I wish I had the picture, the real picture, in addition to the one I have in my mind. It might be somewhere, but it might be gone, too.
This is a story I don’t think I have told before.
There is a reason that Christmas is bittersweet, for me.
My Christmas memories weren’t about Jesus. Yes, He was the reason for the season. But Christmas was about my mother.
It just was.
My mother loved Christmas. I think it went back to her difficult childhood, a childhood that saw brief wealth, and a lot of, well, let’s just say, less than.
I have told that story before, how, when she was very young, her family was wealthy, lived in Florida. Her father had his own business in the produce business.
And then, the hurricane came, the one that left not only a scar on her face, near her temple, but scars from what happened in the time after the hurricane.
I have told about her father going to the bank, and it being closed, as most of the banks in 1929, were.
The repercussions of all of this sent her family to Springfield, Missouri, and her father, to the bottle.
That is enough of a background that might give you insight on why my mother looked at Christmas the way she did.
We had big Christmases. The big tree that my dad had to crawl under to screw in bolts, after he trimmed the tree trunk and sometimes, made the stand down in his workroom.
That was not the joyous part of Christmas. We all did the butt-cheek-tighten-up, until that tree was up, solid.
There weren’t fine twinkle lights, then. Remember the clunky, bigger bulbs that, if you think about them, you can hear them clink like two champagne glasses kissing on New;Year’s Eve.
Ornaments were kept in an old foot locker that my dad used in the war. It was carried down from the attic, which was a marvelous attic. Many of the ornaments were treasures. Big, glass bulbs, that seemed to have a soul, unlike the kind we buy at Michael’s … town dozen nondescript, soulless, China-made cheap things.
It wasn’t all Hallmark, unless I missed the movies where some stink-eyes were given for one silly transgression or another.
When I was small, the tree was always in the middle of the large picture window. Along the far wall was the stone fireplace, where on Christmas morning, my dad would sometimes put wrapping paper in the fire, causing the fire to explode in a whoosh of gasps, and the whole room would brighten and my mom would give my dad the stink-eye.
On Christmas morning, presents would be everywhere. Mom sewed, so whenwe were younger, sometimes, there would be dresses she had made, hung on the decorative boxes that were on each side of the fireplace. They usually held fake ivy.
A few toys would be left unwrapped. They were from Santa.
Christmas mornings were sometimes, accompanied by the dreaded, Hollywood floodlights and movie camera. We were told to smile and look at the camera and wave and hold up our gifts.
Mom was in here element. We didn’’t do the mad dash, everybody open at the same time. One of us would be Santa and hand out the presents in rotation. One by one, we would open gifts.
I liked to hoard and hide mine so that at the end,when others were finished, I would still have things to open.
Mom wanted us to open the gifts slowly, spread out the time, since it had taken her months of bargain shopping at McAlpin’s Moonlight Sale, to procure thee gifts.
She liked a bargain. Hence, for most of my childhood, I thought my size was, “Irregular”.
As time went by and my sisters moved away and on with their lives, and couldn’t be home for the holidays, things and times changed.
Mom got into her plexiglass phase, actually, it was Lucite, that miracle of miracle product. He coffeee table was Lucite cubes. She had Lucite this and that, I think even a Lucite swan.
The tree changed, too. It became artificial, with huge white doves and ornaments that had to be plugged in to make the tweeting bird, sound.
Even with those changes, there was still the big meal at the dining table. The turkey and her prism salad, which was three different kinds of Jell-o, cut into cubes, and mixed with whipped cream and something.
I wanted to have Christmas at my house, as we had kids. But that didn’t happen, often, because mom acted so disappointed if she didn’t get to do it her way, that it wasn’t worth the guilt-trip I would be taken on, if I didn’t do as she wished.
My dad was almost eleven year older than my mother, so we assumed, and had been conditioned, to the fact that he would die, first. His job at Chevrolet was stressful, and every year as the holidays approached, I would hear, “Well, we just don’t know how long we’l have, daddy.”
That was always a cheerful entree to the holiday season. I think it was part of the Guilt Manifesto.
After my sisters left home and were married, I don’t recall any Christmas or holiday when we were all together.
In October of 1996, I drove mom and dad to my mother’s oncologist. She had been fighting leukemia. On that visit, we were told that there was nothing more that could be done. My mom asked how long she would have.
I think doctors hate that question. But he said,
My mother decided too opt for the 6-month plan, which would take her to tax-time.
I asked mom if she wanted to have Christmas at our house. That was, she wouldn’t have to do any work.
The answer was no.
I told her that we would make the food and bring it.
This is where the movie part of my brain kicks in, as I see my mother, short, dark brown and white mixed, shorter, a bit curly hair, sitting in one of the wing-backed chairs, quietly.
My kids, a bit older then, opened their gifts, as did my parents. That was a tough year for buying gifts. We are so ingrained to buy a gift for someone at Christmas, even if they are dying.
My dad wielded his pocket-knife, as he had for all fo th
Years of my life. He used it to cut tight ribbons and slice through tape that kept what was in a box, a secret.
He was quieter. He knew. He knew this would be his wife of over 50 years, last Christmas.
I knew it, too.
We went through the motions. Kids opened their gifts. My parents opened theirs.
The atmosphere had that thread or change, uncertainty, the end of an era. The end of a lifetime.
After the gifts were opened, unlike in years past, when my parents would head to the kitchen, my dad to whip his famous “Grandpa’s Mashed Potatoes” and my mother, futzing over a casserole of white sauce, white asparagus and onions, my mother went to her room to lie down. My dad followed her.
We stayed and the kids watched TV and I went into my parent’s room and we talked.
My oldest sister, Sandy, came in from New York a couple of days after Christmas. I’d go over to the house and visit mom and see Sandy, but as I was working and shuffling kids, that week went by.
On New Year’s Day, Sandy called and said they had called an ambulance for mom.
We drove as quickly as we could and when we arrived at the house on Moundcrest, they had just put mom into the ambulance. I still see my dad standing by the ambulance. I could see his heart breaking and the life in him dissipating.
When we were allowed to see my mom in the emergency room, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe that this was it. It was January, only two months into my mother’s 6 month, plan.
I said something stupid. My nervousness got me. I was always the one who had a quip of levity to ease such situations. But there was no easing this one.
“I don’t know anything funny t say,” I said, my eyes, barely holding back what was in my heart.
“Sometimes, there’s nothing funny to say,” she said.
I stayed with her in the hospital that night. My moveable bed, right next to hers. In the morning, when her family doctor, who had seen her through everything her body and mind had done, came in, we asked when we should tell our other sister to come.
My sister, Jane, arrived the next day. The afternoon of January 2, when one of my sons and his friend were visiting mom, she was still alert. The boys were talking about some friends who had been drinking and my mother, who had been resting with her eyes closed, opened them and said, “Don’t get involved in drinking,” or words to that affect.
In mid-afternoon, I went home and Sandy came to stay the night. Ww had signed mom up with Hospice that morning.
That night, before midnight, my sister called and said, “She’s gone.”
January 2, 1997. Two months to the day.