In 1980 I was 13 and, for the first time, shopped for Christmas presents on my own, with my own money saved from babysitting. I can still see the images of the busy street late one December afternoon, shortly after John Lennon was shot. I felt the heaviness and significance of his murder despite not yet having discovered the Beatles in any meaningful way. I knew a song or two but did not understand how legendary Lennon was and had never heard of The White Album or Abbey Road. It was the first time I heard the powerful lyrics of “Imagine” which was playing in every store I entered and I can still hear the words in my head as I walked from Woolworth’s to the stationery store to a few more little shops on that blustery cold afternoon in search of gifts.
What does not stand out to me as much, thankfully, is the heaviness I often felt during the holidays, particularly that year with the bittersweet freedom of shopping on my own darkened by the reality that I really had no one to buy for. Christmas in 1980 was just going to be me and my mom and, frankly, we didn’t even really celebrate. My mother was Jewish (lapsed, obviously, after having married and divorced a Catholic). We didn’t have much money and, even in the best of times there were never any big holiday celebrations. This year would be no different. We might have been seeing my sister and her husband but that would have depended upon whether or not she and my mother were speaking. Likely, it was just Mom and me, sitting alone in our house with me fantasizing about what Christmas could be.
Christmas, during my childhood, was often lonely. My mother resented Christmas because it was not “her” holiday but she also did not observe her own Jewish holidays so there was no Hannukah celebrations either. Both of my parents were often estranged from their siblings and parents because of conflicts which arose from their unwelcomed marriage and, as a result, we sufffered. When we did actually celebrate the holidays, they felt small and joyless, often ending in conflicts between my parents or my siblings. They were heavy, burdened events. As a result, I felt like an outsider to all those around me who were showered in joyful traditions and family. One of my more memorable Christmases was the year my parents first split up and my dad came to take me and my brother shopping for presents. I was probably around 8 or 9 at the time and was filled with anticipation and excitement at the prospect of going to the toy store and picking out anything I wanted. He came to fetch us in his little blue Mercedes convertible, the car he bought when he left my mother and moved in with his girlfriend. It was the car he parked in our driveway one night in a drunken stupor and sat on the horn screaming obscenities at my mother. I remember the police coming and I remember the frilly nightgown I wore as I stared out the window filled with shame. I hated that car. On the day he came to get us, I knew exactly what I wanted and could hardly believe that my father would agree to such a purchase. But, I suppose a silver lining to divorce was parental guilt on his part and I secured myself the Barbie Town House. It was the most coveted toy of the year and I could not believe my good fortune that I was getting the mack daddy of all Barbie residences. Sure, the beach house was cool but this was the Town House – with an elevator! When we brought home our loot, my mother, who was resentful and angry that our father had chosen to shower us with gifts, took everything from us and prevented us from opening our new toys until Christmas day. It was on that cold, overcast day that I was sent outside to the backyard, suited up in my hand-me-down winter coat that my mother secured from my sister or one of the older girls on the block, where I set up my house on the redwood picnic table and, in gloved hands, assembled the furniture and let my Barbies have the Christmas celebration that was fit for such a dream house.
As I grew older, I loved the idea of buying gifts, wrapping them in beautiful papers with bows and matching name tags. I would buy presents for anyone I could, even if it meant buying a Hello Kitty eraser for one of my friends at school – as long as I could wrap it up in a neat little package and pile it with any other gifts I had assembled. We never had a tree so I kept my gifts on the floor of my closet, usually hidden from my mother who thought such indulgences were unnecessary and wasteful. I would stare at the packages, all beautifully stacked in all their colorful splendor. I dreamt of becoming a gift wrapper at one of the department stores and, the first time I saw “Miracle on 34th Street”, I fantasized about what it would be like to work at a store like Macy’s during the holidays.
