Christmas is my favorite holiday, and all that I love about the season stems solely from my mom. She was the spirit of Christmas for our family, which made celebrating this year that much harder without her. But in some ways, she prepared us for it by removing herself from most of the festivities in 2021 – and I remember remarking on Christmas eve last year that she’d never be with us again during the holidays. It was a heavy statement, and I hated to acknowledge it. But in my heart, I knew it was true.
As long as I can remember, my mother loved holidays. She couldn’t wait to decorate the house, consider what we might bake or what craft we could work on, the outfits best suited for a particular holiday – and those outfits would be within the spectrum of colors most appropriate for the holiday – and so much more.
Christmas was a major focus in our house. There were years she painstakingly waited for us to finish decorating the tree so she could mount a many-hours-long project of placing individual strands of tinsel on its branches (thank goodness that trend ended when it did!). Other years we worked on hand-crafted holiday cards or spent time seeing how many words we could come up with using the letters in the word “Christmas.” One year, the cards we made using a reindeer cookie cutter and lots of glitter we thought were just beautiful. Weeks later at a holiday party, a neighbor employed snark telling my mom how cute it was that she sent out cards her kids had clearly made.
The window candles were alit each night, and the picture window was beautifully dressed. We decorated Christmas cookies and made fudge. Christmas carols went on the stereo on Thanksgiving night and were on non-stop until the big day. Sometimes my mom played carols on our little Wurlitzer organ, and my brother and I would sing along.
And then there were the presents. In more recent years, my mom would remark that I bought way too many gifts for everyone, and I’d widen my eyes and say, “This is coming from you?” Her grandchildren will back me up because every Christmas eve, we’d go to my parents, and there would be gifts encompassing the entire area around the tree and spreading far out into the family room. She’d enlist one of the kids, often my oldest son, to help her hand out gifts – and she was known to lob a present across the room to one of us.
My father’s role was holding a giant trash bag and encouraging everyone to toss their discarded gift wrap. I can still see my dad in 2000, in his usual spot, gathering the paper, all of us knowing this would be his last Christmas. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor a few months before, and while it was successfully removed, lung cancer surged through his body. We knew there were only a few months left. He passed in late March in a hospital bed set up in my childhood bedroom, with hospice care support.
After my father died, my mom didn’t want to decorate for Christmas – she wasn’t in the spirit of the season. I encouraged her to decorate and, once again, to host Christmas eve. Except for this time, I’d help, and she would come home with me when the night was over. That was the last time she had Christmas at her home, and my brother and I took turns hosting going forward.
Almost six years ago, my mom had a bad fall shortly into the new year and suffered a bilateral broken pelvis, broken elbow, and other injuries coming out of a restaurant in her town. It was clear that living in her three-level home would no longer be an option, and she would need assistance in her day-to-day life. Downsizing her home was difficult, particularly when she wasn’t in a state of mind or body to fully engage in what had to be faced and done. Nevertheless, as she had done years prior, she encouraged us to take some of her Christmas stuff since she wouldn’t have the space to use it all. And we did, which thrilled her to no end to see her beloved Christmas decor at many of our homes.
That first year in assisted living, we decorated her apartment with her, and I left some additional items for her to put out at her leisure. While her place was much smaller, it still held charm and showcased her love of Christmas in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Each year, we’d unpack her Christmas boxes, stored at my house throughout the year, and pack them up for the journey back again. She loved when the staff at her assisted living admired how festive her apartment looked.
In 2019, my mom’s day-to-day needs became more significant. While she had the support of local friends who helped with doctor appointments and much more, it became evident she’d benefit from being closer to us in New Hampshire. So when I broached a potential move, my mom wholeheartedly embraced it and seemed relieved. In September 2019, she moved a few towns over from me into a lovely place. I know this transition wasn’t easy, but she quickly assimilated. One of her favorite restaurants was next door over, and I could visit more frequently, too, and stop by after work.
Then 2020 hit, and everything changed. My mom felt safe at her assisted living, despite being sequestered in her room with no social engagement. We facetimed, spoke on the phone, sometimes several times daily, did window visits, and arranged for family communication from the parking lot on special occasions, holding up large signs bearing our love and good wishes.
