Living Grief (and Love) During The Holidays

BlogHer Original Post

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.

angel ornament

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.

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