Peace and a Hula Hoop

“The Chipmunk Song” is a tool of peace. Really.

No, I haven’t had too much eggnog. Perhaps I should explain.

For my wife Heather, the Christmas season doesn’t really start until she hears the Chipmunks Christmas album, including the squeaky-voiced perennial about how much Alvin wants a hula hoop. (Are you hearing it in your head now? I’m sorry.) It’s one of two albums that gets played when we decorate our tree each year, along with my own family’s tradition of “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.”

But never mind our tree right now. The really important one in the story is G-ma’s.

“G-ma” was Heather’s Grandma Marilyn. Every year, Heather and her siblings and her mom (and often the rest of us spousal hangers-on) would make the short trek to help put up her tree. There’d be stories and ornaments and minor chaos and everything else you’d expect at such an occasion.

And, at Heather’s insistence, there would also be “The Chipmunk Song.” Because one does. And because G-ma’s laughter and smile at it never changed.

Time passed. And so did G-ma.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, we lost Marilyn in July. It left a hole. It always does when love and memories have grown strong. When the memories belong to a loving, strong-willed and lively soul, that hole gets even bigger.

Especially at the holidays.

There’s something about the season of togetherness that makes the empty chair stand out even more. And when December arrived, it felt off-balance without G-ma’s tree.

So Heather’s family put one up anyway.

A small tree. By the graveside. Decorated, of course. And there in the cold, Heather’s sister decided there was still just one thing missing.

At her suggestion, Heather pulled out her phone. And soon, the tinny strains of “The Chipmunk Song” were pealing out once more.  

All was right.

And that, at its heart, is the picture of peace.

We often misuse the word, shouting “give me some peace!” when a situation gets too loud or contentious. Peace becomes a simple end to conflict, by whatever means, a way of restoring quiet and keeping order.

But there’s an older meaning. One that’s still in the backdrop of a hundred Christmas carols. As a friend of mine likes to note, in old Greek the word means an interweaving, the connections between others that create harmony. When those connections are strong, when all is as it should be, peace reigns.

That’s a powerful gift. One we need badly.

We’re good at dividing, great at shouting, not always so good at listening. Peace demands that we listen, learn and try to understand. That we see those around us as our strength, not our burden. It calls on us to reach out, lift up, and make each other whole.

It’s not always a quiet process and rarely a simple one. But when we honor those connections, we make something beautiful. A beginning. A space. Something that binds us all, even if it’s in the tones of a novelty Christmas song.

The hula hoop is just a bonus.

May peace find you all. In all its meanings. Together, we just may be able to evoke, with a slight alteration, another, older song.

All is calm.

All is right.

Simply G-ma

“Do you want to know what G-ma left us?” Heather said with a smile. “A bookcase.”

My smile matched hers.

“Of course she did.”

It fit, and not just because our home has a minor over-abundance of volumes. (In the same way that Taylor Swift has a minor bit of popularity right now.) Like that bookcase, Heather’s Grandma Marilyn was the starting point for a lot of stories … the kind you write together.

About a week ago, those stories turned a final page.  

G-ma was gone.

We’d known it was coming for a long time. Nothing fell out of a clear blue sky. We had time and beyond to prepare, to show love yet again, to leave no regrets or what-if’s behind. In a way, it didn’t matter. When a life of love gets removed, it feels like someone took scissors to a yearbook photo – you can tell by the hole that someone should be there.

And G-ma was quite a someone.

There’s an old joke that in Reporter Language, the word “feisty” means “short, female.” Marilyn fit both the joking description and the real one, a small lady with a strong backbone and an open heart. She could be stubborn in the best possible way, ready to stand for and with the people she cared about … but also to be knowingly silly in a way that only the truly fearless can be.

We always got along. In fact, we hit it off so well that she wanted to make sure Heather never lost me. “Make sure you make him pot roast,” she told her early in our marriage, a bit of 1950s love language that still sets us both laughing at the memory of it.

I don’t even like pot roast. But I love the heart that offered it.

She played piano well but always wanted to hear me instead when we visited. A frozen pizza served as the centerpiece for many a conversation, often while a pet bird sang out in the background. Helping put up the G-ma’s Christmas tree was an unbreakable tradition, no matter what else might be happening in the world.

Simple things.

But the simplest of all was that Marilyn listened. Fiercely.

She didn’t always agree. (I did mention the stubbornness, right?) But she always listened, not just waiting her turn in the conversation but actively considering what you said. She wanted to understand, to know, to hear.

Heather carries that same trait. It’s not always an easy one. It lowers your shields and leaves you open to the hurt of others, a hurt you sometimes can’t do much to heal. But it also opens you up to their passions, their wonder, their delight in life. When you listen, the world becomes more than a vague outline – it becomes real people in all their pain and glory.

When we listen, we truly become a “we.”

It’s a gift often absent these days. But it can be recovered at any moment, any time when we’re willing to move the focus off our own self. That, too, is not easy. But it’s essential.

By taking those moments, we bring a bit of someone else inside us. When we do, it means that no one’s ever truly gone. We keep them alive and pass them on, touching lives as we were touched.

So maybe the story of G-ma isn’t really over. It’s just up to us to write the sequel.

 Thank you, Marilyn. For the bookcase. For the moments. For the life well-spent.

And don’t worry. We may just make that pot roast yet.