Got to Miami. Got sick. Got home. I’m going with gastroenteritis. Sicker than I’ve ever been since I was pregnant with Christopher (in bed for 3 months, housebound for 3 more), but at least then I knew why. Anyway. I’m behind on work and still not 100% and the only one happy for so much bed time is Maggie. I’ve been catching up on all the comments, and you’re all insane. Then again, leaving Roz as bandleader had to end badly. I knew that.
This column is from I think 2004. I’m too lazy to doublecheck, so we’ll go with that. More later…I’m going back to bed.
I have ghosts at my holiday table.
I’m not the only one, far from it. But the festivities of this time of year drown out the quiet sadness so many of us live with. Tradition is just another word for remember, and that bittersweet pill doesn’t go down without some persuasion.
I’ve unfolded the fake Christmas tree that used to make my dad so nutty. The only tree was a real one to him, and my memory is scarred with the endless trips to prove it. We’d pile in the station wagon and drive an hour to a farm. Once there, my father would wear a bow saw over one shoulder, and an axe over the other. As we stood admiring the perfectly good trees on the edge of the farm, he would resolutely lead the way, convinced our tree was hiding deep in the bowels of the forest.
After twenty minutes, my sisters and I would be frozen, our mother helping to haul us through snow up to our thighs. And on he would march.
At last he’d stop, admiring a tree that looked no different than the others. We’d watch as he chopped it with precision, making it his own. A professor of mine used to call it ‘killing a tree for Christ’.
After the endless walk back to the car, he’d tie it down while my mother massaged feeling back into our cold blue toes. And every year, it would be too big for the house. Dad would saw it from the bottom, then give up and clip it from the top. I only ever remember our blue felt angel peering out of a cage of pine branches, her head bent against the ceiling.
My father would haul out the tree lights. Those Wise Men brought gold, frankincense, myrrh, and my father’s Christmas tree lights. In those days, you had to clip them to each branch, and then put in the bulbs. They would never light up, and we’d spend an hour testing bulbs as needles stabbed at our hands, hands covered in sap as strong as superglue.
When I moved out, my dad gave me those lights. I tried to use them one year, and after ten minutes had to unplug them with an oven mitt. I said a silent thank you that we weren’t all dead.
My father had an unerring eye for Christmas trees; they all looked like Charlie Brown’s. We’d have to hang the preschool treasures in the largest gaps, because everyone knows the smallest kids make the biggest ornaments. Mom would carefully hang her special ones up high, the ones that had made the trip from England. I still do this, as the kids beg for the same stories I heard every year.
My mom knitted everyone personalized stockings one year, so that everyone in the family had their own. As the grandbabies arrived, she’d get knitting again, keeping the set complete.
When Mom knew she was sick for the last time, my sister Gilly was pregnant. Somehow, mom got the stocking made even though it was February, and everything was grey. She fretted about not knowing what name to put on it, and we told her not to worry. She’d have time.
My nephew was born the week after mom died. They never met, but I believe they know each other anyway. Love can leap a universe.
We put the name on for her.
Seeing these stockings crushes me, and yet I wouldn’t dream of not putting them up. I still feel guilty putting up a fake tree. I cry at the first poinsettia I see, because it was my job to buy one for mom. That’s me every year, all teary eyed in the dairy section in front of the eggnog, because I can’t bring dad his annual carton of the noxious stuff.
Tread gently at this time of year. Death, divorce, geography and circumstance separates too many of us from people we love. So many of us are carrying our hearts in both hands, terrified of stumbling as we try to go forward.
I will light the familiar candles for dinner on Christmas day. I will make the same turkey, the same beans, squash and potatoes. I will do it for my children.
But I will also do it for the ghosts at my table.