A couple of weeks ago, one of my co-workers asked me if I had any Christmas plans. I don’t know that she really wanted to know, but it was the polite thing to ask. So many of our conversations are like that—flimsy obligations that make us feel like we’ve done our due dilligence.
As I do most of the time, I diplomatically straddled the fence—letting the wood cut deep. ”Oh, nothing much.” I’ve said this more times than I can count over the last seven years. I could just as easily say nothing, I suppose, but I’m not so much interested in making people feel bad.
So, I laugh in that awkward way that reminds me of the shy 10 year old I once was—and I let her off the hook: “The typical stuff.”
But I know I do it more for me than her.
One time, someone asked me if I had finished all my Christmas shopping. I remember looking at her and nodding. I was once asked if I was Jewish. Which made me laugh—mostly because the Jewish faith appealed to me for a long time. I am not a practicing Christian—I’m not anything, really—but my roots are steadfastly in those traditions. I just looked at her with an amused look on my face. And then she said, “Well, because you hate Christmas.”
And I remember almost crying then because nothing could be further from the truth.
In my closet, behind lots of junk, you will find a big box that’s nothing except pictures taken on old point and shoots. They are, by and large, all taken by my Mama. You will find almost every embarrassing photo of me that exists, in that box. You will find me dancing in a blow-up pool. You will find the horrible haircut I got in 7th grade. You will find the Aqua Net days. And you will find me—beaming—with pincurls and red striped dresses—in front of a ridiculously decorated fake tree—with an angel on top…with tinsel on its head. You will find me with rosy cheeks and exposed belly. You will find me with stretched out panties soaring about my head—in a sea of blue paper and premade red bows.
You will see me: happy.
Because absolutely no one loved Christmas more than me.
I had reasons not to love Christmas. So many reasons. Life was not exactly easy for my family when I was a child. We struggled to make ends meet. Money was a constant factor, and my father was circling the drain of addiction.
But, despite that, every year, I found an easy joy in the twinkle lights; in my mother’s ever-reliable penchant for the most gaudy decorations; and in the small gifts that mean everything. I learned that time was the most valuable gift anyone could give. I learned it was easy to make a dream come true. You just had to love someone.
And then, my father died two weeks before Christmas.
I’ve told this story before. The story about how we had so little, and everything was disintegrating before my eyes—how I had given up on God and Santa Claus and parents. How sad and broken I was. And how good people who knew we were hurting came to our door with food and presents and money. And they loved us—made my dreams come true. Even when they didn’t have much either. And, even though my Daddy was gone, and I was so sad—for one day, I didn’t feel alone. And I felt rich.
Until 2004, that memory kept me in love with Christmas. It was the reason I bought toys for strangers. It was the reason I spent days cooking. It was why I made homemade gifts and sent Christmas cards. It’s why I went caroling and put up every decoration known to humanity. Money or not—I always did it up. It was almost as if I knew my time with it was limited, and I knew I had to make the most of it.
Even in the depths of my Mama’s horrible illness—even after I knew I’d be alone that year, with the news she’d be hospitalized for a while after her upcoming surgery—even then, I made plans to travel, so I’d at least have a story to share with her. I never went anywhere, and I never accumulated happy stories. Instead, I accumulated stories about induced comas and SICU waiting rooms—about strangers who saved my life on worst ever days—and a play about a year of cyclones.
And I broke up with Christmas.
This is the first year in the last seven that has even remotely reminded me of even 1/20 of the joy I used to feel. This year, I somehow tolerated most things, and I went out of my way to tell people, “Merry Christmas.” I decorated the house, and I indulged traditions. And I sang. And it sometimes hurt.
But it hurt a lot less than it used to.
And sometimes, I even found joy—found glimmers of that girl who yelled MERRY CHRISTMAS at the stroke of midnight every single year. Giddy, wonderful joy that came from love and the simple magic of being alive.
It’s hard to associate such a day with the worst day of your entire life. It’s hard because there is a constant reminder that you are lucky, but an intense pain that comes from being permanently displaced from normal.
For me, it’s a permanent desire to want to be someone I can’t ever be anymore. It’s a desire to slip into old patterns that aren’t mine, and to exist by other people’s standards for what I should make mine. I have not yet “moved on” or made up with Christmas, but I suppose we’ve reached a truce.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about traditions and legacies…the things my parents gave me, for better or for worse…mostly because I’m trying desperately to hold on to the important things and let the other stuff go. So, I can create a legacy that is intentional and mine. I am still young, and I don’t have children. But it’s important to me to create things to help me remember the important things so that those I love will love them, too—and will know some part of my parents and the person I used to be. That girl who loved Christmas more than anyone.
This Christmas was a good one—not the same—but good. It was my first celebrating full-throttle…or as close to full-throttle as I could get. While, in years past, I put up Mama’s tree and decorated a bit—in an effort to approach normal and plunge back into it all—I didn’t exchange presents. I didn’t play music. I didn’t spend time with people or really cook. This year, I did. It was small and quiet—and exhausting—but also somewhat comforting—kinda like meeting a long-lost friend in a dark alley. And it was different. Mostly because I am different.
