Appallingly Specific Unhappy Christmases

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Appallingly Specific Unhappy Christmases
By Debra Monroe
Date of publication: 
November 28, 2011

Christmas is the Roman Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, fused with the Birthday of the Unconquered Son, fused centuries later with a European festival marking the dead of winter. For me, it fuses into a long nightmare with fake evergreen and strings of lights advertised months in advance, then forsaken on neighbors’ eaves months afterward. But I’m a mother, and I want my kids to love Christmas.

We’re a blended family with blended decorations, each a part of each child’s past, so we put them all up, and two Christmas trees, one upstairs, one down, because that’s how many we need; also a mini-Christmas tree with mini-ornaments in my daughter’s room, a tradition I began when she was little and we were a family of two; another on the porch because no one could discard the ornaments that belonged to my husband’s parents. Did I mention my mother’s porcelain choirboys and my husband’s nutcracker collection? As we deck the halls, knowing we’ll undeck them soon, I feel the ghosts of Christmas Day, old familiar memories replaying — Christmases macabre.

This year, I got out the storage boxes. One item, out of sight and out of mind all year, is a cloth-bound edition of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” a story about love, loss, and outcasts. It was a long-ago gift from my friend, Elise, for whom Christmas is difficult too. When I found it, I was alone, in charge of the downstairs tree — my daughter, stepson, and husband were upstairs, a rollicking good time being had there, laughter echoing in the stairwell.

Two cards fell out of the book, one from my husband on the occasion of our first married Christmas: “Thank you for making our festivities festive.” The other was one of the last cards my mother sent me, thanking me for a box of Omaha Steaks. Reading her tidy script, I knew how unhappy she’d been at the time — newly widowed from a man who’d isolated her. He’d been a terrible husband and, as a stepfather, an iceberg I’d navigated around, my relationship with my mother a whispered conversation taking place in his shadow. She’d never have married him except my father left her for another woman when my youngest sibling came of age. This occurred in the last century — in a tiny, snowbound, northern town. She felt redundant, a reverse spinster, without even a widow’s status. She took the first man on offer.

One Christmas, my mother was in another room, and my stepfather told me he liked the song on the radio, “Time After Time,” which was by the Vienna Boys Choir, he added. I mentioned that it was sung by Cyndi Lauper. The conversation curdled. He called me the last dirty word in the English language. Yet this word has a respectable history, having appeared as recently as the fourteenth century in its Early Modern English form as a gynecological term — “queynte,” in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Though it was regarded as a discreet or private word for the next three hundred years, it wasn’t considered obscene until the seventeenth century.

I said so to my stepfather the second time that, raving, blear-eyed, he said it. What else do you say when you’re making polite conversation, and your stepfather calls you the C-word? It was best if I didn’t visit often, my mother said later. He sometimes got physical. He acted worse with “company.” I didn’t feel relaxed — going to bed while he was drinking vodka, and in the morning he’d be in the same pose, making a gesture toward dawn by topping off the vodka with orange juice.

They were together almost two decades, so when he died I barely knew her. The note in the Christmas card was careful, cordial, as if she hoped I’d befriend her. I should admit that, despite my ambition to turn out more self-protective than her, I repeated some of her life strategies so exactly it chills me. Maybe I set myself up to learn lessons I’d missed — my in-one-lifetime-version-of-karma by which I’d live out my mother’s situation, to sympathize, to better regret years I hadn’t sympathized, especially after my stepfather died and she needed someone to love. I delayed forgiving her, and then she died.

When I was little, she jumped through hoops to make good Christmases — long car rides to North Dakota where we convened with cousins at a third-generation family farm. We leapt off snow-covered hay bales until they toppled, or wore our parkas upside down, our legs slid through sleeves and bottoms swathed by the jacket backs to facilitate a quick slither down a varnished staircase, bump bump, as though it were a corrugated slide. At night, we whispered in the dark about dead relatives. The grownups got us started, talking about a winter my grandfather’s sister and cousin died in December, one from a cold, the other from burns after a flat iron tumbled off its stand. The ground was frozen, so the bodies stayed locked in a barn until a muddy spring day when a wagon headed off with two small coffins. There was a dead uncle too, a whiff of scandal there.

These seemed like ghost stories because we’d never known the dear departed. Remembrances of our ancestral dead added a pleasant frisson to an otherwise wholesome week of feasting and sneaking into silos. I remember getting stuck in a pile of grain until an uncle dug me out. There was a dog-eat-dog element to these holidays too, so many people, the family clench so tight, the glory and influence going to the confident and socially gifted, but these holidays felt essential too, tribal. People would care if I didn’t turn up.

