Thirty-four years ago in mid-December, I sat staring at the dying Christmas tree. We’d bought it at Thanksgiving, tying it to the top of our tiny Ford Escort and hauling it 300 miles from Birmingham, Ala., where my brother lived, to Perry, Ga.
My husband growled when I told him I wanted to do this. Surely there were Christmas trees in Georgia, probably a corner lot right near our house. But my eight-month’s swollen belly told him he had better comply.
By the time we got it into the house, neither of us would admit how badly the tree had been beaten on the trip. We wound the lights around its branches, hung our meager ornaments, wrapped the small number of presents and put them under the tree. And then the needles began to fall off.
I tried not to think about my parents’ tree, filled with bright white lights, the small bells that had belonged to my grandmother, the glittery birds we had given my mother one Christmas. I couldn’t travel, heavy with baby as I was. It would be my first Christmas away from home. How had I found myself below Georgia’s gnat line, married and expecting a baby?
Oh, in theory we were ready. Our firstborn was not due until January, but still. The nursery sat freshly painted, the crib filled with handmade bumper pads, pillow and soft blankets. I’d filled the small dresser with powder-scented drawer liner, itty-bitty diapers, tiny T-shirts and the few footed things I’d bought that could dress girl or boy.
But I was tired: of waiting, of the body and the swollen feet, the back aches and the indigestion, and I was ready for it all to be over.
I was not yet ready to be a mother. How could I mother anyone when thoughts of what was happening at home left me in tears?
In those days before Christmas, I paced the five rooms of our tiny house, fingering the blankets, folding and refolding the tiny clothes, imagining the kind of mother I would be, knowing without doubt that when this baby started to actually cry, I’d likely cry louder myself.
Would I be patient and kind like my own mother, or more true to myself – insecure and overly emotional? Would I bring laughter into my child’s life, or would my incompetence bring only pain?
I kept a journal while I waited – the only time in my life when I have done so faithfully.
Five days before Christmas 1983, I wrote this: “Waiting, hoping, crying is all there is left to do.”
Poor Rick. He probably thought he’d have to parent both of us when the baby actually arrived.
I wasn’t very good at trusting God in those days, even though in the three years prior, God had flat-out filled my life with joy and grace. Why couldn’t I trust I’d be equipped with the tools I needed to care for this child, even if I didn’t yet know how?
Had my own mother wondered these same things herself? (Probably not one minute when she was expecting me, third child that I am. But maybe with the first two.)
Before church that Christmas Eve, we took our picture in front of the tree using a tripod. (No one had thought of the term “selfie.”) Dressed in voluminous amounts of red corduroy, I looked like a giant Christmas ball, blocking most of the tree.
At church, I’m certain I thought not one thing about Mary, mother of Jesus. My prayers were likely about asking God to keep my childbirth experience short and relatively pain-free. A few months earlier, my petite sister had given birth to a 9-pound baby boy without anesthesia, swearing that day that she’d never have another baby as long as she lived. (She did.)
But if I had, that year, thought more about the Christmas story and less about my own Christmas far from family, I would have seen a certain kinship with Mary. Swollen body, surely, both of us mothers-in-waiting, hopeful of what our children would come to be.
Christmas morning turned out to be one of the happiest in my memory, even still. Our tiny family – my husband, the dog and me – listening to Christmas music, sitting on the sofa covered in blankets, so happy about the present we were expecting within the next week.
The next day, we threw the tree out. The weather turned so cold that our washing machine froze. I spent the next few days on my knees, not praying, but cleaning, trying to get the house ready for my mother to visit.
I know in fact that I went to bed crying on Dec. 29, telling my husband I was sure he wished he’d married that artist he knew in college instead of ballooning, miserable me. And then, within hours, Christmas arrived again, bringing us the best present of all – a beautiful, wide-eyed baby girl. Ours. I swear we heard the angels singing.
What joy God filled our lives with that day, and for all the years since. Somehow I learned to mother, and though there were many days and years when I made mistakes, I had the tools (mostly) to bring her up right.
This Christmas Eve finds us expectant, once again, not only for the Christ Child, but for our firstborn as she waits for her own firstborn, arriving sometime in late March. As we wait to meet our first grandchild, I have no words, except thank you, from whom all blessings flow, for filling my life, once again, with such impossible joy.
Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of “In Mother Words,” a book of essays of motherhood. She can be reached at email@example.com.