My sister Susan and I haven’t always been the best of friends but when I saw her coming up the walk on Christmas Day I opened the door for her. She handed me a present and gave me a hug. “Merry Christmas Jess. Where are Jon and the kids?”
“They’re in the computer room. Did you bring the rest of your family or are they at home freezing their asses off because you don’t believe in heat?” I saw my sister roll her eyes at me. She prides herself on being thrifty. “They’re in the car. Where is everyone else?”
“On the way. Mom can’t stay long though. The plan is to open presents as soon as she gets here. I put all her gifts on the right side of the tree. I turned the oven on but it’s still not ready yet. Thanks for helping out with brunch. I really appreciate it.”
“I didn’t have all the ingredients for what I wanted to make so I hope everyone loves breakfast casserole. Could you go help bring in the rest of our stuff?”
“I suppose. Only because it’s Christmas though. Did you open presents last night?”
“We opened them this morning. It was nice to have Christmas as a family. What’d you guys do?”
“We let the girls open presents this morning too. I bought the girls those iPod shuffle things and I bought them both sterling silver bracelets. I don’t know if you heard this but Jill is allergic to fish so she has a charm bracelet like the one I have. The girls keep referring to the charm on her bracelet as the ambulance sign. The bracelet is a little big but she’ll grow into it.”
“What’d you get Jon?”
“An iPhone. My theme this year was electronics.”
“What’d he get you?”
“The girls bought me a sweater.” Susan looked at my new cream colored sweater. “The one you’re wearing?”
“I have a tank top on underneath it. They didn’t know it was wool.”
”That would make me itch. How can you stand wearing it?”
“The only really bad parts are where it rubs against my neck and wrists. The kids were excited to see me wearing it. I can deal with it for the rest of the day. I turned the heat down though so let me know if you get cold. You look nice. Is that dress new?”
“I bought it the last time I went shopping with mom. Guess how much it was?”
“No. It was only twelve dollars and it’s something I can wear to school. I wore it to the faculty Christmas party and my friend Stephanie said she liked it.”
“Is she the one who was going to drop out of the PhD program?”
“No, that’s Bethany. I hope everyone gets here soon. Your niece needs a nap.”
“The girls were up before six. I’m the one who needs a nap.” My brother-in-law came in carrying a box of presents in one hand. His other hand was closed around the fingers of my eighteen month old niece. The hood of her pink jacket fell back. I saw the barrettes in her hair and the dimple in her cheek when she smiled. Her patent leather shoes left snowy prints in the hall. She let me help her with her coat but as soon as she saw the tree she ran to it. The next half hour was spent with us grownups keeping her away from the tree.
I have big old fashioned lights on my tree. Ornaments my children had made in school were scattered around. Another one of my sisters rang the doorbell. After her presents were under the tree we decided to take pictures of the girls in their Christmas clothes. I have two daughters and two nieces. We took dozens of pictures but none of them had all of the girls smiling and looking at the camera at the same time. I left my camera on the edge of the table to go check on how things in the kitchen were going. One of my neighbors dropped a plate of Christmas cookies off for us. She gave me an ornament and the girls walked around the tree looking for the perfect place to put it.
It was just before noon when my mom arrived. She stood in the doorway with her husband. This coming January will mark the eleventh year since my parents got divorced. It doesn’t bother me that my mother remarried, it’s the fact that she lied to me that upsets me. She lied to me about dating the man whose last name she took. I went out with them once when they had an extra ticket to a play. At supper they were holding hands under the table. I drove to and from the theater. On the way home they sat in the back of the car together, giggling like two teenagers who think no grownup has ever been in the back seat of a car late at night.
Halloween was at my house that year. My sister Amanda asked my mom what was going on with her and the man she eventually married. My mom stood up and emphatically declared that she had no intention of dating anyone. She was single and she enjoyed the company of many of her good friends. I rarely believe things she says but even so it was a bit of surprise to hear her announce her plans to get married when our family got together less than thirty days later for Thanksgiving. I knew she was getting married because my aunt had told me. My mom called when I was over at my aunt’s. I was sitting on the couch in my aunt’s living room when the phone rang. My aunt told me my mom was on the phone. I heard my aunt ask my mom if she had told me she was getting married. My mother said yes but that was a lie. She never told me.
