It seems like so much of Christmas, at least in our culture, is composed of memories. I'm guessing folks who celebrate other holidays, particularly this time of year, would say something similar. When I think back, my brain is full of them. When I was little, my mom’s family always gathered at my Granny’s house, mom’s mother. Just thinking about it brings back 70s disco holiday songs on the radio, helping Granny make those little sugar cookies from a press, and her ‘English rock’ fruitcake cookies, and being delegated to stuff celery stalks with peanut butter for the appetizer tray.
The youngest in the family normally read the Christmas story when everyone went into the den after supper to open presents. As I got a bit older, I tried to direct the proceedings somewhat. I wanted each person to open their presents so they would have everybody’s attention for a minute. No, that wasn’t just for me! I really did want that for all my aunts and uncles and cousins. It never happened of course. Unwrapping turned into a chaos of paper and ribbon and stuff. I had to deal with it.
Then mom and daddy and I went home and went to bed. Our unwrapping of our presents to each other came on Christmas morning, usually after mom made biscuits and daddy fried country ham. Dang, my mouth is watering just thinking about that. As a small kid, this was also naturally the point of discovering what Santa had brought. One year, daddy brought his work boots in after I’d gone to bed, and made footprints on the rug with ash from the fireplace. I imagine mom wasn’t thrilled about having to clean that, but this junior Nancy Drew was thrilled to find at last hard evidence of Santa’s presence!
Daddy went out on our property and cut our tree for many years, until age made it too hard for him. I bought an artificial tree that year, the first of several. It was bare; daddy’s job was untangling the spiderwebs of light strings, Mom’s was hanging the ornaments, and mine was finishing off with the icicles—after being warned to hang them individually, not throw them onto the boughs by the handful.
I was thinking of all this while putting up our tree this year. I don’t do a huge amount of decorating, but some is sort of essential, like the tiny tree my best friend made years ago out of wire coat hangers and tinsel garland, or the lighted garland over the hearth that i bought my first Christmas in my house because I was so stoked that there was a plug in the right place to have it. This year, I wasn’t sure how much would happen. With mom’s mental state being what it is, it makes for some, shall we say, interesting moments. I put the tree up the week after Thanksgiving. Mom was occupied for nearly an hour, searching the phone book and calling information, trying to contact her boss to apologize for oversleeping and missing work. The boss she was looking for died twenty years ago. I let it go since it distracted her.
Later that day, after she had given up or forgotten what she wanted to call about, I asked if she wanted to go back into the family room and see the finished product (this tree has built-in lights. I don’t have the patience with cords that daddy did) Mom had a bit of a tantrum snarling that she didn’t intend to spend Christmas in this blankety-blank place and she wanted to go home. Like every kid growing up, I could not wait for Christmas to arrive. That, though, was the first time I found myself half wishing it was over.
I’m still not sure how this weekend is going to go down. Sometimes, mom kind of knows where she is, though she is generally unsure who I am. The best I can do is assure her that whoever she thinks I am, I love her. She has presents under the tree, so hopefully she will be calm enough at some point to open them. The traditions of past Christmases have mostly gone by the wayside now. No watching Charlie Brown or the Grinch, since she doesn’t get out of bed much and doesn’t want me out of her sight for long enough to watch a tv show. Granny’s nuts and bolts didn’t get made this year, nor did our glorious family fruitcake, not just because of lack of time, but mom’s teeth don’t let her eat much hard stuff. I did, however, discover a box of gingerbread mix in the pantry, and mom loved it baked up into a soft cake, warmed and sprayed with a bit of whipped cream.
She remembers some of the ornaments on the tree, thought she said sadly once that she hated I had to put our tree up here where she works, since her family won’t come and get her and take her home. There’s a small ceramic angel, with daddy’s name on it; the funeral home put it on their tree the Christmas after he passed, then gave it to us. I hang it beside a small blue heeler dog with a halo. Spud was maybe daddy’s favorite of all the dogs we ever owned, and I bought him that ornament the year after Spud died. Daddy loved it, but I always had to hang it on the side of the tree opposite his recliner in the den of our old house, because he couldn’t bear to see it all the time. Now, I figure they are together again, so he wouldn’t mind my hanging the ornaments together.
A lighthouse I brought back from a work trip to Cape Cod, a tiny white cottage that came back with me the summer I studied in Ireland, a Santa riding a flamingo that a friend in Florida gave me, a glass length of ribbon candy from the old drugstore in Green Hills where mom and I used to love to go on Black Friday, because everybody was at the mall and who thought to go shop at the drugstore? Most every thing on the tree has a story. Christmas is about memories, and it makes me sad to know mom is losing them. All I can do is try to make sure she has as happy a Christmas as possible. Whether or not she remembers it next week or next year, I will.