As years passed, we stayed home, and cousins came to us. Once my mother transformed an apple crate into a bassinet for my doll; she made a bassinet cover, tiny sheets and a quilt. We owned a snug house in town, and a cabin on a lake for summer months. We spent some Christmases at the cabin with the water turned off so pipes wouldn’t freeze. We couldn’t take baths, but we had an outdoor privy, ample heat, snowmobiles, food, and the grownups drank.

Alcohol became the main event of my father’s days and nights, helping condition my mother for her second husband. In one last family photo, my brother looks stoned, my mother anxious, my dad blitzed, my sister intent on her fiancé, her route out. My parents got divorced at a time when, in middle America, divorce was a moral disaster. My dad was defensive to the point of fanatical, my mother shocked so deeply you could see it in her demeanor, her wilted posture.

I went to graduate school and saved visits home for summer when, because of longer days, Seasonal Affective Disorder Inverted, people had fewer bad moods. I was living in a Great Plains state. I spent Christmas with friends, including a boyfriend who became a husband. I came home one afternoon, and he’d moved out — he wasn’t cut out for marriage, the note said. I weighed options. I could spend Christmas watching the town empty, snow drifting over highways, but the sky would stay blue, unblinking. Or I could fly back to the tundra with its cloud cover, fir trees so tall they blocked the light. I lived hours from an airport; so did my family. I’d have the plane trip, then icy roads. I feared solitude. After a long day of travel, I got to my father’s. One of my siblings said: “So I know you’re getting divorced, but don’t be a downer. It’s other people’s Christmas too.”

As a child, I’d been my father’s least favorite, a skeptic, and yet — because he figured I’d be more open-minded, or he cared less what I thought — I was the first to whom he introduced his girlfriend. He’d brought her to meet me when I was an undergraduate living close to home. If I felt disloyal to my mother, I pretended otherwise. My father asked to see me, flattering. What did he want? He wanted to go to a bar.

When I came home for Christmas as a soon-to-be divorcee, my dad’s girlfriend, now my stepmother, went to bed early, and my dad decided we’d take snowmobiles to a tavern. One tavern turned into two, three, four. As we left the last one, my dad took the scenic route, looping around a stand of pines so we’d get our speed up and jump a crevasse. I steeled myself, pushed the throttle down, sailed across. He took us around the pines again, again. I kept thinking: my luck is bound to run out. But it didn’t. We went home, put the snowmobiles away, went inside. I thought he’d say I’d done a good job handling “the sled,” as he called a snowmobile. Pouring a drink, he said I wasn’t fun to be with, that he didn’t remember me being so twitchy when I was a kid, but I probably was.

The next day I went to my mother’s. She and my stepfather lived in a house so well-insulated you couldn’t see outside, windows dripping with condensation. It was split-level, with a spiral staircase leading downstairs to a white upholstered bar shaped like an arrow. That night, my stepfather emptied a container of food on my mother’s head while she was asleep.

My mother and I spent the rest of the night in the bathroom, because the door locked. We went on as usual the next day, cooking, trading gifts. When my stepfather drove me to the airport, we left at three a.m., to make my seven a.m. flight. The temperature was minus-thirty. We were barreling down the road when the car heater broke. We went to a gas station, found a piece of cardboard, and put it in front of the grill to keep air from blowing through the grill as wind-chilled air as opposed to merely unheated air. But because we’d hunted for cardboard at gas stations pre-dawn, I missed my flight. My stepfather paid the fee for my changed ticket, and I still appreciate that.

So end northern Christmases. My mother and stepfather moved to the Sun Belt. She phoned me if he wasn’t home, but she never invited me to visit, and I still appreciate that.

I moved west of the Rockies, but stayed in touch with a difficult ex-boyfriend from the Great Plains. He was intelligent, good-looking, cynical. He’d done time for possession of pot with intent to sell. I didn’t see a future with this libertarian with a penchant for dystopian novels and a conviction that Western civilization was on the brink of ruin. Yet, despite his depend-on-no-one view, he missed me, flattering, and I didn’t have another Christmas on offer. He flew to see me.

We drove to a mountain town overrun with wealthy skiers — boom season — to window-shop and gawk at movie stars. In a restaurant, he revived an old quarrel: because I was cheerful, I was naive. I said, “I read an article linking obsessions with the apocalypse to head injuries. Fixating on the end of civilization might be a sign of neurological damage.” I wondered if he’d ever had some blow to the head. “Maybe dystopia is anti-utopia,” I added, “a too-ideal vision that disintegrates in the face of reality.” I’d waved my hands while speaking. My wine glass, round and deep, tipped. A golden orb of chardonnay flew across the table and splashed him.

He left the restaurant.

