Ghosts of Christmas Past

Ghosts of Christmas Past

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Christmas was her most favorite thing in the entire world. She owned it. She reveled in it. Christmas was a glorious celebration of things she loved most in life—children and gifts. Gift giving was her love language. There are few people in the world as materially generous as she was. She had grown up poor during the Depression, with an alcoholic father, her mother dying when she was just twelve. Painfully, she recalled the single dress she wore to school, day in and day out, the bags of goods handed out, or brought to their home, marking them the poor family on the block. There were other poor children, lots of them in fact, but that didn’t matter. She was still ashamed. When she had money later in life, when Poppie was retired and their house paid for, they could do anything they wanted, and so they did it. Part of what she wanted was to bring joy through giving. Boy, did she do it.

It varied from $5-$20 here and there, candies, treats, spontaneous dinners out any old time… to $1,000 for a friend who had a medical bill come due, $100 tucked into anonymous Christmas cards for our friends who had no idea where they came from or who the giver could be, grocery shopping sprees for my then-boyfriend (who would become Husband), and vacations by boat and by plane to faraway lands with her two loves—Sister and me.

But like I said, Christmas was her most favorite thing in the entire world.

For years, decades, since before I was born, Christmas Eve was celebrated at her house at a big party for friends and family. Aggie, her oldest sister, and Aggie’s husband Unc, Gloria, a dear friend and neighbor, Auntie Geri, a best friend and relative of Poppie…and so many relatives besides. All are dead now, and she was the last. The ghosts of Christmas Past.

Her tree often went up December first. We helped her decorate, of course. Every kind of beautiful glass ornament shone from the artificial tree that almost touched the ceiling with it’s pointed glass gold topper, the bottom branches laden with her handmade ornaments. She’d made them over the years, full of beads, lace, sequins, and every color of the rainbow, each a little treasure. Beneath the tree was a village, every little house and shop lighted, a mirror for a skating pond, miniature Christmas trees and white fluff for snow completing a scene I wanted to shrink down into and live in. An army of nutcrackers of every shape and size stood sentinel atop the hi-fi cabinet near the ceiling. Bringing them up from the garage each year was like greeting old friends. The cavalry of rocking horses, also of all shapes and sizes, surmounted the mantle, no less than fifty Christmas cards tucked behind them from every friend, relative and acquaintance she stayed in touch with by mail.

And after December first, there were so many other things to do each year that marked the coming of The Best Holiday Ever. One afternoon was always reserved for making gingerbread boys, which we would decorate with multi-colored powered sugar icing, and every kind of candy sprinkle imaginable. One evening was slated for visiting Auntie Marcie’s Christmas Bazaar—a craft sale held in the basement of her cousin’s San Bruno home as a church benefit, amid a bustling party. We loved this sale, because everything was handmade and charming, and affordable for children who needed to spend their allowance money to buy their family gifts. Alongside my parents she would sit in the school auditorium as we sang in the annual Christmas pageant. These events, and many more besides, were sacramental in their ritual and sacredness—to her, they made the season bright, and through them she made it bright for us.

Food was always a highlight of the Christmas Eve party. The dining room table was moved aside, pushed against the front windows to become a buffet table. As the food was warming in the oven and on the stove and in the toaster oven (no microwave in her house), the Christmas dishes were laid out—serving platters, tiered cookie trays, dinner plates (purposely mismatched), appetizer plates (also mismatched), and serving utensils all lovingly collected over decades, all Christmas themed. Everyone got a different Christmas plate, but she always took the one Spode with the Christmas tree on it.

The coffee table held the mini hot dogs, and the butterfly-shaped dish with mustard and ketchup in the wings, a shot glass of toothpicks and a stack of cocktail napkins handy. The dining room table held the feast. Two kinds of stuffed shells (chicken with white sauce, spinach with red), pizza squares, teriyaki chicken wings, “Swedish” meatballs (really Italian), macaroni salad, Italian cold cuts, deviled eggs, homemade baklava, little finger sandwiches, smoked salmon, and trays of cookies. The butterballs and shortbread were brought by Gloria—dear Gloria, with her booming voice, her perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, her painted fingernails, who always took the corner chair in the living room by the hall next to the hi-fi. She ate pigs feet, and drank whisky, and was Irish and feisty, and loved Sister and I like we were her own grandchildren, but really we were no relation except of dearest friendship. She loved watermelon candy. In the run up to Christmas, I’d go with Gram to the Sweet Factory at the mall and fill blue-striped cellophane bags full of all their watermelon flavors to give to Gloria Christmas Eve. She was generous, and always shared with me.

