Column: Time to count our blessings

I was navigating around the Riverhead traffic circle when the radio began playing Elvis Presley’s rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I sang the last stanza with Elvis:

“Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams.
I’ll be home for Christmas, oh, yes,
If only in my dreams.”

Unwittingly, I felt a lump form in my throat; I blinked back tears and swallowed hard. Get a grip, I told myself; this was not the place to have a meltdown.

I knew what ailed me: My kids and I are spending Christmas apart. But truthfully, I shouldn’t whine. We all spent a glorious Thanksgiving (and my birthday) together on the West Coast. And, as an added bonus, my sister and her family joined us; yet my normally high spirits were taking a nosedive.

During the holiday season, our to-do list grows daily. We knock ourselves out shopping, cooking, writing cards and complaining. By Christmas, we are exhausted, frazzled and, oddly enough, sometimes lonely.

Some folks do get the much-coveted Norman Rockwell Christmas. The turkey, ham or lasagna is cooked to perfection. (If you’re Italian, you have all three.) The kids are home; the grandkids are not squabbling. The in-laws and family outlaws are passing the potatoes with a smile. Your mother-in-law understands that you cannot be in two places at one time and … (add your own wish list).

Truthfully, I question whether my traditions are cultural relics. Lordy, lordy! Traditions are so hard to relinquish. Television ads and cards mock us with reminders that Christmas is a time to be with family, when in reality, many families are scattered logistically. And take it from me, getting together for a holiday is not as simple as hopping on a plane.

Countless families are separated owing to military service. Although some families glimpse their loved ones on TV, through broadcasts sponsored by the Holiday Greetings Program, it’s a far cry from being home for Christmas.

Divorce, death and family feuds can also take a toll on family togetherness at the holidays. Or maybe the kids decided to chuck tradition and fly to Tahiti.

Perhaps Christmas finds you at a large, festive gathering; a smile belies your shattered heart. There is a piece missing, someone is no longer here — and will never be again.

And then there are the Helens of the world.

I was once part of a lay pastoral ministry team assigned to a particular nursing home. One Christmas Eve, I visited the nursing facility before heading home to my family. Helen was sitting in the corridor and looked up expectantly when I arrived.

I chatted with Helen and, by mid-afternoon, it became apparent that Helen would not be receiving any visitors. I was torn between going home to my family and staying with Helen. Sensing my distress, Helen’s bright blue eyes held mine. She took my hand and, with a knowing smile, said, “Don’t fret, dear, I am grateful for my Christmas memories. Go home and make memories with your family.”

Unbeknownst to me, I drove home that cold December afternoon with Helen’s gift tucked in my heart.

Helen died years ago and resides with all the company of heaven. A gentle soul, she gave up most of what she cherished. Still, her magnanimous heart was filled with love and gratitude.

How serendipitous that Helen came to mind so clearly this week. Is Helen nudging me? I can almost hear her say, “Dear, don’t fret. Look at what you have, not what you miss, and enjoy your memories.”

Helen’s nudge turned into a magical moment of awareness: Christmas is less about us and more about gratefulness, love and giving. And, yup, I can only go home this Christmas in memory; my kids and I will exchange our gifts via UPS and a telephone call will replace a hug. It is enough.

Unexpectedly, my flailing spirits began to soar: At long last, I unwrapped Helen’s parting gift.

Ms. Iannelli is a resident of Jamesport.