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Anniversary Gifts

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One sunday afternoon about 12 years ago, my husband and I were out riding our bikes. It was April Fool’s Day. When we turned to head home, we saw a mushroom cloud of smoke rising hundreds of feet over our neighborhood. We pedaled fast, making nervous jokes about who had left the oven on. As we came closer, we saw that the devastation centered on our block. From behind police barriers we watched, awed and frightened, as firefighters let burn a house they could not save—two doors away from ours. Someone told us a small airplane had crashed on our street, seriously injuring one of our neighbors and killing the pilot and his passenger. For days, a loose collection of us hung out on porches and in backyards, stunned, talking of the disaster and watching Federal Aviation Administration investigators sort through the black rubble.

A few months later, people in our neighborhood planted a tree to commemorate the two men who had died in the crash. And ever since, April 1 has been for me not a day for trickery but a day to pause and consider the fact that two people died not a hundred feet from my vegetable garden. It’s also a day when I remember that anything—anything—can happen: An airplane can drop from a cloudless Sunday sky.

We all celebrate happy anniversaries (birthdays, weddings, holidays), but in the years since the plane crash, I’ve kept an eye out for what the yearly reminders of sad or traumatic events ask of me. I’ve found that when I sanctify those days, which I think of as my personal holy days, I’m blessed with insights into the richness of my experiences. And when I attend to them, I’m graced in another way: A painful anniversary’s power to hurt me fades if I give the occasion attention. When I allow myself enough time to embrace whatever new ideas and emotions it generates, it becomes woven into the larger fabric of my life.

My mother died on an April morning when I was a young girl, and for decades the coming of spring laid me low, for reasons I couldn’t understand. Only after I learned to sanctify her death day, and all the loss it represents in my life, did the pain of losing her ease. Now, every spring, I climb one of the foothills near my home to a spot from which I can look down on her grave. I do this as reverently and surely as I hang Christmas stockings each December.

Now that I am aware of my need to honor my personal holy days, I see that others do it too. Every August, I receive a note from a woman who tells me that when this month comes around, she counts her blessings, and I remember the terrible morning I heard her screams as I jogged along a mountain trail. Just moments before, she had fallen down the bank of a creek next to the trail, dislodging a rock the size of an armchair. It had rolled on top of her, crushing her pelvis. I leaned into the boulder, moving it just enough so she could drag herself free on her elbows. The woman’s body has now healed, except for one achy place that, she says, cues her to be grateful. Her heart, too, recalls how close to death she had been. She gives homage to that truth by pausing each August 8 to honor her privately profound experience.

Just as the rituals of secular and religious holidays can provide comfort and give form to our lives, so too can our private holy days. Mine help me to reflect, to feed on the vivid experiences that shape my life, and to let those experiences find a resting place in my heart.

Kathryn Black is the author of Mothering Without a Map: The Search for the Good Mother Within and In the Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.