There are any number of ways I still miss my mom, who died four years ago: forgetting and reaching for the phone to call her, remembering our Friday night dinners together, wanting to ask her questions about family stories I can’t exactly recall — which, as I work on my memoir, seem to be most of them. (The book will be, as David Sedaris says, “true-ish.”)
But I’ll tell you one thing I don’t miss. I don’t miss (Can I even say this?) Mom at Christmas.
It’s not because I’m a holiday-hater. I really am fond of all the fa-la-la and falderal. Granted, that’s because the Christmas season only lasts a little over a week for me. For the past 20 years, I have taught at USM, and by the time I finish writing my final evaluations I have but a handful of days left to celebrate. Also, gift-giving among friends and family has largely been discontinued, so I don’t have to join the hoodless hoards ogling automated martini shakers and electronic slippers. I do not treat sending cards like a direct-marketing campaign. I actually like Christmas carols, so long as I hear each of them only a couple times, and not the rocker-remade versions. (Dylan does Christmas? Seriously?) I don’t overindulge or get stressed-out, because I don’t have the time. I simply enjoy it.
This was not always the case. Once I left my parents’ house, Christmas just didn’t fit into my Kerouac-On the Road/Patti Smith-poet persona. Prior to marriage and a home of my own, the only time I had a Christmas tree was the year I found a giant birch branch on the sidewalk in the West End, dragged it up the stairs to my apartment and propped it behind the couch. I covered it with a strand of lights and mini bottles of Tabasco (the kind you get with oysters) tied on with ribbon. I think it stayed there for a couple of years. This is a method of decorating that would make Martha Stewart eat her heart out. I mean, literally.
And that was the issue with me and Mom and Christmas. My idea of decking the halls is a nice tree and several swags of pine on the mantelpiece. My mother, on the other hand, went all out. There was not a room in our family home in Bath that was not kissed by glitter, bestowed with boughs of greenery and festooned with bowls of balls and mini-sleighs stacked with presents. Ceramic angels clung to candlesticks. Mistletoe dangled in doorways. And then there were her two grand oeuvres: the tree and the banister.
The tree had to be perfect: big and fat and scraping the ceiling. When I was a kid, Mom and Dad would bicker over trees: “It’s fine,” he’d say, twirling the first one we looked at, anxious to get home to Merv Griffin. “But it has a bare spot, right there,” she’d counter, and forge off to another section. He’d roll his eyes but follow her. I’d stay put and watch them in the distance: he twirling trees, she shaking her head at them, he shaking his head at her. I’d soon lose interest and go sit in the car. This tree-choosing business was clearly not for kids.
Later, after my dad died, Mom and I would reenact this scene each year. Sometimes, I would be patient; other times, I would not. Because once the tree was home, it would be wound and shrouded by so many lights and decorations and strands of tinsel garland that you couldn’t even tell there was a tree there, making its shape — to my mind — quite beside the point.
The banister in the front hall was equally extravagant. Pine and spruce bows were braided and twined up its entire length and then wrapped in white lights. From there, doodads and ornaments — tiny violins and trumpets, caroling angels, silvery wrapped miniature presents — were studded into the greens. Woe be to you if you suddenly felt unsteady on those stairs. You’d just have to take a tumble.
I don’t remember such excess in my early childhood. We had one of those brass-angel-and-candle thingies on the dining room table. You lit the candles, which caused a fan to rotate and the angels to circle over and strike small bells with wands — ding, ding, ding, ding. There was a plaster crèche on top of the piano. Two chubby plastic snowmen, who each held in their clenched fists a glowing Christmas bulb, stood in front of the living room windows facing the street. Aside from the wreaths on both entry doors that Mom made and trimmed herself, the snowmen were our only “public” Christmas decorations.
We didn’t go for those garish displays (outdoor lights, Santa mounted on the roof), though every year we would drive around town to gawk at other people’s efforts. The highlight was the extravaganza across the Carlton Bridge. There was a house in Woolwich with the entire yard filled with Christmas spectacle: Santa and Jesus and snowmen and magi and reindeer and sleighs and carolers, all in spotlights and surrounded by wondrous blinking lights. People would drive there from all over and park on the side of the road with their windows rolled down to hear the piped-in Christmas music. Who were these people responsible for all this magic? Millionaires? Oh, and how I wanted our house to be decorated like that. The more lights the better. I couldn’t wait to grow up so I could put on a display like this one. You just wait.
I suppose it was because Mom had more time on her hands after my dad died that she started decorating with such fervor. She even festooned the giant forsythia on the front lawn with white lights that twinkled in an arhythmic fashion. I was not always a fan. “Nice disco lights, Mom,” I’d say, rolling my eyes when I pulled in the driveway.
Decking the house was my mother’s deal; it was how she liked to spend her time between tennis matches and volunteer work. Sure, I’d help her hang ornaments (so long as the lights were already checked and on the tree), but what she did to her house during the holidays was her concern, not mine.
Until it was.
As with most things, it started gradually: helping get boxes down the treacherous third-story attic stairs, stringing lights, putting stuff away at season’s end. But when she moved into her condominium and her health started to decline (but not her desire to decorate), many of these tasks were left to me: draping the fake green garland (she had long since stopped using the real thing) and lights across her front porch, attaching red bows at just the right increments, getting the wreath on the door, doing the tree, and — my nemesis — festooning the banister. It’s not that I didn’t want to help my mother. It’s just that I am as hopeless and impatient with all this stuff as she was nimble and exacting. My services were usually requested when I was pressed for time with deadlines and the end of the semester looming. I would hold my tongue and clench my teeth as she had me twirl and re-twirl the Christmas tree while she examined every angle several times. I would hold my tongue and clench my teeth as she critiqued my spacing (“too bunched up”) of the garland on the banister, and when I’d get all the lights on the tree only to find two female ends facing each other in futility. But we’d keep at it until we got it right. As always, everything had to be perfect.
Until it didn’t.
The last couple years of Mom’s life, my brothers and I had to persuade her to have a tree, to haul out the decorations, to let us help decorate her condo. She might take occasional interest in an individual ornament — a brightly painted wise man, made out of tin, that she and Dad got in the Bahamas, or the red-clay cactus I brought her from New Mexico — but she was largely indifferent. She wasn’t being difficult — she found all this pleasant enough — but it was as if it didn’t have anything to do with her. “Oh, Mom,” I’d say dramatically. “Look at the mess I’ve made of the tinsel!” “It’s fine,” she’d say. “It’s fine.”
So, am I glad I don’t have to wrestle fake garland up another banister ever again? Yes, I guess I am. But would I trade all the sugarplums and eggnog in the world for one more frustrating chance to adjust red bows for my mom in the bone-cold twilight? In a North Pole minute.
Elizabeth Peavey blinks on and off here monthly.