She was a good woman, and she never failed to fill our table, even when we saw it as empty.
I must have been 11, my older sister 13, when we came to the dinner table one evening around this time of year and saw what my mother had placed in the middle. A spindly plastic replica of a single-stemmed poinsettia. It wobbled up from a gold-colored cup in a fashion that aspired to “modern” but that to our newly cynical senses screamed “cheap,” “fake” and “funny.” We gasped, even laughed. I remember because it’s hard to forget the first time you laugh outright at your mother, taking up a cruel sport that can take some time to put down. It would color much of what I perceived of her in the years that followed – until I became a mother myself, until I felt the tender wounds in my heart from the way I had once ridiculed and rebuked her.
I remember this now because it’s Christmas, and I’ve trimmed the Christmas tree. I did it by myself and I did it for myself. I did it for the mother in me.
Growing up, ours was a cramped house, made smaller by three kids, a piano, a few dogs, a hamster, my father’s wrathful silence or rage, and then the irreversible sadness of isolation and illness. Looking back, I’m not sure how there was ever room for my mother’s aspiration or sweet sentiments. She made what room she could find on the table, in a $2 holiday centerpiece from Thrifty Drug Store. I think I know why.
I decorated the tree with the same trimmings I’ve used for 15 years. They are not fancy, and less so with the time that keeps fraying them. Baby’s first ornaments, a child’s paper plate angel, dimestore garlands, souvenirs from the years that are now lost to me. It is a beautiful tree this year. It is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. It makes me cry.
I am an old enough now. I have an 11-year-old doing and saying and thinking what she must. And so I keep company with the woman who knew these things all along. It’s the flimsiness that holds the fullness; it’s the fake that depicts the real. I share sweet sentiments with the one who gave me all my gifts, and has waited so long for me to respond in kind.
I miss my mother. I’ll have her with me forever.