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.

Surviving Christmas

Christmas Day is but a few days away, but unfortunately it’s not something I’m looking forward to at all. To the contrary, actually.

How different that is to years past. Christmas always used to be a special time. In my family it was always, both in scale and importance. Not 10 years ago there might have been 20 odd people celebrating on the day. Even a few years ago, before mum died, there would have been 10-15 in happy attendance. Mum was the key to that. Every family needs someone with the energy and passion and maybe even the sheer sentimentality to draw  everyone into the same fold. Mum was that person for us. I admit to some fashionable cynicism over the years, but from where I stand now I understand how precious it was. It feels like another life.

As it stands right now I don’t even know  where I’ll be  sleeping through Christmas – eve, day, and Boxing Day. It’s a tough time of year to scrounge a  bed, and I’m conscious of other people’s family duties. I don’t want to intrude on that.

That’s a practical consideration, but otherwise there seems a distinct lack of Christmas cheer. I had been invited to share Christmas with some friends. I would have loved to knowing that at least I was with people who care, and in their way, love me. Instead I’ve  agreed to do the ‘right thing’, though this will be the last year I do that.

I’ll be spending Christmas Day at my Aunt (Mum’s sister) and Uncles place. I like them and I’m fond of my cousins, but I’ve not seen any of them since this day last year, and not heard from them until a few weeks ago when they issued the invitation. It’s nice of them to do this, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy many aspects of it, but clearly the invitation is more from obligation than affection.

Joining me there will be my sister and her kids. I love the kids dearly, but there’s no great love otherwise. I was told to not bother buying the kids presents, which I’ve ignored.* It’s been made clear to me from my sister that she doesn’t really want me to be part of their Christmas celebrations. She doesn’t really want me coming by their home at all on Christmas Day, but if I must, not until after 11.

How do I feel about this? To be blunt, I feel surplus to needs. I can deal with that. I’m in an unfortunate family situation – my mother dead, a non-existent relationship with my father, and my sister and I despise each other. I’m close with her kids, but she  rules  the roost. Come the day I’ll bounce around between engagements not really feeling a part of any of them. In part that’s my fault, and otherwise I’ve come to terms with. I’ll go through the motions and make the best of it. I’ll get through Christmas Day, and come Boxing Day my focus will be making it different in 12 months time.

I can’t live like this, without joy. I made the mistake the other night of watching Love Actually. I think I’m probably one of the few men who don’t think it’s a crock of shit. I like the gentle humour of it, and the overarching affection it embodies. This is how life should be, even if it might be a tad idealised. I would argue that for many years that’s what life was like for me. It’s hard thinking that, but also nice, and not a little surreal. Ultimately from where I stand now they seem years of happy complacency.

Given my circumstances I think I do pretty well. In general I’m a positive, optimistic person. I’m thoughtful, articulate, intelligent, compassionate I think. I’m fortunate to have a sanguine temperament. I avoid the extremes of misery, depression and hopelessness, but remain capable of feeling great pleasure. The problem is that merely subsisting is not enough on an emotional level, let alone economically. Those moments of joy and pleasure barely exist in my life.

That has to change for me to survive. Longer term I can look at next year’s Christmas Day and know it must be different. I think central to that is feeling some kind of security, and having some dear to share it with. It’s not much really.

It has to start a long way before Christmas. I won’t survive another year of this. I don’t want to, and there seems no point to it. I’m setting some hard goals. I’ve got to make this finite. Right now I’m looking at April 30 next year. I’ve got to have made some progress towards those goals, otherwise all bets are off.

The goals are simple, and what most people take for granted. I want my own home again. I need a kitchen where I can cook again – how I’ve missed that, and how normal it appears when you cannot do it. Of course this predicates  income, which presumes a job – I don’t care what type. I need space  and freedom to live again as I remember, to meet friends in city bars, go out for dinner, spend an hour or two in a bookshop and actually walk out with some, and browse the delis and indulge every so often with the sensual delight I recall, but haven’t experienced for so long. Above all, I think, I need to open up and share myself.

I’m proud and stubborn and possibly over-principled in some situations. I’ve refused to put myself in a position where I might fall into a relationship. It’s not fair, I’ve thought, not fair to them in my circumstances – impoverished and distracted. True enough, but maybe the bigger part of it has been embarrassment. The mighty have fallen, and here I am H, crippled, like Humpty Dumpty.

I have to trust there is a woman out there who will love me despite all of this. Embarrassment is a conceit I can do without.

I’ve had many interpretations of my travails, and doubtless I’ll indulge myself in a few more before they end. Right now I feel as if I’m meant to survive the myriad and constant challenges being put in my way. There have been times I’ve felt persecuted by that. At this moment I accept them as part of the journey. They are tests for me. If I fail them, I fail. If I can get by them though I will be better for it. I’m not sure how I’m doing, but I’m still on two feet. I suspect I’m becoming a different man.

