By Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
After a VERY bumpy beginning, things had been going well that fall and I wasn’t prepared to be as sad as I was the closer we got to Christmas. On Christmas Eve most people left work at noon, but I straggled out around 3 p.m.
I remember driving home on a deserted highway. The day was grey and the landscape seemed cold and grim. It seemed (in my mind) that the whole world was locked away somewhere hugging, caroling, and drinking egg nog, around the tree, under the lights…far far away from the dreary day. It was all playing out in some fantasy in my head. Some idea we all have of a happy holiday, whether put there by movies or Christmas specials or cards or commercialism or Clement Moore or even some long-ago memory of a happier, magical time.
The Holidays Served Up By Fantasy and Expectation
Whatever it was that fueled my fantasies, I never felt so alone or so sad in my entire life as on that first solo Christmas Eve. My kids were going to the ex’s for the night and I had nowhere to go and no place to be. No one cared if I was around or not. It didn’t matter, or so I thought, if I lived or died. After I got home, I called a few friends and they were all busy with holiday plans. I had no where to go and nothing to be to anyone. I was without a home and a family.
The year before I had wanted a separation in September. As the holidays approached, I decided to give it yet another try. It only kept everything at bay until January when all hell broke loose and we broke up the first of February. Even if I had managed to put it together this year with him or anyone else, for that matter, it would be a house of cards that would be destined for the January garbage heap.
I don’t know what notion of the holidays we buy into…perhaps there was a time long ago when it was magical and wonderful, but for the most part, it’s not that way.
When I was 5 years old, we lived on a place called Murray Court in the Bronx. As its name implies, there were about 6 houses on a court (almost all the houses I lived in the Bronx were eventually sold to developers and plowed under and I think the wonderful little Murray Court homes were dealt the same fate)
They were small little houses that look like the village houses under the Christmas tree, along the train track. We owned the house but the land was owned by the Murrays who lived in a huge house around the block on the corner of Bolton and Patterson Avenues. We all liked the intimacy and small neighborhood feel of Murray Court even though it was smack in the middle of New York City.
On Christmas Eve, the snow was falling gently, just like in every single Christmas special ever made. My oldest brother who was 18 was dating a very pretty girl named Virginia Kaiser (yes, her name was actually Virginia) whose grandmother lived across the way from us. Mrs. Kaiser was a sweet woman and what I remember about her is that she was very “Aunt Bee” like, she always had on a neat print dress with neatly coiffed hair and she smelled like cookies. She was gracious and kind and polite. I remember her wearing pearls and a beautiful dress with an apron over it. I remembered her as a sweet woman and smiled when I thought of her.
So we went over to the house and I remember sitting on the chair next to the Christmas tree. The lights were out and the adults were visiting in the next room. I was looking at Mrs. Kaiser’s ornaments all aglow from the Christmas lights. She had old bubble ornaments and a lot of very pretty glass ornaments from Germany. I was mesmerized. She gave me some cookies and cider and told everyone what a lovely child I was and, after a short visit, we went home.
The next day we woke up to Christmas morning, and unwrapped our presents. My younger brother received a life-sized Huckleberry Hound carnival game (the exact same one pictured here). We took turns shooting at Huckleberry and were so wrapped up in it, we were running late for Mass. We threw some clothes on and ran out giggling to go to Mass. Mass was full of antsy children waiting to get back home to their new toys. But, it had snowed the night before and after Mass everyone took the time to throw snowballs at each other. Soundview Avenue was alive with giggling, running children. We played for a while until we were red-cheeked and runny-nosed and then, remembering our toys back home, stopped the game and ran home as fast as we could.
My mother, as I’ve written about on this blog and have done a few podcasts on her insanity, used to go on “tears” where she would tear the house up and we would have to put it back together. That was a normal occurrence, but I never expected it to happen on Christmas morning. AND – remember – I was a foster child so if these were the lunatics the Catholic Charities decided to place me with (and later adopt me), this must be NORMAL. This Christmas shaped my life like no other.