Every year, since that stroll down the boulevard in 1980, I dreamt of big festive Christmas celebrations. I longed to have a big, extended family with a tall, proud tree, glimmering with lights and ornaments that took my breath away. I wished for the nonstop arrival of guests, bearing gifts and plates of food and the laughter and storytelling of Christmases past. And every year, especially after my children were born, I tried to make that happen. My husband and I celebrated our first Christmas in NJ in our little apartment, with a little tree but we spent Christmas Eve at his uncle’s house with his big Italian family. They got a live tree every year and would collect it and trim it on Christmas Eve. It was an event filled with tradition and merriment and I loved it. In later years, after we had children, we celebrated here in our home, relishing in the delight of the kids as they prepared on Christmas Eve for the arrival of Santa and awoke with amazement at the abundance of toys Santa managed to squeeze down our narrow little chimney. There has always been a beautiful tree with lights and ornaments that we collected over the years, imprinted with photos and dates and memories of our life as a family.
It all seems so perfect and magical, just as I always imagined it being. But, alas, my baggage is heavy. My memories are dark. My loneliness associated with the holidays is still so vivid that I can taste it, feel it, smell it. So, as we have created traditions for our children over the years, I recognize that I have spent a lot of effort overcompensating and creating manufactured events to make up for the shortcomings of my life before my husband and children. It never occurred to me, even once, that I was inadvertently repurposing the demons that haunted me even though they were not part of my children’s reality. They never had a reason to feel that their holiday celebrations were anything but magical regardless of how many people came to our house, how many presents were found under the tree or whether or not we got dressed up or used fine china for our dinner. Those were issues that mattered only to me and the pain attached to these ideas were rooted squarely in my past and resulted from my lacking.
This year, as we began our planning for the holidays, I talked to my husband and children about all of the possible activities and events. I talked about going out to cut down our tree with a group of friends and shared the various invitations to holiday parties. We discussed who we might want to invite over for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or options for spending the holiday with others away from our home. And, to my shock, both of my children, now aged 9 and 12, said they wanted the holidays to be at home with just the four of us. They did not want any big events. They did not want to go to lots of parties. They wanted us to go together, alone, to find our tree, trim it ourselves and carry out our family traditions together. All I could hear was that we would be alone and all they communicated was that we would be together. For them, our little family of 4 represented peace and comfort and security and love. For me, it had always felt too small, too simple, too alone.
I stopped speaking. I listened to their words and literally felt myself healing. I allowed myself to be buoyed by my children. I indulged in their sense of love and security and borrowed it for myself. For right there in that discussion at our kitchen table my children assured me that they were not me and that their reality was nothing even close to mine. They assured both me and my husband that we had given them the one gift neither of us had been afforded – unconditional love. They were happy. Happy with our little family of four and our quiet traditions of baking, playing games and watching movies together on the couch without the distractions of others who might burst our little bubble. There need not be more tradition, more festivity and more stuff. They required nothing more than Mom and Dad and each other and they released me from my penance of working feverishly to create events to make the holidays special and memorable for my kids. It already was.
Yes, in 2012, the tables began to turn and my kids started to teach me. My kids provided a much-needed reality check that the world does not always exist in the way that I think it does. My kids reminded me, without ever saying the words or even knowing the stories to share, that they did not have to play outside on Christmas day with the new most treasured toy because I was too angry or resentful of my ex-husband to let them play with their new loot inside. My kids shined a light on the fact that they never sat alone in the house on Christmas lonely or bored and never had to stockpile gifts in their closets because there was no tree to place them under. My children never knew anything but a beautiful magical Christmas and, to them, Christmas was wonderful because the four of us were together, regardless of who else showed up, even if we never went anywhere and despite the packages mostly coming from mom and dad. To my children, the most wonderful and precious memories were the ones that included the four of us being together on Christmas morning, opening our gifts, laughing in delight as they screamed and cheered at their acquisition of “THE best present EVER” over and over again.
So, for me, in 2012 I certainly got THE best present EVER. I got the gift of knowing that my children are happy and that their memories of Christmas will be joyful and, hopefully, filled with traditions that they will pass down to their children. Mission accomplished. Amen.