Five days before Christmas twelve years ago, my mother learned that her mom had died unexpectedly about a thousand miles away from us. I was sitting on the floor as she answered the curly cord phone on her bedside table. I watched her face sink from happy to confused to upset to an expression I’d never seen before and will never be able to un-see. She cried her brother’s name into the phone and asked, “what happened?”
Within a day we had packed ourselves and our new unhousebroken puppy into the car to drive west to Michigan and do all the things that you do when your grandmother dies. I told my family that I would read something at her wake, so I picked out a poem titled, “When Tomorrow Starts Without Me.” I stood up to the podium and barely made it through the first stanza before completely crumbling under a cascade of salty tears. So that was our Christmas.
That year, like every year before it, there were piles of gifts under the tree, and I’m sure we opened them all when we got back home, and I don’t remember a single one.
The funny (strange, not ha-ha) thing about Christmas is that it is universally considered the most joyful of times, yet it simultaneously has the unique potential for being incredibly damn sad as well. It’s the perfect time for the absence of a loved one to feel all the more shitty. It’s the time when family divides become all the more divisive. It’s the time when the have-not’s all of a sudden have even less than they never had. On top of all this, statistically and historically speaking, wintertime brings more death than any other time of the year. (January specifically brings the most death of any month. I looked up why and the Internet said it’s because the dying, “tend to hang on for the Christmas holidays for some reason.”) For some reason.
But back to gift-giving, and fast forward about seven years. Because by then my sister and I had grown up a bit and also very little, and it became obvious that the act of gift-giving at Christmastime was just too problematic and tiresome for our family. No one knew what to get each other or in what size or what to spend or if you’d like it or if it would arrive on time, and one Christmas, I threw an adult temper tantrum and a pair of pajamas across my kitchen. I actually threw a pair of pajamas.
When the next Christmas rolled around, it was decided there would be no gifts. No gifts!, it was declared over email. And for the most part, that’s how it’s been ever since. I say “for the most part” because my mom still stuffs our stockings. Stuffing the stockings is a tradition she just won’t let go of and the truth is that none of us want her to. So there are some socks and candy and lip gloss, and at the very bottom always, a Clementine.
In many respects, it’s nice not having to buy expensive gifts at Christmastime—after all, they had become unsuccessful objects of distraction from the emotions of the holiday. And for the most part we’ve settled into our little version of celebrating it, and it’s nice.
But our uber-connected world offers just as many objects of distraction as the gifts that may or may not be under the tree. Logically, we realize that Hallmark families and Kay Jeweler couples don’t really exist like they appear to in our Instagram feeds. Logically, we know there’s a story that story isn’t telling. That beneath that mountain of presents under that mammoth Christmas tree on someone’s Facebook wall, there’s possibly also a mountain of debt or insecurity. Or that behind the picture-perfect post from our favorite food blogger, there’s maybe a mother sacrificing quality time for quality images, addicted to checking her unique monthly visits. Or that someone’s family photo is missing someone they love but from the outside you can’t see the empty space. Really, it’s easy to see people packaged up with a bow; it’s harder to know in your heart that maybe they are hurting as well, that they are struggling like you are. Like all of us are. Because during the holidays it gets wrapped up and put through a filter. Walden. Valencia. Rise. Like. Reblog. That app that gives everything a soft lens flare sparkle.
More than anything on Christmas day, what makes my heart ache is seeing someone’s Three Generations in One Photograph, though most people don’t bother to caption these photos as such. When it gets to Four Generations or Five Generations perhaps, but Three Generations…it’s just such a simple thing, so commonplace for most people. Like you’d forget how special it was unless someone pointed it out. Like a gift you never bothered to write a thank you note for. Like a Clementine at the bottom of your stocking. Like the mom you love who put it there.