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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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The Full Suburban: The greatest Christmas gifts keep on giving many years later

Julia Ditto, second from right, and her family in a portrait less than one year before her father died.  (Courtesy)
Julia Ditto, second from right, and her family in a portrait less than one year before her father died. (Courtesy)
By Julia Ditto For The Spokesman-Review

The Christmas of 1993 was one I was dreading. Two years before, my father had died from brain cancer at the young age of 44, leaving my mom, two brothers and me totally devastated. The first Christmas after he died, we flew to my grandmother’s house in Southern California so we wouldn’t have to face the holidays alone.

The next year, and for much the same reason, we went on a cruise with our extended family, spending Christmas Day on a beach in Mexico. But by the third year – 1993 – we were staring down our first real Christmas at home without our dad, and all of us were bracing for it to be difficult.

What’s more, my brothers and I – all of us just teenagers – weren’t quite sure what to get our mom for Christmas. Our dad had always been the one to spoil her with presents, and as kids, our resources were limited. But the thought of her having nothing special to open on Christmas morning was unthinkable.

One night, my older brother, Jonathan, came to my little brother Steven and me with an idea. “I think we should make a slideshow for Mom with pictures of Dad,” he said. “I can set up the camcorder on a tripod in the basement, and I’ll record each picture for a few seconds and then set it to music. She’ll totally love it. What do you think?”

I was not on board. It seemed like the kind of project that would take forever to do and end up not working in the end (I can see why sisters like me get a bad rap sometimes). But Jonathan forged ahead. He spent hours in the basement finding and recording pictures of our dad through the years.

It was a very low-tech process, one that is unfathomable to younger minds today, but it worked. When he was finished filming the pictures, he set the whole slide show to Harry Connick Jr.’s “When My Heart Finds Christmas.” He showed Steven and me a preview on Christmas Eve.

“Mom’s going to love it,” I said. The next morning, we got up early and opened presents, Mom beaming as we unwrapped each one. And then it was her turn. “Sit down on the couch,” we instructed her as Jonathan loaded the tape into the VCR. The first notes of the song pinged from the speakers, and a picture of our smiling dad came onto the screen.

“Oh, kids,” mom said, tears already in her eyes. We huddled there on the couch and watched the slideshow, a little brokenhearted family remembering their dad, wishing for what might have been and hoping for what still could be in a life beyond this one. It hurt terribly. We wept, every single one of us.

When the slideshow ended, my mom told us it was the greatest Christmas gift she’d ever received. This year, we’re all facing a holiday season unlike any other filled with uncertainty, maybe mourning and possibly a little fear.

I’m reminded of the words of the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day in 1863, when the country was in the midst of the Civil War, and he was mourning his own indescribable losses:

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on Earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Christmas of 1993 was difficult for my family, but it has become a sacred memory to us, holy in a way that an ordinary Christmas could never be. Like Longfellow, I believe “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.” Our pains are not ours alone; our suffering does not go unaided. As the Psalmist said, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalms 30:5).

Julia Ditto shares her life with her husband, six children and a random menagerie of farm animals in Spokane Val ley. She can be reached at dittojulia@gmail.com.

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