Dear Mama and Daddy,
Your grandson’s almost four. Teddy knows your names and what you look like. He recognizes you in pictures and asks questions about you often. But he’s never met you. Daddy, it’s hard to believe how long you’ve been absent from my life. I was eight when you died, 28 years ago. Mama, though you were in a wheelchair for most of my childhood, you did hang on until I was 24. But even you have been gone 12 years.
This Christmas was good. A true celebration of family and kindness and human decency and food, food, food. But for me, all holidays are hard. The pain bubbles to the surface. Even this Christmas I’ve retreated to the shower several times to sob. (I learned as a child that if you ever have to cry and you don’t want others to hear you, better hide out in the bathroom and turn on the water. The water drowns out all but the most desperate sobs. And the hot water that flows over your shivering, heaving body heals.)
I’m sick of hiding in the shower. Motherhood is changing my narrative, and me. No matter how angry or sad or confused or lost I feel, Teddy always needs something. He lives in the now. He brings me back.
When I’m with my son, I see the opposite of loss. Maybe my story doesn’t have to be about sadness and death. Maybe it can be the story of a girl who had great parents, was loved fiercely, and is brave enough to keep going after her world is rocked by loss and pain. Maybe my story is about having the audacity to hope.
This was a good year for holidays. For many years I’d wanted to wake up on Christmas morning in my own bed, so that Teddy could open presents under his own tree. This year we made that happen. The morning was sandwiched between a Christmas Eve dinner – with Aunt Kathy and Uncle Jeff, who have become surrogate parents to me and full-fledged grandparents to Teddy – and a week in Jersey with my in-laws.
It’s good to be able to be in control of where I am and what I’m doing. Maybe, just maybe, I can control my own narrative. I’ll tell my story my way.
So . . . this is how I choose to remember Christmases past.
1. The simplicity of my first seven Christmases
Before Daddy died, everything was magical. Daddy, I remember you lifting me up so I could put our secular tree topper on the tree. Mama, you arranged the ornaments precisely and hung tinsel strand by strand. Daddy and I threw handfuls at the tree. Mama, I remember stringing popcorn and cranberry chains with you, and being chided for eating the popcorn. When I was six, Daddy stayed up all night putting together my first bike. It was snowing, so we spent the day in the basement, practicing. You promised the training wheels would come off only when I was ready.
2. Cherry Winks
Mama, you mixed the dough for these cookies, then rolled them into little balls and dipped them in crushed cornflakes (which is in the recipe, but seemed a quintessential Mama thing, since you did the same thing with chicken you tried to pass off as “fried”). The final step is one quarter of a maraschino cherry on top. Now your sister, Teddy’s “Bubbie,” makes a dozen batches for all of our growing family, reminding me that your mother baked these cookies every Christmas and so they are magic from her childhood as well. Cherry Winks are everything Christmas and everything merry.
3. Christmas Day football with Daddy
Sitting in your old brown recliner, we watched every game. You’d pile a TV tray with all kinds of dark chocolate (eating milk chocolate was heresy) and several varieties of potato chips. You drank a lot of Coke, and I drank chocolate milk. I haven’t followed football since; I never understood the rules, even though you explained them in depth. It wasn’t about the football, or even the food. It was about being a member of your club. I was your girl, and I was happy.
4. Reading Christmas stories aloud, even when I was a teenager
Daddy, you read with us when I was a kid, but Mama and I continued until I went to college. Mama, I loved that I sat on your bed every night from December 1st to the 25th, as we read J. R. R. Tolkien’s Father Christmas Stories, which he wrote for his own children, and Dickens, and the Cajun Night Before Christmas. (Your grandson loves the last one, but wants to know why Santa Claus has alligators. I wish you could tell me what to say.) We read books of all kinds to Teddy, including all the Christmas classics you introduced to me. My husband and I even read novels to each other – like Good Omens and the entire Harry Potter saga – and even the novels and stories I write
5. When we got through Christmas 1988
With Daddy dying so close to Christmas, Mama, I don’t know how you managed to keep Christmas turning black, ugly, and bitter. The first year was awful, and subdued. I was afraid to smile or laugh. But it was bearable because you insisted on celebrating, even hosting our usual, huge Christmas Eve dinner attended by the entire extended family. The next year Aunt Kathy slept over. I drove her crazy, waking her every fifteen minutes to ask if Santa had arrived. Kathy was not deterred: she slept over Christmas Eve the next year, and every year after that. She was and is a big part of Christmas not sucking.
Mama and Daddy – I’ll never let you go. You didn’t just love me: You adored and cherished me. I am indebted to you. I’ll share with my child every good story, picture, and artifact of my life with you. When he’s old enough, I’ll tell him the whole truth. I’ll mourn you when I must.
But I won’t let darkness overtake me, or let your absence ruin something as pure and innocent as Christmas or motherhood. You wouldn’t want me to miss you so much I fail to live. Like any parents, you want me happy, healthy, whole.
Norah Vawter with son, Teddy.
Don’t worry. I am. If I see an empty space, I’ll fill it. And I love you more than the moon, more than the Earth, more, even, than a box turtle.
Merry Christmas. Merry Everything!
Love your little girl,
All photos courtesy of Norah Vawter.
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