by Leslie Morgan Steiner
As a kid I loved Christmas. The holiday revolved around my mother and her huge Wasp-y family, a high-spirited clan originating with seven once-wealthy, East Coast, Harvard-educated brothers and sisters who were more or less turned into penniless orphans during the Great Depression. My father was the oldest brother, but he died before I was born. He left behind six brothers and sisters, three children and my grandmother Frankie.
Growing up, we spent Christmas at my mother’s childhood home overlooking the Hudson River, Frankie’s seashell-lined Florida bungalow, or our snow-bound little farmhouse in New England. The ingredients never changed: a huge tree with homemade ornaments, lots of presents, carols in the background, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, drunken relatives, a few good family fights – everything Christmas should be.
With my own kids I’ve tried to keep all the traditions alive, minus the drunken relatives.
This year the kids attacked us in bed at 7:30 am. Our youngest still believes in Santa, a magic spice for any Christmas. We plowed through the presents under a spruce tree decorated with ornaments my mother hand-painted herself. Favorite gifts included a Yorkshire puppy (stuffed), Uzi-sized water pistols from Rich Uncle Tim, and a new phone for our 12-year-old. My husband and I bought each other the same present – iPod alarm clocks – which I took as indisputable proof of a strong marriage, although others understandably might interpret this as pure cluelessness.
Then we piled into the car, drove to an airport made white by last week’s freak East Coast snowstorm, and boarded a plane to visit my mom in Florida, where she is dying of cancer. We are all dying, of course, some more quickly than others. But my mothers’ doctors have warned this may be her last Christmas.
During Christmas Eve dinner the night before, my husband and I had laid out the facts for our kids, ages 12, 11, and 7. The cancer in Grams’ brain, lungs, bones, vital organs. Her exhaustion from radiation. Her lack of hair. Her stubborn denial and hope for many more Christmases with us. The preciousness of being together one final time. Their small faces grew grave when I explained that I loved my mom as deeply as they loved me – and that I needed their understanding and support to say good-bye to the most important woman in my life.
“For better or worse” are the four most famous words in a marriage ceremony. Simple to say, challenging to uphold. I’m learning they also apply to mothers and daughters. To Christmases and all cherished holidays and traditions. To families. To life.