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Ode: Finding joy after loss around the holidays

Kelly Burds
Ally Karsyn

In college, I was the girl who would low-key judge people for playing Christmas music the second Thanksgiving was over.

It has led people, to believe that I do not love “The Holidays.” They would be wrong. I think Christmas is magical. I simply have a more… “liturgical” view than my more Rudolph-loving, cookie-addled friends.

I can’t reach Christmas without going through Advent first. This is not to say that I’m particularly pious, because I’m not. I’m rude, I’m judgemental, I cuss like a sailor, and I’m out of church on Sundays more often than I’m in. I just find it impossible to jump from one joyful event to the next without taking some time out to reflect.


Through the glow of childhood, my earliest Christmas memories looked like something out of a Hallmark movie. My family lived in a tiny rental house in Dubuque, Iowa. Both parents were self-employed. Mom was a cosmetologist. Her income varied year-round. Dad owned a sandblasting, painting and tuckpointing business, and he was basically jobless once it got too cold or snowy to safely work on a rusted water tower.

Every year, it was a toss-up to see if they had money for Christmas presents. Fortunately for my younger brother Deni and me, our parents were incredibly creative.

One year, when money was tight, they built us the most beautiful playhouse a child could ever imagine. The front room had windows facing either side, and the back room had a secret escape door, barely two feet tall and two feet wide. It was perfect for a game of make believe or hide and seek.

Our parents decorated the outside with a garden full of orange and red tulips, surrounding the front door. There were shutters on the windows and curtains inside. Everything was drawn on with Sharpie markers. Our beautiful playhouse was made out of a couple cardboard boxes. And it was one of the most magical gifts I’ve ever received.

That same year, or maybe the year after, our parents asked two of their best friends dress up as Santa and an elf and came over to our house. In the pictures, Deni looks confused and like he’s debating the merits of screeching his lungs out until the scary strangers leave. I am grinning from ear to ear.

Those early Christmases were wonder-filled times for my family, and I will treasure their fuzzy, gold-toned memories forever. But like all magical things, they could not last.

My daddy, or “Dee-dah” as I called him in my toddler baby-talk, died of lung cancer on December 11, 1997. It was three days after his 49th birthday and about eight weeks after his initial diagnosis. He passed away in a hospital bed in our little living room, right where we’d normally set up the Christmas tree.

I was almost six years old. Deni had just turned four. I don’t think we celebrated Christmas at all that year.

Beyond my first day of kindergarten, the next few months are nearly blank. I have a handful of vague impressions that might just be the result of looking back at photographs. Only two instances stand out enough for me to call them real memories.

The first is of me finding out my dad was gone. A family member was holding me in their arms. We were in the living room. I was staring down at my dad’s head, certain it had moved of his own volition.

Volition (noun): the act of making a choice or decision. Daddy had taught me this word from the dictionary.

The second memory is from weeks or maybe even months later. I watched my mother sob like a child, and I felt completely helpless. It was the first time I’d seen her cry. Of the two memories, this one cut deeper. It taught me how to worry.

If my holiday experiences ended there, I would probably be the saddest, Scroogiest person ever. But the next year, we celebrated Christmas with my dad’s family in rural southern Missouri.

On Christmas Eve, we sang every Christmas song I knew and quite a few I didn’t. There were renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Joy to the World” and “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.”

Mom, Deni and I, along with Aunt Joan, Uncle Ed and cousin Carol, gathered around Grandma Mary while she played the piano. I think they needed the togetherness as much as we did.

We never celebrated Christmas in that tiny rental house in Dubuque again. We moved within two years of Dad’s death. In the years that followed, our holiday traditions grew quieter, more somber. Only Grandma Helen, my mom’s mom, was invited over on Christmas Day.

Even now, 20 years later, you will not see any real sign of the holidays in my mother’s home until December 11 is past.

For many people, Christmastime is marked by peace, joy, comfort, happiness and hope. For me, Christmas is also a memento mori, a reflection on mortality—and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. After all, the religiously inclined among us are celebrating the birth of a baby boy who came to die on a cross.

If I have learned anything from my childhood, it is that death is not the end of the story.

Life goes on. Love continues. And joy does too.


Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.

We’ll be hosting Ode’s 2nd Anniversary Show on Friday, February 2.

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