Ever since my mother died almost 15 years ago (has it really been that long?), and my dad immediately after, and all the family I’ve ever had has either grown up and moved away or flown off into the great beyond, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do at Christmas. It’s a little bit hard to have a huge family Christmas when “huge” and “mother” have been taken out of the equation.
And even though I was the one child out of four who just had to have the precious Polonaise glass Santa ornament (that one of us had chipped, leaving Mom with a broken heart), and the hand-blown teardrop ornaments and glass Christmas trees with the frosted boughs, and the plastic, three-dimensional Sputnik stars, I find that I have no clue what to do with them now that they are mine and mine alone. I have boxes of miscellaneous holiday memorabilia, like the Nativity scene that is missing baby Jesus and two of the wise men, the tall frosted glass candle with the illustration of Mother Mary that we were never allowed to burn because it was so beautiful, the oddball ornaments my mother’s art students made for her and my sister’s strange friends gave to her, but somehow it doesn’t feel right to pull them out each Christmas.
I’ve been looking at my cousins whose parents are still alive— watching them show up for their family rituals, feeling so darn lonely for mine. And even though my aunts have generously tried to fit me in, I’ve been left feeling like more of an outsider than ever.
Their rituals underscore that mine are no longer alive. Having Christmas morning around a tree with chic, twinkling white lights, instead of bold, colorful globe lights, just doesn’t feel the same. The orderly opening of a few choice presents that were carefully selected by one member of the family for another member can never replace the glorious shower of flying wrapping paper that secretly hid the identity of oh-so-many presents. And how can an organized Christmas dinner, where one daughter cooks the casseroles, one the pies, while the mother bakes and bastes the turkey, ever replace those 5 a.m. disputes where my unmarried aunt, holding something wrapped in what looked like a baby blanket, would wake up my mother to ask her how long it— the roast— should be cooked, even though she would always overcook it no matter what my mother said? All the people who sat at our table would sit elbow to elbow and tell stories and not really care that the roast was burned, because the rest of the food was good and mothers didn’t die yet and all was right with the world.
And, OK, maybe I never really liked going to midnight service at the Episcopal church, wearing dresses that crinkled like wrapping paper every time I stood up, then knelt (which you do a lot in an Episcopal church), singing impenetrably tuneless hymns. But still. To have those Christmas Eves back would be wonderful. How fun it would be to wake up to all those glorious presents— ripping them open in a blizzard of ribbons and paper— and then knocking off that entire box of chocolate-covered cherries for breakfast, followed by the nuts and the hard ribbon candy Santa left.
And sure, getting that big Christmas morning present from Mom will continue to be a wish I’ll never stop having. The bicycle. The ping-pong table. One year, my brothers got clarinets, my sister got a guitar and I got a ukulele. They all became musicians and I became the writer who wrote funny things, like about getting that ukulele for Christmas. To have that ukulele back now would mean everything to me.
And, oh all right, even though I rolled my eyes when Mom crammed my brothers and sister into the car to go visit those frail little aunts on Christmas afternoon— the ones who never had presents for us, but had a busload of Pecan Sandies, year-old marshmallow Santas and enough jelly beans to last a month— I’d give my eyeteeth to be able to get in the car with my mother so we could go visit them today.
And, oh, for the day after Christmas when our extended family would show up! Mom would still be cleaning everything with Pine-Sol at midnight (after giving up on making us clean our rooms so she could do it herself), as they rolled in. As kids, we felt so lucky and strange and wildly happy to be able to stay up so late to wait for our cousins. Then they’d finally jump out of the car— the long-awaited presents we really wanted.
Oh, to have all of that back… what a gift.
I’ve spent 10 years dreading that our 10-year-old daughter, Jenkins, has never had what I had, and that my husband, Bill, and I haven’t been able to supply her with all those magical moments. Yet, the entire time I’ve been supplying her with something even better, and I’m just now seeing that.
The star that topped my childhood Christmas trees— the same star that topped my parents’ Christmas tree, and my mother’s childhood tree, handmade during the Depression out of an old Victorian greeting card— now sits in my lockbox, because it’s my memory, not our daughter’s. But in the spirit of that star, we make a new star every Christmas and then put it into a book for Jenkins to have always. When she was a baby, we made cut-outs from paper plates and greeting cards, but as she’s grown into her own creativity, she’s added other things— the only rule being that the stars must be somewhat able to be pressed into her Christmas Star book. Last year she made an aquarium out of two paper plates, plastic wrap, tape and real sand from Edisto Island— instead of a fish inside, there were swimming stars, hanging from bits of thread.
We still open one present before bed, as I did throughout my childhood. But now we start early. On Dec. 6 we follow Jenkins’ godmother Andrea’s German childhood ritual of planting our shoes outside our bedroom door for Saint Nicholas to fill with candy. During Hanukkah, we spin the dreidel in honor of Jenkins’ cousins in Haifa, Israel. A few days before Christmas, in honor of her Chinese cousins, we begin to make red paper lantern ornaments for the tree. Last year, on Christmas Eve, we made a Bûche de Noël, a French yule log that’s dripping in chocolate, in honor of her cousins in Paris, France. (I wasn’t joking when I said my family moved away!)
