We used to make a big deal out of Christmas. Ours was always the largest tree on the block and on Christmas Eve we’d invite the whole neighborhood over. The outside of the house would be covered in lights and the inside with tinsel and fresh cut cedar boughs.
We live near a golf course and Mom would go there at night with Billy, me, a toboggan and a pair of clippers. She’d cut branches off the cedars that line the course and I’d pile them on and around Billy, who stayed on the toboggan. He’d do his best to hold onto them. Mom loved the smell; she’d sniff the end of each one after she cut it. Dad used to play the course, so he pretended that he didn’t approve, but he’d always tell Mom which trees needed trimming if she insisted on cutting them.
Everyone was at our Christmas parties. Not just people from the neighborhood but people from my parents’ work and my school friends too—back when I had friends. Mom would play the piano and sing Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Song for a Winter’s Night.’ I’d tell her she was awful and that it was embarrassing. She’d tell me not to take things so seriously and to stop worrying about what other people thought.
Then she’d convince Dad to sing a duet of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside.’ I’d always make it clear to my friends just how mortifying I found it.
Mom loved to laugh and have a good time. Entertaining was her thing. She and my dad would do a dramatic reading of ‘Twas the night before Christmas,’ acting out the different parts—complete with wardrobe and props—grabbing some unsuspecting person out of the crowd to spin around with at the ‘turned with a jerk’ part.
It was the very definition of corny, but all the younger kids and the adults—with the help of a little rum and eggnog—loved it. My friends and I would watch from the sidelines, making sure always to be laughing at, and never with, them.
On Christmas morning, Mom would be up before any of us, even Billy. Dean Martin’s ‘Silver Bells’ blasting from the stereo would awaken the rest of us. She’d spray fake snow everywhere as we came down the stairs and then we’d rip open the mound of presents. At least, I think that was us. I remember it all right, but not to touch, not to feel, just to watch like an old film. Last Christmas—now that I can still feel with painful clarity.
There was no party, there were no lights outside or cedar inside—only a touch of tinsel and a sad little tree for a sorry little Christmas. We all had to wait for Mom to wake up and for Dad to help her down the stairs to the chair by the fire. He wrapped her in a blanket, put a scarf around her neck and turned up the gas fireplace. He then straightened the knitted, pale yellow toque she’d been wearing since she lost her hair. After that he went into the kitchen, made her a cup of tea and handed it to her gingerly.
“Are you comfortable?” he asked her for the thousandth time.
“Yes, I’m fine. Just open your presents.”
“You’re sure?” he asked again.
“She’s fine! Now can we get on with it?” I answered for her. Dad gave me a dirty look but he didn’t say anything.
I vividly remember Mom’s frailty and how not even the fire’s reflection could give her face any colour. I remember Dad’s patience and gentleness, Billy’s enthusiasm, my anger. I watched all of it with a great fury and I let that fury be known for the rest of the day. Why shouldn’t I have been angry? I had lost my Christmas.
I got to be in the school’s Christmas pageant, but I was the only one there without a parent. Dad arranged for me to get a ride with the neighbours and their kid, Martha.
Martha stuck to me all night like a bad smell—literally—and in doing so ensured the complete destruction of what remained of my social standing.
The thing about Martha, besides her “top student” marks, and her random, loud, snorting laugh, is that she will occasionally stick her hand down the back of her skirt, pull it out and sniff it. She did it that night, on stage!
My perfect evening was complete when, on the way to the car, Martha grabbed my hand with the hand—Merry Christmas!