I realized this morning that I’ve never spent Christmas eve or Christmas day anywhere other than in the living room of the house I grew up in, and that at 56, that’s a pretty remarkable thing to say. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but there it is. My parents moved into that house in 1958 and my mother and I still live there. Though I’ve had my own home since I was in college, I have never had a family of my own, so no matter where I was living, I always came “home” for Christmas. This will be my 56th Christmas in the little house in this little northern Michigan town.
I moved back in with mom in 2012 after my father’s death in November of that year. We experienced Thanksgiving and Christmas without him for the first time. I remember Thanksgiving, but I don’t remember that Christmas. My dad was a Christmas freak and even though in the years before dementia had stolen a little bit of him each year, he was still there to celebrate with mom and me. We still put up the big tree and all the decorations, and we went to Christmas Eve mass and sang the carols and the hymns, ate cookies and opened presents. Ever since I can remember we went out to dinner on Christmas Day. The number of people at the table fluctuated over the years, but the 3 of us were always together, including that last year before he died.
Mom and I don’t do any of that anymore. We have a little tree, and a few favored decorations we put up, but it is a much more muted affair, and that’s the way we both prefer it. We don’t exchange gifts. My dad was the heart of our family’s Christmas, and it just isn’t the same without his joy in the holiday.
I don’t remember what we did that first year, or specifically how I felt, but I know it was hard. We didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve, but we did go to dinner the following day, and I’m sure someone at the restaurant we had been going to for nearly 50 years asked us about dad, and I’m sure I said something socially acceptable about his death, but I don’t really remember any of it.
I say all the time – and it’s true – that my dad’s death was a relief; that I had lost my father to dementia years before his physical body was gone. When he died he hadn’t known my name or that I was his daughter for years. He had been my hero, my buddy, my most cherished person all my life, and though I loved him and did the best I could for him right to the end, my Daddo was lost to me, and I mourned for a long time. Before and after he died.
My grandmother had died 20 years prior to that and that nearly did me in. I was lost for a long time without her, but I survived and went on, of course. My father’s death was a different experience. I was older and better settled and as I say, it was not the father I knew who died. He had been gone a long time.
I have wonderful memories of Christmases spent in that living room in that little house in this little town, including those spent with my mother the last 6 years. Different is not necessarily bad. There will be a time, presumably, when I will not be decorating that living room, and the little tree will be lighted in my own little house across town, or maybe in another town, and it will just be me and the cats singing carols and enjoying the lights. Will that be next year or 10 years from now? Who knows?
That’s the thing about Christmas and the New Year celebrations; they are fraught with memories of holidays past, and beckon to all that may be ahead in the coming year. So much emotion. It’s overwhelming to me sometimes. I think about my Nana and my dad and how much I miss them, and all the friends who are no longer on my Christmas list. All those memories – the good and the not-so-good – have sharp edges, and I have to be careful and remember that while it’s wonderful to remember the past, life is here and now, and that’s where my attention belongs.
Laugh and rejoice in the past, and let the tears flow. Then take a deep breath, blow my nose, and look around. This is what’s real. My mother is here now, and that’s all. This could very well be her last Christmas – or not – or it could be mine. We don’t know the future. So I owe her my love and attention in the moments we have now. That’s the best thing I can give her: my patience, understanding, and love. The past is gone. The future beckons, and will be here soon enough.
In the meantime – the nowtime – I’m going to try to appreciate fully my 56th Christmas in the living room in the little house in the little town that has been a constant in my life, fully cognizant that there may not be a 57th. And I’m going to continue to try to give my mother the gift of forgiveness, understanding and patience, and in return I hope she will offer me the same.
And when my dad’s favorite Christmas song comes on the radio – the one I could never get the harmony quite right on, but he never cared – I’ll cry a little and be grateful that I knew such a wonderful man, and think about all the fun we had together and how much I miss him.
Then I’ll sing to the next one, too. Maybe it’ll be a new one, and the harmony will be easier.