The Question: Whether you are observing the coming holidays, or you are not, is there a difficult memory you associate with this time of year?
I have procrastinated about this all week, but I know I need to write it. I come from a small family that consists of myself, my parents and my two siblings. I have three nieces, two of whom have partners, and a nephew who is married. One niece and her partner have a 9 week old child, the first great grand child for my parents, and my first great nephew.
My mother is 80 and resides in a nursing home, she has Alzheimer’s. My father spends the bulk of his day at the nursing home, feeding her, helping care for her and having whatever interaction with her that he can. Some days that consists entirely of abuse. Til death us do part was not a meaningless line in his wedding vows, he meant it when he said it, and I have no doubt my mother did too.
Her decline was gradual at first, but typical of the progression of Alzheimer’s. 4 years ago she was confused, one minute I was her daughter, then her sister, and later in the day I was my niece. Things got interesting that day when my niece arrived. 3 years ago she had to go home before Christmas dinner because she didn’t know where she was (my brother’s house of 26 years). 2 years ago her comprehension of Christmas was gone. She had no idea what to do with the gift that was sitting on her lap so I unwrapped it for her. She didn’t know what hand cream was or how to use it.
Last Christmas she was in the nursing home, her grandchildren all visited her, my older brother and I visited her. She doesn’t recognise or speak to any of us. My father breaks down as I leave to have Christmas dinner with the rest of the family. I never saw him show that level of emotion until a few years ago.
This Christmas I went to have Christmas dinner with them at the nursing home. My mother is now a frail old woman reclining in something in-between a wheelchair and a hospital bed. She utters a few rambling words now and then. She has a cold, and can just manage to dab her nose with a tissue. I’m impressed she manages that. She eyes me suspiciously and clutches a small box of tissues to her chest, convinced I am trying to steal them from her. She is agitated because my father (who she does not believe is her husband) has left the room for a minute and she doesn’t know who I am. When he returns she demands to go home but cannot remember where that is. Not so many months ago she said home was my Nan’s house in England, she last lived there in 1957.
As I eat my meal I watch my father spoon feed her what looks to me like cat food. Vitamised they call it, she eats about 4 spoonfuls, then spits the 5th out at my father. Later she abuses him because he won’t let her sup the custard out of the dessert bowl, she refuses to eat the Christmas pudding because she doesn’t know what it is. Might be poison she tells him. He sighs and eats his own meal which surely is cold by now. She refuses her cup of tea from me, closes her mouth tightly and looks away from me.
I want to leave, I know my mother is no longer here, only tiny fragments of her remain, infrequent flashes of who she was. But my father is still here, this is his life now. I don’t want this to go on, and I don’t want him to have to say goodbye to the only woman he ever loved and part of me dreads next Christmas.
It was 1977, 78, 79… something like that.
Back when a trip to Kmart meant a mom could head to the blinking blue light over there and a kid could head straight for the towering toy aisles over here where matchbox cars, plastic models, balsa wood planes, and slot car racing sets sat.
This day was around Christmas.
The tree was up in the house, lights blinking, yet without the presents slowly collecting needles shaken from branches.
We are at Kmart and I bee-lined to the slot cars.
I found this kind and that kind, and sorted that kind from this kind. I stared and stared, thoughts racing around and around.
A voice broke through, “would you like one?” I turned and looked up at the stranger, “yes YES!” Then the stranger said “my friend has a boy about your age…” and then “WWAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”
My mom came running, “WHAT?!?!?!?”
The stranger. “Nothing.”
My mom said, “You… SOMETHING!”
In 1988, 89, or 90, my mom picked up a slot car set from a garage sale and put it under the tree for when I came home.
That sure was something.
Every December 23, I search through my ragged pile of recipes to find one that is particularly stained and frayed. It’s a cookie recipe that dates from the second year I was married: rugelach. There it is, with a seven-digit phone number at the bottom for someone I no longer know, in an area code I no longer remember.
So many years ago, my husband and I, both 26 years old, had spent the summer and fall working on an organic farm and living in a tent in rural Minnesota. When the frosts came, we moved to a nearby town to find winter work. I was an aide in a Montessori classroom and he worked at the health food store in town.
At Christmastime that year, moms at my school told me I would be expected to attend a cookie swap—please bring four dozen of these cookies, they said, handing me the rugelach recipe, typed on white paper. I read it to myself when I got home and was pretty sure I would wreck them. It involved sour cream and chilling the dough and rolling it out and…other techniques that I had never tried before. The night before the swap, I covered our small, rented kitchen in flour and shooed our kitten away again and again; somehow I made passable cookies and put them in a pretty tin for the swap.
Even though we moved on to other jobs and towns, I made them the next year, too, and the next. They got easier every time and quickly became a favorite with extended family. When our daughters were old enough to make their opinions known, they asked for those rugelach every year, and a tradition was born.
I thought my marriage would outlast every recipe. I was positive my husband and I would hold hands on our death beds, all the meaningless clutter of our lives, including recipes, falling away. Instead, the marriage fell away—and ended—and the recipes are still going strong. It’s funny and strange how little we know about the future of our own lives.