I paid the bill and hurried outside. We were forty miles from the city where my apartment was. If he tried to walk down the mountain, he’d die of hypothermia. I weaved through streams of well-heeled tourists, including a man who looked like Robert Redford, and a woman who looked a famous somebody with her platinum hair, fur coat, and matching mukluks. I called my date’s name: “Max!” I walked up and down the street. When I came to an alley, I walked down it, calling: “Max! Max!”

One of the ski bum/waiters who lived in an apartment above a business opened his door, stood on the landing, asked: “Is it a German Shepherd you’re looking for?” His breath rose like smoke in the air. I said no, thanked him. I drove down the mountain, my state of mind beyond worried now, resigned. I opened my door, and my answering machine blinked. He’d hitchhiked. He was at the airport. Could I bring his suitcase, and he’d leave on the next flight?

I want to stop now, intermission, and emphasize that I had nice Christmases too. Friends from school married, had babies, and we’d cook, talk, laugh, children scooting underfoot, carrying fire engines or Tickle-Me-Elmos. Once, a woman I barely knew invited me to eat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with her twenty-odd relatives. She didn’t want me to be the only guest without a gift, so she gave me a little box, wrapped, trimmed, and inside was a single marble, pale gray and swirly, imperfectly round, made of Carrara marble. After I graduated, took a job, and moved to a small Southern town, my neighbors invited me for turkey with oyster-and-cornbread stuffing, then games of charades.

Happy Christmases, like happy families, are all alike. Unhappy Christmases, on the other hand, are appallingly specific. Walter Pater’s “A Child in the House,” which is neither a story nor an essay, but a theory about how personality is formed, proposes that certain memories impress like a stylus into wax: pointed memories, piercing memories. Perhaps indistinctly pleasant Christmases are indistinct because pleasure is indistinct and pain isn’t. Or I remember pleasant Christmases less clearly because they felt like haphazard luck — each time I’d think I made it through another Christmas as if with my eyes shut.

I think of the Robert Frost line about home as the place you have to go, and they’re obliged to take you in, which explains a lot. First, returning to family is compulsory, compulsive. Second, in families, people escape censure for egregiously bad behavior — and there they are the following year, next to the Christmas tree, tippling. Every nice Christmas I experienced was someone’s family Christmas I attended as a guest. I’d seen firsthand that some families have good Christmases. I didn’t think mine would.

I made two more rash attempts to celebrate Christmas.

I accepted an invitation from a man I’d just met to spend Christmas with his family on the border. I got sick as soon as I arrived and needed an antibiotic. His mother drove me into Mexico. In a storefront office, she described my symptoms in Spanish I barely understood, and a man at a desk gave us medicine in a vial, and we drove back across the international bridge and found a nurse, a friend of hers, who said to pull down my jeans just a little so she could give me a shot — in her living room, with my friend’s mother watching, sweetly patient. My friend’s mother put me to bed, cooked special foods, insisted on what seemed like unscientific folk remedies — I was not to have citrus! — which turned out to be right, helpful, and I fell in love: with my friend’s mother. But loving someone’s mother is no foundation for romance. I was single the next year when I decided with a friend who also hated Christmas that we’d celebrate the Roman way.

We drove to a city, rented hotel rooms, arranged for a cab. We went to a martini bar, then an elegant restaurant where I drank wine. I stood to go to the bathroom — having first ascertained where it was, plotting my unsteady route to it. The bathroom was exotic, palatial, with high ceilings and mirrors. As I walked in, I noticed a woman. I like her outfit, I thought. Yet what a facial expression! She was copying me, lifting her hand as if she were a mime pretending to be on the other side of glass. I was drunk, my Saturnalian Christmas a failure, I knew, because my well-dressed self in the mirror was pissed off.

I settled down after that. I was adopting a baby. Preparing made me sober, thrifty. Then my mother’s husband died and, for the time since that Christmas he’d driven me to the airport with a broken car heater, I spent the holiday with her. I’d flown to her house for his funeral and felt unsettled by the décor — his taste ran to Naugahyde, chrome, dimmer switches. By Christmas, she’d replaced his furniture with hers, which she’d had in storage. I saw the heirloom pickle dish on the dining room table I hadn’t seen in years, and the old nut bowl — a cross-section of a tree trunk with bark attached. I opened the drawer of the desk where I’d done homework as a girl and found the old floral-painted stamp dispenser. Restoration Christmas. My mother died soon afterward, but she was alive the Christmas my baby arrived. Idyllic Christmas — a stupendously overdressed four-month-old batting at discarded wrapping paper, a merry look on her face.

I grieved my mother’s life and death in a disciplined way, holding my daughter or holding her hand, the synthetic smells of pine and cinnamon, the jingle and pomp and images of intergenerational harmony, omnipresent. I sat next to my daughter in church one night — I’m more pagan than not, but I believe in numinous purpose sometimes lost yet relocated — and I tried to conjure light. The minister prayed for peace, for an end to world hunger, for those of us who aren’t hungry, she added, but likely overfed, both those of us celebrating, and those for whom Christmas reminds us, not of light, but light extinguished.

