JoAnn Alumbaugh
JoAnn Alumbaugh

This is my favorite time of year, for so many reasons. We spend quality time with family and reconnect with friends. We bring out treasured ornaments and remember Christmases past.  We think of loved ones who are with us only in spirit, though at times it seems that only minutes have passed since they were alive and vibrant, warming us with thoughtful words and kind smiles.

I wrote the following article a number of years ago, but on occasion I’ve reprinted it because it seems to hit a chord with readers. I hope it does for you, and I wish you all the best of the holiday season. It is an honor to be associated with you and I look forward to serving the pork industry in the coming year.

A Special Christmas

I was 13 years old on that cold Christmas morning in 1965. It was still dark in our big, old farmhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when my sister, Judy, nudged me awake.

“Come on, it’s 5:30,” she urged. “Let’s go downstairs and look under the tree.”

Quietly, so as not to wake our parents and three younger siblings, we tiptoed down the stairs with barely contained anticipation, trying to avoid the creaky spots.

I saw it as soon as we came into the living room. There, in the corner, somewhat separate from the rest of the presents, was the graceful shape of a large, stringed instrument. I knew it was a ‘cello for me.

A single red bow graced the top of the soft, brown case. Next to it was a tag that read, “To JoAnn. May this gift bring you many hours and years of pleasure. Love, Mother and Father.”  

I unzipped the case and caught my breath at the unusual and beautiful “blond” finish of the wood grain. Most instruments are dark and subdued but this one radiated with vibrant warmth.

It was my mother who cultivated and nurtured my love for music. From the piano lessons in fourth grade (which I tolerated for the big bowl of chocolate ice cream at the end of each lesson), to the first scratchy notes from the rented school ‘cello, Mother was there, gently coaxing and encouraging my interest.

She prodded me to practice and hardly winced as I went through the painful process of learning to play recognizable songs. She took me to a prestigious music camp, located more than four hours away, and we nearly forgot to pack the ‘cello in our excitement.

She ushered me to every music lesson and attended every concert. From fifth grade through college, I knew Mother would be somewhere in the audience, appreciating the music and enjoying a reprieve from her own busy schedule.

Perhaps she was living out some of her personal aspirations, relishing the chance to give her children opportunities that were unavailable to her. Regardless, she made us believe we had talent, building our character and confidence through her quiet support and guidance.

And the music! Playing in a symphony orchestra is like creating a quilt. Each instrument, like fabric and pattern, adds a unique quality. The bass and ‘cello remind one of rich, dark corduroy or velvet. The violins and violas are more like satin or taffeta. They complement one another to create an artistic, enduring, unique finished work.

Great music, like an heirloom quilt, passes the test of time and spans the generations. The sounds reverberate through your body – you not only hear the music, you feel it deeply in your soul.

How my parents must have agonized at the time over the expensive gift. With a farm to run and five young children, how could they know if this was a wise investment? I’m sure my mother persevered, sensing this was the right thing to do, somehow knowing this purchase would have lasting value.

Some 40 years after that special Christmas, my mother began showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The sweet, articulate, graceful lady I remembered became a shadow behind this insidious, frustrating disease. Those familiar with Alzheimer’s and the people who have it know the painful journey from simple forgetfulness to complete lack of recognition of friends and loved ones. It’s like seeing someone slowly disappear before your eyes. They are there, but you can’t reach them.

There is comfort in knowing that others deal with similar situations. Families often become closer as they help one another cope and discover the things in life that are truly important.

Although my mother is no longer with us on Earth, I often feel her presence, especially at this time of year. She is near me when I play ‘cello at our church’s candlelight Christmas Eve service. She is there on Christmas morning, as my family gathers together. And she is there in the simple, quiet moments of solitude, when I think about the influence she had on me, on our family, and on so many others.  Our departed loved ones are just like the music of the masters – their “melodies” carry on through each generation.  

As with my mom, the gifts she gave so long ago continue to bring pleasure, not only through music, but also through the sustaining memories of a graceful, loving mother.