As we stood at the top of Murray Court we could see, clearly, Huckleberry Hound sticking out of the top of the garbage. It looked like someone had beaten him up and thrown him in the can. His smile belied his predicament.
Our faces dropped and we just stood there staring at the poor figure in the garbage can. I write about this incident a lot. That is how much it has stayed with me. It’s like I still can’t quite believe it decades and decades later.
As we went into the house, we knew it best to speak in hushed tones. Better yet, don’t speak at all. We were crestfallen but knew better than to question the fact that Huckleberry was in the garbage. We knew he wasn’t coming back out and it was our fault, for leaving our toys around, that he was in there. We took off our coats and our Sunday clothes and then silently picked up the rest of our toys, lest they suffer the same fate as Huckleberry. The rest of the day was very low-key as we walked on eggshells around my mother who was very angry for some reason. I was a foster kid and this was the lunatic the Catholic Charities thought fit to raise me. I thought it was normal. Didn’t everyone’s mother toss their toys in the garbage on Christmas morning when they were at church?
Although I know that I’ve had more Huckleberry Christmases than Christmas Eves at Mrs. Kaiser’s house, it seems like the magical time at Mrs. Kaiser’s house is the one that resonants deep within.
Adulting At Christmas
During my married Christmases I tried to recreate that magic of Mrs. Kaiser’s Christmas Eve and never could. Because unlike Mrs. Kaiser, who always smiled and smelled like homemade cookies and jam, the rest of my year was a horror show. The rest of my year was Huckleberry in a garbage can.
That first Christmas Eve, separated from my husband, I had to decide whether or not I was going to go for the temporary magic of bubble lights or the permanent horror show of things I cherished thrown away. For me, my entire life, and the fact that it needed attention, was the important thing on the holiday…not the fantasy of the holiday itself.
I had one lovely Christmas Eve when I was five and then spent the rest of my life chasing that feeling like an addict chases crack. Doing whatever I could do to get it back again. But because I would never be 5 again, we moved away and my brother and Virginia Kaiser broke up, it would not ever come again. It was done.
Today I can see that not only was that first post-marital Christmas Eve a temporary situation but that it was a necessary step in putting my life back together. A relationship would have distracted me from the things I needed to do. Being back with my ex, while it sounded good that night, was certainly the wrong thing to be. I needed a rough Christmas Eve, a difficult Christmas Eve, to put me in the right places with the right people and snap the magical spell of Mrs. Kaiser’s Christmas Eve. I had to take on my life every night of the year and not let unreal things, like Christmas fantasies, sway me from the work I needed to do and the places I’ve needed to go. I’ve written about that first Christmas on other posts on here and, in retrospect, it really was a wonderful holiday that taught me so very much.
Starting with that first post-marital Christmas Eve, my life had to take on a bigger meaning than the holidays. I had to start fresh and bring new meaning, MY meaning, to the holidays and that is what I eventually did. I created traditions and had beautiful merry Christmases for many many years later (and still do today) but first I had to get ME together…not try to create a Norman Rockwell Christmas and then have a nervous breakdown in January.
Holidays are once a year. Me is all year round. My gift to me, every year, is the dedication to making my life better for the next 365 days…and so far, I’ve managed to do just that.
No more bubble ornaments for me but no more Huckleberrys in the garbage can either.
Life, real life, functional life, good life, is not about ornaments or trashing someone’s toys….
…the ride is much less magical and much less bumpy. It’s more even and still and holidays should be as well.
Be still and be good to you.
Make sure you are taking care of YOU and your life in this holiday season and that you have plans to continue that good care for the next year.
Make sure you are giving to YOU…your time and your energy…save some for YOU.
Life is what you make it. Make it happen every single day.
Copyright Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed. The Annual Holiday Post is HERE
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