Most Christmases, I find myself with some sort of illness. True to form, I woke up with a head cold yesterday morning and felt like a truck ran me over—which promptly sent me back to bed. That’s a new tradition, I suppose. It made it easy to slip down that rabbit hole of “it’s not fair” that’s so easy to find on this anniversary. I wanted to curl up in a ball and wake up some other day—pretend the whole thing didn’t exist. But I didn’t. In some ways, I am grateful for this because it gave me a reason to be kind to myself on a day when I am usually incapable of choosing such things. I still beat myself up for her not being here. I still play the what if and the if only games in my head. And I still tell myself to “just get over it.” Being sick forces me to sit in it, and to feel it—to be frustrated and angry if I need to be. It forces me to stop.
And, I suppose, it helped me realize that I didn’t want to feel like this anymore—that I could choose to not feel like this. I stayed up very late and slept very late (more traditions) this morning. I knew I probably would. My roommate graciously agreed to get going on food since he is almost always awake before I am. It reminded me of my Mama and how we handled dinner.
It was nice to know I could depend on him to help me through the day. I didn’t whine about getting started with cooking, but it did take some inner peptalking. But I was looking forward to it as much as I was dreading it. I made peace with it and went forward. With Christmas music going and movies at the ready. White Christmas and The Christmas Story entertained us. We had decided to make a pot roast in our new crockpot—the kind with pearl onions and root veggies all around. In my adult world, Christmas was always ham or beef—usually a roast, though. I’d make popovers and scalloped potatoes with salads and tons of vegetable sides. Fruit salad and three different pies—one of which had to a cream pie. New Year’s was easier—Mexican food…usually enchiladas. And I love that, so I thought this should happen still…but smaller, easier. More ordinary, but elevated.
We made the same scalloped potatoes I’ve made since 1994. I didn’t have the recipe anymore, but I remembered it well enough to fudge it, and a Martha Stewart clone helped with wet ingredient measures It turned out messy, but tasty and looked beautiful. I made a bacon and pea salad with a lemon mustard vinagrette, arugula, and lots of shaved parmesan. It was bright and green. I loved it. It was not something old Alma would have enjoyed. I never ate arugula until a few years ago. I made a great sauce for the pot roast that Mama would have swooned over. And some rosemary parmesan biscuits that sorta just popped in my head—which will probably become a new holiday mainstay. I also really wanted to get back to making new things every holiday. So, I decided to whoop it up with dessert—choosing baklava (one of my favorites) and a banoffee pie—which is basically toffee (for English peeps; dulce de leche for my Mexican friends). All from scratch. I was nervous about both and enlisted my roomie to help. Both were good challenges—simple, but time-consuming. And I was pleased with the results…though I still haven’t tasted the baklava. It’s still soaking up sweetness. Which brings us to another new tradition—a midnight snack—Sweaty Redhead drinks (something I invented that I hope tastes good) and baklava while playing Mario Kart—a new obsession and something that would never have happened when my Mama was alive.
I am learning there are new opportunities here. Being an adult is weird sometimes because you can choose exactly what you do. As an orphaned adult, I have no obligations. Even though I kinda want obligations. I miss calls to family where everyone keeps it short and sweet because it’s long distance! I miss the intense Christmas wrapping that would happen on the floor, with homemade bows and much cursing about lack of tape. I miss the angel at the top of the fake little tree, with tinsel on her head. I miss giant signs taped to the wall haphazardly proclaiming, “Merry Christmas” in 50 different languages. I miss cookies and coffee left for Santa.
And I think I might keep those things—maybe next year when it’s a little easier—when I have people to sit with instead of just me and the roomie. I have plans and ideas that make me smile and make me remember what I still could have. I still guess my presents—and I’m glad they are either useful or absolutely silly…no in between. I still love giving them more than receiving them. I still want to share food with all my neighbors.
Last night, as I yelled, “Merry Christmas” out the balcony door with my roomie—like I’ve done every single year of my existence (save the last 7), I remembered exactly who I am and who I want to be. And I was happy. I felt joy. And it was the most easy thing in the world. And, in that moment, I don’t think anyone was happier than I was. And that gave me hope.
I am learning that it’s okay to feel what I feel—but that sharing it transforms it into something that’s powerful—something that can heal my heart and let people in. I am learning to be patient—though I am terrible at it—and to ask for patience from others when I know I need it. I am learning that I can take everything I used to love about this day—everything I loved about my parents—and infuse every day with it by being kind and genuine. I am learning the lights are pretty every day, not just in December—and I can always keep that magic burning.
I am remembering that I love her—that I love him—that I love that little girl who I used to be. That they are not gone. That hating on Christmas denies my light—their light—our collective light. I am choosing that—and joy and hope—because these are the things my Mama gave me. That’s who she was for me. And I can be those things for others, every day I’m still here.
And maybe one day I’ll even love it more than I used to.
Happy Christmas, everyone.