Last Christmas my mom and I had an argument over the phone about what she was going to bring to our house for dinner on Christmas Eve. Years ago, when I was a teenager, she and my dad established the tradition of inviting the extended family — which then consisted of my Uncle George and Aunt Bernice and their kids — over to our place for dinner on Christmas Eve, a dinner of which my dad’s lasagna was always the main dish. Then the next day my parents would cook a turkey dinner for the three of us and Aunt Gertie.
Sometime about the year Jason and I got married, my mom started to find this cooking-two-big-dinners-with-guests-two-days-in-a-row overwhelming, so Jason I took over hosting the Christmas Eve dinner at our house. My dad still made and brought the lasagna, and every year my mom and I would have this same argument, in which she offered to bring two or three side dishes, and I said no, the whole point of us hosting the dinner was to make less work for her and dad, so they could bring the lasagna and we’d provide everything else.
Last Christmas — probably about December 21 or 22 — she was on the phone with me enumerating the other things, in addition to lasagna, that she was planning to bring. I think she intended to bring potato salad (she made great potato salad) and a lime jello salad. I stood my ground, insisting that we could do all the side dishes. I vividly remember saying, “You know, someday you’re going to have to accept the fact that you and Dad are getting older, and you can take it easy and let us do more of the work!” (As I recall, we compromised on her bringing potato salad and us doing everything else).
And that day never came — my mom never got the years of being the elderly relative who was waited on by others. She was 78 when she died and, despite poor health, still determined to bring a pot of beans to every potluck (though she didn’t actually like potlucks and would rather have left the beans and gone on home out of it). Here’s one of my favourite pictures from that Christmas Eve dinner last year, where my mom is either telling a story or explaining something to Aunt Bernice.
At this point, obviously, there’s nothing I would like more in the world than to pick up the phone and have that same frustrating “you don’t have to do it all you know, I’m quite capable” argument with her again. Or any of our arguments, really. Or share a good laugh about the quirks and eccentricities of other people, which was something we always liked to bond over, and there are plenty of those to comment on this time of year. Or hear her tell a story in her usual animated style.
It’s such a trite truism to say that the first Christmas after a loved one dies is particularly hard, but I’m learning this year how true it is, even as we do our best to enjoy what we can enjoy in this season. One unexpected upside I’ve discovered is that in the first Christmas season after a major loss, expectations are beautifully low. Much of the stress of Christmas comes from people believing things have to be “just perfect” and fit some wonderful ideal in their heads. But the Christmas after you’ve said goodbye to someone you love, there are no expectations. Making it through is plenty good enough, so every happy moment, every laugh and smile, is an unexpected blessing.
Have a merry-ish Christmas, especially if that’s the best you can manage this year.