Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Another surreal Christmas has drawn to a close. Over the past several days, I’ve been trying to think back to a time when Christmas wasn’t weird. When it was happy and normal. Maybe they were never happy and normal. But I get glimpses of moments. I know they’re there.

I recall trying to sneak peeks at the presents before my mother wrapped them, and my brother Steve telling me we shouldn’t look or we’d spoil the surprise. I remember baking cookies with my mom. Squeezing the dough through the pastry bag, snowflakes emerging through the tip. The red and green sprinkles and cinnamon redhots lined up in little plastic containers on the table, ready for the next step in the assembly line. I remember going sledding on a red wooden sled. I remember ice skates with two blades on each foot. And decorating the tree. My brother wanting to throw wads of tinsel on all at once. My mother insisting we do it strand by strand. The star, or the angel, always placed on top last by my father, who, up until that point, had been sitting in his chair supervising.

I can’t remember my oldest brother or my sister in this process. They left home as early as they could, but still, I should have memories of them. Other than the star, I also don’t remember much of my father from way back when. I recall later years. He was always trying to recruit one of us to wrap the gifts he always bought at the last minute. They were good gifts. My father was extravagant. My mother, on the other hand, was quite frugal. Even so, there was always loads of gifts under the tree. It would take hours Christmas morning to unwrap them. We’d take turns. As the youngest, I’d always go first. Then my brother Steve, my sister, my oldest brother, my mother, then my father. And the line would extend as the grandchildren were born. Before my sister estranged herself from the family and my brothers’ wives divorced them (both due to alcoholism), there would be 15 of us opening gifts Christmas morning. Each of my siblings came with a spouse and two children. 4 x 3 = 12. Adding 2 for my parents got us to 14, and I made 15. After high school, I rarely brought a boyfriend home for Christmas. Due to the yelling and alcoholism. And because I didn’t usually like anyone I was dating enough to go through the pressure of bringing them around.

Here we are present day, and my brothers, long-divorced, are now dead. My father is gone. My sister has created her own make-believe happy family with her husband, two adult daughters, her son-in-law, another possible soon-to-be son-in-law, and a grand baby. She gets to surround herself with happy people and pretend it doesn’t matter that her brothers and father are dead and that her husband didn’t do awful things.

I, in contrast, get to spend Christmas with my mother and my brothers’ children. We went from 15 to 6. And yet, it was a nice Christmas. We all felt an ache, to be sure. As we cooked, the adult children of both my brothers broke out boxes of old family photos. They sat on the floor, photos spread around them, with my mother sitting in her wheel chair thumbing through them. They all looked like they were enjoying themselves. Every time I walked into the room and looked at photographs of my brothers and father, happy and healthy, I cried and went back into the kitchen, where my oldest nephew was helping me get dinner ready. (Actually, he’d taken charge and I was helping him.) I asked him if he didn’t want to look at photos while I minded the pots and oven. He said it wasn’t his thing. If you don’t look at the photos, you don’t ache. At least I assumed that was his strategy.

They came across one photo taken at the beach. My family spent a lot of time at the beach growing up. My brothers were sitting on the shore in a light surf, both with baby boys on their laps. Their oldest sons laughing and splashing at the water as their fathers held them safely in their arms. We took the photo into the dining room with us and set it on the chandelier. My brothers and their baby boys sat watching over us as the 6 of us ate our Christmas dinner. I said it was a shame Steve wasn’t there as there was plenty of room this year for his left-handed eating. And then I cried again.

I know my mother won’t be around for too many more years. Although she has surprised me by being around this long, given the frequent scares with her health. My father surprised me for many years too, with the cancer and the Alzheimer’s. But it caught up with him. As did the alcoholism with my oldest brother. And the alcoholism with Steve, although it was the cancer that killed him. Just 9 months ago.

For years I secretly yearned for the day I would be free of my family and able to make Christmas traditions of my own. I imagined, like my sister, I would have my own family and could create my own happy traditions, free of the conflict and alcoholism that scarred the holidays for many years. And now, I’m almost there. The only thing standing between me and that wish is my mother. I can’t bear the thought of losing her, too. We’ve grown quite close over the past year since my father died, and despite my railing on her as we adjusted, I’ve grown quite fond of her. All over again. And then there’s the complicating factor that I don’t have a family of my own. But I have friends. Dear friends. Friends that would (and have) welcome me into their family celebrations. Or I could spend a week on a beach. By the sea. Alone. But that would mean my mother is gone.

Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

And so I find myself caught. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.


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