I used to love Christmas as a child. I loved the excitement of it all, the anticipation, the fulfillment of wishes. It was the one day of the year I felt loved and wanted and happy. Santa made sure of that, even if my mother couldn’t. Dear, kind, surrogate parent Santa. Kindness on this one day almost lasted me the year. Almost.
My childhood Christmas memories are somewhat fragmented, though, like a slide show that keeps jumping slides. My memories, while lucid, don’t flow. I can only remember bits of Christmases, a jigsaw puzzle where most of the pieces of the sky are missing, but where scenes like bridges and trees and faces and boats are recreated whole and intact.
I remember the year that I was maybe six or seven and found a Hutchinson’s Encyclopedia under the tree for me. It had a particular smell: a musty-new print and glossy-old paper smell that I have never smelled anywhere else. Man, I loved its maroon-cloth cover, and I devoured its contents over the years, hungry for knowledge. No matter how old and tattered and used that encyclopaedia became, its smell neither changed nor faded. I wish I’d kept it as an ode to that enthusiastic, thirsty-for-learning, naive child.
My Nan had a tiny kitchen, so it’s one of the miracles of Christmas that she was able to produce the amount of food she did. She was a beautiful cook, my Nan.
I remember Christmas Eve spent at my Nanna and Papa’s house. All my sophisticated Adelaide aunties and uncles and cousins would drive down for the holidays and stay with my Nanna and Papa in their bungalow. It was large and musty smelling, and I was always intimated by the size and number of the rooms, afraid I’d get lost and never be sighted again. I rarely ventured past the dining room, which was located at the back, near the kitchen. The house smelled like my Papa’s Drum pipe tobacco (he was always smoking, and died unsurprisingly and sadly of emphysema in his early 70s) and my Nanna’s cooking – she always had something on the stove. Warm, comforting aromas.
On Christmas Eve, all the Adelaide aunties and uncles and cousins and the Mt Gambier ones too, would gather in the formal lounge room and we would sing Christmas carols around the piano and giggle behind our hands at one of my uncles, who had a deep, rich baritone. We found his voice hilarious. Often we’d go to midnight mass, just for the hell of it, and gather the next day back at my Nanna and Papa’s for Christmas lunch: adults at the big table, children at the small one. My Nan had a tiny kitchen, so it’s one of the miracles of Christmas that she was able to produce the amount of food she did. She was a beautiful cook, my Nan.
I remember one year – I think I was in my early teens – all my aunties and uncles and cousins, the Adelaide ones and the Mt Gambier ones, spent Christmas Day at my Papa’s block. He had parked a caravan with an annexe, and built a shower and toilet block, on a quarter acre piece of land opposite the Woolwash Caravan Park at Port McDonnell. It was cool that Christmas Eve, and I remember us all piling into Port Mac, attending mass at the tiny church and then ordering fish and chips for tea after. They were some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten: the batter was light, the chips crisp and fluffy, and they were doused with just enough vinegar to give a steamy tang. I remember Christmas Day being hot and windy, so we swam first before traipsing back to the block and gorging ourselves to the point of bursting on Christmas ham and pavlova.
It was cool that Christmas Eve, and I remember us all piling into Port Mac, attending mass at the tiny church and then ordering fish and chips for tea after. They were some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten: the batter was light, the chips crisp and fluffy, and they were doused with just enough vinegar to give a steamy tang.
I remember receiving a $2 tin of shortbread biscuits from my mother one year. I must have been in my twenties because I was at university and my daughter had not yet been born. It wouldn’t have been so bad perhaps, except my half-sister – the youngest one – received all sorts of goodies from my mother. And that year, my half-sister gave my mother a television, and me a book. My other sister received a tin of biscuits as well, and some other tokenistic gift from my half-sister. My mother was awful to me that particular day; bitter and biting and mean. I can pinpoint my steeply declining appetite for Christmas to exactly that time. It just seemed so unloving and unfair and unChristmassy, among other things. It is typical of my immediate family, though, who remain consistently unloving and unfair and unfamilyish.
I did a few more Christmases with my immediate family (my mother, my half-sister and sister and their children) when my daughter was young, but I never completely forgot the tin of biscuits. Yes, I’d joke about it with my other sister, who also laughed about the tin she’d received, but it stung, and was a reminder of how unimportant I was to both my mother and my half-sister. And so I started the tradition of avoiding Christmas when my daughter was in primary school. We escaped to the Gold Coast a few years in a row. It was an expensive way to dodge my immediate family, but it brought respite and some happy times. My sister and her daughter came with us one year, as did the Italian. There is something about spending Christmas Day eating store-bought roast chicken and deli-sliced ham and pre-prepared potato and pasta salads near a pool in the humidity of the tropics with your nearest and dearest that ever so slightly borders on the divine.
As my daughter has gotten older and forged her own way, I have changed the way I approach Christmas, although the urge to escape burns like a fire in my belly. The past couple of years, I have organised breakfast: fruit, waffles, croissants, eggnog, champagne, that kind of thing. My sister has eaten with us on occasion, but mostly it’s myself and my daughter and her boyfriend. I have time to go for a run before the present opening and feasting, and they are usually gone by 11 o’clock, hurrying off to his family engagements, which are Italian and many. I didn’t mind though, because I spent quality time with my daughter – except for one year when she was still cooking for the many Italian engagements rather than eating with us – and I did Christmas on my terms. Once the kitchen had been cleared of food and dishes and the lounge room of discarded paper, I’d get out my bottle of Pimm’s and proceed to watch Really Good TV and get well and truly sloshed, stumbling into bed later in the evening after watching approximately six episodes straight of Game of Thrones, or similar.
I don’t understand my daughter’s choices. I don’t understand her thinking. I don’t know why I have no intrinsic value to her. I don’t understand why she thinks its ok to push me aside. I have no idea why I am an afterthought.
This year, I received an invitation to my daughter’s boyfriend’s parents’ house for Christmas lunch. I accepted with pleasure, but I am not there now. Not because of anything they did – they are lovely people – but because of what my daughter did. All this year – starting with her 21st – I have been struggling to matter and be acknowledged as valuable to her. I am fighting a losing battle. Oh, I have all kinds of value when she wants or needs something, but essentially, I am an inconvenient and embarrassing afterthought. A throwaway item. Today, on Christmas Day, I have been thrown over and tossed aside for relatives (my half-sister, her children and my mother, of all people) who have never really been a fixture in my daughter’s life. My daughter has sent me a message – loud and clear – that other people are more valuable than me. Sadly and cruelly, the other people she has chosen over me are people who have had a damaging and detrimental effect on my life. And the damage and detriment endures and continues, it seems, into the next generation.
So today, on Christmas Day 2014, I am alone and hurt and sad and confused. I don’t understand my daughter’s choices. I don’t understand her thinking. I don’t know why I have no intrinsic value to her. I don’t understand why she thinks its ok to push me aside. I have no idea why I am an afterthought. Maybe there is nothing to understand, because maybe this is just the way it is. And the way it always will be. Because if I’m honest, her views about me were established when she was a little girl of two or three. I remember being at the swimming pool with her, and calling for her that it was time to leave. She was splashing around in the paddling pool with a handsome young man and his small daughter. She turned to me and said: I want to go with them. It seems that others have always held more appeal for my daughter, and this pattern has continued.
I just never thought my own dysfunctional family would be more appealing than me.
Especially on Christmas Day.