Last night as I was driving home under the stars on tops of evergreen trees and past lights behind frosty windows I thought of my mother and I cried. She is old now, bedridden and infirm, somehow staying alive when we thought she would be gone before Christmas several years in a row. She has been on my mind a lot lately. In a sad way she is already gone though still physically present. She doesn’t recognize people, she doesn’t know her own history most of the time, she is weak. And yet she hangs on to her tenuous life with a ferocity that amazes.
But I wasn’t crying for her inevitable decline and passing, which could be years from now with her Irish stubbornness and toughness. The tears were more for what has already been lost. What I have now is memories, but she has shown me that memories can be as fragile as life. I cried in part for the joyful memories. In more youthful Christmastimes she would load all of us kids into the car and drive around town to look at all the pretty lights hung from trees and houses. Many of my best memories are of Mom in the car: sudden surprise trips to the drive-in eight miles away in Benton or twelve miles away in Darlington where we would enjoy ice cream (still her favorite treat); treks to Dubuque or Madison for shopping; going along with her through early morning fog when she would drive my oldest brother to work at his job in Monroe; trips to visit relatives in Hanover, Illinois or just out to the country to farms of relatives and friends; even the short jaunts downtown or to the post office–all of which gave time just to be together and talk and marvel at the world around us.
In high school Yahtzee, Scrabble, and other games were used the same way. We would spend hours sitting at the table rolling dice and striving to win while discussing the state of the world. We loved each other’s company then–we talked, we shared deep things with each other, we laughed. Oh, did we laugh. We laughed a lot. Sometimes there would be laughing jags so long and so hard that we would both end up in tears from the laughter, with my mother snorting loudly as it continued, and that would make her and me both laugh even more. She loved her Yahtzee, but the game didn’t really matter. It was the thing that brought us together to sit for a while and be with each other. She was fiercely competitive, but I think we both won when spending that time together and I think she knew that.
These things can come to a person at the most unlikely of moments, but I understood fully last night why holidays can be so difficult for so many people. In many families, just like mine, the parents do their best to create happy experiences for their children. We didn’t have much when I was a child, but Mom always made sure we had some new clothes and some new toys or things that we would enjoy at Christmas. Many of my friends and neighbors would get all the newest toys or gadgets and I would sometimes be embarrassed by what I had received in comparison, but I also understood that my mother had done the best she could as a single mother raising a family of four. There was always food, light, and love in the house during the season. In every season, when I think about it.
Christmas memories are often the most happy of memories; maybe not for everyone, but for many. Part of it is that as children we don’t necessarily see as much loss as adults have seen, so there is an innocence there, and as we grow into adulthood and maturity we understand what has been lost from those memories. As the years go by there are more people missing from the holiday table and the empty places leave an emptiness in the soul. The young ones don’t understand that because it is their turn for the happy memories to be created for them. At some point in the future they, too, will look at a Christmas tree or lights or something that reminds them of their childhood and instead of smiling because of the memory they will one year be sad because of the loss. They will cry as I did last night, wipe the tears, and hide all of that from the children at the table because, really, it is all about those young ones and creating memories for them.