This year, I’m going to do something different for Advent. Here, on my blog, I plan to open up a seasonal memory each day to reflect upon my own story, the people I’ve known and loved, many of who are no longer here. I have no idea where this Advent journey will take me; nor do I know what this series of blogs will look like by the time I reach Christmas. Whatever happens on the way, I invite you to consider your own memories as windows into a deeper understanding of God’s presence in and through your own life as we approach the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Welcome to this Advent calendar of memory.
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The First Window: Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1966
As Advent begins this year, I find myself thinking of my father, John Robert Hochstedt, who died fourteen years ago. Most people called him “Bob.” Except, of course, his parents and his elderly aunts. They insisted on using his boyhood name; they called him “Bobby” long after he’d graduated high school, joined the Navy, married, and become father of three children. He did not appreciate the diminutive. My mother sometimes joked that we moved away from Baltimore so my father could escape his nickname.
It is odd that I think of my father first when I recall childhood Christmases. He was a florist—December was a busy time—and he was not home very much leading up to the holiday. After Thanksgiving, he would stay late every night at the family florist shop in Baltimore, trimming trees and wreaths, arranging flowers for special parties and seasonal weddings (he loathed brides who married at Christmas), placing an array of gifts on store shelves, and creating artistic window displays to guarantee “First Place” in the neighborhood decorating contest. He was busy and said he dreaded it all. He called himself “The Grinch” and scowled, complaining that there were always too many funerals during the holidays.
But I knew it was an act, at least in part. Indeed, the long hours were painful and took a toll on him. He often missed dinner and fell asleep in his favorite chair after arriving home late. On the nights when he had energy, however, my dad showed a different side. He would decorate our house with as much passion as he invested in decking the family store. “Daddy, get the Christmas stuff down,” we begged. With a sigh (and a wink), he would go up to the attic and bring down box after box of lights, ornaments, and roping. There were vases and dolls and dishes and candlesticks and tablecloths and artificial poinsettias, a regular hoard of holiday trinkets. Unpacking the boxes was like Christmas itself, as “oohs” and “aahs” followed forgotten-but-now-recovered treasures slipping out of old newspaper.
More than anything else in those boxes, however, my father prized his collection of blue Christmas lights and decorations. It was a peculiar fancy of his, part rebellion against tradition, a sort of festive statement that my mother ruefully tolerated. Unlike every other house on the block, most of which twinkled with colored lights, our house was covered in blue Christmas lights. Each year, mother pointed out that a few of the nicest houses had white lights, something she thought elegant and tasteful, but my father ignored her and soldiered on with his blue display. He outlined the azalea bushes with blue lights, the roofline shone blue, and the Japanese maple was decked in blue. One year, he created a massive Christmas tree out of the blue lights and hoist it up the flagpole while the neighbors cheered and admired his ingenuity. It lasted about three days, until a freak windstorm took it down.
On our door hung a flocked wreath with blue Christmas balls and silver ribbons. When I was quite small, we had an aluminum tree covered in blue and silver ornaments. Eventually, my mother won an indoor victory—by the time my sister was born, we had a “traditional” green artificial tree instead. Somehow, she convinced him that the tree should have cheerful, multi-colored lights and other decorations as a counterpoint to the muted, modern display outside.
One cold night, just a few days before Christmas, when I was about seven, I stayed outside with dad as he finished putting up the lights. Night enveloped us as he draped the final strings over the eaves, the brittle-blue looking a little like icicles in the moonlight. He came down the ladder and stood back. Together, we admired his handiwork.
“Daddy,” I asked, “why are our lights blue?”
It started to snow, very lightly. He took my hand.
“Because it is peaceful,” he said. “And it looks pretty when it snows.”
He was right.