Lately, with Christmas approaching, I've been thinking a lot about the first Christmas after my mom and dad separated. I was in fourth grade. I don't remember the presents, or the reworked logistics of Christmas morning. What I've been thinking about is the Christmas tree.
For the first and only time in my childhood, we had a live Christmas tree that year. I remember going to the lot to pick it out (already cut down), and I remember it being lashed to the roof of our minivan with cables. I remember Mom's struggle to get it off the van's roof when we got the tree home while my little brother and I looked on, too small to be more than a nuisance if we tried to help. I remember Mom trying, and failing over and over again, to stand the tree up straight in the tree stand. Her hair was wild around her face and she was breathing with exertion and trying not to cry. In my head, it looks like a scene out of a movie, one loaded with meaning: Newly Single Mother Tries Her Best To Make Magical Christmas Memories With Her Children. When I look back on it now, I think that's exactly what it was. I think, to my mom, that the tree probably symbolized a fresh start for us, and that she was trying to convince herself that she was strong enough, that she could do this. She was, she could, and she did.
Ever since I had the boys, and especially in the past year or so, I've been thinking about my mom differently. Instead of looking back on my childhood with my own eyes, I find myself trying to see it from her perspective. She was my mom, of course, but now that I'm a mom myself, I know what a freaking tough job that is. What did she view as her biggest parenting struggles and successes? What advice would she give me if she were here? How did she do it, day after day, year after year, all on her own, when I so often struggle even though I have help? I can't ask her any of this, so all I can rely on is my memory.
Here is what I remember: Songs and stories every single night before bed, without fail. Grilled cheese sandwiches in front of Sesame Street. Sitting at our scuffed, stained kitchen table while she taught me to read, the foundations of an activity that has become a lifelong love of mine. Cookies that were always homemade, brownies that were always from a box. Soft hugs and silly games. Trips to the library and the zoo. The smells of her make-up and perfume. The sound of her whistle as she called us in from outside, the freedom that she gave us to wander and create. Her laughter, so frequent and infectious that it always made my brother and me laugh too.
I remember times when she was frustrated, too, and as a mom myself I understand why, now more than ever. It can't have been easy for her; it isn't easy for me. Even though she isn't here to share her ways with me, I know they were imprinted on me, and I see and hear her in so much of what I do and how I parent. In some ways, I think she was so much better than me at this parenting thing. And I'm doing some things differently, some things more, than she did -- things that I always wished she would do but didn't or couldn't for probably a variety of reasons.
I feel like if she had seen me as a mother, our relationship would have grown and changed in such a monumental way. I feel like we would have become so much closer than we already were; I feel like we had so much more to learn from and about each other. It's like I missed out on a whole aspect of her that I never even knew existed before I had children of my own, when it was already too late to discover that part of her. Now, nearly six years after she died, I think that's what makes me more sad than anything. That, and the fact that she never got to enjoy the beautiful boys that her blood helped to create.
The other day, we were driving past a cemetery (not the one where Mom is buried) and Andrew said, "Mommy, look! We went there one time to visit our grandma!" I did take the boys to visit her grave in the summer of 2011, and I was shocked that he remembered. I praised him for his memory and told him that yes, we visited Grandma Sue at a cemetery, but not that particular one. He said, "Grandma Sue's in a cemetery that's far away?" I told him it was a little far away, but what I really wanted to tell him (and what I believe) is that she's much, much farther away even than that, in a much, much better place. But that was a conversation for another day. How I wish she was here to give me advice about how to handle that.