Finally, outdoor visits, masked and many feet away from each other, were possible – and we took advantage of these visits. However, they often felt awkward, especially when a staff member was seated nearby. I took my mom out a couple of times, once in the late summer, so she could visit with our family outdoors and finally hold the two great-grandchildren born earlier that year. While Covid conditions ended off-premise visits in the fall of 2020, I got permission to bring my mom to visit my dad’s grave. I also took her for a quick visit with her brother and his wife in their driveway. I’m so glad I did, as it would be the last time they’d see each other. He passed away early in 2021.
Come Christmastime, only window visits were possible. I sent in Christmas decorations earlier in the month and her gifts from everyone via many bags and boxes. She was overwhelmed, not knowing what to do with so much in her small apartment. We hated not having her with us, although our celebrations were not the complete family get-togethers we’d usually enjoy.
As vaccines and boosters became more readily available, we all looked forward to what the holiday season might offer us in 2021. My mom chose to stay at her assisted living for Thanksgiving and began to hint she might stay home at Christmas. I arrived at her apartment early in December, laden with two boxes of Christmas decorations. The week before, I put Christmas window clings on her windows, which was the extent of her decorations.
As I began to open the boxes and put out various pieces of her much-loved decorations, she began to protest. She said she didn’t have room for all this stuff. I also protested, telling her she certainly did; her space hadn’t changed. I’ll admit we went back and forth several times, and then finally, she began to cry, saying she couldn’t have all this stuff around her.
Her tears stopped me, and not because I was feeling empathy. I was angry. I thought I was mad because my mom was overreacting. I said, “Fine. You don’t want me to put your Christmas stuff up – fine, I won’t.” I packed everything up and slammed the boxes shut. I left in a huff – and by the time I got to the car, I knew exactly why I was so mad.
It was because the mother I always knew, the one that loved Christmas no matter what no longer had the heart for it. She was already on another journey that didn’t involve me or Christmas or any of the things she held dear – and I wasn’t ready to face that or even remotely understand it. I didn’t want to let her go.
So, it wasn’t much of a surprise when my mom declined to be with us on Christmas eve – our first time together as a complete family since 2019. But it felt a bit hollow without her, and I had to face that this might be what our holidays would be like from then on, but I hoped it wasn’t true.
But it was. My mother gave me so many hints throughout 2022 that she was declining. And I did my damnedest to ignore them all because to acknowledge it meant I had to face she was leaving us – and that was something I didn’t even want to imagine.
I spent most of my life dreading the day my father would die, and I sometimes wondered why I didn’t harbor that same fear about my mom passing. I think it was because a life without my mom was something I wouldn’t even allow to enter my thoughts.
And now she’s gone, leaving us on that beautiful sunny afternoon in late September on the porch of her Community Hospice House suite. The weeks preceding her death were daunting, as were the ER visits before her final hospital stay. And the weeks since have been a blur at times. Yet, they were busy as we began to catch up on all that we had put aside during those difficult days.
Mom may not have been with us throughout the holidays, but she was still everywhere. Most days, she is, but it’s been especially so over the last month. So many decorations were hers, and I see them throughout my house and at my kids’ homes, too. I know my brother’s family’s homes are the same.
I hear her admiration for the tree’s beauty, her joy seeing her homemade ornaments hung there, and her voice ringing out with excitement seeing new Christmas décor or how much kids have grown from the year before on the holiday cards. But, then, there was her wonder in recent years, taking rides at night and seeing the beautiful lights. She was delighted, saying so much was happening in the world that she wasn’t seeing now that she didn’t go out often at night.
In more recent years, she’d sit in my living room as I attended to last-minute tasks. I’d put Christmas carols on and tuck her in a big chair or the couch with a cozy blanket. She’d doze off, sometimes with my cat beside her. She didn’t like cats but somehow was smitten with mine. Her last Christmas here, we sat in the near-dark, the living room lit gently by the tree and stars in the window – drinking Prosecco in crystal flutes, watching Andrea Bocelli singing on the TV.
That’s what I’ve done my best to focus on this Christmas – not what I’m missing but what I have the privilege of remembering. And there is so much.
Thank you for sharing your love of Christmas, Mom, and instilling it in all of us.