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In season of remembrance, the gift of forgetting

Rosemary Miller, left, and her daughter, Mary Miller, look over Christmas photos from Mary's childhood on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, at Hillside Nursing and Rehab in Wake Forest.
Rosemary Miller, left, and her daughter, Mary Miller, look over Christmas photos from Mary's childhood on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, at Hillside Nursing and Rehab in Wake Forest. jleonard@newsobserver.com

A nursing home visitor has given our mother a miniature paper Christmas tree with a gold foil angel that she joyfully displays on the dresser alongside the TV, oscillating fan and stack of adult-sized wipes.

From her lift chair Rosemary Miller smiles, waves a shaky hand toward the little angel. My heart lurches, tears well. I recognize this moment’s gift, its grace.

For as long as she could remember, my mother dreaded Christmas. Every year she tried to put on the best holiday she could, managing to deliver toys, homemade cookies, hand-sewn presents, boastful Christmas letters and a multi-course meal for a table crammed with relatives. Yet inevitably with the unpacking of ornaments and “Sing Along With Mitch” record album, out came the unpleasant soundtrack of my mother’s dismal childhood.

That drama, set in 1930s Cleveland, starred a grandfather who died Dec. 23 of the year she was 9, replacing rituals of celebration with those of grief, and which, perhaps, incited the gloomy tradition of her own mother’s holiday binge drinking.

Our mother would not, or could not, escape the ghosts of Christmas past.

Mary Miller

Our mother would not, or could not, escape the ghosts of Christmas past. No present brought her joy. Few holidays passed without harsh words, bitter tears, a sense of regret. At every Christmas meal she relished quoting her mother’s dour seasonal prediction: “Green Christmas – full graveyard.”

We endured her descent into holiday anxiety and depression with sardonic cheer. After we outgrew toys, she began giving my three brothers and me ornaments with passive-aggressive explanations to remind us of our flaws. (To my brother Stephen, “When you ruined my Christmas by serving in Vietnam.”) The weirder it got, the more and louder we laughed it off.

In June, our mom will turn 90. She has resided for the past two years at Hillside Nursing & Rehab in Wake Forest, and thanks to medications she resisted taking for most of her life, we have already had one Christmas and maybe now another marked by precious inner peace.

I believe she is finally letting go of painful memories. And I know it’s time for all of us to let go of the ghost of our Christmas past.

Ornaments are stories

A Christmas ornament is a physical marker signifying a particular memory. Its value and power lie in the story attached. Sometimes, the object can clutter your house and your spirit. Perhaps that is why my mother kept her parents’ ornaments boxed in the attic, untouched.

But what’s miraculous to me is that with each year we haul out the Christmas decorations, with each experience, the stories change, like the grit that acquires layer after layer of lacquer and finally becomes the pearl.

Being the youngest, the only female, and arguably most sentimental, I took our parents’ ornaments when we moved our mother to an independent living facility in Georgia in spring 2011. Took it all, even the old glass ornaments from the attic.

We now have ornaments so plentiful that they fill two trees. Marking stories of babies, trips, beloved pets, hobbies, favorite foods, happy times. Even the ones with dark beginnings can acquire happy memories. Of all, my favorites are these: the oldest glass orbs, every thing our kids made in preschool, and mostly the Baby Jesus and His Family of Choice.

That last is our family in a nutshell, or in a manger. The entire provenance of the Nativity creche and its cast is unknowable. When I was a child, the tiny plaster painted Jesus, his mop of yellow nordic curls, was reverently swaddled in a fresh white Kleenex in his cardboard trough. Time has been humorous, if a little unkind. There is a plaster African king missing half his face, another missing his head, the third footless. There are some sheep and a plastic cow, three gilded angels playing instruments, a faded Joseph, two Virgin Marys (plaster and plastic), a wax shepherd in red knee pants that somehow got garroted. We have intended to glue him together for 39 years now.

For a ridiculous stretch of time, we lost Baby Jesus.

One of our children was going through potty training during the Christmas season, and would only sit on the toilet while holding the infant Son of God. Prayers were answered, but somehow, Jesus went missing.

Thus begat years of stand-ins: Polly Pocket dolls, Lego figures, a tiny Plankton from Sponge Bob Square Pants that we got for a quarter in the gumball machine at the Bi-Lo in South Carolina. The Rat King that fell off a Nutcracker scene ornament my mother gave to me one year, famously saying “This is to remind you of the time we paid for ballet lessons but you hated it and threw your shoes away and lied to us.” Even once, a hand-molded Tootsie Roll. Years later, we found Jesus —in the bottom of the toy bin.

Yes, this is how we handle Christmas: Mismatched, banged up, but by God, still showing up.

Mary Miller

Yes, this is how we handle Christmas: Mismatched, banged up, but by God, still showing up. It’s sheer insanity of a joyful variety. Every year as we decorate, the kids laugh and tease each other, and we add a layer of memory.

This is not the Christmas of my childhood, but in part, the good comes because of those Christmases.

I can look back on the years of fighting, of guilt, of not getting along with my mother. But the longer I love, the less I remember. What lingers is an image from Christmas last, our mother in her wheelchair beside the tree, feeling glad wonder to touch an ornament that her grandparents once held 100 years ago.

We dwell now in Christmas present, and this year, it is so promising. Unto us, a baby will be born. Our niece Kate is expecting her first child at the end of December. It’s my mother’s first great-grandchild. This event she does not forget, a gift she seems to have waited for her whole life.

How merry, how bright!

Miller is a founding member of the NC Newsroom Cooperative. Reach her at maryemiller@mac.com or on Twitter, @Thatmaryemiller.

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