The Advent Token – by Florence Niven

It was a simple idea. One my sister, the organist at a United Church in Fredericton, New Brunswick, told me about. The minister had asked the congregation to consider wearing something special for the first Sunday of Advent. A token of some sort. Something to remind them of a loved one they wouldn’t be seeing over the holidays. A bracelet or scarf, perhaps. A hand knit sweater, or hockey jersey. It was suggested as a way of holding those nearest and dearest close – at least symbolically – even as they were absent. My sister had chosen to wear a glass brooch I had given her, once upon a time.

I shared the idea with the planning committee of our women’s spirituality group in Kingston, Ontario. I thought it might be something we could invite the women to do for our December virtual gathering.

I imagined choosing for my item, my dad’s black and grey plaid fleece shirt. I’d brought it back to Ontario after my last visit to New Brunswick. It had been a personal favourite of Dad’s. Warm and comfy, it had helped ease the chill of many a long winter’s day. The week after he died, my sister wore it. Not because of sentimentality or longing, although that was certainly part of it, but rather because of a nasty fall. My sister had slipped on the icy sidewalk near her house and badly broken her wrist. Her neighbour found her. He called me at our mother’s house just down the street, where I was staying.

Hours of waiting in the emergency room, x-rays, then bone fragment manipulation by a skilled orthopaedic surgeon followed. I didn’t actually see that last part. Once I heard the doctor’s plan, I made my way to the hallway, slumped into a chair, and bent forward to rest my head against my knees. I waited for my world to stop spinning. Tried not to dwell on the fact our father had died in this hospital, just the week before.

My sister was sent home with strict instructions not to move, or put pressure on her injured limb, protected temporarily with layers of thick white bandaging. After discovering nothing in her closet would fit over the bulky appendage, I went down the street to see what I could find of Dad’s. As I opened his closet door I whispered softly, “Ok Dad. You have to help here. Just one last time.” And then I spotted his plaid fleece. It slipped easily over the dressing, protecting my sister during those first few weeks, as her wrist, and her heart, began to mend.

Midway through telling my story to the planning committee, I could feel my tears starting to well. This seemed like such a lovely idea before I waded into the middle of a memory.

I decided it might be wiser for me to choose a token from a loved one still living – albeit out of reach in this strange new normal. A favourite winter hat my mother knit for me years ago could work. It’s the perfect Wedgewood blue and features a wide Celtic braid knitted in the folded brim around my face. It keeps me warm on the coldest of days. I think of my mother when I wear it, and marvel at the skill required to combine the intricate stitches.

I could choose something from my sister like the heavy ceramic necklace she brought me back from Greece when she was a footloose and fancy-free twenty-something, exploring the world. I love the heft of it, the striking ebony color and metal detailing. Each time I wear it I’m reminded of the years when I travelled vicariously – through my sister’s photos and stories – during a time when my real-life adventures took place close to home, and involved young children and Play Doh.

I suppose I could wear the hockey jersey hanging in my youngest son’s closet. He lives so close – a two-hour drive to Ottawa – yet seems so far away during this pandemic. Actually, I’m not sure I could pull off a hockey jersey. I know so little about the game, beyond the fact it involves a stick. And a puck. And far too much fighting for my liking. For the longest time I kept erroneously naming his favourite team – which mortified him to no end, especially when friends were around. ‘Maw-umm……’, he’d say. The dreaded two-syllable address familiar to mothers everywhere. 

Our Christmas visit this year will be over Zoom. I wish he could come home to be with his brother, his dad and me, but I must defer that wish to another time.

This Advent exercise has been fun to imagine, but it occurred to me that I don’t need a token. I think of my loved ones every day, and count them among my many blessings. I know there are those for whom childhood memories are not happy. I know there are families who, for one reason or another, will remain separated long after this pandemic. I try not to take my blessings for granted, but of course, some times I do. And so I’m thankful for this gentle reminder. To take a minute to think about loved ones, however they are defined for us, even as we maintain our distance.

Such a simple idea. Such a timely idea.

We may not be with our actual families, or our chosen families, over the holidays, but we can always carry them close to our hearts, and remember them fondly. Every day; any day.

With or without a token.

Florence Niven – November, 2020

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