The tree is beautiful. The lights are warm. The couch makes for a cozy corner under the shaded icicle lights in the window. There’s a colourful knitted stocking hanging from the mantle waiting for chocolate treats to be hidden inside. The presents are starting to pile up under the tree and more are waiting to be wrapped. The kitchen still smells faintly of gingerbread from the cookies sitting on the table. It’s a pretty picturesque pre-Christmas scene. It could be like any Christmas.
But it’s not. It’s that first Christmas, where nothing is the same. That first major holiday where the absence of someone in your life is even more profoundly felt than usual.
Nothing is the same.
For years we have celebrated Christmas in Nana’s house. Both before and after Hawkeye was born, it was unthinkable for us to be anywhere else. Christmas itself has never been a holiday my own family celebrated, as we have (and still do in the US) traditionally celebrated New Year the way I grew up in Russia. But over the years I have become quite accustomed to the family traditions of Christmas from The Mister’s childhood.
This year we are not going West (though we are still hoping to make it out there after the holidays to visit family). Aunt Strawberry is not able to come home from Kuwait this holiday. We are staying in Dublin on our own, just the three of us. This will be the first year we are making our own Christmas dinner. This is the first year I am making plans to take a peek at the St. Stephen’s day sales in the city centre.
But mostly, this is the first Christmas without Nana. It’s like the elephant in the room. That bittersweet undertone to everything that happens. You can forget for a while until the memory catches you off-guard unexpectedly. I think back to that first New Year after dad died. My brother, Kay, and I knew that the most important thing was to get mum out of the house so we did just that. We arranged for the whole family to meet up in Paris where mum’s cousin lives. The Mister and I flew in from Ireland. Mum came over from the US. Kay was pregnant when she flew over with my brother and their first child. He’s a teenager now but back then he was still a toddler. It was a cold, wet Parisian winter. Mum and I both came down with a bad cold. We drank our sorrows, toasted my dad with vodka and home made calvados, and indulged in wonderful home made French cuisine. It was a welcome opportunity to get together with family that we rarely see, an exotic distraction, but it was also a bit like the weather. In retrospect, I mostly remember it being dreary and cold. The Mister, thrust into a family with whom he was not yet terribly familiar and contending with not just one but two foreign languages around him, still grounded me while I moved through the holiday in a numb sort of state. Every night the two of us would crawl up a ladder into the attic bedroom and I would try and forget the real reason we were in Paris. But then, dad and I hadn’t spoken much before he died. We disagreed more often than anything else. My strongest feeling that I faced at night wasn’t grief. It was regret. Well, regret and guilt. Regret for the relationship that I didn’t have with my dad by the time he passed away, and guilt for the knowledge that it made his actual passing easier to bear.
Trying to observe the coming holiday, I can see once again that nothing is the same. The Mister didn’t have the same relationship with his mother that I had with my dad. I was able to focus on my mom, but while The Mister has Hawkeye who commands our attention masterfully, he presents a different sort of distraction. You can easily escape the company of another adult for a little while, but you cannot escape the demands of your own child even if you desperately want some time for yourself. And of course, we’re not away anywhere. For better or for worse, instead of distracting ourselves with tourist attractions and being guests, we can either get lost in our regular routines, or get lost in missing those routines that are no longer available to us.
There was never any doubt in my mind that this would be a difficult holiday season and I am once again in uncharted waters. But, as I wrote once before in the midst of the funeral arrangements, parenting goes on regardless. So Hawkeye has become our guiding light. In the absence of knowing what might make this Christmas harder or easier, I have instead tried to make it as colourful and cheerful as possible for our son. The Christmas tree is more festive than ever, we have new lights in our windows. There is a nice stocking hanging for him (and who knows, for next year I might even come through on my threat of knitting my own!) I mean, hell, I even bought a red table cloth for the Christmas dinner. There will be milk and cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph on the fireplace. Don’t tell The Mister, but I’m even working on a Christmas music play list.
But those are all distractions. In addition to distraction, there has to be remembrance as well. So in one of my feverish trawls through shops while I was under the weather earlier this month I came across a set of clear plastic baubles intended to hold photographs. What I have to remember is that it isn’t just that first Christmas. It is a Christmas of many firsts. We are in our new house for our first Christmas together as our own family. And while we cannot celebrate this achievement with the people we want who are closest to us, we can make our own new traditions to remember them and their role in our life.
So I have put up photographs on the Christmas tree of family that we want to keep close to us. Some, like Nana and our fathers, are no longer with us. Others, like my mum, my brother and his family, like Aunt Strawberry and her Chap, are simply too far away to share the holiday with us in person this year. The photos are still a work in progress (hey, I’ve still got tomorrow, ok?) but I’m pretty happy with how they’e turned out and I know now that I will be adding more photos next year.
So here’s to our first Christmas in our own home. It won’t be easy. There might be some tears. But there will also be laughter and silliness, and of course presents. And much, much video skyping. There may even be some Christmas gumbo, if The Mister feels up to it. Because some traditions simply must be respected and one of those is the fact that Nana never cooked turkey for Christmas dinner. Why start now?