When Christmas thawed icy grip of dementia

Last week when I wrote about some of the political pushback that surfaces during the holiday season, I also served up some online comments from people who had opinions about whether Christmas commercialism and observances were getting too early a start these days.

Corrine Smith, of Boise, was not among the commenters, though she read them. Saddened that the holidays had become sort of bogged down with modern problems or controversy for some, she wanted Idahoans to know how magical and beautiful the idea of Christmas could be no matter what time of year people begin their celebrations.

“I thought you needed a different perspective,” she said over the phone Tuesday, elaborating on an email she had sent me.

So she wrote last Thursday explaining that some people have excellent reasons to get a jump-start on Christmas: They can’t wait; they need to buy things, make things or bake things so they can send them off to those serving in the military; they know someone lost in the haze of dementia for whom Christmas still lights up a memory — like a tree aglow.

That last reason is the one Corrine and Robert Smith seized on for 10 years as they cared for Helen Kure, Corrine’s mother, who lived with the Smiths as she battled dementia.

Corrine said her mother experienced memory issues in her waning years, often becoming distant or uninterested. But between mid-November and the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, her mother smiled and became more communicative than at any other time of the year.

“She loved the holidays. Her birthday was Nov. 16, and I would start decorating for Christmas on that day. I have a large collection of Santa Clauses, and her joy and delight in just arranging them brought joy to both of us,” Corrine wrote.

The Smiths — both retired, in their 70s and living in Northwest Boise — have a collection of some 100 Santa Clauses. They range in height from about 2 inches to more than 2 feet.

“Oh, she would just have a big smile on her face. She would pick and choose the Santas she wanted as I put them out for display. And she would rearrange,” Corrine said. “It is a magical time of the year for me. ... Momma was like a child.”

Corrine’s devotion to Christmas began at an early age in rural Washington in a ranch house with no electricity. Her father would light candles for the tree — within arm’s length of a bucket of water, just in case. Her mother smiled and took it all in.

Helen Kure passed away just after Christmas 2005 — not wanting to miss out, no doubt. But Corrine carries on. Monday would have been her mother’s 105th birthday. The Santa Clauses are taking their rightful places. The joy continues.

Robert Ehlert: 208-377-6437, @IDS_HelloIdaho