Especially at the holidays, I miss the foursome we used to be. When I make and send my Christmas card to friends, I still find it odd that it includes only photos of my daughters and me (and our dog). I miss the happy days with my husband, before and after kids: surprising each other with gifts at Christmas. The years when our children were younger and easy to dazzle with Santa antics. At the same time, I know this is my family now: me, my two daughters, and a snuggly black lab.
Through it all, the changes and growing and moving and settling in, we have the rugelach—baking on December 23. We sprinkle nuts and sugar and cinnamon and watch them while they bake—the dough puffing up and turning flaky before our eyes. The first time I made those treats, I thought I was just taking cookies out of the oven. I didn’t realize I had baked a memory-in-the-making and that traditions, not merely cookies, were cooling on my cooling racks, defining this holiday in my family for decades past and decades to come.
As a child, mom never used the “P” word. She chose “frugal” instead. At church, she asked the women for their daughters’ hand-me-down clothes and later said to me, “I’m not embarrassed. Their husbands are doctors.”
I wore Betsy’s winter white cashmere sweater several days in a row until mom shrunk it in the washer. I cried. Dry cleaning was too expensive.
At Christmas, Uncle Bud sent mom and dad money to purchase gifts for under our tree. I know this because my brothers and sisters and I had to send him thank you notes.
On Christmas morning, mom gave me a sea green sweater made in China from polyester yarn. Purchased from the discount store, the style was similar to the brand name, wool ones I saw other girls wear to school. I pretended not to notice as mom reminded me that I had everything I needed.
Forty years later, her Christmas card and check arrived in the mail last week. “I wish you would cash it this year and buy something for yourself,” she writes. “Your siblings do.”
But I won’t. I have everything I need.
I worked under stress in the retail trade too long to have a healthy relationship with holidays, so for many years I’ve come to prefer un-holidays and un-birthdays.
It was hard for me, personally, as a single mother holding down a full-time to carve out time for Christmas traditions. The regular chores of parenting, marketing, laundry, shopping, cooking and bills were demanding enough. I felt that holidays just added more straws to the camel’s back.
The tree, the cards, the cookies, presents, parties and pot lucks, Nativity costume (Andy was the cutest Joseph) and then Christmas dinner–I made all that happen and more during my thirties and forties.
There was a cost eventually in terms of physical energy, credit card load and also, to my shame, on my temper.
I gradually opted out of all but the most minimal observances, until Christmas day with my mother and son was Mass, a movie at the Cineplex and Freschetta pizza with Christmassy green and red peppers. Presents were few, if any, at times, but well-chosen or just plain fun. The time we spent together in emotional harmony was happiness enough.
If my energy levels survived the retail onslaught and my temper was still sweet, I would go all out (for me) and then Christmas dinner was rotisserie chicken from the deli with instant mashed potatoes, Stove Top stuffing and Knorr turkey gravy plus a dollop of canned cranberry sauce.
This miracle feast, served on paper plates, took all of twenty minutes to prepare, tasted pretty great and I still had energy left to bask in the loving healing presence of my mother and son.
The original Christmas gift was a call for love and peace. I don’t think it was meant to produce a pack of stressed out humans scrabbling after stuff, stuff and more stuff. I ought to know. I did plenty of it and felt anything but loving.
So, now I prefer un-holidays and I will take the love and peace every day that I can get it.
I have nothing to complain about at Christmastime – not to this date. Of course, there have been losses, and sadness, but overall when it comes to the season, I have a lifetime of good memories, had the luck of years of a loving family who cared all around me.
Even now, thousands of miles from my parents, brother and my oldest friends, as it has been for over 13 years of Christmases, I have a person I love dearly with whom I spend the day.
Sharing the day with somebody has always meant more than any gift. The ritual of coming together, long lost after so many Decembers, was achingly anticipated.
But there was one year, 1995, and I was dating a fellow. An older guy. An artist, and it was short-lived and hollow. A rebound relationship after my divorce, but it did fill a gap.
That year, my folks had spent Christmas for the first and last time on the west coast, and so I stayed at my apartment, 150 miles from home in the snow and east central Illinois’ frozen, flat landscape I knew so well.
I met up with the guy Christmas morning because he was also staying in town, not travelling home to spend the holiday with his family in New Haven. In his comfortable, Craftsman-style apartment, he gave me two presents. I gave him a couple back, and somehow surprisingly, but completely naturally, we broke off the relationship.
Amicably. It was going nowhere, but it was the kind of ending that indicated to us both we would no longer spend time together.
That was fine. He was nice, but not very smart and occasionally annoyingly smug. I always felt he was slumming with me. That my personality was an amusement, not valuable.
Then he said he really needed to get going. He was invited to friends for Christmas lunch and wanted to get ready. He asked me what I was doing. I said I was doing nothing. And he said, “Well, Merry Christmas”, gave me a hug and thanked me for the presents.
And on my way down his stairwell, I kept thinking, “He knows I have nowhere to go for Christmas, and did not even think to ask if I wanted to come along to the lunch.”
I’ve never forgotten that morning. I usually feel very comfortable in my own company, but that year, that Christmas, as the night drew on early in my two-room cold apartment, I felt very alone.