Living Grief (and Love) During The Holidays
When I was growing up, my family and I put up and decorated the Christmas tree every Christmas Eve. That was my dad's rule. What were also his rules were the exact way and order in which the tree would be decorated: first, the white lights, woven deep inside the tree to give it an inner glow; then colored lights on the outside branches; then tiny silver balls tucked toward the trunk, to reflect the white light; then colored glass balls; and, at last, the fancy ornaments, which came in trios, one for me and each of my brothers, branded with my mom's tiny and elegant handwriting noting the year the ornament represented. Then we topped it all off with delicate streams of tinsel, applied painstakingly with my mother's particular method -- holding a swath of tinsel between your thumb and forefinger, slowly move your hand over the branches, so the needles gently grasp just a strand or three, never too many pieces at once. Just the just-right amount of glint and shine to bring the tree all together.
I loved this exacting ritual, enacted the same way year after year -- though I thought it was terrible to have to wait to put up a tree we'd bought two weeks before. It stood, a silent sentinel, on the front porch, the water in its bucket often frozen in a solid plug around its stump. I would go outside and visit it on the front porch, my breath coming out in puffs, until my hands were too cold to stay there any longer.
As my brothers and I grew up, and moved out of the house, went off to college, got jobs and partners and our own freestanding lives, the tree tradition continued. My father would wait until Christmas Eve, when at least one or two of the three of us had arrived home for the holiday. And we'd decorate it together again, Vince Guaraldi on the stereo keeping us in joyful company. And at night on Christmas Eve, we all sat in the living room, with all the lights out except for the tree, and watched it sparkle, and murmured quiet conversation to each other. These nights were among our family's most placid moments. We knew what each of us was supposed to do and where we were supposed to be. There was no negotiating for family position; just Handel's soaring Messiah on the record player and the twinkling lights and the smell of the logs that were constantly burning in the stone fireplace. Home.
But time does its inexorable walk, which we can count in holidays or years or photos or my dad's hair and beard gone gray, or my mother's slowing pace. I took the helm of all the elaborate Christmas dinner planning and cooking in 2010, when my mother finally admitted she wasn't able to stand as long as all that festivity required. We opened a bottle of Dom Perignon to toast my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, which they'd celebrated just 9 days before. A landmark, a lifetime together.
That was my brother's and my last Christmas with our parents. Sudden and cruel illnesses took them over and took them away in the six months that followed. And so last year my brothers and I faced our final Christmas at their home, before we packed everything our parents had lovingly collected over the years into an armada of boxes and sent them off to be auctioned away to strangers.
My brothers assigned me the task of putting up the Christmas tree. "You'll do it the way dad did it," said my brother, Scott, who had never had the patience to weave in the light strands just so. He and I went into the basement and plowed through the inconceivable number of boxes filled with Christmas decorations. Over the years, my mother had gathered a decorative holiday object for every surface: the partridge-in-a-pear-tree she'd made for one of the bathrooms; the Santa sleigh filled with teeny little boxes she'd wrapped in colored foil for the hall table; the mistletoe ball on its red velvet ribbon, hanging from the dining room entrance. Opening those boxes was like opening the wound of their loss: without my mother's passion and love of the holidays attached, these items were worth nothing, a collection of musty and aging creations. We sealed up these decorations and pushed them into a corner, carrying upstairs the dozen boxes or so that carried the ornaments for the tree. And I got to work, feeling the years and history whoosh by my ears with every ornament I lifted out of its box, pegged to an exact moment in our family history.
We did our best, my brothers and me, but even though the house was full it felt empty. I made Christmas dinner, and we took a picture of us all at their dining room table, and we toasted them, of course -- the juxtaposition of toasting their lifetime together just a mere year before almost too tart to bear -- and we stayed away from the words that could bring tears. Grief isn't what I remember from that day, but truthfully, I don't really remember much at all.
This year as the holidays started their early and unsubtle descent, I felt the loss of my parents all fresh and new, as if the protective bandage of time passing by had been stripped away. Because the holidays mattered so much to my family, they now matter to me more than ever. But I don’t want this to be my sad season, year after year after year. This cannot be the way I honor their memories, I thought to myself. So this year I chose change. I decided to head to a different kind of Christmas wonderland, Lake Placid in the Adirondacks, a very special place for my son and boyfriend and me. I scaled down my plans for Christmas dinner, settling on simpler dishes and less preparation, which both my son and my boyfriend prefer to my momentous meals of much and many. I am making no Christmas cookies, since there's no mother to call when one of the recipes invariably goes wrong, her amazing knowledge of baking saving any mishap.
This paring away of this many family signposts of the holidays may seem like a kind of denial, but to me it's been a beautiful acceptance. Life is different now. Very different. I want to keep my eyes focused on creating new gifts of the holiday season, for me, for my family, lest they always be filled with tears this time of year.
And also, this: I didn't give up everything. I kept one family holiday memory to treasure, and focus on it like a prayer; the annual ritual that brings my parents close to me, so close I can almost sense them in the room: the tree.
This year I my boyfriend and I carried home an eight-foot-tree, a gorgeous Douglas Fir from Canada. We got it in the doors and up the stairs (apartment life), got it situated in its cast-iron base, went to the basement to bring up the six or seven boxes of decorations, and then I went to work. First, the white lights, carefully and slowly wound around the tree trunk, nestled deep in the inside branches. One, two, three, four, five strands. Next, the colored lights, placed around the outside, up and down the stepladder I went, spreading the bright jewels of color just so. My boyfriend and son had disappeared into their own entertainments, leaving me to my meditation. I put on Handel's Messiah, and sang along, hearing my mother's voice as she sang the same words. A friend stopped by and marveled at my precision, saying, "You sure know what you're doing there, don't ya?" I laughed and answered yes, and explained I was following an ancient bit of family wisdom, and that my father would approve.
Opening every box, lifting out every ornament, adding to the mix this year many ornaments I brought home from my parents' boxes -- it was the happiest grief I have ever felt. And I knew that this is what I will do, for as long as the forever is that I have, to keep my parents with me at the holidays.
After my son, Zack, had come into the living room to flit around the tree and hang his tin airplanes and trains, and the wooden fish from St Croix and the birch canoe from the Adirondacks -- creating memories that are both new and familiar to me -- we turned off all the lights and gazed at our sparkling, towering talisman. "It's the most beautiful Christmas tree, ever, mama," he breathed. And I had to agree. In this tree I see the everything in life -- the shine and the sparkle, the memories and history, wonder, nature, life, then death, the fleeting beauty of so many of life's resonant moments. And since these moments are fleeting, I made the executive decision to put up my tree well before Christmas Eve, so I can think about life and love and grief and my family and my future for many, many nights in December, sitting quietly in my living room, the sparkle of the lights glistening in my eyes.