That Christmas there were more presents under the tree than I had ever seen.
Instead of it’s usual place in the tiny library, mirrored and panelled, or tucked in a corner beside the TV, someone, likely my aunt and cousins, had decided to place it under the spiral stairs, the concession my father had made for my mother after trying more than once to make them. He called in friends, drunks really, but masters of the torch and steel, and in two days, we had beautiful, stark, painful metal stairs, black as night.
Underneath these, my mother’s pride and glory, sat our tree, it’s old painted lights, crocheted Santa, gold glitter stars morose on the limbs. My brother and I had moved some around. Santa goes near the top. The Shillelagh on the right side to hang loose, our kindergarten paper trees each on one side, near the bottom. Wordlessly we made these changes, glancing at each other rarely, moving our memories into their rightful places.
You could barely move around the tree for all the presents.
In spite of myself I was thrilled will all the gifts-the gilt ribbons shiny in the lights, the small Santa’s and beribboned dogs grinning on the paper, the sheer mass of it meant to alleviate the pain of that year, of this one last Christmas. We didn’t speak of it, or at least, it wasn’t spoken of around me. But my mother’s family was never with us at Christmas. Ever. And this year they were, and what’s more, they brought presents. I could feel the tense waiting, the shaky ancient pain biding it’s time in everyone. The inevitablity of it all.
I’d sit and fritter away spare moments I could find in between all the people, sitting next to this pile, this hoard of stuff, pretty packages with my name written neatly on tags, helpless love transformed to something tangible. My fingers would drag across the smooth glossiness, imagining what lay behind the wrapper, the wonders we might hold in a few days. I’d stare at the lights on the tree until red-blue-green became imprinted on my skull, and I’d have to blink for minutes to see the faces frowning at me, telling me to get up, quit hiding.
Surrounded by family I barely knew, and a mother who was home hurting, her body swelling up and turning once again on itself. Remission they had whispered, but we all knew better. This was one last Christmas, and the birds were home to roost, swaddled in smiles and stories and the blunt knowledge of eulogies and endings. Surrounded that Christmas by sadness, I clung to the pretties under that tree.
That Christmas was the one in which, if I remember correctly, and maybe I don’t because my memory is something I let slip from those days, my mother began my initiation into womanhood. Camisoles and lessons on applying skin cream. A radio for my room, with a tape recorder, since I was growing older. Her permission to look forward, to become something else, and yet, held back, remote. The denial, the natural snap back of a mother watching her daughter becoming a woman. She couldn’t quite take her hands away.
Yet my favorite gift that year, the one that most meant I was growing up, was a cheap plastic jewellry box, bright pink, with a flower on top, given to me by my mother’s sister. My Aunt G was gaudy and loud and owned a tarantula and a snake and ate sardines from the tin while smoking menthols. She had feathered hair, and was divorced, her last name and that of her kids different, and confusing. I loved that woman. She was everything my mother wasn’t-being fun, and interesting and exciting, exotic really for me. My mother was sick and boring, and my Aunt, well, she gave me what I wanted most-unapologetic womanhood, the ability to BE a woman however I wished.
The jewellry box was what I had wanted to be for so long. Pretty and frivoulous and me, just for the sake of it. I owned nothing worth putting inside of it-it was the principle of if someday I HAD something, I had a place to put it. To my mother, growing up was a betrayal, just another thing she must have known somehow, she’d never be around to see. Her sister encouraging it, likely seemed an even bigger betrayal. The places she would never know.
Somehow, I felt that too. That gift, which on one hand filled me with glee, wafted a sadness around me, the reality of the female things in my life, in my future, being so sparse and few. I held that cold plastic box in my hands and felt empty somehow.
4 months later she would be dead, and we all knew it. My father spent that Christmas buying things to keep her warm, cover the pathways radiation had marked on her. She couldn’t get most over her head for the pain and swelling, and returned all his efforts. Straggling behind her on these trips to the store, when she pushed herself past the pain, and tried, vainly, to find something that would fit, that would work, I witnessed yet another type of womanhood-the strength and power of hope and dream. Sheer will. The refusal of pity, and yet the need to look quite lovely.
Even dying inside, rotting slowly to the core, her lipstick was perfect, her wig washed, her handbag matched her shoes. Death didn’t have to be ugly, and no she’d say I don’t look as sick as I am do I?