My first Christmas separated after 23 years of marriage, I was, by sheer force of my will, going to show my children that we could still have a good holiday even with Dad gone. It’s hard to believe, now, that I really thought I could pull it off when the odds were fully against me: a “good holiday” was us all being together. But I was blindly determined, and I believed that my wild devotion as a mother gave me extra powers to control. So I forced things into place, and, of course, it blew up in my face. I’d like to say I learned my lesson; I didn’t, not fully. That dark season was simply the beginning of facing my own pain–the powerlessness of not being able to do anything about the anguish my son and daughter felt about our family breaking apart.
I have compassion for the trembling and terrified wife I was then, dragging a freshly cut tree through the front door all by myself. With the best intentions, I carried our big red plastic box of ornaments up from the basement, but my despair kept me from popping the green lid off. I knew what lurked: years of motley ornaments we loved. Many of them homemade long ago, from cotton balls and popsicle sticks, falling apart, glue no longer holding. I couldn’t bear to touch them. So, instead, I tied the branches with new lacy pink bows and hung Victorian ornaments of cut crystal glass. I created the most exquisite tree we ever had. It was beautiful and soulless.
It didn’t seem possible that, for the first time since 1993, when our second child was born, we weren’t going to be a family of four, together in our home on Christmas Day. My daughter Madeline had her first job out of college, and she decided to avoid the heartache of coming home to Hartford and worked instead in Boston that day. My son Max had just graduated high school and was living with some friends one town over, and I invited him, and a bunch of people over. Single friends with no extended family, others with no place to go. We had never, ever done that before. I held tight to the illusion that a ragtag bunch of guests was modeling for my children the “true meaning” of Christmas. But late that night, after all the guests left, the pots and pans drying upside down on dishtowels on the counters, Max confronted me as I rinsed the crystal stemware too fragile to stick in the dishwasher.
He began accusing me. “That was the most painful meal I’ve ever had to sit through. You said it would be okay. You begged me to come over and so I came.” He glared. “You said it would be a good meal,” he repeated. “You promised. I didn’t want to come here!”
Flabbergasted, I stammered. “I thought it would be good to–I decided– have people over. I don’t know–to have friends, and try and sti-”
“Who were those fucking idiots at the end of the table?”
“Cindy and her daughter Hennie.”
“And why would I want to have them here?”
“I was just—Christmas–I hoped–”
He shouted, “There were no mashed potatoes.”
Though nineteen, at that moment, he looked baffled as an eight-year-old. I suddenly grasped what he was saying. And there was nothing I could do. He was right. Every Christmas, for his whole life, we’d pulled our chairs as a family of four to the table set with our gilded wedding china. Their father peeled and boiled a ten pound bag of Idaho potatoes, and mashed them with immense amounts of salt and pepper and cream and who knew how many sticks of fresh butter? No matter how delicious the turkey or tenderloin or ham, their Dad’s mashed potatoes were the real entrée of our meal, an enormous overflowing bowl, steaming in the center of the table, too heavy to pass. We would all stand up and scoop dollops onto our plates. Throughout the night and the next day, we all raided the refrigerator, eating the leftovers cold with the door open.
But not that year.
I was too stunned to even cry. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
My son said nothing more. He exited the kitchen with a twisted expression on his face. The front door slammed.
I was alone in the house once again, switching off all the lamps. I found the present I made for Max. He’d left it behind, ripped open. I’d enlarged one of my recent photographs of a lone seagull flying in a yellow sunset. I had cut out and glue-sticked the lines of a poem by Hafiz. “I once asked a bird, ‘how is that you fly in this gravity of darkness?’/ She responded, ‘Love lifts me.’” I reached through the scratchy pine branches and unplugged the glowing white lights of the tree.
I don’t want to say that this was five years ago, because it seems it should hurt less by now. My children are young adults now and we’ve struggled to heal. I got divorced, moved out of that house, and I have those family Christmas decorations in the attic here. And while I never decorated another tree with them, I did climb the rickety stairs in my new house and put them in the attic. And the potatoes? Last Thanksgiving, my son was in California with a large group of his buddies, and they cooked a feast, and he made the mashed potatoes. I cried when he told me.