The holiday commercials and Hallmark movies have started. You know the ones: loving couples presenting each other expensive cars in snowy driveways, smiling families in matching jammies caroling around exquisitely trimmed spruce trees, tykes in designer ensembles waxing adorably poetic on Santa’s lap, true love finding its way to the nearest perfect size two blonde with blindingly white teeth. You can practically smell the peppermint infused cocoa wafting out of your flat screen.
You know what, though? For a lot of us, Christmas doesn’t look anything like a made-for-TV movie or an Instagram post. For a lot of us, Christmas is just one more traumatic day of disappointment or painful memories. My holidays now are awesome and full of love. But it was not always so.
From the outside my early childhood must have seemed picture-perfect—cute suburban house, late-model car, accountant dad and homemaker mom. All of us handsome, all of us dressed in pretty clothes, living in the cute, newly furnished abode of the young married.
My early years were punctuated by childish giggles and my father’s big belly laugh. I know this not because I remember it, but because I have seen photos of myself with my parents and the first of my two younger brothers:
sitting atop my young father’s shoulders wearing only a diaper as he reclined on our couch;
diving into my first birthday cake, hands first, head topped with pointy cardboard hat;
playing in the surf on Charleston, South Carolina beaches;
cuddling with my brother, Lance, on the couch;
tossing a ball with my mom;
riding our shared Big Wheel;
playing with a puppy in our little apartment on Christmas morning.
These are the little moments that make up our stories, aren’t they?
Their sounds still live in my memory: splashes and giggles, the crunch of big plastic wheels on grey pavement, puppy yelps…
I was fortunate that in my earliest, toddler and pre-school days, I lived in a healthy and loving family. My mother and father fell in love while attending college in Lubbock, Texas. Having grown up in families that were well-loved and respected in the windy, dusty, conservative town, they had met at the Church of Christ Bible Chair, an inexplicable name for a building near Texas Tech University, where students met to eat snacks, play games, study the scripture, and find spouses.
When I was young, I spent hours laying on my tummy on our den’s gold shag carpet, poring over each and every page in my parents’ wedding photo album. I especially loved the picture in which my mom looked contemplative as she held her prayer-posed hands under her chin, a slit cut in her white kid gloves, made so that the ring could be put on her finger, clearly visible. My dad looked so handsome in his black tux, and I loved a particular photo of him with all his groomsmen, walking with arms linked and big laughing smiles on their faces. My mom had never stored her dress, so I could go into the closet and pull it from the rod and hold it up to my little body, caressing the appliqued roses and rustle-y organza.
She was beautiful; with big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out who grew even more beautiful in the first years of marriage and motherhood. She had that glow that happy women have.
The only boy among four sisters, my father had served in the United States Navy, which was a matter of immeasurable pride to those very sisters, and rightly so. Dad marched in the band at Texas Tech and graduated with an accounting degree just three months before wedding my mother.
So much joy, so much promise.
Recently, while sorting through boxes of keepsakes in my attic, I found two letters that must have been kept in my grandfather’s belongings, letters that I don’t recall ever having seen. In the first of these letters, written by my mom to her family just two weeks after her nuptials, she tells of all the small joys and travails of a newlywed couple: an apartment without air conditioning, burning her fingers while learning to cook, her fear of ironing my dad’s white work shirts, so sure she would scorch them. In the second letter, the one that cracked through every defensive wall I ever erected, she writes home to tell her family what young motherhood was like. There was such joy in her description of my eating preferences (apparently, I loved green beans) and my irritation with a particular orange bird that swung above my head on my crib mobile. She told of my sleeping habits and my quiet nature. The letter was full of hope, she was brimming with love for her husband, for me, and for the life she was starting.
I know very little about their courtship. By the time I was old enough to hear stories of drive-in movies and malt shop jukeboxes playing Elvis songs, our little family had started to unravel. Laughter was becoming less and less present, replaced by yelling and stony silence. Something changed for my mom. In her mid-twenties, depression and mental illness intervened. Opioid addiction got its hooks into her as she attempted to cope with her demons.
Mom diligently built a network of doctors and dentists from the various suburbs all over DFW. I spent many hours with my little brothers in the back seat of the Pontiac as we visited doctor after doctor, left to mind ourselves in waiting rooms while my mom wove stories of pain both real and imagined so that she could get a hookup with meds. When a doctor cut her off, she found a new one. Back in the 1970s, doctors didn’t seem to be as aware of the substance abuse problem, and it took them a lot longer to realize what was happening, so for years she swallowed these pills, with no one the wiser.
My mom on hydrocodone was not a pleasant woman. She had three basic modes: slurred sloth, benign narcissist, and raging monster. Most of the time she was in that middle place. She could not help us to get ready for school, she could not fix breakfast, she could not do laundry, she could not wash dishes, she could not she could not she could not. I learned to live with this mom, she neglected but she didn’t hurt. I figured out how to make delicacies like Frito pie and tuna casserole, I could open and warm a can of green beans. I made Kool-Aid by the bucket in a blue plastic pitcher, I got my dad to show me how to work the washing machine. I checked in on my brothers at school. I was no mother, but I did my best. And I brought my imperfect best to the raising of my own children and the creation of our own precious and joyous festivities.
It’s hard, at holiday time, for me to wax nostalgic about my childhood. The earliest Christmases were all they should have been, I know, but they simply deteriorated as Mom did. So I didn’t bring beloved traditions with me as I raised my own family, I don’t have treasured family keepsakes to decorate my mantel or hang on my tree. Just yesterday, while unpacking all my decorations, I broke a bell saved from my eighth-grade year, a little caroler that had come in a box my choir teacher checked out for me to sell as a school fundraiser. I had two bells left that I couldn’t sell. This was one of them, the only remnants of my own childhood Christmas decorations. My husband held me as I processed, unable even to cry as I said goodbye to a tschotke that held such conflicted significance for me.
With a lot of love and grace, I healed. Now, I look forward to the holidays. But I know it’s sad sometimes, for me. And for others. Take a moment to slow down, see those around you. Notice melancholy. Clasp a hand. Say a blessing. Lend an ear. Withhold judgement. Share a meal. That’s how we can make it truly the “most wonderful time of the year.” Love to all.