I’ve been fiddling around with the memoir I started to write some time ago. I figured now I have lots more time on my hands would be a good time to get it done finally. As a practice, this is a small piece called A Christmas Memoir that gives a bit of a flavour of my writing voice, which I am hoping does not sound too bleak and self pitying. I am trying to make it more about how things were without trying to garner sympathy…
I know nobody will read it in all probability, but it’s still quite a step for me to put this out there for potential public consumption. Anyway, here it is.
Christmas has never been my favourite time of year and everything that happened this morning has confirmed my dislike of it. It wasn’t destined to be a great day but I was ready to go through the motions to try and make Christmas day normal, whatever that is. But even I didn’t imagine that things could get so out of control that I’d had to get out and clear my head. Walking through the drizzly, deserted woods I feel some calmness returning so I stop in a clearing to enjoy the silence, hearing only the plop of big raindrops from the branches above and my own breathing, which is faster than it ought to be. I feel totally wrung out but also peaceful in this quiet space, having left behind the screaming and shouting, the broken tree decorations and the crumpled tree on the living room floor. I’ll have to go back soon, but for now I am enjoying the solitude of Christmas morning.
It’s not altogether true that I’ve always hated Christmas. As a small child I had the most blissful of times every year until I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real. Although there wasn’t much money, the three of us had such wonderful times together in our little council house. I remember waking at an unearthly hour and rushing downstairs to see if Santa had been, hardly able to stifle excited shrieks when I spotted the goodies under the tree that filled the icy cold room with a glorious pine scent. Mum never allowed the tree to go up until the week before Christmas, when we got out the ancient biscuit tin containing delicate, faded glass baubles from her childhood, all wrapped carefully in yellowing tissue paper. We’d unwrap each piece very carefully and Mum would let me hang the cotton threads from the branches before having mince pies and stories in front of the glowing fire.
On Christmas Eve we hung up our stockings, a pair of socks each, safety pins holding them together at the top so we could hang them over the wooden clothes horse that Dad had made. Those were the first things I looked for on Christmas morning, my proof that Santa had been in the house was the socks full of nuts, apples, oranges and penny toys. I snatched up the socks and ran like crazy back up to Mum and Dad’s bedroom flinging the socks on the bed. ‘He’s been!’ I cried and they would grin sleepily and let me cuddle in between them to warm my icy toes while we all examined the stash they’d placed there only hours earlier. Dragging them down to see the rest of the things I’d got, we played with books, dolls houses, doll’s clothes and toys, mostly home-made or second hand things. In the weeks leading up to Christmas Dad was always working on mysterious objects in his workshop, sawing, planing , painting, but never letting me see the finished thing until Christmas.
It all went downhill after Mum got ill. I was the first to notice she wasn’t herself, probably because she and I spent most of our time together. She started forgetting simple things so I tried to cover for her by going with her to the shops whenever I could. When the currency changed from Shillings and pence to decimal money, she couldn’t understand it at all and I made myself available to help when money was handed over. I know now that Dad was burying his head in the sand not wanting to face up to the fact Mum was ill; it was as if by pretending it wasn’t happening he could prevent her decline or maybe he just couldn’t face doing what he knew lay ahead. In the end though, none of us could stop the inevitable deterioration that we eventually discovered was Alzheimers. I was 11 when it started and Mum was 54. By the time I was 16, she was in a pretty poor state and in those days there wasn’t any support for victims or families of that horrible illness. The fact that it took more than three years to get a proper diagnosis was testament to the lack of knowledge and care around the whole thing.
Dad resolutely refused to acknowledge how bad the situation was getting, despite the official diagnosis. Instead, he used the whisky bottle as his hiding place, working long hours then drinking himself into oblivion at home. I can’t say this was the best of times, though it was life as I knew it. It took many years for me to make sense of it all and understand that Dad wasn’t coping and to forgive him for those years of denial that have caused me so much anger.
And so Christmas 1976, just before my 18th birthday was without doubt the worst Christmas I ever experienced and I think the one that set me up to hate all future Christmases with such a passion. Everything was supposed to carry on as normal, according to Dad, and though I tried to reason with him he had made up his mind and that was that. I don’t think he had any idea how stressful the whole thing was going to be for me and of course I could never tell him that so I just carried on and did what was expected. By then looking after mum was like having an adult sized baby and to me she was no longer the Mum I used to adore. She didn’t know who I was most of the time, so I considered her a burden, the reason I was sitting at home on Christmas Eve while my few friends were out partying. My poor Mum deserved so much better care than she got. If I could go back now and look after her with the experience of age she would fare so much better, but that 17 year old me growing up without her guidance had no idea what she needed.
Dad finished work early on Christmas Eve, bringing home the giant turkey that his boss gave him every year. After a quick dash to the supermarket to get food and drink for the festive period, he settled down with his glass full and Christmas began for him and his bottle. Mum and I had been hard at work all day, mostly just trying to get her washed and dressed and fed, but with some cleaning and preparation between. The medication she took was effective in many ways, but I’m not convinced it was right for her. But not being party to the decision on stuff like that, my job was simply to get the meds inside her, no easy task at the best of times. In the morning when last night’s meds had worn off she had little or no movement and no speech at all. Once Dad left for work, I tried to get the tablet into her as quickly as possible to make the next couple of hours easier. Without the tablets, she was completely rigid and could barely shuffle along, so getting her downstairs was virtually impossible and there was no chance of getting any clothes onto her wasted frame. Mum was almost 60, but looked 100, her features frozen into a grimace. How she would have hated being like that, the intelligent, independent girl who went to agricultural college, the proud woman doing her bit in the war by working in munitions, then becoming a nurse and mother; now reduced to being shoved around, bathed and spoon fed by a resentful teenager she no longer recognised.
She couldn’t swallow tablets, so I crushed it up in her tea and made her sip it up through a straw until I was sure the tablet was gone, waiting a while for it to take effect. When it did, there was a different Mum to deal with, a floppy, grinning little girl who had some words, but none that made any sense. Taking advantage of the change, I got her washed and dressed as best I could, then quickly downstairs before the effect wore off again. By the time I’d got breakfast down her, two hours had passed and she was stiffening up once more. Damn, the next tablet wasn’t due for another couple of hours, so I braced myself for what was coming. Sure enough, while I was washing up in the kitchen the wailing started and I hurried through to find Mum hanging off the edge of the settee, unable to get up. When in this mode, she wouldn’t sit still and had to be on her feet, despite not being able to move around, so I struggled to get her up onto her feet and left her to shuffle around the room while I tried to get on. That proved impossible, so instead I stayed with her to prevent damage to herself and anything around her until counting down the minutes I could give her the next tablet and it all started again.
Back in the present, my walk is nearly over and the house is in sight. Whatever waits for me inside is never going to be as bad as those Christmases when Dad was trying keep things normal when so clearly it was a million miles away from normal. Picking up my pace, I resolve to make the best of the day ahead.