By George Smith
The week of December 5 was hectic. The Christmas rush was beginning to crowd a busy work week with too few hours spent chasing too many tasks. My blood pressure was up, and my Christmas spirit was down.
My work calendar for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM) included an all- day meeting of the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, two evening meetings of SAM’s Fishing Initiative Committee and Board of Directors, final paste-up of SAM News, taping three Wildfire television shows, a morning’s discussion with GrowSmart and the Brookings Institution, several out-of-town meetings, five thousand words to write, and much more.
Christmas was just twenty-one days away and I had a couple of Christmas parties that week, plus church choir practice and good intentions to get my shopping done. The pressure was building.
And then, on Tuesday, my father-in-law died. Lewis Hillier of Winthrop was eighty- five, a quiet and modest World War II veteran who earned a Purple Heart on the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge, a man whose legacy is his family. He and his wife Ivy raised seven great children, the youngest of whom is my wife Linda.
With this news, the tasks that once seemed important vanished from my schedule. I had a new job to complete: I had the privilege of writing and delivering Lew’s eulogy.
The change in plans caused me to think about life and to contemplate Christmas in a different light—not the bright lights that dominate this season, but the soft lights that illuminate the soul. It was time to look inward, and Lew’s death provided that luxury.
During an afternoon hike, I found Christmas in my woodlot. The spruce trees sported snowy blankets and a deer grazed among acorns, scarcely noticing my presence. Hop- kins Stream, with shoulders of frozen ice reflecting a brilliant sun, was barely moving along.
As I gazed north, I noticed a beaver in midstream, heading in my direction. I hunkered down behind a tree and he swam by me, intent on completing his own chores. If I had been in my canoe, he would have slapped his tail on the water, angered by my presence. On this day, however, I was simply a part of his world, not a threat to it. After the beaver passed, I sat entranced by the ice, calm and content.
A small head poked out of the snowy branches not twenty feet away and an ermine pranced out, already white after shedding his brown summer coat, perhaps the only one truly ready for winter. He scampered away toward a nearby ridge, never even glancing my way, so tiny, so fierce.
South of me in the stream, a dozen ducks—buffleheads— bobbed in the water’s surface, and a yonder hill could have been a backdrop for a Christmas card. The Christ- mas tableau I sought was in nature, the place where God always speaks to me. That after- noon, he helped rearrange my schedule to focus on the special season that Christmas can be if we let it.
The irony is that we all know what to do to make Christmas peaceful, but we usually do just the opposite. Wishing for quiet, we shop for packages. Needing calm, we fill the schedule
with clamor. Once I cleared my schedule to honor my father-in-law, I got out a pen and decided which chores could wait and which really needed my attention.
Despite pleas from my family, I refused to prepare a wish list of gifts I wanted to find under the tree on Christmas morning. Something thoughtful, something simple, I murmured. Looks of disbelief from my loved ones did not deter me.
On a Saturday night, along with my daughter Hilary, I sang Handel’s Messiah with the South Parish Church congregation in Augusta, accompanied by the Augusta Symphony Orchestra. I had planned to attend a basketball game, but I knew there would be plenty of games in the months to come.
This sing-along set just the right tone for my inspired version of Christmas 2005: splendid, enthusiastic, loving, and spiritual. The last time I sang the Messiah was with my mother at a large Catholic church in Lewiston. Mom has been gone five years, but her presence was strong that night at South Parish Church.
This new, relaxed Christmas—focused on church activities, music, scaled-down expectations for gifts, more time with family members—was a final gift from Lew. While mourning him, I managed to find Christmas.
From laugh-out-loud funny to deeply poignant, A Life Lived Outdoors presents a collection of hand-picked essays by George Smith, one of Maine’s favorite outdoor writers, exploring the way life should be, could be, and sometimes is in the great state of Maine.