My mother doesn’t cry. No tears of joy or sadness. Okay, sometimes her eyes leak when she’s laughing really hard, and we see that pretty often, but other emotions are left to themselves. Overall, I have witnessed her in tears five times in my life. She’s cried at times of great personal loss, President Obama’s inauguration, and that one time she was about to decorate a Christmas tree.
This one Christmas, my mother went down to the wardrobe she kept in the back of the basement to retrieve her Christmas ornaments, and they were gone. Like, the wardrobe was empty.
Walking back up the stairs she called, “Guys? Did you bring the ornaments up already?”
We children looked at one another and told her we hadn’t.
“That’s not funny, people. Where did you put them?”
We stood, staring at her. Not because we didn’’t want to spoil the joke by telling her where her ornaments were, but because we didn’t know.
She walked back to the basement, talking to herself about storing them the same way every year, and how they ought to be right there, wrapped in paper, inside boxes from the Boston Store. She came back empty handed just as my Dad walked in.
Their conversation went like this:
“Honey, where are my Christmas ornaments?”
“No idea. You lost them?”
“Where’d you last see them?”
“In that wardrobe in the basement. They were piled inside of boxes, wrapped in paper. Where could they have gone?”
“Was it boxes from the Boston Store?”
“White, puffy paper?”
“Well, white puffy paper around my ornaments. You know the ones I make with the kids?”
He took her hand and led her over to the nearest sofa. Then, Dad told her he believed he’d thrown them away that summer while he was cleaning the basement out. He said he never knew how she stored the ornaments, and he’d thought that those boxes were junk that they’d never cleared away.
“Junk?” Mom said, with shiny eyes.
“No. I mean…” Dad was looking around, searching his children with his eyes like we could help.
My sister, being the oldest, shrugged her shoulders a little bit telling him for all of us, “You are on your own, man.” Then we looked away; Uncomfortable, but too afraid to walk off in case our mother self destructed.
Mom started to cry. And then she told him as if there were no children in the room, “I’ve made those ornaments since we started having kids. Homemade Christmas! So they could have a collection, so they can give them to their kids when they get their own Christmas trees!”
“Baby…” Dad reached for her again, but mom was not having it. She snagged her arm away from him like his hand was on fire.
“I made those ornaments for our grandchildren! I made them so we’d have something to give MY BAAAAAbies!” And then, my mother burst into bawling tears that had her running up the stairs.
The rest of us turned on each other in her wake.
“Duh, Dad,” said my sister.
“It’s not his fault. They’re just ugly ornaments. They didn’t match, or anything,” said my brother.
“We should’ve put a label on them. A label that said keep out, or mom will kill you,” I said.
Dad got in motion first. “Get to the car! Everybody get in the car!”
We scrambled out of the house, and bought a perfect set of Christmas decorations from the garden shop up on the road. Those ornaments were really beautiful and really expensive and caught the light in a way that was mesmerizing. We hung them in total silence – without my mother.
When we were done at the end of the afternoon, my brother was sent upstairs to get mom; we figured since he was youngest, he was least likely to be killed. She came down, scanned the tree once with red rimmed eyes and said, “Set the table,” to no one in particular. Every child ran for a plate, fork, or napkin and she allowed my father to take her hand again. We left them talking it over quietly, by the light of the store bought tree.
She has not made ornaments with us again – not even once. And she got new ornaments for the next Christmases, saying that those costly ones made her sad.
But, since then, we’ve worked together to make sure that mom has a happy Christmas. It can be a little harder to love people in the way they want to be loved, but it’s so worth it. And now that my sibling s and I are grown, we understand what is valuable to each of us in family life, and make sure that everyone gets to celebrate in a way that matters to them. My brother makes his killer fudge, my sister collects Christmas music, and my mother throws a Christmas Eve supper that has people crowding her house year after year.
Me, I decorate. I was climbing all over her porch in the freezing cold last week, hanging garland, centering her homemade straw reindeer on posts, and telling mom that I love her, by making her Christmas décor special, just the way she likes it.