*As I don’t exchange gifts with friends I don’t expect to receive any Christmas presents this year.

Christmas morning

It’s Christmas morning and I’m at my sisters. That means I was up bright and early, roused by either Santa, or excited children, I’m not sure which.

Schae started it at 6am, bounding out of bed and making haste to the Christmas tree and the bag of goodies Santa had left for her. Being in the way of things I noticed this, and all subsequent events, and observing the curious rustling could not help recall in my sleepy state when I was just a child too, and filled with such childish joy and anticipation that I thought I might burst with it. I remember waking early and looking at the clock beside my bed, judging with impatience a time suitable to get up, wake my parents, and get into the pressies. The minutes would drag by, 5am becoming 6 am, before on the stroke of 7 I judged it time enough and with a whoop and a clamour I would charge out of bed and set the whole joyous day in motion.

Though Schae was up at 6 the official start time was 7am, and so she had to wait. That didn’t stop her from imploring others to wake, it was on;y at a little after 7am that everyone was gathered in the family room by the Christmas tree, carols playing while the kids took eager turns at reaching into the voluminous Santa sacks and extracting something that he, or other parties, had left for them. It was an hour or so of simple happiness. I’ve got things to concern myself with, but for that hour I forgot all that and got into the spirit of things, joining in, urging, laughing, teasing. Rigby joined in to, always a sucker for a festive occasion, tail wagging and going from one to another. I sipped on a latte and a chocolate liquor and was glad to be part of it.

For the moment now it is still. I took the opportunity to languish in a rare AM bath. Very pleasant. The kids are off playing with their things, though there is more to come. Things for me too, though not a lot, and Rigby.

Before that I have set lunch in motion. I volunteered to cook it. Yesterday I made my first ever Pavlova, with white chocolate cream and strawberries. Lunch is turkey of course. That’ll go in the oven shortly. I’ve made some ricotta stuffing balls to bake outside of it. Otherwise, naturally, there will be the standard roast vegies. I’ll get one of the boys to do the peeling for me.

Later we visit my Aunt and cousins for a Christmas dinner of cold cuts. I’ve not seen any of them since my mum’s funeral.

As much as this is fun I look forward to tomorrow. I’ll have the place to myself, and some relative tranquility. There are things to do, but I’ll also take some time to rest and mend the rents in my soul.

Hope you all have a happy day. Merry Christmas.

Last Christmas

Christmas day I woke much earlier than usual, much as I used to when I was a kid and knew that Santa had visited overnight. The phone rang at about 6.50 and I answered it clear as a bell. It was my sister telling me it was time to come over.

I showered and dressed very quickly. I made a latte to drink on the way. I packed up my bag of presents and bundled an excited Rigby into the car. I was on the road by 7.10.

The roads were dead quiet. It was like a ghost town at that time of morning. Everyone was in their home opening presents with their kids or sleeping in. No work today. The road was covered with little bits of debris from the storms the night before, leaves and blossoms, small twigs. The cloud was low, the early sun filtered by it. I listened to the radio, to Bryan Ferry and INXS forgetting for a moment that it was Christmas day.

At my sisters we had egg nog and a cup of tea. The kids were excited, with Schae, as ever, insisting I sit next to her. They got their presents before we began to hand out the general presents. All throughout this Rigby is panting with excitement, his whole body turning with the shake of his tail. It was Christmas for him too.

We handed the gifts out with the usual smiles and laughter, this time sitting by the Christmas tree in the loungeroom. The kids couldn’t get enough. Rigby got a big bone or two, and I got what I expected. By 10 I was out of there.

At home I dressed in the good stuff ready to head out. Ready early I pottered around after that just wanting to get going. Just before I left I gave Rigby his big bone, which he took to with pleasure and great industry. He lay in his little bed in the garage chewing at the bone before licking at the insides of it.

We went to the Sofitel for our Christmas lunch, at No. 35 on the 35th floor. We had a glass of Mumm on arrival before getting stuck into the buffet. The food was good and there was plenty of it. I went back for maybe 6 helpings. Christmas is about many things, but one of the most traditional I think is making a pig of yourself. Who doesn’t eat way too much on Christmas day? I certainly did.

That was it though really. A jazz duo roamed the room taking requests – we asked for some Bossa Nova – but otherwise it was all about the food, and for the kids the view.

A little after 2 mum started to feel ill. This was always on the cards. By the time we left a little before 3 she was feeling very ordinary. We made it out just in time. Overhead the clouds had gathered in angry grey masses. When I was dropped off at home the first drops of rain were falling. Over the next few hours a great storm erupted, lightning flashing and thunder like distant explosions, and hail at times that left me fearful for my car. It was spectacular and dramatic and great to be home too. I was glad of it. Elsewhere the rain was much heavier and the damage from storm and flood extensive. At home I watched a movie in the evening and looked forward to a thorough sleep in come Boxing Day.