I was grateful she’d acknowledged we Christmas haters who stiffen while steering shopping carts past tinsel and cocoa displays. My daughter and I put up a tree, hung stockings, baked. Christmas is tricky if it involves one adult and a congenitally gladsome child. Ornaments broke. Frosted cookies got dropped on the floor. One morning I poured my daughter juice, turned on the TV, went back to bed. I heard a crash, then footfalls. Breathless in woolly pajamas, she said, “Mama, I know you said not to, but I was touching that pretty ornament with fringes, and the tree fell on me.” I put the tree back up. I bought her a miniature tree with sturdy ornaments. What was missing? I felt bad I couldn’t give my daughter a not-miserly Christmas, I realized, a sense of family extending.

I gave northern Christmases another try.

My daughter woke in a pile of cousins in sleeping bags. One morning, she asked a teenage cousin if Santa had come in the night, and the cousin said: “I heard reindeer, I think.” They slept in a room with a roaring fire, windows facing a frozen lake, pines just beyond the glass layered in snow so thick a branch sometimes shuddered and collapsed, snow flurrying, then settling, a contained blizzard. My daughter said: “Reindeer, really?”

But, coming or going, we’d get stranded, stuck in a hotel without luggage, toys, or snacks, the only reading material a set of brochures about tourism for the Great Lakes area — swimming and sailing — and meanwhile, outside, white-out. Once, the airline sent us to a motel called Dante’s Inferno. My last northern Christmas, I’d been single for years. But I’d just met the man I would marry. He text-messaged me on Christmas Eve that he missed me.

Christmases after that we hurried between his house in the city, my house in the country, his son’s mother’s house, his parents’ house. At the end of the day, I’d cook something tasty and filling, and we’d wind down, untraumatized. One Christmas, my daughter and I spent Christmas Eve at his house, so we could get to everyone else’s quickly. My daughter slept on the couch, and my then-boyfriend’s son slept in his room. They were eleven and eight at the time, like a pair of elves named Stoked and Giddy. I told them to wake us in the morning.

When they tapped at the door, I asked, “Is it time?” They said it was. I came down the hall. I was humming, possibly singing. I looked at the clock. “Does that say 4:07 a.m.?” I asked. They nodded. I said, “Go back to bed until six.” Stoked Elf (my stepson-to-be) said: “It’s not fair. You were singing a carol until you saw the clock.” At six, we rose again. He handed me a jeweler’s box from his dad and said, his voice roiling with cheer: “Here you go. Good things come in small packages.”

A bad Christmas is a too-ideal memory that disintegrates in the face of changed facts. And a good Christmas is a set of changed facts hard to trust in the wake of bad memories. This December, when our trees were up, all four, my friend Elise called. Years ago, she’d contended with a tragedy worse than almost anyone’s and sometimes went on sea cruises — a morose, incomplete family among shuffle-boarding senior citizens — to get away from sleighs, lights, tableaus of family unity. I said, “We have Christmas crap just everywhere. I told my stepson to decorate the bathrooms and garage next.”

I did say this, and he’d smiled. He loves Christmas. My daughter does, too.

Elise said, “I remember you in the old days, trying not to freak out.”

All the memorabilia is a necessary record, I think. The ornament my first mother-in-law gave me that one long-ago Great Plains Christmas when her son left me came attached to a copper pot of mums — I’d watched the florist van pull up, hoping for a temporary fix, a secret admirer, but, no, less glamorous, my soon-to-be-ex-mother-in-law sending me flowers. Decorations I found packed with my mother’s clothes and china urge me to remember her: indelible, bittersweet scenes. But my good memories outnumber the bad now. I’m not a pseudo-orphan, standing outside a window, staring at other people’s Christmas, wondering how to get one for myself. I’m in the thick of good Christmas.

Still, I’m no Christmas lover. Once the supermarket aisles fill with glittery clutter, Muzak starts playing carols, and strangers bustle past with that once-a-year twinkle, I remember being alone or making ruthless compromises not to be. I never lacked for light, heat, food — just the intangible sense I’d been invited and I should stay. So Christmas is my scarcity festival but also a ritual of faith that days of plenty will return.


Debra Monroe grew up in Spooner, Wisconsin. She’s the author of two collections of stories, two novels, and, most recently, the memoir On the Outskirts of Normal. Her books have been listed as "Required" or "Recom-mended" reading in Vanity Fair, Salon.com, O: the Oprah Magazine, Elle, Southern Living, and People. The memoir was named one of "Best Ten Books of 2010" by the Barnes & Noble Review and several regional newspapers.

She currently lives in Austin, Texas.