Every year I feel the residue of Christmases of long ago. The feelings of sadness live on from year to year. Yet in the re-telling of a holiday memory, I find something beyond the melancholy. I find a little girl who would never lose hope. Perhaps you too can find that glimmer of light within the darkest of memories. I am not going to wish you to be merry this holiday season. I realize that is beyond the scope of so many of us during this time of year. My wish, instead, is that you may discover a harmony between your past, present, and future. May you find true peace of mind.
It was the Christmas week after I had just turned eleven. I was living with my mother in a row house within the inner city. We had been living there for some years by then, barely scraping by with my mother's widow benefits. The street name ironically was called "Success Street." I don't believe many folk there were too darn successful as crumbled brick, chain link fences, and police sirens in the background would testify.
My mother and I were like most people living on that street, just finding ways to survive. Yet our mission did seem even a little more difficult than most. You see my mother was mentally ill and suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. My mother tried the best she could but more days than not she would fail to get along with the world and would end up retreating to bed.
The Christmas season always seemed to make my mother worse in a lot of ways. I am going to speculate years later that it was because she missed my father who had died from drinking when I was just four. I am inclined to believe that in addition to having schizophrenia that she possibly also had bipolar disorder as well. On high days she would spring out of bed and be singing, usually to some country song on the radio. On low days she could lay in bed for hours and sometimes days, a cigarette dangling from her lips. If I was to survive, it was up to me to gage her moods and act accordingly.
I do remember those days leading up to Christmas that year were such gray days. I was not allowed to go outside or to use the telephone. My only company was my animals. I had some hamsters, a couple of dogs and a couple of cats. They were my only friends back then. There is no kindly grandmother or gentle neighbor in my story. It was just me alone. In order to hear a human voice, I would put the television on and leave it on as a calming hum. The radio also provided solace and when those two would not suffice, I would sing. We had an attic in that house which became my refuge. There were books and toys and old clothes up there. That year I found some Christmas carol books and I made much time with those. There is such clarity to one's voice when you know it won't be heard by anyone but yourself. I would sing until weary and crumple up like some unfolded laundry, and take a nap.
My mother was gradually deteriorating. It was like she was spellbound by demons or ghosts that she could only see. There came a day when she refused to get out of bed despite my tears of protest. I pleaded, "What about Christmas?" That was the year I had wanted her to buy me a tape recorder. I wanted to sing to my songs and hear them that way. It was really all that I had wanted. There were more holidays like that one than I care to remember. I remember dressing up one year for Halloween and trick or treating, my hopeful steps towards the door, only to be told that it was too dangerous out there. She believed that evil followed us everywhere.
When my tears dried, I watched her in silence. Her eyes were pulled upward and she muttered incoherent things to herself. The cigarette butt she was smoking blazed in the semi-darkness. We were both huddled in one room of the house that year. The house we lived in had no real heating system except for electric space heaters. We were down to one that worked. The air was so cold that you could see your breath. I walked around shepard like with blankets draped over my shoulders. There was no heat and there was also the matter of no food. She refused to get up and she also refused to let me out. No matter as we had no money near the end of the month. I remember the hunger beginning as insistent bangs and rumbles of protest but then surprisingly it became more of a dull ache. I remember going to our pantry and finding an onion. I peeled off the dry outer layers and ate it like a peach.
As time slowly evolved over those days and hours I began to lose hope for any sort of Christmas. But then a part of me who didn't want to ever give up, decided that I would create my own celebration.
I found the artificial tree we had stored in the basement. I lifted the pieces out limb by limb and made many trips to our bedroom. There I built it in the corner of the room. The branches were all contorted from box living and so I gently bent them into shape. The lights were next and when lit, the reflections of green and red danced around the room. The box of ornaments was next but rather sparse so I added some of my own creation, paper cut stars and construction paper chains. I was lost in my work, forgetting all else, I had found a bit of refuge in a Christmas tree.
One of the dogs took delight in the tree as well and pooped under the tree. We were living as animals, all of us. Cleaning up after my friend, I then thought about presents.
I found an old bag of rags and worn clothing. It was then I came up with the idea to make some gifts for my mother. I cut the cloth carefully to make shapes. Two circles and four squares became a stuffed turtle. My attempts at a bear were more pathetic than not, yet it was recognizable as some sort of living creature. I believe I created several animals before I set about to wrapping. No wrapping paper on hand, I used old newspaper, the funny pages. I put the presents under the tree and stood back to survey my work. It looked so beautiful as though everything in the world was right. Looking at my tree made me believe that Christmas was always possible no matter what.
My mother was in bed sleeping, unaware of what I had done. I have never asked her about that Christmas, if she ever remembered anything. It seems cruel and unfair to question. But I remember it. I remember the moon peeking into the bedroom window and the warmth of colored lights and my small breaths visible and silent. Within that silence was a little girl's hope.
I have come to the end of this story and the obvious rings true now. My ending is a surprise even to me.
There was also love.
Love is that one thing which remains after all the holidays come and go. It lies in wait like that one unopened present, the one you left in the attic years ago.
Published On: December 25, 2008