After my mother died in 2006, one of her good friends and sorority sisters, Marianne, gave my brother, dad and I a beautiful frame with an old picture of my mother when she was in her twenties with the poem, “Merry Christmas From Heaven.” I have hung up this frame every year over the last 12 Christmases. It’s been in my townhouse in Volo, Ill., during my first marriage, it was in my one-bedroom West Loop apartment when I got divorced, it glanced over at me in my studio apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey (and might have been glaring at my high monthly rent cost), it was hung in my cute little house I lived in for a year in Lake Forest, Ill., and then last year it was displayed proudly in our new home of what I call, a little pocket of suburbia in the city of Chicago. Regardless, I also have inherited all my mom’s Christmas decorations that my poor dad has basically kept for me in and out of storage, while I have moved in and out of the last seven homes throughout the years. Many years, my little apartments weren’t suited to put up this outdoor décor.
This year, to be honest, I didn’t feel like celebrating Christmas. I was shocked to learn I was pregnant this summer and after losing the baby, I was ok, but I just didn’t feel very grateful. That combined with some custody issues with my 13-year-old stepdaughter and I started questioning whether or not the great joy of motherhood would actually ever be for me.
But this year, before we my husband and I left for our trip to Argentina, I begrudgingly put up a fake tree and made him help me set up candles and wreathes with maroon (not red) bows in every window in our home. The candles are literally more than 20 years old and their glow is still as ever bright. I could buy new ones that are less yellow and don’t even need to be plugged in, but there is a magic in no one except me seeing how old and rattled these lights are. They are some of the only memories I have left of my mom. These candles were a staple in the town of Hudson, Ohio, where I lived from age 10-17. It’s my hometown and my longest childhood best friend Krista actually just sent me a belated wedding gift with a beautiful blanket and coffee table book from Hudson. I think she sent me an ornament too, but I threw it out accidentally, because I didn’t look fully in the box after being so excited about the other gifts. I feel terrible, as ornaments are so precious to me and I only put ornaments with meaning on my own tree.
Our family had a tradition in our house that every year, my brother and I would pick out an ornament that signified that year. I skated as a child, so there are a million ice skates, but there are also ones like an angel when my grandpa passed away, a piano, a Care Bear, a Cabbage Patch Kid, graduation cap and gowns etc. I still actually buy myself one ornament a year to signify the year. Last year, we had one for our upcoming wedding and we also had one I won at an ornament exchange last year with a baby holding a Christmas tree. I figured it signaled good fertility in the year to come, so I went with two ornaments last year.
Once my husband and I returned from our trip abroad over Thanksgiving, I was feeling actually very rejuvenated and thankful for such a “once in a lifetime” trip. It was already the end of the first week of December and I couldn’t really get the energy to put these ornaments on the tree. So I sat there for many nights, looking at this fake Christmas tree with the lights on, but no ornaments. Sure, I put a few standard gold ones on and the ribbon, but I couldn’t get myself to put the individual yearly ornaments up. I looked at the box with my mom’s perfect second grade teacher handwriting on it and I just was angry. I was angry that at this point in my life, I had not become a real mom myself. I almost felt like a loser for even getting myself an ornament every year since she died. What’s the point? What does this all mean? Why am I doing this? I even toyed with the idea that at least this year, the tree would be easier to take down with less ornaments when the hectic start of the New Year would begin. After many days of these thoughts and staring at the ornament box in the corner, I hit a deadline. One, I had several friends coming over for a gift exchange and my tree looked a little, well, bare. And two, I came to the realization that maybe there were years in my mom’s life too that she didn’t want to put the ornaments on the tree, but she did anyway.
There were years when my dad had lost his job, there were years that we had moved, there were years where my brother and I weren’t being good teenagers, then there was her cancer. The tree still went up the year she actually spent her Christmas Eve in the hospital in the ICU. And it had all of our ornaments. After recalling all this, I decided to put up the rest of my own ornaments this year. I didn’t play Christmas music like I normally did, but in almost a somber ceremony, as quickly as possible, I put all 38 ornaments I have gathered from my life each year on our tree. I actually found one at the DePaul gift store to signify this year of becoming a professor, instead of what I had hoped would have been a baby ornament. I realized in this moment, that my mom is always watching. And a force that I can’t explain made me remember, that through good and bad times, it is important to always be present.
My memories that hold most true and dear to my heart are actually of Christmas and my mom. My mom, like me, I think had a love/hate relationship with the whole holiday season. As kids, she would write letters to us on a typewriter from Santa in special stationary. For our one big present, “Santa” would always have a scavenger hunt – I’ll never forget the year we found Nintendo in the washing machine. I remember seeing her stress out though. When it came to Christmas, she was a perfectionist.
Actually, she was a perfectionist with everything in life. But at Christmas, I knew she calculated down to the penny the amount she equally spent on both my brother and I. But there were years with yelling and a couple times the tree in our two-story foyer actually came crashing down (the Cabbage Patch Kid ornament broke that year and now it sits in the ornament box in a plastic bag in pieces). She would disguise her handwriting on presents, as we got older, so we would believe in Santa as long as possible. My brother and her had a tradition of singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and dancing together. While my mom was really never the “baking cookies” type, her decorations, which are now mine, happened to be some of the most classy, magazine-like Christmas decorations I have ever seen. Very “Eileen” Stewart of her!
This year, as soon as I finally begrudgingly put up the ornaments on our tree, I found out from my dad that my mom’s longtime friend, Marianne, had passed away, the friend who gave me the “Christmas in Heaven” poem. That night, right before I was going to have my own sorority sisters from college over at our house, the frame I had cherished for 12 years came crashing down. I realized then as I was picking up the glass, that it wasn’t a coincidence. Angels at Christmas are real and they are always watching. I haven’t been able to put my mom’s poem that Marianne gave to us back in a new frame, so I’ll share it with you here:
“I still hear the songs. I still see the lights. I still feel your love on cold wintery nights.
I still share your hopes and all of your cares. I’ll even remind you to please say your prayers.
I just want to tell you, you still make me proud. You stand head and shoulders above all the crowd.
Keep trying each moment to stay in His grace. I came here before you, to help set your place.
To my family and friends, please be thankful today. I’m still close beside you. In a new special way.
I love you all dearly, now don’t shed a tear. Cause I’m spending my Christmas with Jesus this year.”
So as I get ready to visit my mom’s grave and toast with Eggnog for our yearly ridiculous, somewhat morbid, somewhat humorous Christmas Eve tradition with my dad, my new husband, my brother and his girlfriend and my stepbrother, Matt, who sometimes comes along for fun, I think as much as the world has changed for the better or the worst in the last 12 years, it’s important to remember that good or bad, the angels are always there, and that the presence of Christmas is always in our hearts. Just put up the tree, hang that last ornament, just see the lights and just remember, despite your own sadness, the world is overall, bright.
I hope you also let the light overcome any darkness you may have had this year in 2017.
My mother and I on New Year’s Eve, the last one I celebrated with her before she died of a rare form of uterine cancer called Leiomyosarcoma.