Christmas at our house, when I was a child, was an odd affair. The holidays were merry, and yet they weren’t. My mother is one of those people who has “Christmas issues.” At Christmas time, from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, our house was a torrent of turmoil, anger, frustration, and temper tantrums (mostly hers).
Mom grew up in the Great Depression. Grandpa lost his job as head mechanic at the Cadillac division of General Motors. When the family was evicted from their very pleasant apartment, after Grandpa lost, he went to sea as a merchant seaman and Grandma took a low-paying job as a millworker. She could only afford a one-bedroom apartment.
So Mom was sent to live with her paternal grandmother, “Nonny”, who hated my mother’s mother, for reasons unclear. My mother was treated pretty much like Cinderella. Even though it was a big house, my mother’s bedroom was in the basement. That was okay with her, because her grandmother’s second husband – well let’s just say that Mom felt the farther away she was from him, the better.
Every Christmas we had to sit through the maudlin story of how she made a poor child’s Christmas tree, and her step-grandfather told her to leave her Grandmother alone, that she was too tired and didn’t “want to see your god-damned Christmas tree.” So Mom went up to the street to her friends’ house. Their own parents owned a deli which ran from 6 in the morning until 9 at night. When she got there, Mom found that the family, even though they’d been on their feet all day, weren’t too tired to decorate the tree with their two daughters. Mom burst into tears.
And she would burst into tears and tell the story every Christmas. We didn’t think she was exaggerating. We could see from old photos that “Nonny” – as the family called her – was one mean-looking woman. An artist who painted her portrait from a photo had to paint a smile on her face. Her second husband killed one of Mom’s dogs, kicking it and throwing against a wall.
Yikes. So we could understand how she felt. But still. She be in a rage about something and inevitably launch into the Christmas tree story. My brothers, my father, and I would all look at each other and roll our eyes.
Eventually, my father passed away (years ago). Brother B got married. Brother A drifted but always stayed in the nest, and I bought a condo. Once I had my own place, finding that Brother B’s ex-wife had no Christmas spirit for entertaining guests, not even our family; Christmas came into my charge.
These past 17 years have mostly been merry (except for the Christmas when my mother nearly died from an aneurism). I don’t allow maudlin tales to be told in my home. I convinced my mother not to let her long-dead grandmother ruin every Christmas and she complied.
She’s 89 and looking ahead to her 90th birthday with little relish. All her friends are gone now; her friend E. died last spring; her Dutch friend, Mia, died just before last Christmas. She had little spirit for Christmas, particularly decorating. The Ghost of Christmas Nonny had returned. Oh no.
She said she wasn’t strong enough to decorate the little table-top tree, yet she hauled a load of laundry up and down the stairs of her house, very much against our dictates. She was depressed and just couldn’t bring herself to do it. The unwanted memories, the ghosts of Christmas past had returned.
Christmas Eve, she just couldn’t manage the dinner, so I agreed to host it. We had a new guest for our family gathering. To my mortification, Mom immediately launch into her own version of A Christmas Carol. I tried to get her to stop, but that only put her in a worse mood. Changing the subject helped a bit, but the mood was set.
Brother B was quite late due to an unexpected snowstorm in our area. After we ate, Mom was so agitated that she wanted to go home, and she wanted me to come with her. That would have meant sending my guest away early, which I had no intention of doing. She was also on an anti-man rant. Men being men, they feel when it comes to all things mechanical that they’re superior. My mother, whose father was the head mechanic at Cadillac in the Twenties and early Thirties, feels, ‘that’s what YOU think!” and is always trying to prove it.
Big mistake, in my opinion. But then, unlike my mother, I don’t know a carburetor from a carbuncle. She does. Anyway, the contest wasn’t going well for her with my guest (who is a mechanic) and that’s when she wanted to go home. So she did. When she realized I wasn’t going to leave without him, she relented and gave me leave to stay home.
I was relieved. We watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Channel 13 and then “It Happened in Sun Valley” with Glenn Miller and his orchestra. After he went home, I put on a Christmas CD by the Von Trapp Family. Glumly, I sat for a long time by little Nativity set on the piano, looking at the infant Jesus, thinking of that peaceful Christmas thousands of years ago, and listening to the sweet voices of the Von Trapp’s (who had their family issues, too).
I suddenly understood what someone meant when they said celebrating Christmas with family is fine, as long as what you’re celebrating is the birth of Jesus, not your family of human beings, with all their frailties and tales of woes. No wonder people go crazy at Christmas.
I thought back to my own childhood Christmases. Although my mother made them unhappy, I was always able, at Christmas, to put her angry moods, the bullying of my classmates, my feelings of loneliness, our relative poverty, and childhood ailments aside and feel the cheer of Christmas in the carols that played on the radio, the bright decorations in the store, and our Christmas tree (which my mother always decorated beautifully; perhaps her grandmother didn’t appreciate her efforts but I sure did).
I had resolved earlier to go over to my mother’s house first thing in the morning and decorate her little Christmas tree before she got up (she sleeps late). Meanwhile, I turned out the Christmas lights and prepared to go to bed. Once I was ready, I opened up my Bible for my own, personal tradition of reading the Nativity story. Still my mind was not on Christ’s birth but on my mother’s unrelenting sorrow. Being almost 90, what, I wondered, could ever heal her of this bitterness?
I sighed. It was useless wondering. I returned to my Bible. But instead of opening up to Matthew and Luke, my Bible opened itself up to Isaiah 14 (verse 3): “And it shall come to pass in the day that the Lord shall give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve.”
Whoa. You have to understand that I’m only an average reader of the Bible. I don’t have any particular verses memorized. What Bible sayings I learned in childhood, I couldn’t tell you their source to save my soul. I don’t find Bible verses – they find me. Knowing what a poor memory I have, I should have committed the chapter and verse to paper, but I didn’t because I was too sleepy. Isaiah, on the left-hand page, the left-hand column. That would be enough.
I was able to find the verse again in the morning and wrote it into a Christmas card to my Mother. I was glad to be going early, before she woke. I didn’t mind being God’s messenger, but I dreaded an overly-sentimental display. I decorated her tree, played with the cat, left the card on the table for her, and went home, glad to escape a “scene.”
She called me later to thank me for the card. Her voice was sad. I quickly changed the subject the second time she tried to broach the subject. By the time she arrived for dinner, she was her old, new, old self, the Mom of the last 20 years or so, cheerful and Christmasy.
Some people make such a job of making Christmas merry that they wind up making themselves, and those around them, miserable. Women, especially, resent all the work they have to do as housekeepers and hostesses. My mother thought I was being used because I made the dinner and had to clean up.
But I didn’t feel that way about it. That was part of my Christmas gift to the rest of the family. If the work was a sacrifice, so what? Put on some Christmas carols and the work flies by in no time. There’s a new book out, called “Men on Strike” which I intend to give to Brother B’s gal pal. She’d like to “secure” him (and so would I – while I don’t mind cooking the holiday dinners for him, I don’t relish having him land on my doorstep every night) but she won’t succeed so long as she follows the “Women’s Playbook.”
I know what I want for next Christmas; Brother B’s gal pal as my new sister-in-law!