Through my six-year-old eyes, it seemed like a Christmas miracle. One day it was a drugstore parking lot, and the next eve it was a forest of Christmas trees, with strung lights and sawdust covering the pavement like snow. Christmas tree lots have long been common; but. based on my age and where my family was in the course of our lives that year, made that one tree lot appear as a beacon of hope to me when I first saw it through the window of my mother’s old station wagon.
It was a tough year for my mother, brother and me. No, it wasn’t tougher than any other; it was just tougher in a different way. We were used to being broke. We were used to volatility with my parents. And, we were used to not having much of anything, including at Christmas. However, that year, my father was long gone, my mother was drinking more than ever, and the only good fortune I recall was that a church left several boxes of food on our porch at our little rental on Robinson Street.
But, my mother somehow saved $20, which wasn’t just a lot of money in 1977, but a fortune to us. She loaded my brother and me in the station wagon and drove us to that magical Christmas tree lot. It would be a great Christmas after all – food and a tree. We didn’t want for anything else because just those two aspects, we were warned by our mother weeks earlier, may not happen that year.
We picked out a wonderful tree, and as my mother reached in her jeans’ pocket to get the $20, it wasn’t there. She searched her other pockets, then her purse, then the car, then the lot. But, the $20 dollars was gone. She’d downed a half-pint of vodka before leaving the house, and as the frantic search for the $20 transpired, she became increasingly drunk – stumbling, crying. The gentleman at the Christmas tree lot remained silent as she begged him to let her take the tree. My brother and I likewise remained silent as Mom drove us home without a tree.
Christmas was never normal in our family before or after that. My mother was never sober, and while my friends’ trees were piled with presents, ours was often scarce. Still, we were lucky to get a new winter coat and school clothes most years, sometimes something we wanted, as well. Mom at least always tried in her own ways.
Still, I can never defend my mother’s life choices. Her never being sober on a single Christmas will always be inexcusable to me as a son and a father. Yet, all of those Christmases growing up with my mother taught me invaluable lessons about what Christmas should be. Christmas should be about joy, not struggle. Christmas should be about people, not presents. And, Christmas should be about peace, not volatility. I didn’t have those growing up, but I’ve been blessed in my fatherhood that I’ve been able to bring those attributes to my own family’s Christmases – and along with the love of those around me, a warm meal and decorated tree remain all I could ever wish for. Like my mother, I, too, try in my own ways.