Every Christmas, I create a little pink shrine in memory of my mum. In another life she could have been an interior designer with a great eye for style. Years ago we could only afford an artificial silver tree and simple baubles from Woolworths. Somehow Kathleen, my mum, managed to turn the tree into a work of art with a magical ‘snow’ village at the base. I think she brought some unique ideas from her years living in the USA. Over the years the tree became barer but she cleverly disguised this with silver tinsel.
After I was married, she gifted me all the original decorations except the pink and silver baubles. My aunt in San Francisco had died and left her siblings a small legacy. It was enough for my mum to buy new sofas, curtains and carpet for the living room. It was a tasteful mix of pink and white – so the Christmas tree had to match. My mum barely survived on a disability pension for her chronic mental illness. Although I said nothing, I was irritated that she had spent all the legacy on luxury and didn’t save any of it. It took me back to my teenage years when I used my scholarship money to buy the extended family gifts just to ‘save face’. I felt that she should have at least offered me a part of the legacy (which I would have refused) to make up for the worst years of neglect.
I inherited the pink and white baubles after she died in 2002. They included a hilarious yet sad collection of cigarette packets which she had covered in luminous white craft paper and wrapped in pink ribbon (to resemble tiny wrapped gifts). At least there were no little miniature whisky bottles. I am quite sentimental and our little tree is decorated with the old family decorations and others that we have collected on our travels. There are red Peruvian engraved seed balls and little camels from Abu Dhabi.
I have some wonderful memories of Christmas, before and after my mum’s mental breakdown. We lived with her mother, Nana, and she stabilized life. Our whole extended family would gather on Christmas Day and it was really enjoyable, although there may have been the regular undercurrents at family reunions. It couldn’t have been easy for a defeated married woman to live under her mother’s house again but they got on quite well given the circumstances.
One Christmas I caught them both laughingly knitting tiny clothes together. I was chased up to bed but on the 25th, I unwrapped a beautiful French baby doll with an adorable knitted layette. The gift was ostensibly from Santa Claus but I had spotted the busy elves who made her clothes. I wonder how many hours they spent knitting the layette with love and affection.
Another year, my mum, Nana and uncle (who still lived at home) collaborated on decorating a dolls house. My mum flirted with carpet salesman to get sample books for tiny rooms. My uncle put in electricity, then they fully decorated it with furniture and wallpaper. It was occasionally a little fraught in our house with two adult siblings living together with their mother and ‘the child’, but they shared a delight in giving me the best Christmas they could. Sometimes they could have been a bit more practical as I often had holes in the soles of my shoes, filled with cardboard. In retrospect, my inner child would always have preferred the magical Christmas gifts. My uncle was very good at paying for my expensive ‘special’ shoes since I was born with a club foot.
Then there were the bad years. Nana had died and it was just me and Mum who was considerably more unwell. Too much of our household income went on cigarettes and booze. I was ashamed of our deteriorating situation and went to great lengths to save money for Christmas. The gifts I received then were essentials – night wear, bath products, gloves and hats. I have no memory of the gifts my mum and I exchanged at that time. Eventually she stopped drinking but kept smoking and got her finances in order. I was proud of her for achieving that but still resentful of the unhappy times.
I left home as soon as I could; met and married Teddy in under a year. Miraculously, Christmas became delightful again. Teddy and I are both only children, so we decided that we would always celebrate Christmas together – his mum and dad, my mum and us. His parents were aware of the previous circumstances and were so generous. For years there was a mountain of presents under the tree, many for my mum. We reciprocated as best we could. After a few years, I took over hosting Christmas and everyone traveled to our house. My mum had started getting obsessive about having a perfect Christmas; it had to be the perfect Xmas pudding or side dish. She relaxed when she was in my house and the vibe was calmer. Then Teddy’s mum started behaving strangely with paranoia and obsessiveness. It was the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Around this time, I finally was diagnosed with a mental illness – a mixture of OCD, anxiety and depression. Talk about a dysfunctional family!
I managed to keep up the tradition of family Christmas for about 20 years until my mum suddenly died. To this day, I still feel relief that I don’t have to stress about Christmas. All the planning would take a toll of my health. Even arranging our simple Christmas decorations can wipe me out. I do miss my mum but not at Christmas. It is a struggle not to become morose, dwelling on some deeply unhappy occasions with too much liquor and harsh words. Before she died, we spoke to each other every day. I miss talking about simple stuff; shopping plans, what color suits me best, sharing gossip and her excellent advice (that she rarely followed).
I create the little pink shrine to honor her love for me and mine in return. Both wavered at times but that’s life. There is no need for forgiveness but sometimes I wish I could forget more. Teddy and I still laugh at my mum’s craziness at Christmas time – we named her the Christmas Nazi. To be honest, I have inherited her irritating ‘everything has to be perfect’ traits. Learned or inherited; who knows?
If you take anything from this post, please to be kind to yourself. No great expectations, lots of laughter to distract from uncomfortable family conversations and most of all LOVE. It doesn’t matter if you are on your own, volunteering , going out to a swanky restaurant or surrounded by a gaggle of relatives. Teddy will be volunteering with wolves on the 25th and I will stay in my dressing gown all day. We will watch a movie or two and eat too much sugar.
Rest in peace, my dear complicated and special mum. May you be surrounded by beautiful pink baubles in the hereafter.