December 11, 2011
Good Morning Andrea—
Lately, I have noticed how beautiful fog can be. Enveloping everything in misty gray. Everything is muted in mist. Becomes a little darker.
Tonight, Compassionate Friends has a world candle lighting event for parents who have had children die. I am going to Cinderella with your Aunt Karen, your cousin Lisa and her daughter Alicia. I will light a candle for you before I leave.
Bare tree limbs are coated with moss. A fluorescent green that glows. A tree house nestled in the branches of a big leaf maple—acer macrophyllum. I love the sound of Latin names for things.
I am torn between wanting to put on hat, gloves and mittens—walking on this late autumn morning, and, turning up the electric blanket, curling up under it and reading the Carl Hiassen book I started three days ago. I am having a little trouble following all the quirky characters, though. I know it will all coalesce at some point.
It is 32 degrees outside. I am sitting at the dining room table at Steve’s house in a pair of your pajamas. The ones with the Christmoose and Christmas trees. Steve and Stephie are eating leftover turkey enchiladas (your favorite) for breakfast this morning. They will have the cookies Steph and I baked last night for dessert. Dessert is not just for dinner anymore.
I wish Christmas did not feel like such an obligation. Like I could do it when I am ready for it again. Because I am not.
I want to lay under the warmth of my down comforter, read, watchmovies, eat spice drops and Cheetos in bed until December passes and the New Year is well under way. Sadie would be happy to curl up next to me, and Stella would lay on my chest soothing me with the sound of purring.
Sometimes I wonder who the caretaker really is, in my relationship with Stella and Sadie. They soothe me. Sadie seems to read my moods and comes to comfort me when my anxiety ramps up. She lays her head on my lap and looks up at me with her little brown button eyes.
Stella’s purr is like a meditation. She lays on my chest, head resting under my chin, vibrating with sound that moves throughout my body, soothing me.
I thought about putting up your artificial Christmas tree again this year. It is still in the box, though, on the top row of shelves in my garage. Last year, I put it up with the help of friends on Thanksgiving.
I tried to find the nativity set you loved in all the Christmas decorations, but gave up. We always read the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. You and your sister always took turns putting the baby in his cradle after we talked about why Christmas is celebrated. Then we would open presents.
It was hard to look at years of Christmases past in red round bulbs and strings of wooden cranberries. Besides, last year, Stella kept stealing the baby Jesus from the crèche. Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men sat by passively as Stella played football with him on the maple floors in the living and dining rooms.
No tree this year at my house. No lights. No stockings. No crèche. The only decoration I will put up at my house is a wreath on the front door.
At Steve’s house it is different. Last weekend he and I put up a small tree. We bought a 4 foot noble fir at a church lot. It was the first tree we purchased and decorated together. He took down the bins of decorations from their garage shelf and we sorted through bubble lights that that used to illuminate his parents’ tree, through bulbs a girlfriend gave him 40 years ago, an angel he and his wife and Stephie had on trees together.
After he told me the history of his ornaments, I told him our tree reminded me of the first Christmas you, your sister and I celebrated in that tiny apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts that looked out on the Charles River.
Thanksgiving came with its promise of candy canes, jolly old men in red suits and white beards in department stores, an orange in the toe of stockings hung by the fire with care, nuts—still in their shells—in wooden bowls with picks and nutcrackers, twinkling lights—the Holiday Season.
“Jolly old Saint Nicholas, lean your ear this way. Don’t you miss a single word, I’m about to say.”
You were 6—just about to turn 7. Beginning to question Santa Clause.
This was our first Christmas away from Seattle. According to Wikipedia, The total distance from Boston to Seattle is 2484 miles. This is equivalent to 3997 kilometers or 2158 nautical miles. That is if you travel by air. Driving I-94W and I-90W it is 3044.1 miles. We were across a continent. Cambridge is right next to Boston.
Leaving everything behind to make the move from welfare mom to Harvard Law, I had not brought Christmas decorations to our new home. And I had no idea where, or if we would find a Christmas tree.
