My friend Jeff has written me a couple of really lovely letters about his mother and his father recently and in his last he asked that I reply in turn. He asked me to write about my parents. I scoffed when I first read that. Write about my parents? That's all I do, I thought. And then I realized that it's not all I do. I write about my parent's deaths. I write about how I feel about my parent's deaths...but rarely do I afford the reader a view of my parents as they were when they were.
So, here goes.
My mother loved the holidays. Or at least she loved to make a spectacle of each holiday.
For instance, each year on St. Patrick's Day, she cooked a huge corned beef dinner, replete with carrots and pearl onions and mashed potatoes and rolls and butter. It was lovely. It was tasty. But really, the best thing about it all was that she dyed everything she could green. The mashed potatoes, the butter, the ice-water, the glasses of white wine. All of them green. And my father would groan and I would giggle and my mother would smirk all the way through dinner, all the way to the green grasshopper pie for dessert. It was ridiculous and wonderful and she did it every single year.
Valentine's Day was always filled with lots of cookies and hearts and balloons and cards. One year I got a hot pink hair dryer as a gift. I was in fifth grade. It was quite possibly the coolest present I'd ever gotten.
Easter was a total spectacle. Every year we spent an afternoon together dying Easter eggs, at least a few dozen. I think this was my mother's favorite part. She was an artist, a painter, but she liked things messy. She liked to get her hands dirty, liked smears and splotches and authenticity. She never, ever promoted perfectionism, in fact, quite the opposite. Our Easter eggs were always an amalgam of thwarted designs and accidental thumb prints turned art.
And each year, on Easter, she would make me the most glorious Easter basket. It was always enormous and filled to the brim with candy and toys and random gifts, each year its own unique Easter bunny. And each year she would deftly hide it somewhere on our property, securing its location with a clever path of no less than 30 eggs. And each year she and my father would stand on the deck or in the driveway or wherever with steaming cups of coffee, watching as I stumbled through the grass, searching under bushes and in between the roots of an oak tree for our colorfully painted eggs.
When I was younger this was a gleeful activity. I can remember holding up each egg triumphantly as I found them, can remember finally rounding a corner to find the enormous, cellophane basket glinting in the morning dew. As I entered my middle school years I became mortified by this ritual, grimacing at my mother with each egg that I found, scowling into the camera. One year I found my first training bra, balled into a large plastic egg inside the basket. It was something I'd been begging her for and I was overjoyed to finally receive it. There's a video clip somewhere of me opening this egg. You can see my face light up and then redden as my father unknowingly says, Whatcha got there, Claire? Hold it up for the camera.
She kept up with the baskets, all the way through my teenage years, all the way until I was eighteen, the last year of her life. There is a picture of me that year, in pajama bottoms and a white v-neck men's t-shirt, my hair dyed crimson, my ears dotted with piercings, my own cup of black coffee in hand, as I reach to pick up an egg from the grass. My basket that year was filled with the usual candy but also with nail polish and cds and a couple of books I'd mentioned wanting: Hesse's Fairytales and Anne Sexton's Letters.
And so the holidays went. Fourth of July, Halloween (you can only imagine), Thanksgiving (picture her serving the turkey stuck through with left-over Fourth of July sparklers, incandescent embers cascading down around her as she entered the dining room, and Christmas....Christmas was the biggest spectacle of them all. The wreaths, the tree, the creche, the gingerbread house, the food and the cards and the presents, the handmade stockings with each of our names on them filled to the brim and emptied in bed, all of us together, coffee and carols. It was endless and wonderful...completely wonderful.
And for years, for the last nine years in fact, I have attempted to replicate the wonder my mother created each holiday. I've assembled Easter baskets, made homemade Valentines, thrown pumpkin carving parties, dyed mashed potatoes green, hosted Thanksgiving dinner for 15, baked patriotic cupcakes for the Fourth of July, thrown Christmas parties with mulled wine and hot chocolate with homemade peppermint marshmallows, written out hundreds of Christmas cards, and bought and decorated nine Christmas trees. I've amassed a stunning collection of ornaments and decorations, have even taken to buying next year's Christmas cards in January.
And none of it will ever touch the delight and magic my mother brought to each holiday. My holiday creations have come from a place of grief and desperation for something lost. But for my mother it was something different. She simply loved a spectacle. She loved fanfare and magic and mystery.
I don't think I'm going to get a tree this year. Even though I think I'll miss it. I'll miss the scent of pine and the first night spent decorating and fawning over forgotten ornaments. I'll miss sitting on the couch in the dark while the tree glitters gracefully against the night.
But I think that this year, instead of trying to fill up that void with all sorts of decorations and parties and ornaments, I'll simply sit on the couch and actually let myself miss my mother instead.