Friday, December 18, 2009

Presents and presence

The other night while watching something on television, certain commercials (like every single one of them) made me think about Christmas.  And thinking about Christmas inevitably made me think about my mother.  See, Mom loved Christmas.  She loved everything about it, including the laundry list of traditions, especially rlelated to Christmas Eve, which involved a family talent show, the hanging of the stockings, the piling of presents under the tree, the soup dinner, the readings, and the Christmas Eve service late that night, after which she and Dad filled our stockings (and trust me, we knew it was them filling them.  Santa was only make-believe at our house, and we all played the game).  And the buying of presents, oh my word, the presents.

See, Mom loved--LOVED--buying presents. She schemed and planned, kept lists, checked it far more often than twice.  She worked at it like a job, the present buying.  And heaven forbid she come up short for someone of Christmas Eve. I'm telling you there were times when she sent Dad down the hill to the grocery store to snatch up something at the last minute just to make sure it was even across the board--for all 6,8,9, 19 of us as the family grew.  And she did about 95% of the gift buying.  Dad had to take care of her, and when my youngest sister got to a certain age, she demanded at least one present from him, which he complied with.  And he bought any outdoor or camping kind of gift someone wanted.

So we had enormous Christmases as I was growing up.  You-can't-believe-it enormous.  Mom was more about quantity than quality, you see. She loved the large pile under the tree Christmas morning and the mounds of wrapping paper it took to wrap them all (though Dad did most of the wrapping!).  She was like a kid about Christmas, like a great big kid.

But she won't know Christmas this year.  It's the first one in my life where there won't be a present from her under my tree, even if she's far away from that tree.  And that breaks my heart.  I began this post with a picture of Mom with her four oldest kids at my niece's wedding last June.  I don't know if you can tell, but she was barely there for those pictures.  The photographer had to keep clapping his hands to get her attention. Like she was a little girl who didn't know what was going on, which in fact just about sums it up. By the way, I'm the tan one in the back row--always have tanned more easily than anyone in my family, other than my mom. My youngest sister, RE, the mother of the bride stands beside me in back, and my middle sister, the Dump, stands in front of me with her eyes closed.  Ah Dump!  Older brother, R, is in front of RE, wearing a kilt.  When I look at this picture the most telling thing is the difference between Mom's face and the four of ours.  Even though Dump's eyes are closed, she's present.  We all are. But Mom.   Mom, dressed up in her church-going best, with the new blouse I'd put on her that morning, doesn't look present.  Her eyes are as vacant as them come. 

And it's her emptiness that made me think of presents the other day. Her lack of presence, and her lack of presents, if that makes sense. When I thought about not receiving gifts from Mom this year, I felt sad.  But a huge-pile-of-presents sadder was the idea that she wouldn't understand the day or understand the gifts we give her.  You see, I can't bear NOT to give her something. Even if she doesn't know. So I spent a whole lot of time thinking about what she could receive that would carry any kind of meaning.  I can't bear that the one person in my life who most cared about such things no longer knows what Christmas even is, or why there are presents in the first place (though I'm pretty sure a whole lot of people don't quite get that).  Then I thought of a perfect gift: a baby doll.  Sounds strange, I know.  But she's been carrying around this stuffed puppy we bought her the last time I was in town, holding it like a baby.  So why not a baby doll?  Why not a doll baby for my little girl mother?  Every doll I ever got was given by her.  And the oldest dolls I ever played with were the ones she'd had as a little girl, her two dolls (named by her when she was a child because she thought the names lovely and elegant),Virginia Lucille and Delores Eileen.

She no longer knows what Christmas is, and no longer knows whose birthday we celebrate.  But when we read the story from Luke that night, I'll think of her, of our home lit with candles and Dad reading the words.  I'll think of her great anticipation for the morning, her child-like joy in awakening us early, her love for every part of it.  And though I won't be there when she opens that doll, I'll be imagining her face, usually so empty of emotion and presence, suddenly--for a moment at least--filled with joy.  Joy and wonder.  A baby doll might do it, just the way a baby fills the the whole earth with joy.  Joy and wonder.

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