All the many presents Sister and I got from Grandma and Poppie, and from everyone else except Santa, were opened Christmas Eve. Toys and clothes, books, cards with checks inside…all the generosity and love that marks the season overflowed in the living room, where everyone sat on the claw-footed sofa, love seat, chairs lined up around the edges with TV trays open before them and Burl Ives or Andy Williams crooning from the record player. She was Swedish, she always said, and the Swedes always did Christmas on Christmas Eve. She wasn’t wrong. Her father, such as he was, was from Stockholm. They had always done presents on Christmas Eve. It was just what she knew and loved.

Sister and I wore our Christmas dresses, usually matching, with white stockings and mary janes. Grandma wore her festive trousers—our favorite ones, black with multi-colored polka dots—and held a highball of brandy and ginger ale clinking in a lowball glass. Poppie sat in the chair on the other side of the hi-fi from Gloria, an uncharacteristic beer in a tall pilsner glass propped on the Infinity speaker (vodka and soda would follow), his cheeks immaculately smooth, white moustache trimmed ever-so-neatly, smelling of original Old Spice and soap.

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I can hear these ghosts now. I can smell them and taste them. I can feel their hands on my cheeks, see the joy on their faces, feel the warmth of their hugs. And I absolutely cannot fathom that they are dead and gone, and that this Christmas—a relaxing, loving, delightful Christmas—was the first in what will be a lifetime of Christmases without her. Without them. Without any of them. With all of it totally dead and gone.

In the months after her passing, I realized just how easy it would be to develop a real kind of psychosis. If I just spoke the way she did, said the things she said, made her gestures (all known by heart), I could just become her, and so keep her alive. If I sang her songs, if I told her stories, if I called myself “Fessie,” with an “f,” the way only she did…I could be her, and she wouldn’t have to leave me. Each time that thought occurred to me, I immediately realized “this is how multiple personality disorder happens.” Maybe. In a way, those thoughts were the same kind of everyday intrusives that anyone has– “I could step in front of this B.A.R.T train,” “I could totally just drive off this cliff,” “I could yell ‘bomb’ in a crowded airport,” the kind that for healthy people are immediately followed with “That was a weird thought,” and then dismissed as the fleeting fiction they are. “I could create a second personality so as to keep my dead Grandmother alive,” seems infinitely more complicated, and uncomfortably reminiscent of a Hitchcock movie plot, but, naturally, it too was followed immediately by “No.”

“No. That’s not how we keep our loved ones alive.”

“I know. But I could…”

“No. You couldn’t. Everything you’d be trying to hold on to is already gone.”

“I know.”

And I do know. I know that the way I keep them alive is by reliving their memories, and sharing them. Right now, they hurt so much. They hurt so much that over Christmas I tried really hard not to think about them at all. And I did great! Until two days ago, when the dam failed again and I apologized to Husband through spontaneous sobs that came unbidden as we were falling asleep. I think he’s learning that the tears aren’t the hurt, they are the healing. I’m learning this too.

I’m learning. I’m remembering. I’m holding on.

 

 

 

 

Funeral Blues

Funeral Blues

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Grief is a specter that follows you, tied to you like a shadow. Depending on the day, you might not notice it at all, or you might be cast beneath its gloom to gaze at everything as through murky water– an altered reality, painful and horrible in its ugliness and its vast mystery.

Yesterday was a bad day. It has been five months and nine days since I last saw her, hugged her (twice), kissed her, heard her “I love you.”

