The familiar symptoms – the internal undertow, a heaviness in my step, a general malaise. I can feel it like a cold coming on. It’s coming on Christmas. Again.
Math was never my forte, but I’m oddly gifted at factoring holidays based on how long my parents have been gone. This will be my 20th Christmas without my parents. Twenty fucking years. I counted it out on my fingers like a six-year-old to make sure I had it right. Twice.
I know a lot of folks my age don’t have their parents anymore and mine would be old now – Dad, 98, and Mom would be 89. She died at 70. When I was 45, I had no idea how young that was. Lord, I was stupid. Now I am keenly aware of my own mortality, and I think of treasured friends over 70 and cannot imagine a world without them. That’s the thing about grief. It is unimaginable and interminable. And, yes, a lot of people lost their parents at much younger ages and I ache at their social media posts on special occasions every year. It sucks.
I take a fair amount of solace in the knowledge that I was rarely careless about spending time with my parents. When I look back on it now, it is as if I knew they would be gone sooner than later. I never missed a Christmas with them, and I was fortunate that the furthest away I ever lived from them was a four-hour drive. I share this not to make myself look like a good daughter because I was a good daughter. I honestly enjoyed spending time, especially holidays, with my parents. And I still hold many of their traditions sacred – like making a very boozy eggnog on Christmas Eve. That’s what my mom and I did together. So, maybe it wasn’t the Waltons, but even the Baldwin Sisters had their recipe.
My symptoms presented sooner this year. 2020 was such an aberration because of COVID-19 and a lot of people were in a holiday funk. Well, at least the ones who listened to Dr. Fauci and didn’t travel or gather with family and friends outside their bubble. It was a global case of misery not loving no company and I didn’t feel as solitary in my sadness. It seemed as if the entire world was hunkered down watching every Christmas movie ever made. Disclaimer: I do not watch the Hallmark Christmas movies. I love a white Christmas as much as anyone, but there is white and there is bleached. I’m not claiming a higher moral ground here. At least a couple of times during the holiday season I indulge in what I call Dead Mother Theatre and watch some dark holiday classics where the mother dies around Christmas. Stepmom and The Family Stone are a must and last year I threw One True Thing into the rotation. It might sound sadistic, but watching these films allows me a good cry – sweeter and more sentimental than sad. It’s cathartic for me. My dear wife just shakes her head and contemplates hiding the ROKU remote.
That’s the wife who got her first COVID vaccination on Christmas Eve last year. It was a fantastic present, but she was feeling a little puny on Christmas Day, so, we cuddled up and watched Christmas in Connecticut, the 1945 black and white classic starring Barbara Stanwyck. As pandemic holidays go, it was a fine one. And for the record, no mom dies in that movie.
This Christmas we had planned to visit my sister in California. That was until we discovered that air fare would cost more than a trip to Europe or a small car. We will now visit her in January and have fun with all the money we didn’t spend on holiday travel. My brother lives in South Carolina, but we are no longer close and COVID revealed that gated communities can exist in our own families. I love my brother and it is an abiding sadness to me that what we share now is mostly memories. I’m grateful that a lot of them are good ones.
I was reminded of one of those memories when I was at the beach last month. The power of place can be like steroids for memory – the sights and sounds generating a slideshow of old photographs in the Viewmaster of your mind. One day my wife and I set up our umbrella near a big family group. There were at least ten adults and a couple of toddlers all huddled under several umbrellas creating a festive circle. I could hear them talking and laughing and playing with the littles. It was a breezy day, and I noticed a small ball rolling out from under their camp. One of the adults chased it down and returned it to a tiny happy face. Suddenly it was 1986 and I was on a family vacation in Sandbridge, Virginia. My niece’s beach ball, the classic old school blow up kind, was billowing across the sand at a mad pace. My brother bolted from his chair and chased it for what seemed like a couple of miles. The rest of our clan stayed glued to our seats and laughed ourselves silly as he would see the ball in his grasp and a gust of wind would send it scurrying away. My brother is 6’3” and the image of a tall man chasing a child’s ball was funny. He finally caught up with it and returned it to my toddling niece who seemed confused by the giggly grownups. My brother made a sarcastic comment or two thanking us for our support, but it was all in good fun. And I’m certain he would have chased that ball down into the next county. It is a sweet memory that shines as brightly as the sun did that afternoon so long ago.
You might be wishing you had some of my eggnog if you’re still slogging through this cheery post. The truth is that I have a bipolar relationship with Christmas. I almost always have a manic phase of decorating and making cookies and declaring that we must have more lights! I have several glass Christmas trees that belonged to my mother and when I carefully unwrap them each year, it is one of the most joyously peaceful moments of the season for me. My wife genuinely loves them, too, so that makes their presence even more special. After our first Christmas living together, we decided to leave them up through January – the month of a hundred days. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, and I know my mother would be most pleased – and no doubt a bit amused.
Those manic days are merry, and I savor them because I know there will be other days that are not so bright. The days when it feels like the entire world is smushed into an overdecorated snow globe singing Christmas carols between sips of their gingerbread lattes and I’m on the other side with my face pressed against the glass. Those days are the worst. I feel so exposed and vulnerable like my heart is only covered by tissue paper – every emotion seeping out.
On those tender days, I try to retreat into the shelter of my own head. I spend quiet time with my memories, and they comfort me. I’m lucky that my memory is like the iCloud with unlimited storage. Bonus – I never have to change my password. My carousel of holiday memories is easily accessible and the images are sharp with those nice bright colors Paul Simon sang about way back when I was in high school. For all you kids born post 8-tracks, have a listen here.
Before my parents died, I was that obnoxious ninny who couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t love Christmas as much as me. Pro tip this Christmas – don’t be that ninny. For some of us, finding a balance between joy and sadness during the holidays is like trying to catch up with that bright ball careening down the beach. We might get there, but it will take a few stumbling grabs.