by Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter 12/2008 and 12/2005, and the Boston City Paper 12/2008
When I was a teenager, our friend Eileen Gustin worked at the information desk at nearby Saint Margaret’s Hospital on Cushing Avenue. Everyone liked her — she was like a wonderful aunt to all the neighborhood kids. She always had something good to say about everyone, and she was a person of very deep faith, with a strong love of God.
After three muggers jumped her on her way home from the hospital one afternoon, the neighborhood kids adopted the daily ritual of walking Eileen home from work. No one ever bothered her again.
Eileen and I were very close friends — we even shared the same birthday, November 19. A very religious woman, she was truly at peace with herself. Although she was a widow, her life was still joyous. She knew, she told me, that her husband Frank was in Heaven. Other people just say that. Eileen KNEW it was true.
I occasionally stopped at her apartment to see her. Over cookies and milk, she talked about where I was going in life, about faith and about God. As the Christmas season approached, Eileen often spoke of the Advent wreath.
As a Catholic, I was familiar with Advent — the four-week season of thoughtful reflection and prayer in anticipation of the arrival of Jesus on Christmas, which in 2008 starts November 30.
The Advent wreath is a round green wreath (which represents the eternity of God and eternal life in Christ) surrounding four candles (which represent the four weeks of Advent). Each Sunday, an additional candle is lit. The three purple candles represent penance and prayer. The rose candle is for the third Sunday, also called “Gaudete Sunday,” a day to rejoice that the time of His coming is so near.
Eileen talked a lot about the Advent wreath that year, and when I realized that she didn’t have one, I decided that I’d make her one as a gift. All it took was a stop at Kresgees for a Styrofoam ring, a plastic Christmas wreath and the four candles.
As I planned to visit her and present my gift, I learned that Eileen was in the hospital again. Although she was only in her mid-sixties, she had health problems. So I headed to Dorchester’s Carney Hospital, and found my friend.
“Hi Lovey,” Eileen greeted me from her hospital bed. She looked pretty good, I thought to myself. Tired, but pretty good. The oxygen tubes in her nose were the only real indication that she was sick.
“I made you a Christmas present,” I explained, unwrapping my gift. “I wanted you to have it now, so you could use it this coming Advent.”
“Oh, Lovey, it’s beautiful!” she beamed as I put the four candles into the Styrofoam ring.
“I know they won’t let you light candles in the hospital, so I made these,” and gave her four “flames” cut from red and orange construction paper that could be taped to the candles.
Sadly, Eileen only used the wreath for a short time; she died two weeks later. Her death was difficult for me, and I missed her smile, our talks, and her wisdom.
Through the years, I’ve often smiled as I thought about what a difference she made in my life — and what a good person she was. I am a better man for having known Eileen. I am closer to God because of her.
Many years later, in the mid 1990s, it was Christmas again and I was in Saint Mary’s here in Foxboro. I noticed the large Advent wreath on the altar. For whatever reason, I hadn’t made one since a year or two after Eileen died. But that morning, I looked at the church Advent wreath and thought, “I’m going to make one of those again.”
I set out to accomplish this special task that same day. A wreath from the local supermarket, four candles and ribbon from CVS, and four candleholders from our closet. I was all set.
It felt so right to have this special reminder of the real meaning of Christmas on the table again. I lit the candles one night and I thought, “Eileen, it’s been a long time, but I haven’t forgotten what you taught me.”
Every year since, I make a new Advent wreath. These days, for safety, I use electric candles with those “flicker-flame” bulbs rather than fire, but I still use a real wreath and colorful purple and rose ribbon on the four candles.
The Advent wreath’s presence helps keep me grounded during an insane and frenzied season, helps me to remember the real reason we celebrate this time of year, and also reminds me of the love of one very special friend from many years ago who will always be in my heart.