The Greatest Gift

I’ve had so many friends offering comfort for me this Christmas, the first one without my mom. The first one for us without any living parents. For our tiny little family it means the entire circle consists of 7 of us:  Jim and I, Brian, Nantana, Connor, and of course, Magic and Molly. But it’s quality that counts, not quantity, and I couldn’t ask for six more wonderful living beings around the table of my life.

This Christmas has not been as difficult as you might expect. Music has again offered great comfort - not just the performing of it, but the community within which I do that. It consumes a lot of time, which is good for me because I have plenty of time on my hands and these days I’m not always good at productive or positive self-direction. I’ve been writing a lot, too, keeping a promise to myself to write here once every week. I’ve spent some time helping my friends Deb and Melissa prepare our beautiful (print!) Modern Creative Life anthology for publication. All good ways to keep the grief demon at bay.

Truthfully, Christmas has not been a happy time for us for many years. From the time my dad left in October 1989, Christmas was never the same for my mother. We were all horrified that first Christmas after he unexpectedly filed for divorce, abruptly sold his business, left home and moved to Florida just a few weeks later. I remember being in the local grocery store with my mom the week before Christmas that year and finding her standing in the baking supplies aisle with tears streaming down her face, the lonesome strains of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” playing on the audio system. “I hate that damn song!” she said, blowing her nose and wiping her eyes. That was the year she threw away all her Christmas decorations, all the ones we had put on the tree for most of my life. 

Our Christmas never completely recovered. Just a few years later, Brian left home for college, and rarely came back to Michigan at Christmas time. My mother wouldn’t travel to Florida so every year it was a choice between being with our son and his family, or leaving her here in Michigan alone. She always said she didn’t care, that Christmas “didn’t mean anything” to her. But no matter what choice we made, no matter where we spent the holiday, I felt torn. Someone was always missing. 

In the past few years before she died, the holiday was particularly hard for her. Her physical decline meant she couldn’t prepare the big meals she liked for us, or do all the baking she once did. Nor could she get out and shop for gifts, which she had always loved to do. Those were the things that made her happiest - feeding people, giving them things she knew they would enjoy. She loved picking out beautiful expensive shirts and ties for Jim, going to small independent men’s clothiers and getting him “different looking” sweaters and jackets. Each year she’d spend time at the jewelry counter at Hudson’s, picking out the perfect pair of earrings for me, or a delicate bracelet. “I just thought that looked like you,” she’d say, when I exclaimed over it’s beauty. If I protested that I really didn’t need more jewelry, she’d always say, “It wouldn’t be any fun if you needed it!” 

(Re-reading that paragraph, you’ll understand why I have to stop and wipe my own eyes and blow my own nose.)

So in the last five years, we fell out of the habit of buying gifts at all.  I always made a calendar with photos of the dogs for her, and sometimes I might get her a pair of her favorite warm, fuzzy pajamas. 

“Don’t buy me anything, honey,” she’d say. “I have too much stuff already. Just get me a pretty card.” Each year she gave us a beautiful card with a check inside, and the inscription, “You are my greatest gift.” 

It’s true, you know. I was her greatest gift. I can say that without any undue pride, because I have a child (and now a grandchild) I feel the same way about. 

But I also had a mother who was just as great a gift to me. I hope she knew that. There is nothing on earth that will ever replace my mother’s love and companionship. No jewelry, no sweaters, no fancy houses or cars. No trips to Europe, no cruises to Alaska. I can’t buy the feeling that came with those home cooked turkey dinners or chocolate cakes. I can’t order from Amazon Prime the comfort in those late night talks on the phone.

I can never find anything that will make me feel as loved as those words she wrote inside every card she gave me: “You are my greatest gift."

Tomorrow we pack up the dogs and a months worth of clothes and books and travel to southwestern Florida where we will spend Christmas and the month of January. It may be the start of a new tradition. It may be a one time only experience. Whatever else, it will be an adventure for us and I hope it will be a happy one. God knows, we need something to relieve the unremitting sorrows of this horrible, awful year. 

Last year at Christmas, my mom was so sick. I knew it would be the last Christmas we ever had with her. I managed to convince her to come to our house for a while, and I made the turkey casserole I always made at Christmas, the one she said she couldn’t make nearly as well, and that she always enjoyed so much. I remember her sitting at our dining room table, obviously in pain, and picking at the spoonful she had allowed me to put on her plate. “It’s so good, honey,” she said, “but I just can’t eat any more.” Shortly after we ate, I took her home and sensed her relief when she was inside and back in her favorite chair.

“I just hate holidays,” she said wearily. 

“I know, Mom,” I answered. “I don’t like them much anymore either."

“Now if Christmas could be the way it used to be...” she said, as her voice drifted off into memories of happier times.

But times change. There is sadness and loss, both of which sometimes increase with age. 

But one thing never changes. It’s the gift of love that’s the greatest, to give and receive. I’ve been rich with both.

May you be rich with it too, this year and forever more.