healing haven

December 7, 2008

Christmas in Panama

Filed under: appreciation,memoir,SoulCollage,Uncategorized — by thalia @ 7:01 pm
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My first married Christmas was spent in a foreign country, far away from my beloved family.  My new husband and I flew into Panama a few days after we were married, in 1961.  It was the beginning of the threat of high-jacking, so we were subjected to women being searched and boarded separately, ahead of the men.  My husband previously told me of some of the problems regarding ownership of the Canal, which added to my sense of unease.  For a shy girl of 19 traveling for the first time on a plane and leaving my family, it was a difficult experience and added to the fears of being away from loved ones and her familiar environment.  The fact I didn’t speak any Spanish and was obviously not from Panama with my very natural blonde hair in those days and quite fair skin, also added to my discomfort and trepidation.

Fear and sadness led into feeling lost and overwhelmed.  The sadness derived from my seeing really poor people for the first time: children climbing through garbage dumps looking for food, people living in wooden shacks with cracks between the pieces of wood and a bare electric light bulb dangling down in the middle of the one-room building, women washing by hand out-of-doors and laying the clothes on the dirt and scrub grass outside to dry.  The two extremely different views from our apartment on the outskirts of Panama City exemplified the socio-economic division at that time: rich and poor with no middle class as we know it.  The very poor were across the street while behind our apartment were wealthy homes where the maids arrived every day and fancy cars roamed the streets.

I missed my family terribly.  I was used to my four siblings and parents, and to just be with one other person, and a new husband at that, was quite strange.  By Thanksgiving I felt totally lost.  Everything was so different in my life I decided to try to keep up some of the traditions.  My mother always started making hand-decorated Christmas cookies right after Thanksgiving, so I started to bake.  Pinwheels of chocolate and vanilla, peppermint pink and white candy cane cookies, pastel pretties with various hues all in one cookie, chocolate walnut crisps, by-crackys, butterscotch pecan freezer cookies, gingerbread cookies, snicker doodles, mint green cookie press tree cookies, and sugar cookies cut into many shapes and all hand painted with colored icing-all accumulated and stored in various containers.  It felt so comforting and familiar even though the weather was hot and dry rather than the familiar cold with a chance of snow.  I baked over 1500 cookies before I suddenly wondered, “Who will eat these cookies?”  I was acquainted with a few people but not enough to utilize all those cookies.  What was I thinking?

Fortunately, my husband happened to mention that the Army Post was going to organize a Christmas party for the local children.   Children!  Cookies!  They go hand in hand.  He investigated.  Yes, they would be delight to receive 1300 (I’d keep some) cookies to distribute to the children.  Would I like to attend and watch the distribution of gifts and cookies?  You bet!

What a pleasure to watch those children who barely had enough food by day to receive what they considered to be such pretty cookies.  Most never saw such things much less received such things for their very own.  They wouldn’t eat the cookies but planned to take them home and show the rest of their families.  Watching their faces light up with pleasure and wonder and their dark eyes twinkle was such a joy for me – a true reward.  My heart was filled with gratitude for the experience.


The rest of Christmas was handmade as well.  Since there were hardly any evergreen Christmas trees available (palm trees decorated with lights were not Christmas trees in my mind), and the ones that were for sale were scrawny and costly, I constructed our Christmas tree using a cardboard wrapping-paper cylinder as the trunk of the tree.  I took and straightened out wire clothes hangers, covered each with hanging green crepe paper, and stuck each in cascading fashion into the “trunk” of my tree.  Then I fringed the crepe paper to create the evergreen branches.  Ornaments were designed out of various construction papers.  And most of the presents we gave each other were handmade.  Our families did send us store-bought presents that we placed around the “tree.”

Christmas day saw me with a terrible sunburn, blistering skin and swollen eyes I received from being in the sun less than 15 minutes two days before at Rio Mar where there was black sand and white cliffs to, unknowingly, intensify the sun’s rays, and where I had no familiar family or traditions I grew up with or even their voices (phone calls were too expensive).  Christmas, seen through the slits of my eyes, appeared very different than I was accustomed to.

It must be true “It is better to give than to receive” since I so clearly remember the sight of those children receiving the Christmas cookies I baked that Christmas and have absolutely no memory of anything I received in presents.  But I did receive the lasting appreciation that simple gifts can bring joy to people, especially children.

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