You may recall, for those three years your sister, you and I lived in Cambridge, we had no car. Every two weeks the three of us would take the grocery wheelie along the Charles River to Star Market for milk, cereal, meat, carrots, pasta. I don’t remember how far Star Market was, or how long it took us to walk there. I just remember walks listening to you and your sister, watching the two of you.
Time passed too quickly. I should have paid more attention to the details.
I was a Harvard Law student. A single parent subsisting on student loans—my mortgage for a future.
“Christmas Eve is coming soon, now you dear old Man.”
At criminal law, contracts, civil procedure class, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I felt like an imposter. I felt like I did not belong. Like someone might figure out I had recently been a single mom on welfare, food stamps, medical aid, Section 8 subsisted housing—and when they did—I’d be asked to leave.
I felt like I was not at all entitled.
I felt like going back home to nothing.
Carolyn Schute saved me. She was being interviewed because of her novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine. She said two things that have always resonated with me—one a sentence, one a short story of an analogy.
First, she said, “People don’t realize, us poor people, we work hard for what we don’t have.”
And then the interviewer asked Carolyn what made her different. How was she able to break the mold and become an author.
Carolyn thought a moment. And then she started in something to the effect of “It’s like this. Have you ever sat and watched a box of kittens? Most of them, they are content to wrestle and play with each other within their well defined world. But there’s always one of them kittens that is not content, that is not happy, that believes there is more than what is in the box. That little kitten is always by herself. Reaching up, trying to find a way up and over the walls. And one day, she discovers she can get out. You cannot ever get her to stay in the box again. That kitten—the one who made it out of the box. That was me.”
Her words hit me like lightening.
That kitten—the one who made it out of the box. That was me.
The box was behind me. I felt its presence, though I could not see it anymore. Any sense of security I thought it offered was false. It still called to me.
Poverty was never a choice I consciously made. If I left Harvard Law School, poverty would be a choice I was making.
My mind wanders this December 2011 morning, sitting at the dining room window, looking at this fog filled morning. Steve has hung Christmas lights outside on the patio. They twinkle.
I always had to protect you. I had to be stronger than I was. I could never let you see me vulnerable.
“Whisper what you’ll bring to me. “
December 1987. You, your sister, me. Without one Christmas decoration or a tree.
Three blocks from our apartment, across the street from the Charles River, there was a plant nursery. We’d stop there sometimes on our way to Star Market. We’d choose seeds, plants and bulbs for an imaginary garden—a garden we might have someday.
Walking past there, the first Saturday in December, you and your sister got excited at the sight of cut trees behind the Garden Center’s chain link fence.
“We’ll come back later.” I promised. “Right now, we have to get groceries.”
The garden center, a little green building with large glass windows flanking the front door, was open til 5. After we put the groceries away, and had a snack, we bundled up to get our Christmas tree.
The trees were all tagged—“Grown in Washington”. Like us, these noble firs and pines and firs had traveled across the continent. You two girls were intoxicated by the smell of Washington greenery. I was flabbergasted by the price tags, and you two became more and more deflated as I had to veto your choice of trees in the $75.00 and above category. I saw a stand of 3-4 foot trees and told you both, follow me.
For ten dollars I bought one of the best Christmas trees I can remember. It was shorter than both you and Erin.
Inside the Garden Center we bought a box of tinsel, 2 boxes of lights, paper thin red glass balls and hangers, and an angel. One small angel with dark hair, lacy wings, and a white lace dress.
One small angel you saw sitting in a red box, with a clear lid on a shelf. You picked her up, brought her to me. “Mom, we have to have an angel.”
Everybody needs an angel.
From that year on, our angel sat on every tree.
Until you died.
“Tell me what you’ll bring to me, whisper if you can…”
It is your turn. Tell me what you remember about Christmas right now, this very moment.
Whisper if you can.
It is the day of world lighting, or world light for us parent’s whose children have died, and with them part of us.
I light my candle. I watch the dancing flame. It burns, sucks oxygen, bends then burns higher when I stop gently blowing it.
I will focus on light this holiday season.
I lit a candle for you.