My father left his wife and two kids on Christmas day in 1971. I was four. My brother was ten. In the years that followed, the three of us always celebrated together on Christmas Eve. Christmas day was a solitary but exciting affair, when the one unwrapped present from Santa (and the only toy) arrived under the tree. My mother was never there, under the tree with us, on Christmas morning.
I have absolutely zero memories of Christmas as a family of four, and there are no pictures remaining to help me remember. The memories I do carry with me are the ones my mother tried so desperately, without much money, to create. Upon our arrival home from Christmas Eve service, my mother would light a fire, as well as every last candle in the house, and turn off all the lights. It was like magic to me, this candle-lit time, when the ordinary became mysterious and cast shadows on the wall. My mother, my brother, and I would then gather in the front room to open our presents.
Perhaps it was because there were so few of them, or perhaps it was because there were so few of us, or perhaps it was because my mother was trying to savor these few brief moments of her children's happiness. Whatever the reason, we opened our gifts slowly, one at a time, with reverence. Gifts from our mother were always hand-made items (or necessities), and I'm absolutely certain that my brother and I never rewarded her fully with the joy she had hoped to see on our faces. I have asked her forgiveness for this more times than I can count. If it's any consolation, Mom, I still have my skirt with the elaborately embroidered Holly Hobbie on it, and I know that my brother's giant stuffed brontosaurus still lives somewhere (if only in his mind).
It's only now, as a mother of a seven and eight year old, that I can truly appreciate the sleep she must have sacrificed to get those presents under the tree for us. It's only now that I am grateful that she informed my world not with mounds of material things, but with gifts of time and talent. It's only now that I can see how my sense of tradition has carried over into how I raise my own boys.
And it's only now that I am able to recognize her pain and sorrow behind the candlelight during those years. She could have given in to misery and self-pity every Christmas, but she chose to make it special for us, using her sheer will to make it so.
And I am absolutely certain that this melancholy feeling, along with my desire to overcome it with candlelight and small things and willpower, is something I must have learned from her.