Who would have thought it was going to be her last Christmas? I was the one who was ill and tried desperately to hide it because we had family visiting. Nothing could escape her eagle eyes. I was cornered on one of the long drives to meet the family. She purposely chose the seat next to me and that meant only one thing, a lecture was coming, one of those excruciatingly long-winded ones. I groaned mentally. She could be quite persevering when she wanted to extract information. One whole hour of this? Somebody kill me!
The minute the driver revved the engine and we were on the way, she leaned towards me and whispered that she knew I was unwell. I looked at her quizzically knowing full well I had not been healthy for a while. She went on to point out to me that I couldn’t hide anything from her even if I wanted to. Everything was internal how could she have possibly guessed? I rolled my eyes and admitted that I had not been well for weeks and launched into a lengthy explanation of what was going on. As much as possible I would hide all sorts of ailments thanks to my father. His first reaction was to always yell and then once he had cooled down considerably he would ask what had happened. I would mostly hide things to avoid his melodrama. I guess that is something that hasn’t changed.
I was never too happy about the whole family visiting because that meant an invasion of space and endless lectures. The good part of it all was that my parents’ home was rather huge and I could lose myself anywhere. Most times I would just stay locked up in my room and meet everyone at meal times. I was never good around people anyway and I never mastered the art of being a good hostess. How my mom would point that out and I would just ignore. “When I grow up I won’t be entertaining anyone.” I would retort. My dad, knowing what a spitfire I was, made me promise to be courteous and “civil”. “…but they hate me,” I whined at him. “Do it for her, it could be the last time we meet one of them. Age is catching up with us and you never know.” Wow! That was pretty big coming from my dad if you knew him on a personal level.
Ah well, all was forgotten the minute mom started making Christmas sweets. Now who could stay angry when one was surrounded by such aromatic fragrances constantly wafting through the house? I offered to help! I was feeling generous.
“Are you going to help make the sweets or make sure they find their way into that stomach?” my mother poked my ridiculously flat stomach.
“I’ll help, of course, the eating will happen on the side. One has to be sure that the sweets are edible,” I rolled my eyes.
“You know the rule,” she began, firmly. “The perfect cookies go into the box and the misshapen ones can go into your mouth.”
“Yes, yes, the perfect ones in my mouth and the…,” I teased her.
“I will whack you with that hot ladle,” she threatened.
My idea of “helping” was always hovering around her, getting in her way and eating everything that was put on the tray.
Christmas passed with no major calamities or fights (which was a regular feature of the house). Post-Christmas, now that was when it all began to some extent. I had to have an operation just before New Year’s Eve and I daresay I was quite excited about it. I had a readymade excuse to stay away from all social events. “Oh hey, I had an operation yesterday and I have to be home!” Totally legit! I planned on watching TV until I felt sick. I think they were playing the Phantom Menace that year.
That whole Christmas week got me thinking about what my dad had said. We were waiting for the results of the biopsy. Could it be my last Christmas? Weird thoughts raced through my head. What if? Who knew? I was in pain but post-operation pain was nothing new to me anyway. I was ready to take on anything.
Dad’s words kept playing in my mind like a broken record. I thought back to all the past Christmasses. My mom loved Christmas and we went out of our way to cooperate with her and her flamboyant plans long after the magic and belief had died for us. For us, it was just another day but for my mom, it was a day she could do extra stuff to make her family happy. Chocolate hampers, special breakfast and lunch, dinners were usually spent with people who didn’t have anyone to spend Christmas with. My mom would invite them over and we were forced to stay home, not that I minded, I was happy not getting out of the house most times. Sometimes she would invite her friends.
I thought back to how she would gather us together, set a date and time to put up decorations. We had to keep the morning free. She would play her favourite Jim Reeves LP even after we had a cassette player and a CD player. It had to be played on the record player! Oh so vintage but the sound was reasonably clear.
Then there were those chocolate hampers. Long after we grew up and stopped believing in Santa and all things Christmassy the chocolate hampers never stopped. Every Christmas without fail there were all our favourite chocolates and candies carefully put together in our boxes that we had had since our childhood. The stockings had become part of the decorations but we would never outgrow mom’s legendary chocolate hampers. Had I known that was going to be the last chocolate hamper…
I have to admit that December was always an exciting time of year because friends came home. We would plan a couple of outings in between family time but that year I was ill and I had no idea what was going on with me.
