Christmas past

Christmas has always been very good at reminding you of the people no longer around. That was never a thing really for until about a dozen years ago. Sure, I lost my grandparents, all but one of them, when I was in my teens, and with their passing so to did a part of that Christmas lifestyle – but when you’re a kid you adjust.

When I was a kid Christmas day was lunch at one grandparents, and dinner at the other. It was huge and very exciting as a child, but as a kid you take things like that in your stride. Kids are malleable like that because they have less experience of life. Even with grandparents dying off life feels eternal, and many golden years of sunshine still ahead. We’re still in our cocoon, protected from the storms and buffeting winds of life, optimistic and much loved, and knowing. We haven’t yet felt the weight of life, and consequently are not as sentimental as we will become.

I have very strong memories of those childhood Christmas days, and fond, even loving memories of my grandparents. I mourned them greatly when they past, and can recall sobbing with uncontrolled grief when my Nan, my mum’s mum, a woman who loved me as much (I was her favourite) as much as loved her. I was 17 then, but even with her loss I still had family close about me.

Grandparents are generally the first wave of loss most people will experience. There seems a gap then, for most anyway. Then a second of deaths occur. If you’re lucky you’ve been spared the random and unexpected deaths of friends and loved one’s in between.

For me it was the deaths of my uncle and aunt, my dad’s siblings, in the early 2000’s. My uncle went first, not long turned 50, a gentle, kind and ultimately weak man who succumbed to cancer. It was such a sad death, and remains sad today. He died estranged not just from his wife, but his children too – none of whom, disgracefully, attended his funeral. In his way a lovely man, but he lived in the shadow of his brother, my father, he admired so much. He never really lived his life I think, trying to be a man he could never be.

Not long after that my aunt, my dad’s sister, died. She’d been a single woman all her life, and though she had lived in Sydney most of her adult life she had a huge part in our lives. She was a bohemian type, opinionated, intelligent and cultured. Every year she would buy me books from the time I could read, wrapped always in silver or gold glitter paper with a red ribbon binding it.

Because she had no partner, and no children, she focused a lot of attention on us. She was an interesting woman in many ways, complex and sometimes combative, but often quirky, and very affectionate. She was one of those aunts that would hug and kiss you like you were something precious.

Much happened in her life, but it’s impossible to overlook her relationship with her mother. They despised each other mutually, and often it was quite bitter on my aunt’s side, and in ways defined who she was – anything her mother was not. For whatever reason she became an alcoholic. I lived with her a little when I was in Sydney, and have some happy memories of that, but remember too the drinking, which was constant.

She was always very good and generous to us, and it was a blow when she passed away – though not a surprise. She was in her early sixties when she too died of cancer.

Neither of them had been directly involved in our Christmas celebrations, except with presents under the tree, but as an adult you have a much greater conception of death, and it leaves a mark. I remember travelling to Queensland for my uncle’s funeral, and surreal it was. A couple of years later I was there again, in the same house, clearing it out with my sister after after my aunt’s death.

At some point death will come to your parents. In my case that came prematurely, and ultimately changed everything.

My father is still alive, but we have nothing to do with each other. That’s a virtual death I guess, though I have hopes we will be reconciled (he’s moving to Melbourne in February). My sister thinks he has only a few more years left in him anyway.

Of much greater impact in my life was the death first of my stepfather Fred in 2007, and more so the death of my mum a few years ago.

When Fred died the ties began to loosen a little, though that’s only something you recognise in hindsight. We still had the extravagant and affectionate Christmas celebrations, but it was tinged with sadness, and the blended family we had become in the 17 years of their marriage began to reverse.

It all came apart when my mum died. She was the person, the glue, that held everything together. She was such a warm person that everyone (except my sister) loved her. She almost childlike in the pleasure she took from Christmas and any significant family event. Christmas with her was always a spectacle, but probably very similar to a multitude of Christmas celebrations today. Christmas is a spectacle.

It’s what you miss. The spectacle of it, the over the top but greatly anticipated ceremony of family, of gift giving, of too much wonderful food and too many bottles of bubbles. And a part of it love and immense affection. Again, it’s something you recognise really after it’s gone. You’re in the middle of it, carried along, bathed in it. Then it’s gone, and you’re on the outside.

The death of mum meant that binding force was lost, but in any case the acrimony following her death destroyed any semblance of family.

I long for days like that again, and will be focused on making it so sometime in the future. I’m happy not to pretend in the meantime. All the same, memories return to you at this time of year like they do no other. I have apps that remind you what you were doing and what you said on this day all the years in the past. Yesterday it was Christmas and I saw the photo’s again, and recalled the moments, looking into the well known and well loved features of people no longer with us.

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