no rhyme or reason. But I truly felt their presence and suddenly decided that maybe that’s all they wanted, as no one had ever talked about them, made reference to them or had stories to share about them. I feel so sad for two lives left so behind.

Among other artifacts I had looked through, I came across a very faded, old,  piece of browned paper with torn edges from my high school days. I was editor of my high school newspaper and had written this article. I want to share some of it as it seems so appropriate for the time of year and state-of-the-world with its universal message that is timeless:

To me Christmas has but one significance and that is Brotherhood, for as a Jew and one who does not celebrate Christmas, this time of year is about “Goodwill Towards Men.” During the holiday vacation, I work in my family’s men’s clothing store where I wrap holiday packages. I notice the “just-looking” shoppers, the “hurried-housewife” shopper, the “I’ll-take-my-time” shopper, the “high-spirited” shopper who is humming Jingle Bells and the “I’m-tired-so-I’ll-just-take-this-red-tie” shopper! After wrapping their package in colorful Christmas or Chanukah paper, I wish our customers a “Happy Holiday!” {not knowing  that in the early 1960s I was being PC!!} and I usually got a “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holiday!” right back! No one was too stressed to share  a holiday cheer.

I think what helps the spirit of Christmas to be in the hearts of people is that it is brought out into the open. Nobody could possibly miss what time of year it is with all the colorful decorations and sparkling lights which brings glow to people’s faces. It seems folks go out of their way to be more pleasant, take joy in buying gifts for others, showing concern for those less fortunate. I really like that schools have canned food and toy drives. It’s apparent that the holiday season is about giving and caring for others. It’s too bad this is more prevalent during Christmas and not year round.

To me, the spirit of Christmas is, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards Men” which is a message that all Gentiles and Jews want. 

The Derrick Diary, 1963.

Sometimes the past creeps up on us in most unusual ways. It may cause confusion, pleasure, anger or just a moment of memory. In fact, Webster might say that the metaphor for “The Ghost of Christmas Past” is MEMORY: The spirit of our past, our present and what is yet to be.

For the spirit of the season, I hope we all share stories with our loved ones, especially the very young ones, so no person has a legacy where,  “No one had ever talked about them, made reference to them or had stories to share about them.”  I hope no one’s life is left behind.

And maybe in this crazed electronic, AI, advanced age we live in, Great-grandpa Morton and Grandpa Sam KNOW they have a story we talked about, made reference to them and shared their place in our lives.

My prayer for 2024 is that there IS, “Peace of Earth, Goodwill Towards All Men and Woman!”  L’chaim!…Sandy

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