Flashback after flashback hit me. I remembered one Christmas my aunt and cousin were down. My dad escorted Santa to our garden where we were all waiting.
The entire household would gather around and our neighbour would join us from behind her wall and of course there was a gift for her too.
Then there were the years we would go Caroling before everyone grew up.
These evenings were always fun. We were allowed to stay out late. Our neighbours would wait for us to get to their houses. These times were magical. The weather was much colder than what it is now.
My mom loved this Santa and every year he was diligently placed at the entrance of the house for every passerby to see. I used to be embarrassed by the attention he attracted and a number of times strangers would ring the doorbell and ask if they could take pictures of the big guy.
Then there was mom’s birthday celebration and we were allowed to choose one location for a photograph.
My choice was a big Chinese Jar which cannot be seen in this pic. I was intrigued by this antique. It was easily over a hundred years back then and I have no idea where my maternal grandfather sourced it out from. My mom would tell us stories about how her mother would store rice in it during the Second World War.
Growing up, midnight mass was the most exciting thing about Christmas. We were allowed to stay up late. I was part of the choir and I enjoyed that. My parents were also a part of the choir and so were my best friends. Everyone gathered together to celebrate Christmas after midnight mass was over.
My dad would play the piano accordion and everyone would join in singing Christmas Carols. Yes, it was a magical time indeed. Everyone was happy and excited. Somewhere between then and now we all grew up.
Whatever it was, whatever happened, mom really worked hard to make Christmas as magical as possible from preparing our favourite sweets to making sure our favourite meal was all laid out for lunch. She went the extra mile to put chocolate hampers together and who knew that year would be the last?
Last year and this, I found myself pining for Christmas at home with my parents. How I wished I could just be there one more time. Just for one more meal, just to swipe sweets off the counter while they were being prepared. Just to aggravate the maid while she stirred a cauldron of dodol (a toffee (sort of) made out of coconut milk, jaggery (a sweetner made out of sugarcane), finger millet. A southeast Asian sweet.) Just to put up all those decorations that would make me agitated thinking about them. Just to put an ornament on a tree or to unwrap the statues of the crib. The magic has long gone but the memories linger on like silhouettes pirouetting in the background.
If only I knew that it was going to be her last Christmas I would have done things differently, played the Carols she wanted instead of making her listen to more modern Carols by various singers. Mom obviously preferred Elvis Presley to Michael Bolton. Heaven forbid I played Firehouse or Twisted Sister or any of those bands. Mom would have definitely pulled the plug on that music over Christmas for sure.
Mom is mom and Christmas with mom was so different. Now it’s hard to tell what I miss more, the magic of it all, receiving that chocolate hamper along with a pile of gifts, or the food through those Christmas weeks. In a way I think mom was trying to keep that magic alive, trying to keep us believing that family and everyone we truly cared for were the most important especially this time of year. Even though I don’t believe in the festival or anything else, I believe in family and the people I care for. I still believe that this time of year a family should be together no matter what the problems are because that’s how my mom always strove to make us believe. She held on and taught us how to hold on and maybe, just maybe, the magic never really died!
(My biopsy results were negative. I received that a couple of weeks later. That was one of the things that changed my life, my thinking, and no I don’t speak about it. Those couple of weeks were a nightmare.
My mom died two months and three weeks after our last Christmas together. Life then changed completely.
Mom always used to say that being alone this time of year is extremely difficult and last Christmas I finally learnt what she meant by that.
Now Christmas for me is spending time with my in-laws, and everyone who is available that day. My home is always open to anyone who doesn’t want to be alone.)
(A couple of days late, I know, but it’s been a bingeful, sinful time of year, and I have been working feverishly on another project which hopefully will be complete in the upcoming months (something for me to look forward to next year). It’s probably the annual itch but I’ve been a little unwell (coincidentally).
To everyone who spent Christmas with family – You have no idea how lucky you are! Cherish these times.