I used to wail. I used to shriek. There were weeks when all I did was stumble through the door before collapsing onto the sofa or the bed, to weep for hours, often gasping and moaning more than crying, the strange sensation of the vagus nerve– the nerve that runs up near the heart– strummed expertly by grief, creating a horrible heartbreak in my chest. The pain, physical pain…if I wasn’t mourning a monumental loss, I would have thought nothing but a heart attack could create such pain. There were nights that I clutched her pink sweater (still smelling of her soap and hairspray), plucked from the hook on her bathroom door the day I kissed a cool, still cheek that didn’t know me anymore, tears streaming into it until I awoke the next morning, puffy-eyed, not knowing when I slipped into sleep.

Sometimes I am Hoover Dam, holding back an ocean for the sake of those who love me. Because you can’t really live with a sobbing person. Not for months on end. But Husband is good and kind, and does all he can to help. And I don’t sob that much anymore.

But yesterday was a bad day. A day in a span of weeks that feels like a regression. Lots of things caused it, but they don’t matter. I couldn’t hold back the dam. For the first time in months, I cried myself to sleep.

Sometimes you just have to acknowledge the bad days.

Amid the quiet tears that streamed down my cheeks, settling into my ears while I laid on my back in the darkness, my favorite poem about loss found its way to the forefront of my mind. I’m sharing it with you, in the hopes that when you need it, you will have it to provide the meagre comfort of knowing that someone else too, felt like this.

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with the juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and, with muffled drum,
Bring out the coffin. Let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message: “He is dead!”
Put crepe bows around the white necks of the public doves.
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my north, my south, my east and west,
My working week and Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can come to any good.

W. H. Auden

 

Pool of Grief

Pool of Grief

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I’ve always thought of grief as a pool. Not a swimming pool, but a large body of water, dark and cold and full things mysterious, lake-like. Each of us will someday drink from the pool that is grief— interact with this mysterious, uncomfortable, yet inevitable entity that laps at our heels our whole life long.

When you think about it, you can observe the different ways that people do this, and the circumstances unique to each individual that make their time at the pool their own. Some people stand in the shallows for a while, confusedly, finding their way out with little struggle. Some people wade into deep water, tragically, and begin to drown. Some people sit on the shore, sipping grief as from a chalice, little bits, its bitterness measured carefully by a benevolent hand. Some wade into the pool of grief and never come out.

When she died, a very specific image came into my mind in my most emotionally exhausted moments that I yearned for, almost physically. I imagined, as I lay in the stillness that came after hours of tears, my face red and swollen, refusing to believe that my waking reality was indeed real…I reflected that I wanted to fall into a deep pool of cold water and sink to the bottom.

This image came to me many times. Enough that I shared it with a supportive friend. To be specific, I didn’t want to die— it wasn’t manifested thoughts of suicide. It was, strangely enough, an image that described what I already felt was happening to me interiorly. I already felt that I was in this deep, still, cold pool, sinking with closed eyes to rest on the bottom for a while. Perhaps for a hibernation? I’m still not sure. I always knew I would come up for air eventually…but not right away. The image appeared again and again, as I lay motionless, tear-tracks streaked from eyes to ears, staring at my popcorn ceiling.

I imagined my time at the pool would be so different before her death. It’s so easy to try to prepare oneself, to develop expectations for one’s experience. None of the things I believed I would feel, things I expected and even took for granted, came to be. I wrestled with the shock of that dissonance for months— the grating of expectations on reality. Eventually I realized I was less in control of my experience at the pool than I planned, and I learned to accept it.

I had planed something beautiful. Sad, yes. But not so sad as to lack faith, to lack all the things I knew and believed to be true about the afterlife. My pool originally contained floatation devices. It wasn’t deep, it was shallow. Something I would wade into and splash around in, in safety, until it was time to get out.

This linear concept of the grief experience influenced my shock, when my time at the pool actually came. There’s so much more dipping in and out than I thought there would be— wonderful moments all the time where the ache doesn’t find me, then at the recollection of just one memory, one song, one idiom, one image, I am pushed roughly as from a great hight into deep water to wrestle my way out, gasping from the pain and shock that the pool is even still there! Still so cold, and still so huge, and still present in my life. The time will come, I know, when I will have wandered away from it…far enough away that maybe only intentional journeys through memories will find me standing at its shore. In the meantime, I am learning to swim. I am learning to navigate its waves. I am becoming comfortable that I am not alone in this place, but that every one of us turns up here eventually, and I’m blessed with many lifelines to pull me back if I forget.