Most of us outlive our parents, and once we do, the winter holidays become, among many other things, a reminder of what we’ve lost. Perhaps those who had unhappy childhoods feel differently, but when I was a boy, the holidays were always a time of shadowless delight. Throughout my youth and long past it, my mother’s family, which was both large and close, gathered at my grandmother’s house to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve at groaning tables full of savory goodies. Now those days are gone.
I wrote at length about my family’s holiday rituals in “My Mother’s People,” a chapter of the memoir of my childhood and youth that I published in 1991, back when those rituals were still very much a thing of the present:
Not long after Thanksgiving, my mother would spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon making Christmas cookies and filling two round aluminum tins with dark brown squares of homemade chocolate fudge so rich that we were allowed to eat only one piece at a sitting. David and I cut the sticky cookie dough into stars and bells and silhouettes of Santa Claus and lovingly laid each piece on a greased cookie sheet. The Santa Claus cookies were special, for I took Santa Claus seriously. I left him a glass of milk and a plate of Christmas cookies before going to bed on Christmas Eve, and they were gone by sunup….
Long after my brother and I had grown up, my mother kept on making fudge and baking cookies in November, assisted not by us but by my niece Lauren, and each year we ate them with a pleasure that had at least as much to do with the memories that they embodied as with the way that they tasted. She did so for as long as she possibly could, but the time finally came when she grew too feeble to cook anything more ambitious than a TV dinner, and last winter she spent the holidays in a nursing home, sick unto death and longing for the merciful deliverance that finally came to her in the spring. Though the rest of us opened presents at home that Christmas morning, we were doing nothing more than going through the motions of what had previously been a vibrant, blessed occasion.
Now I’m on my own, and Mrs. T and I went to Connecticut last week to eat Thanksgiving dinner with the members of her family, to whom I’ve become comfortingly close. It was, I’m happy to say, a glorious day, festive and celebratory. We’ll be with them again on Christmas, and we’ll put up our own Christmas tree in Connecticut for the first time in far too many years. After my mother’s health began to deteriorate, we made a special point of flying out to Smalltown, U.S.A., to spend each Christmas with her, and so we gave up having our own trees until now.
It will, of course, be truly wonderful to raise a tree in our own living room this year, for it will serve as a glittering symbol of the strong and enduring joy that Mrs. T and I, against all odds, have found in one another in the middle of our lives. We have much to be thankful for, and we know it. But as we trim the tree, I have little doubt that I’ll also be thinking of a parade of Christmases long past, and that I’ll hear Dave Frishberg’s “The Difficult Season” in my mind’s ear:
The difficult season
Can bring us to tears too much,
Touching on feelings and fears
Too tender to ever touch.
The tinsel, the reindeer, the chimney, the sleigh
Are the innocent dreams of an innocent day.
We hark to the carols meek and mild,
Awaking the memories of yesterday’s child.