It was a blustery, late autumn evening in suburban Philadelphia and my mother was in the kitchen stirring a pot of vegetable soup when the ringing of our yellow, wall phone interrupted our lives.
We might have expected it to be my dad saying he'd be home shortly, but it wasn't. As life seems to go with its life-changing moments, at 6 years old, that phone call changed mine in an instant. For forever.
There had been an accident, and my father died three weeks before Christmas, leaving behind a wife and three young children.
The outpouring of support from family, friends and our community was invaluable, but what I remember most is the special kindness of a teacher at my school.
Known for her strict, no-nonsense demeanor, Miss D. wasn't even a teacher (in the classroom) to me or my two younger brothers, but she showed up at our home on a clear, cold afternoon the week before Christmas and bundled my brothers and me into her car.
"We're going shopping for a gift for your mother," she said to the three of us lined up in the back seat, and when we arrived at our local Korvettes department store, this angel walked us up and down the aisles, searching for the perfect something.
"Anything you want," she said, and after we all agreed upon an emerald green bathrobe my mother would come to wear for years, my brothers and I were then encouraged to each choose an ornament for ourselves.
Spotting the red-velvet beauty of a 'Partridge in a Pear Tree' clipped to a nearby display, I made it mine, and now, nearly 50 years and many moves later, every holiday season, that cherished ornament is the first to be placed on my Christmas tree.
Life and how we celebrate the holidays will change for all of us. That's a given, but the kindness we extend to others and ourselves is one of our greatest gifts and it lives on in each of us. For forever.
Swankoski writes from Ocean City.