My kids don’t have any Christmas memories that don’t involve my mom. She had been at our house every Christmas since 1999, and before then we had been together pretty much every Christmas in one house or another. But since my mom passed away (those words are never going to seem real) in August, we are going to spend our first Christmas without her. ugh.
There are so many Christmas traditions that include her…making lists and menus, preparing appetizers on Christmas eve, constructing sticky gingerbread houses out of graham crackers and a dozen different kinds of candy. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about all the things we are supposed to be doing with her this season that we can’t do.
But when I get really sad, I can almost hear her telling me that it’s OK. And I know that she never would want us to mope on Christmas. So I tried to think of the best Grandma Donna story, the one that epitomized all the amazing holiday memories we shared together. To be honest, it all blurs together into a big cozy, comforting memory of her presence. I realized that the holiday memory that stands out the most doesn’t exactly include cookies or gifts….
….my mom always slept in the living room on the couch when she visited our house. It was where she wanted to be. My kids would usually make their way downstairs before I woke up, and they would be helping her make pancakes by the time I meandered to the kitchen.
One Christmas Eve morning before anyone was awake, my husband Gary’s cell phone rang on our bedside stand. Usually a call at 5am means bad news, so Gary anxiously picked up his phone and checked the caller ID.
“Um. It’s your mom.” Calling from downstairs….? “Hello?”
“Hi Gary,” she whispered. “It’s Donna.”
“Hi,” he said quizzically. “Are you still here?”
“Yes. I think there’s a bat in your living room.” She said it calmly, out of character for someone who is terrified of rodents and all things small and furry.
Gary’s head dropped. “OK. I’ll be right down.” Our old house has had more than our share of flying vermin, and the task of bat-catching has always fallen to Gary. Sexist or not, as long as there is still gender inequality in the world, I will claim that this nasty job is his.
He pulled on a hooded sweatshirt and slunk downstairs. Gary found my mom, usually a rather proud and dignified grandma, huddled under her blanket in the living room while the bat must have found a perch out of sight.
“Why don’t you come out here,” he said from the dining room. She was afraid to move for a few moments. Eventually, she crouched and half crawled out of the room like she was ducking under a helicopter M*A*S*H style. Finally free in the dining room, she explained that she had gotten up to use the bathroom, and she felt the chain from the ceiling fan brush her hair. Then she remembered that ceiling fan didn’t have a chain, and she realized in horror that the whooshing sound she heard was the bat’s wings as it brushed by her head.
My mom and I shuddered and cowered in the safety of the dining room. My son, Sam, who was about 7 years old at the time, was the next one awake. He huddled with my mom and me while Gary carefully poked around the living room.
Gary finally found the vermin hanging upside down on a curtain rod. He opened the sliding glass deck door and hoped that the cold air would make the bat sluggish, or even better, it would decide to just fly out. The rest of us went about our business for a while. My mom made pancakes with Sam as she always did, after washing her hands like she was scrubbing for surgery.
After about an hour, my daughter Gracie, age 3 at the time, came downstairs. Sam, always her protector, put his arm around her and filled her in. “Gracie, there’s a bat in the living room. But don’t worry. It’s just a regular bat. It’s not the kind that sucks your blood.” Gracie nodded seriously. At that, my mom dissolved into hysterical laughter–silent, tears running down her face, full body shaking hysterics.
The rest of us didn’t really get the joke, but watching her come unglued like that was so much fun.
It’s not a memory that has anything to do with Christmas or cookies, decorating or gifts. But it makes me smile, and hurt, but mostly smile every time I think about it. And it reminded me that it’s the regular stuff that matters the most. The big days, the holidays, the events are important. But it’s the everyday moments that stand out to me. The way my mom got that happy grin when we made our list of special foods for Christmas Eve. The feeling of seeing my kids curled up with her reading books on the couch. Talking politics and hearing her opinions in intelligent detail about a dozen different current topics.
So this Christmas, we will do our best to appreciate the moments in between the big stuff, because I know that’s what she would want us to do. And every time I want to cry because she isn’t here, I will try to remember what it felt like to watch her laugh herself silly in my dining room, with my kids, on a Christmas Eve morning not so long ago.