the christmas bag, 1997

Page One hundred sixteen

Saturday 22 January 2011

In 1997, not necessarily of my own volition, I turned my back on Turners Falls and went back home. I’d like to be able to say that this was an event that was not, for a refreshing change, brought about by the nastiness and ignorance of other people. I’d like to be able to say that, but it wouldn’t be the truth. It was in fact brought about by some trolls who live and/or work in this town, and by a pole-up-his-rear waste of space who waltzed in from Boston.

It had been the plan anyway. For about ten years my mother had kept telling me that anytime I got sick enough of Turners that I could come back there with the kid, or without her, if she was grown by that time.  A trust document had been made that gave ownership of the house, on the deaths of my parents, to one of my siblings and to my daughter jointly, and lifetime living rights to me.  It even got to the point by 1995 that my mother was frequently asking me to come back; she was lonely, and she’d like help taking care of my father. My father was by no means an invalid at this point. In fact, he was never what you’d call an invalid until not long before his death. But he did have frequent health issues and frequent doctor appointments, and hadn’t had a license for years, due to legal blindness. There was a lot of driving. Never one to stay home the whole day, my father liked to get out of the house for a while.

So, though I wasn’t quite ready to give up having my own place and live with my parents again, it was forced on me by others, and back east I went. Only to found my parents in a truly shocking state, and that’s saying something. There had always been a fair amount of tension in our home, and arguing, etc. But what I found in 1997 did in fact shock me. To the point where most of the time I couldn’t even think what to do or say next. I had no idea how to navigate this changed parental landscape. My mother wanted me to take over and do everything so that she could lay on the couch all day, every day. My father wanted me to do nothing, because in my mother’s deeply worsened mental state, she had convinced my father that I wanted to kill him. Over time I would find out how many people in our family and our town had been convinced of totally fabricated and bizarre things about me by my mother in her mental collapse.

I had my own health issues, and they seriously deplete my energy. Even if I had wanted to, I didn’t have it in me physically to care for my animals and my mother and my father, and have anything left to read a book for myself, or write one, or do anything at all. And I didn’t want to do everything. You can say that’s terrible if you like, but I don’t much care. My mother was not hampered physically, and there was no justifiable reason that she couldn’t keep her house. I was willing to do my share. Share the driving, share the cooking, take care of her animals as well as my own, share the yardwork, but I wasn’t willing to become Cinderella while she lay on the couch in perpetuity eating candy.

My unwillingness to servitude only made her more fiercely determined to break me. Tantrums, tricks, lies and manipulations multiplied daily. I had arrived there on 28 August, and by December I was living in so much continuous and unrelenting stress that I could hardly think. I had been idiotic enough back in August to think that we would have a nice Christmas together, because I would cook, if necessary, and string all the lights, if necessary, and my parents wouldn’t be alone, hoping for a relative to invite them, which sometimes had happened over the years, and sometimes not. And my daughter would drive out from Turners, and the four of us would be together.

Idiot. Thanksgiving was hellacious, and Christmas was worse.

Over these months back in the family home, I’d frequently go to my cousin’s house for a little break. She was only a few streets away, and I always needed breaks. Holiday time came, and I helped her wrap gifts. She buys tons of them, and then there’s all this wrapping to do. She showed me my gift, and I wrapped it, took it home and put it under the tree. Yes, there was a tree. Only because this cousin, one night, had sweet-talked and gently bullied my mother into going out tree shopping with her and me. We bought the trees at a place owned by a guy I’d gone to high school with.

I suppose most people have one or two favorite Christmas things to do or buy or whatever. One of my favorites was always the bunch-of-small-gifts thing. I loved the stocking filled with little things, or the basket, or the gift bag. I loved to receive such things, and I loved to give them. And each item had to be wrapped. It was cheating if you just threw them into the receptacle without wrapping them. The unwrapping of each small gift was at least half the fun.

So here rolls up a Christmas from hell, and my cousin knows how bizarre things are in our home because I give her regular reports. She knows, from my mother’s own reporting, that I’m not getting much of anything for Christmas from my parents. Comes Christmas eve, and I’m down in the cellar where I live, my animals all around me, and I think I’m feeding rabbits when I hear the dog’s over-anxious barking, the parents yelling at the dog and yelling at each other over what-the-hell-is-the-dog-barking-at. I start to head to the stairs so I can go up and see what the dog’s on about, but I hear my mother get to the kitchen door first. It’s my cousin. She’s come to see me (this does not go over well. it was expected by my mother that any cousin visits to the house would be for her). Cousin has very bad knees and starts down the cellar stairs, but I go up to meet her to spare the knees. She hands me a large gift bag, telling me that she got me “a couple” more things for Christmas. She’s in a hurry and can’t stay while I open it up.

Away she goes. Parents and dog settle into their respective spots again;  I and my animals are there in the cellar, and I start gently lifting out items from the bag, one at a time. They are wrapped. I shove them back in and then remove and open only one at a time. I open them very slowly, knowing full well that this is my Christmas and there will likely be no more. Each item is something she knows already that I like. Candles, incense, soap, and now I can’t recall what else. For years I could list every single item that was in that bag, but at some point over the rushing of time, many details have left me. My cousin is a great bargain finder, and buys only expensive merchandise, but only at knock-down prices. And even with this tremendous shopping skill that she has, she had to have spent fifty bucks on that bag. A hundred if she had paid full prices, but she never does that.

That bag was to me like the star shining in the east to Christians. It made me feel that there was one human being on the planet who cared a little about me. It made me feel like Christmas was actually happening in all the gloom that I lived in. It brought beauty — beautiful colored papers and beautiful scents and beautiful shapes — into a life so full of darkness. Naturally my animals were beauty in darkness too, and I am sure that I only kept going because they needed me, and because we loved each other. But at Christmas we want things from other people, and by that I don’t just mean gifts. Love. Kindness. A little festive spirit. Things that were nowhere to be found in my immediate family that year. I don’t know how many months, but I think for well over a year, I kept all of those items right in that gift bag, and took it with me everywhere I landed. Looked at it month-in, month-out as a light that had shown and was still shining: the light that unexpectedly slashed into the darkness of a Christmas that remains, all these years later,  too difficult to think on most of the time. I’ve had to think on it to write this, and hope now not to think on it again for a long time.

What a sorry excuse for a real and worthwhile life it is to be so wretched that one Christmas bag from one single year beacons out like a lighthouse over the years that follow it, like the one jewel in the bottom of Pandora’s box of pestilence. But so it is.

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 (stars from a greeting card)

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