In my life I’ve celebrated ten Christmases with my mother.The first couple I don’t recall. And the last two were very difficult. Mam was in hospital for my ninth Christmas. She wasn’t well enough to come home. Dad took my brother and I to visit her and we sat around the hospital bed thinking this was not how Christmas was supposed to be. For my tenth Christmas Mam was at home but both she and I were ill. In hindsight I’m certain that I was terribly anxious about the situation (Mam’s cancer) and my body was buckling under the stress. I spent all of Christmas (days of celebrations in Ireland) and my birthday, which is on January 3rd, in bed sick. Mammy returned to hospital on January 4th, and died at home with us on March 2nd, 1988, when I was eleven.
The Christmases with Mam that I do remember are filled with happy memories. It was a time for close family to be together; playing with toys, reading books, going to mass, sitting by an open fire, preparing, sharing and eating delicious home cooked meals, drinking tea, sharing stories and watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory together. My small family consisted of Dad, Mam, my older brother and me. We all loved Christmas. The carol singing, the tree decorating, the lights, the cosy fire, the warmth of family, the good food and the joy of giving and receiving.
The Christmas when I was nine and Mam had to remain in hospital was confusing and sad. I understood for years that Mam was battling an illness. But that she couldn’t be home with us on the most special day of the year (it was that to me) was hard to take. My dad did his best to keep Christmas morning as normal as possible. I got my Cabbage Patch Kid beneath the tree, we visited Granny and my aunt in the morning and we went to mass. But of course it didn’t feel the same without Mam. Something was very wrong and life was showing us at an early age that we couldn’t always have what we wanted. Even when all we wanted was our mother home with us on Christmas Day.
After the hospital visit with Mam, my dad took us on a drive to a small lake. We stepped out of the car, wrapped up in our winter clothes and a beautiful swan floated gracefully before us on the water. For a few minutes at that lake all I could focus on was the beauty of the swan before me. I held my dad’s hand and stared. I remember that moment. There was beauty in it. My dad remembers it too.
The Christmases that followed Mam’s death were hard but they got easier. She was, and still is, always, missed. We kept some of the same Christmas rituals. We place the tree in the spot where Mam liked it in our living room. The majority of our Christmas decorations are a collection that Mam and Dad gathered together, some so old they are beginning to fall apart, several in as good a shape as they were twenty years ago; vintage and unique. We go to Christmas Eve mass as a family, though I get away with skipping Christmas Day mass now (staying in bed is more appealing!) We place gifts beneath the tree and open them as a family in front of Dad’s beautiful fire. My brother and I still hang our Christmas stockings on either side of the fireplace as was the case when Mam first got them for us, our names in red velvet lettering across the tops of each.
After Mam died we started going to my aunt’s house for dinner. Christmas Day became a different kind of day but it is still one that I love. If I were to list the reasons I love Christmas my list would include: time with family, messages from friends, decorated tree, warm fire, time for rest, delicious food, conversation, gift giving and receiving, Christmas songs & choirs, candles lighting, time to read and lots of hot tea. Time. Time to be still.
I credit my dad for the smooth transition. No doubt there was terrible sorrow and disbelief at losing the mother we loved so much, my dad losing his beloved wife. But Dad remained strong and he held us all up. He worked hard to create a nice memorial place for Mam, her grave colorful with freshly planted flowers and free of weeds. I never felt close to Mam at her grave. It never felt right that the cold earth separated her from us, though I can appreciate the beauty of the fresh flowers and the nice headstone where her name is engraved. We visit it every Christmas Eve after mass. Dad was always able and willing to talk about Mam to me. In my earlier days I didn’t talk about her too much because I didn’t want to upset anybody. Outside of our immediate family Mam wasn’t discussed often. But Dad spoke about her. She was and is, always remembered in our little family.
“…when people stop mentioning the dead person’s name to you, the silence can seem worse than the pain of hearing those familiar, beloved syllables.” Meghan O’Rourke
This Christmas I think I’ll light a candle in Mam’s honor. We did this on my wedding day last September and it was a beautiful thing, to have a light shining in her memory, with flower’s from my dad’s garden in a little jug (her jug), beside us as my husband and I said our vows.
I think about the people who don’t like Christmas, who feel they have nothing to celebrate, who feel lost and lonely, hurt and afraid. Christmas can be a terribly hard time for people. I think back to my little self, a small nine year old, holding hands with my dad as we took in the beauty of the swan before us while my mother lay suffering in the hospital on Christmas day. I worry for my ten year old self, sick in bed on my mother’s last ever Christmas with us. My poor mother. I consider my father. My brother. The pain that so many go through, in different ways, at different times. I’m one of the fortunate ones. The light came through. Mam lives on inside of me. I write about her and it helps. Poetry and the written word speak volumes and I always find a quote that resonates. Let’s look for the beauty where we can. And if we cannot do it this Christmas, maybe another day.