At the end of the first week of December, D. hauls in the boxes of Christmas decorations from the garage and sets them on the living room floor, amidst the toys O. has scattered in every direction. From upstairs, where I’m getting O. ready to nap, I hear the familiar jingle of a wreath of bells, the rustling of artificial greenery, the whisper of tissue coming off carefully wrapped baubles for the tree. O. doesn’t know these sounds yet. He gazes at me, placid and sleep-ready, hardly registering the activity in his customary play area below.
In past years, our halls were, at best, hastily decked ahead of the twenty-fifth. Gift runs were last-minute, and plans for festive meals got pared down because it was just the two of us — why roast a whole turkey, we said, when we’re about to leave for a week-long family visit? We were still in some ways our parents’ children, returning to their homes for the real observance of the holiday.
But this will be our first Christmas as a family of three, a family of our own. And even though O. won’t remember anything of the event at ten months, I sense D. and I both feel there’s more at stake in feting it properly before we join the celebration at my parents’ place.
For starters, we’ve bought a bigger tree, whose parts D. is inspecting when I join him after O. is settled in his crib. I can tell he’s excited — he’s wanted to have something more generous than our skinny six-footer for ages, and this fluffy spruce promises to fit the bill. “Christmas-y enough?” I ask with amusement as he wrestles top and bottom together.
“Absolutely. But how about you?” he asks. “What would make the house feel Christmas-y for you?”
I consider the question as I tackle the garlands D.’s set aside for our banisters. We already have holiday songs playing softly, many from an album of favorites I’d found for us when we were married seven years ago. My mother used to play the same collection — on vinyl, rather than digital file — while my sisters and I helped her decorate. As I bend and wrap, bend and wrap, coaxing fat lengths of prickly fir around a stair railing, the memory of my mother doing the same in our old house rises with the strains of Bing Crosby.
To my surprise, I don’t have a ready answer for D. There’s something needling me, and it’s not the fake bristles that have come off on my sweater sleeves. It’s a sadness that shouldn’t have a place in D.’s invitation to create seasonal joy. Or so I stubbornly tell myself. That is what our efforts are about, right? Joy — ours to seize, ours to share, with the delights of a first child’s first experience of it all to cherish too.
I wonder why, in spite of so much happy, our plans feel flat. What’s missing? Should we make Christmas cookies, the tree-shaped ones I used to love pressing M&Ms into as a kid? Should we take some to the family next door? I start to suggest these options but stop myself mid-sentence. Somehow I know they won’t change my mood, despite my fond memories of rolling buttery dough in my mother’s kitchen.
My mother too, I imagine, is going about her own preparations now for our post-Christmas visit. I hear the brisk slap of her house slippers as she carries armloads of craft-store trappings from room to room. She’s talking to herself, sighing over bows that need pressing, noting the dust on the fireplace mantel, remembering the extra powdered sugar she’s forgotten to pick up from the supermarket. The closer the holiday comes, the more stressed she grows. “I hate going near the grocery store right now,” she’ll say when I check in with her on the phone. In spite of her complaints, though, I know she’ll make the trip for whatever she thinks she needs because it’s part of the traditions she’s built single-handedly over three decades of motherhood. The music, the garlands, the goodies she reserves to make at this time of year for the neighbors — all of these have come to embody what is Christmas-y for her and, by extension, for me.
To duplicate that without my mother’s presence, I realize, is impossible.
Still, I add red and gold ribbon bows to the garlands, just as my mother does. Then I step back, debating their effect. They draw my mother near in memory, and yet they make me ever more aware of her physical absence. Of how I’m grasping for pieces of my mother’s version of the holiday because it’s what represents the comfort of the season for me. Of the contradiction in wanting to capture that comfort, which only grows more elusive the harder I try to make it mine. Traditions take time to build. In a few years, we’ll have our own favorite rituals and activities, but until then, the realm of possibility stretches so vast. It’s this emptiness, I imagine, that’s weighing on me. And the impulse to fill it with what I know.
If D. senses I’m feeling lost, he doesn’t say so. But he offers to help me tuck lights around my handiwork — the final touch my mother usually adds. I let him take over.
Not long after he’s finished, O. stirs. There’s the sound of soft babble, followed by a series of thumps. I find O. sitting in his crib, pajama-clad feet sticking through the bars he’s whacking with his little hands. He flashes an enormous grin as I come into view, and the sweetness of that recognition pushes aside any other thoughts. “Hi there, little man,” I say. He reaches to be picked up.
“Come,” I say, carrying him into the hall. He looks at me gamely though he doesn’t understand. And then his gaze settles on the stairs, the tree, the lights below. Though I haven’t yet traced his line of sight, I can see the glow of our work reflected in his eyes.
I watch O.’s expression, expecting a smile or at least some indicator of his usual happy curiosity. After all, this is what I’ve been hoping for, in spite of the homesickness the last hour has wrought in me. But he observes with uncertainty, lips pressed tight, brows furrowed with concentration — something’s different about that space, his space. It is, I’ve forgotten, a room he’s also used to laying claim to. And now I’ve made it anything but familiar in my quest for comfort and joy.
O. looks to me as if to ask, is this okay?
I laugh and cuddle him close. “We’ll figure it out together,” I whisper, trying to reassure us both.
© C. Troubadour
C. Troubadour writes under a pseudonym at This Ro(a)mantic Life, a blog about putting a foot down in an ever-shifting existence as wife, daughter, essayist, and mother. She is a former teacher and editor who now makes her home in Seattle.
Part 4 in a series on mother-daughter relationships.
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