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Coming To Terms With The Ghosts Of Christmas Past
By Carol Ayer

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la…” The all-too-familiar Christmas carol resounded throughout the drugstore. I warily eyed the plastic reindeer and Santa Clauses filling every crevice of the building; the ornaments, the toys, and the candy stacked high on the shelves. I had to force myself to concentrate on finding what I’d come for–tissues, paper towels, and other provisions of everyday life.

But I soon became distracted by another carol. It was no use trying to ignore it. I had to accept the facts. Christmas was back, and I would have to cope.

I hated this time of year. Rather than fill me with jolliness, the holidays only served to remind me of how much I had lost over the years.

Despite the feelings of loneliness that the season aroused in me, I wasn’t truly alone. I did have a family, and a place to go. I was close to my mother and stepfather, and we were always invited to my brother’s house on Christmas night. But it was the home I’d grown up in, and I still associated it with painful memories of my parents’ divorce and the unpleasant aftermath.

Truth was, Christmas had been a wonderful time for me when I was a child. We were well-off, so I received exactly what I wanted under the Christmas tree–Barbies, games, and countless new books.

My father in particular loved Christmas, and he enjoyed decorating our large home to the nines. Every year our tree soared to the height of our tall ceiling. I sat under the tree each night, admiring the lights and ornaments, and inhaling the piney scent. I was fortunate to have my own smaller tree in my bedroom, and I delighted in hanging up the ornaments while listening to carols on my record player.

But it wasn’t just the presents and the trees that made Christmas special. My unhappy family turned happy during the holidays, as though we’d tacitly agreed to place a moratorium on arguments and tension. We celebrated Christmas morning with homemade croissants and freshly-squeezed orange juice as we opened our presents and stockings, and later shared a holiday dinner with relatives. My brother and I each claimed a special spot under the tree to store our gifts, and I came back to enjoy mine several times during the day. We often concluded Christmas with a drive up and down the city streets, admiring our neighbors’ elaborate decorations and lights.

But that was before the divorce. After the break-up, I felt like a pinball, bounced back and forth on Christmas Eve and Christmas day from my mother to my father and brother. I dreaded the feeling of being pulled in two opposite directions. When I was with my mom, and later with her and my new stepfather, I missed my father. When I was with my dad, I missed my mother. And returning to my childhood home to stay with my father and brother only reinforced my feelings of loss. I was now just a visitor in my own house.

Things didn’t improve once I grew up. I longed to have a husband and my own family, but part of me remained hesitant to achieve my goal because I feared a broken marriage of my own. I knew that as a child of divorce, I had the odds against me. I had boyfriends here and there, but didn’t get serious with anyone, and never brought one home for a holiday dinner.

Time passed by. My father died in 1997, and my stepmother and half-sister moved out of the area. I remained in my home state, feeling the odd man out, with my brother and sister-in-law, mother and stepfather, and stepsisters and their husbands all happily married. All my friends were also married and had children of their own. Now that I was well over thirty, I couldn’t help but think of myself as an outcast, both in my own intimate circles and in the society at large. And I continued to attend holiday events alone.

Gradually, I grew closer to a man I’d always cared for deeply. We talked about marriage, and I felt my apprehensions about the institution melt away. I once again had high hopes for the future.

But loss wasn’t through with me yet. My boyfriend died in 2006. If I thought Christmas was hard before, I had no idea how horrible it would become. My boyfriend hadn’t had the opportunity to meet my family. I knew they would have loved him for his warm humor and charming ways. I’d had countless daydreams of him complimenting my niece’s beauty and ribbing my nephew for his “nerdiness.” He would have appreciated each of my family member’s special qualities, and would have regaled us all with jokes and stories. Now they would never get to know one another. That precious dream would sadly not come to pass.

The end of each year became an even more stressful time, filled with grief and regrets. My resistance to spending time in my childhood home became harder to ignore. Still, I felt obligated to spend the holidays there because of my niece and nephew. My brother took to writing plaintive emails, begging me to come whenever I flirted with the idea of begging off. I inevitably ended up in a house I had grown to detest so much that I’d christened it “Wuthering Heights.” And I remained the only single adult at the dining room table, aside from my ninety-something grandmother.

My holidays could have continued on in this miserable way. But like all significant transformations in life, lasting change would have to come from within myself. It finally did, in 2009.

Although I would never truly be done mourning the loss of my boyfriend–and the break-up of my original family–much of the hard work was done. On Christmas day at my brother’s house, my family and I stuffed ourselves with a huge meal my sister-in-law had prepared, replete with several courses and dessert. As was our tradition, we broke open British crackers at the end of the dinner, letting the contents scatter across the table and onto the floor. We each took a turn reading our joke pages, and fought over who would get which toy. Paper crowns jauntily placed on our heads, we laughed and teased one another.

Sated with good food and happy laughter, I looked around at the smiling faces of my family members. I finally came to a much-needed realization. Loss doesn’t have to define us. I didn’t regret my parents’ divorce anymore. Both my mother and father were happier after they separated, and they each found a successful partnership afterwards. I would always be grateful for those wonderful Christmases we shared. If given the chance, I would love my boyfriend all over again, even knowing our tragic ending. No longer would I focus on my losses, but rather on appreciating what I’d had, and experiencing with joy what I have in each moment.

I’d at last made it home for the holidays.

.

Carol Ayer Bio:

Carol Ayer lives in Northern California, where she works as a freelance writer and poet. Her essays have been published by “The Christian Science Monitor” and “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” Another essay is forthcoming in “Flashlight Memories,” an anthology to be released in 2011 by Silver Boomer Books. Read an interview with Carol Ayer about her Kindle ebook, Storybook Love here.

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COMMENT (1) | enlightenment, loss, parent divorce, relationships
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Comments

One Response to “Coming To Terms With The Ghosts Of Christmas Past”

  1. Melissa Roberts
    January 31st, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    Thanks so much for bravely sharing your new life after grief as well as touching on an often taboo subject- how to deal with “negative” feelings like anger and grief around the holidays, when people are “supposed” to feel happy. Enjoy being home for the holidays, and with who you are!

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