Nothing feels right…”
-Sufjan Stevens, That was the Worst Christmas Ever!
About three weeks ago, as I was getting ready to go to work, Mom started assembling the Christmas tree. It was our old artificial tree we’ve had for years. As much as I always wanted a real tree, artificial ones didn’t shed and didn’t cost any extra money each year. So, artificial it’s always been.
As she untangled the lights and checked for broken ornaments, the phone rang. It was my grandmother complaining about a pain in her arm. Mom stopped what she was doing and tried to get a doctor’s appointment. As I walked out of the door, I saw the frustration in my mom’s face. No one was available. I told Mom to text me with updates while I was at work, knowing she wouldn’t. She never did. But she said she would and I went to work.
I came home, having never gotten a text message, and found Mom finishing up the tree.
“Looks good,” I said.
“Eh, it’s leaning.”
I stepped back and saw that it did have a severe curvature going on. I’d noticed the leaning in previous years but it was always slight, maybe from a few too many ornaments on one side or from the sections not being properly secured in their notches. But this lean was looking legit, like it was an old man trying to grab the wall for support.
“Oh, well, it’ll have to do,” my mom said as she plugged in the tree lights. It burst into a warm glow and sprayed light onto the wall like a gold sneeze.
“How’s Grandmother?” I asked.
Mom sighed. “Well, I never could get a hold of anyone but I got dressed and went to see her and she was fine after she took some medication.”
“Well, that’s good,” I said. Mom had been chauffeuring my grandmother around to different doctors due to her skin cancer and other ailments and had looked forward to a quiet day of decorating at home. It always seemed like something came up any time Mom made plans to relax. I feared those quiet days at home were going to become less and less.
“We’re gonna have to get another tree,” Mom said as she cocked her head to the side, examining it. “Even the ornaments are starting to fray and wear.”
She wasn’t incorrect but I didn’t think it looked too bad. Although worn down, it was all much better than our old trees. Mom used to use the multi-colored lights and an assortment of mismatched ornaments that my sister and I had made in art class or that she’d been given by friends and family, hand-painted and pretty putrid. But after years of sentimental spruces, Mom chunked the old tree, boxed up the clay ornaments with my initials and the year on the bottom, and bought a brand new fake tree with a set of matching ornaments.
I always thought our newest tree had a bit more class with its gold and burgundy balls flecked with glitter, ornate crosses and silken ribbon tied in bows, cohesive gold lights, and glittered sticks pierced through small burgundy and gold orbs like kabobs placed atop the tree in a starburst pattern. But we’ve had that setup for several years now. The tree is showing signs of age, it’s spine leaning, the weight of years of Christmases finally taking its toll. Maybe next Christmas is time a fresh start.
Christmas Eve came and after a long day at work, I came home and got ready to receive my relatives. My sister showed up first, followed by my grandmother and uncle. I was glad to see my grandmother’s nose bandaged. I wasn’t sure how severe her cancer excision wound would be and wasn’t interested in finding out, especially during our Christmas dinner. But sure enough, right after the meal started, the bandage gave way and she just ripped the rest of it off so as not to impede her chowing down.
I was surprised that it didn’t look as bad as I thought. Her nose was still intact but was just scabbed from one tear duct to the next. It still wasn’t a great sight, the kind of schnoz you’d see Freddy Krueger sporting in one of the sequels, but she wasn’t as nose-less as my mother’s earlier description had indicated.
I didn’t ask for any presents because I couldn’t think of anything to ask for. When you get older, you just buy yourself what you want. So when I opened up my packages of socks and undershirts, I wasn’t surprised. My mom’s go-to move when she doesn’t know what to get her children for Christmas is to load us up with undergarments. I was okay with that. I needed some new ones. I’ve worn holes in or stained up many of mine. You know you’re getting older when you open up a pack of socks and you’re not abhorred but appreciative.
After presents and pie, Mom went over to tend to my grandmother’s nose, cleaning and bandaging it, and that segued into a conversation about cancer insurance. My father, being the omniscient presence that he is, had to butt in with his own opinion on the matter, which irritated everyone. My dad doesn’t know anything beyond his backyard but he believes his incessant ingestion of Fox News has educated him on all matters. It hasn’t.
I don’t understand why we have to talk about politics and other touchy subjects during family gatherings. But, yet, we always seem to do just that. And everyone ends up aggravated.
And that aggravation spilled on over into the next day when we had Christmas at my other grandmother’s house.
Both of my grandmothers are physically declining. It worries me to see them out of breath or dizzy when standing. They are frail. And my cat, Moses, is starting to slow down as well. He’s losing weight and doesn’t have the same kind of spunk he used to have. He mostly sleeps. And I wonder if this is his last Christmas. I wonder if this might be the last Christmas for one of my grandmothers. Of course, this could be my last Christmas. You just never know about these things. Any of us can be taken out at any time but as far as old age and deterioration, my relatives and my cats are next in line. And instead of celebrating, I sat back and watched and worried about all of them.
I always imagine us taking a nice family picture, everyone wearing appropriate clothing that isn’t clotted with cranberry stains, smiling with good teeth and good attitudes. But that just won’t happen. We aren’t that type of family. We have to force my dad to wear a shirt and my sister (who has body image issues that rival my own) would rather eat dirt than have her picture taken. We don’t laugh at the dining room table and recall good memories, mostly because there aren’t a lot of good memories. That’s not to say we all go around jousting with turkey legs and throwing gravy boats at each other. It’s just more so an atmosphere of empty chatter, short-lived smiles, and random spikes of tension.
I know I sound judgmental and I’m sorry. We’re not a bad family. We’re just not as refined as I would like. But I suppose that’s my fault. Why should they fit my notions of how a family should act? This is just who we are and there’s no right or wrong about it.
Things could be worse. There is love there. You just have to dig a little deeper to find it.
The day after Christmas, after my parents had gone to bed, I sat in the chair next to the Christmas tree and tried to let the glow sink in. Moses jumped up and settled down in my lap. His purrs were loud, his shoulder blades pointy under my palm. I was sad for the future. Some things might get better. A lot of things will get worse. But I just reminded myself that I shouldn’t worry about it. Age and death are inevitable. We might lose someone in the next year. We might not. But worrying about impending loss only diminishes the time spent until it happens.
I looked over at the tree, glowing and with a gangsta lean. And I thought of my grandmother with a scabbed nose, my old cat, my own fear of growing old, a stubborn father and a frazzled mother, a sarcastic sister and this haunting feeling that I don’t really know any of them that well. And they don’t know me at all because I keep to myself too much. It’s partly because of my judgmental self, but partly because I can’t be who I really am around them. I think that lack of genuineness accounts for much of the disconnect between me and the rest of them. And again, I suppose that’s my own weight to wear.
My family tree, much like the Christmas tree, is kind of crooked and has thinned and worn down through the decades, but it somehow holds itself together each year. I guess there’s something to be said for resilience, for tradition, for putting on a smile and gathering together again, eating and drinking, and trying to be merry one more time.