Lori Clanton and her family had little to celebrate last December. Holiday cheer was just a strange surreal blur of decorations and shoppers outside car windows as they shuttled Clanton’s brother-in-law, Larry, between doctor’s appointments and hospital stays in Stockton.
He died three days after Christmas of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare degenerative brain disorder.
When Clanton returned to her Clovis home, part of the Cindy Lane neighborhood holiday lights display, and saw all her blue lights, she thought, “This needs to be a moment.”
So she made it one – a big one, for lots of people walking her festive neighborhood. Inspired partly by a “blue Christmas” church service that she heard of for people grieving during the holidays, she went to work making three large signs to plant in her front yard.
Collectively the signs read: “For anyone who has lived any life at all, the holidays are bittersweet. Remember what is remarkable about someone you miss, and be inspired to live a remarkable life. Please take a moment to tell us what is remarkable about someone you are missing this holiday. We will honor this person on Christmas.”
Beside the signs is a stack of blank cards and pens, and a box where the messages can be deposited. On Christmas, a candle is lit and the notes are read aloud in Clanton’s home while thinking of the person who wrote the card. This is the second year she has gathered these special tributes.
In just six days last year, Clanton collected 500 cards. She put the box out 19 days earlier this year, on Dec. 1, and collects around 100 cards each night on the weekends, and around 50 a night during the week.
“We love the families walking the neighborhoods, all the holly jolly, but let’s just take a moment to acknowledge the bittersweet experience of most people,” Clanton says.
Her holiday display brings tears to Patricia Hopkins’ eyes as she and her family stop to write cards while walking the neighborhood.
“We were just drawn to it,” says the Clovis woman.
“Like a magnet,” Bob Hopkins adds.
Faith Hopkins, 8, writes of her great-grandparents: “I miss Gigi and Big Papa.”
Bob Hopkins talks about his mom.
“She loved Christmas, she loved Christmas – we miss them all.”
Clanton has collected cards honoring so many people – and pets. In just one of many stacks, there are remembrances for dogs Flipper (“He was always happy and loved us”), Princess (“I wish she could have a Merry Christmas in doggy heaven”), and Nala the cat (“I miss my cat Nala and I wish her a Merry Christmas.”)
Another, for fallen soldiers: “This Christmas, I remember all the boys from Buchanan High and all their families who miss them every year. May I strive to be brave enough to lay down my life for another if ever faced with the choice.”
For a little girl, who would have been 2 years old this year: “Miss you baby! Love, Mommy. P.S. See you in Heaven!”
Some happy: “Hi Jesus, How are you doing? I’m happy it is your birthday. Also I love you.”
Others, sad: “I miss my Mom and Dad. They are alive but won’t see me because of religion. I still love them and miss them.”
A universal message, signed with the drawing of a heart: “For anyone who isn’t able to be here today, or has been through any difficulty.”
And one from a girl, who is missing everyone:
“1. I miss Grandpa.
2. I miss Mommy.
3. I miss Papa.
4. I miss Mimi.
5. I miss friends.
6. I miss family.
7. I miss everyone.”
She signed her note with gratitude: “Thank you!”
On Monday evening, a car full of women stop to add more cards to the stacks of notes.
Among them is Maria Zapata of Fowler. It’s been 24 years since her father died, but it still feels like yesterday. He loved to walk through stores during the holidays so he could listen to lots of Christmas music.
“It’s all beautiful, but this really touched us right now,” she says of Clanton’s yard. “Because it’s not only just the happiness of all the lights you see all around, but it’s also the memories that we have and the good memories from Christmases past. … Now I’m glad we came.”
Beside her, Lucy Covarrubias of Fowler writes a card for her “whole family – the ones that are dead and alive.”
“It feels good,” she says of writing a card, “because I know that there is someone out there praying for us.”
As Covarrubias says this, two young children yell, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” out the window of a passing car.
“It’s beautiful out here, beautiful! Oh my goodness!” Covarrubias continues. “And this makes it special, having this right here like this … brings meaning to everything. That’s what Christmas is for. You think of people and pray for everybody.”
Denise Ramer of Clovis writes a card for many people. The first on her list: “All the homeless that are out there cold.”
Ramer sees Clanton’s invitation to write about loved ones as a way to bring people closer to God.
“Maybe they don’t know how to pray.”
Matthew Balboa, 11, of Fresno wasn’t just writing a card for Clanton to read. He was writing to his grandpa, Mondo. The two liked to watch football and go fishing together. Mondo was a “good man.”
“I wish I could spend Christmastime with him. It made me feel good, that I could write something to my grandpa.”
Mondo’s 8-year-old granddaughter, Melissa Balboa, also wrote a card.
“I miss him so much, but he’s in my heart.”
Melissa thinks writing about loved ones can help people a lot.
“It helps them feel better – to remember them. It helps them love their grandparents.”