Another of my aunts wanted me to attend my mother’s wedding. At the time I had a three week old baby. I hadn’t spoken with my mother since the day my youngest daughter was born. My mother gave me some money but I sent her check back. I had wanted a new car seat for my daughter but my mom told me I didn’t really need one. That was true but as soon as my daughter outgrew her infant seat I would. I told myself the money didn’t matter. I would find a way to make things work. I didn’t need her or her money. I would get through and get by. I didn’t need a relationship with her. I was a grown woman with children and a family of my own. When I was growing up my mother told me how much like my father I was. I wore that badge with pride because that meant I wasn’t like her.
This past Christmas my mother gave my sister a hug as she stood in my doorway. She looked around but she didn’t take her coat off like I expected her to. Her shoes stayed on, my mother was dressed for Christmas. She and her husband go dancing together. I recognized the skirt of her dress as one that she wears when she goes out. Dancing is one of the reasons she can’t watch her grandchildren very often but when she does watch them I hear about how delightful they are and what an excellent time they had playing together. Standing at the end of the hall I watched my children race over to my mother. I heard my oldest daughter ask my mom why she was still wearing her coat. My sister Susan left as soon as she heard her mother tell her oldest granddaughter that she couldn’t stay. I stayed long enough to pack presents for my mother into a box. The presents my children had lovingly wrapped for Grammy were tossed in with the rest of the boxes and gift bags.
In my room my sister was lying on my bed. I rubbed her arm a little, through the window I could see my mom and her husband packing things into their van. I watched them travel through a winter wonderland heavy with freshly fallen snow. My sister was crying but my eyes were dry. Half of me had expected something like this. I’ve learned not to count on my mother for truth or emotional support. My sister Susan is tough. She was a drill sergeant in the Army. Her husband is going to be deployed again. That means Susan will be a single mother with a rambunctious toddler. I listened to her crying and I started crying myself when she said that my mom had ruined her Christmas. She wiped her eyes and started talking. We talked about the year my family opened presents without me. She asked if I had known that mom would be staying less than five minutes and I told her what my mom had told me. She couldn’t stay long but she could stay long enough to open presents.
This past year I had planned on spending about fifty dollars on gifts for each of my siblings. That was my budget but as I walked through the mall I found some little gifts that I thought would be fun for people to open. I bought Susan a purse that I wasn’t sure she would like. I spent more money on other people than I did on her. The purse I bought for her was on sale. It was originally eighty dollars but I got it for sixteen. I had fun shopping and this year was nice because I had my own money to spend. I did all the shopping for my children and my siblings. My mom commented that my husband and I hadn’t gotten her anything. We let my girls have the credit for our gift and they were the ones who wrote out the tag on the gift she didn’t stay to open. I handed back the gift my mother gave me at the mall the day after Christmas. She was going to take my children to the Milwaukee Art Museum as part of their Christmas gift. When she called to ask if there was anything I wanted from the gift shop I couldn’t think of a single thing I wanted from her.
Time heals all wounds. Fifty years from now I doubt that I will remember this. Five decades from now I hope that I will have learned from the mistakes my mother has made. Five minutes after she left my sister was crying, five seconds after my mother pulled out of my driveway I started writing this in my head. Five hours from now I have a job interview that my mother knows nothing about. Would she care if I called her up and told her I was nervous about what I'm going through and would she take the time to listen to me and to what I have to say about my sister Susan? Her birthday is the next one coming up on the calendar, her husband is leaving for another tour of duty in Iraq. Five years from now he'll be done serving his country. Five weeks from now he'll be gone. My mother planned on spending two hundred dollars on me for Christmas. What I want from her is time but if I can't have that, I'll take fifty dollars of freedom instead. Why be bitter about things that are in the past? This New Year, give the gift of forgiveness and I will pray that someone passes that gift on to you. Merry Christmas Mother. Love, jess