And in keeping with the tradition of always looking for something from another culture, this year we will tip our hats to my cousin’s new Chilean husband by putting a little clay figurine known as “pesebre” under the tree, and making a fruity cake called a Pan de Pasqua (hoping it is better than the brick-shaped fruitcake that seems to continue to be passed around to different members of my family each year).
Santa still comes, but now our tree is always in a different spot— often a different country: Paris, Provence, Belgium, Germany, Scotland, the Queen Elizabeth II, Bali, Indonesia, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and New York City— and coming up the road, Timonium, Md. 21093.
We still have loads of presents, but instead of opening them all at once, Jenkins opens a few in the morning while she, yes, fills up on those dastardly chocolate-covered cherries and then she opens a present every hour on the hour, because I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want Christmas to stop after the presents were opened. And one of her biggest presents is always under the covers waiting for her at bedtime.
The stories of my mother’s childhood are filled with colorful enough memories that they’ve become my memories, too. My mother had four siblings and two rather unconventional parents. Her father— my grandfather— was a famous tuberculosis doctor in the South and they grew up at a sanitarium. My grandmother was as blue blood as one could get— she was an only child whose father had won the Congressional Medal of Honor; his grandfather was a general in the Civil War; and the first American grandfather inherited hundreds of acres of barrier island land near Charleston, S.C., from King Charles of Spain in the 1500s.
When guests would come for dinner at the sanitarium and politely ask if someone could pass the bread, my very elegantly dressed, seemingly Victorian, grandmother would take a piece of bread out of the basket and wing it across the table like a Frisbee, leaving the guest astonished and the kids to abandon their manners and become five little monkeys roiling with laughter. I might not have been born, but still, I was a laughing monkey, too. When people recall walking past the sanitarium at 2 in the morning, instead of the lights being off, the lights were blazing, my grandmother was playing the piano and the kids could be heard singing whatever songs were popular during the Depression. And as my aunt later taught me “K-K-K-Katy,” that’s the song I remember singing… even though, of course, I was never there. When Uncle George— at the age of 14— decided to expand the front door of the family beach shack, Happy Landing, into a double door and the shack caved in, leaving all five kids oooh-ing with their hands clamped over their mouths on the side of the unpaved Steamboat Landing road, well, I was one of those children.
I know by heart that when the hurricane of 1940 hit Edisto Island, there was no warning, and my Uncle George walked his four siblings through waist-high ocean water over the Dahoo bridge to get to the mainland. Of course, I was there for that, too, as vivid as it was. I also remember the time when my grandmother was in her Sunday dress and ribbon hat, and rode the giant sea turtle on the shores of Edisto Beach. And when my grandmother and grandfather had their first child, my Aunt Sally, and they were so pleased with her that they put her in the silver fruit bowl during breakfast so they could watch her while they ate, I was watching her, too. And yet, after all these years, it has finally come to me that I never did ask my mother what her childhood Christmases were like.
Jenkins will probably forget to ask me about my childhood Christmases, too. And I’ll probably forget to tell her that my brother Adam used to sit around burping the alphabet and “Silent Night;” or that her Uncle Micah would always say such amazingly, funny, snarky things about the yearly Slinky he’d unwrap, because, for the poet Dylan Thomas, there might always have been aunts at Christmas, but for us, there were always Slinkys in our stockings; or that her Aunt Kathy was very shy and only seemed to really come alive for us on Christmas morning, when, being the oldest, she would always be the first to give our mom the adult literary comic book with naughty illustrations; or that our mom, Jenkins’ grandmother— the extraordinary, beautiful woman she would never meet— would always make an entrance in the room, sticking her finger in the air in a Ta-Da! motion, with her other arm behind her and two dachshunds trailing; or that I— Jenkins’ mommy— would always be the last to go to bed, the first to wake up, and the absolute first to yell, “Look what Santa brought!” on Christmas morning.
Jenkins won’t know any of that, but she will know that there is a Santa, and that Christmas comes every year no matter where she is, and that Christmas has been and always will be one of the most special holidays in her life. And somewhere down the line, she’ll be able to connect the dots and see that all her Christmases have less to do with the rituals than they do with the fact that my grandmother threw the bread around the table at dinnertime.
I wish I could explain it better, but I’m just now beginning to figure it out myself. And I also don’t have time. Jenkins has decided to make the star for the tree earlier than usual, and I have to go to the store to get the material: tape, wrapping paper, paper plates and, get this, a Slinky. I’ve no idea what she has in mind, but I know that instead of missing my mother so tremendously, I’m going to tremendously enjoy being right here, right now, watching my daughter bring in this holiday season.