The visitors don’t knock on the door. They don’t call and let me know they’re on the way. They don’t give me the time to straighten up or wash the toothpaste out of the bathroom sink. They don’t let me get the coffee ready or bake a dessert. They just come and make themselves at home. They hover and stay until I wake up at daylight. And it’s in this particular time of the year when they make their presence known. End of the year check up? Christmas holidays? There are aromas of sage, rosemary, garlic, burning pecan wood and pipe tobacco.
These “visitors” are my mother and my grandparents. I’ll be quick here, but I was extremely close to these three people while they were alive. I grew up with these three figures playing an important role in my upbringing and into my adult years, until they all passed away within a short time of each other. My dad also passed away as well, but he “visits” me in the summer, where I dream of riding in the pasture with him, checking cows and looking at his picture perfect peanut crop. Dad was stoic and quiet, playing an important role to me, but not as vocal as his wife (my mother) and his in-laws (my grandparents). I guess if we want to play therapist here, I was co-dependent on making my mom and my grandparents happy and giving them what they needed, which was control. Those were the cards that were dealt to me and I learned to play the game (unknowingly) until they all disappeared from my life and then I was forced to think on my own. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not bitter. In fact, I’m grateful for many of the traits that were passed down to me. I’m just trying to get you to see how influential my “visitors” are in this essay.
My mother and grandmother did everything together. And that included Christmas shopping. This past year I picked up some seasonal retail work in an upscale department store and I saw many buying duos, who happen to be mother and daughter. I was assigned men’s wear. Most of the mothers were in their seventies and eighties and the daughters were in their middle forties to fifties. The conversations were the same that my own mother and grandmother would have. “Do you think he’ll like this?” “You know how picky he is.” “Is it OK if he returns this if he doesn’t like it?” “Oh, I wish I could get him into that color.” “I don’t know if that sweater is ‘him'”. “What are we going to do?” Then they would giggle and buy the sweater, pants, cologne, or tie, check out and move on. I guess those conversations stayed with me because I came home and went to and to bed, thinking how the buying duos sounded just like my mother and grandmother. That night, my own would come to visit me. In my dream, the visit was pleasant; they hovered over me as a warm blanket, watching me, taking notes on how was handling life without them.
In the grocery store just the other day, I walked passed a rosemary topiary shaped like a Christmas tree. I couldn’t help but stop to rub the spindly and aromatic leaves and put to my nose. Ah, a beautiful scent, reminding me of my first apartment where my mother brought me a rosemary plant, shaped like a Christmas tree. She saw a Martha Stewart TV show, where it was on Martha’s list of “good things” to have in your home. As I stopped to smell the pungent and woodsy essence in the middle of a busy grocery store, I thought about my mom. She came to me in my dream, once again, in the wee hours of morning. She asked me if I was decorating for Christmas and if I had gotten my rosemary topiary for the season. Before I could answer her, she left. She left. I thought for sure before she whooshed in as quickly as she whooshed out, she would have at least inspected my closet.
The bottle of sage in my kitchen spice rack took me back to a time of when Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmother’s house meant gathering of family and friends and using the Lenox china turkey patterned plates. I thought about her week prep and her grocery list written in her 3X5 spiral notepad. I thought about all the food she prepared, and she did it with a sense of love and duty. That night in my dream, she came to visit.
With the cooler weather, the fireplaces have come back to life after a long summer sleep. The smell of firewood outside takes me back to my grandfather’s talent for building the coziest fires. After the presentation of well placed pecan wood he would light a gas pilot and let the fire crackle. It was quite the presentation of flame and warmth. As the wood began to burn, the fire would keep the entire house at a constant 70-72 degrees. After taking a late afternoon walk on a chilly day, I smelled the fireplaces in the neighborhood and thought of him. That night in my dream, he came to visit. When he was alive, he smoked a pipe, and I just as sure as I write this, I smelled pipe tobacco while I was asleep.
The visits have slowed since Christmas has come and gone. Will they be back? I hope so. Even though I have established my own life and my own ways, I miss these people. They have been gone for many years, but they will always be a part of me, as I was a part of them.
It’s getting to be that time of year. Stores are switching out orange and black for red and green. Magazine and internet articles topically speak of family dysfunctions, how to be nice at the dinner table, what wine to choose with your turkey, and Heaven forbid may it go nicely with that new twist on the green bean casserole. Airfares go up and down and the travel guy, Peter Greenberg tells us when the best time to travel may be. In Texas, we could have a white Christmas or it could be eighty degrees on December 25. Choral groups from all across the country and in every Christian church begin to add rehearsal times for their annual concerts. There are signs on every street corner advertising Christmas lights put on our houses. The garden centers are sweeping out the dead begonia leaves of summer to make room for the Douglas firs and Cedar trees.
Many people around me look forward to the holidays. They decorate their homes with garland and holly for every room, including the bathrooms. They’re already shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond for new holiday dishes and festive bowls. They’ve redecorated their guest rooms and look forward to seeing their cousins they reunited with from last summer’s family reunion. They’ve made their trips to the holiday decorating stores and their houses smell of sage and cinnamon. Menus and activities are set in stone, and there’s no deviating from the program.
Then there are those who have stopped living and are petrified of the upcoming holiday season. Why? They’re lost in their world of grief. Grief from losing someone very close to them. Their world got a little smaller when they buried their parent, child, grandchild, partner, spouse, brother, sister or dear friend. Grief is something that is a constant, yet it’s different for everyone who has experienced it. I’ve had personal experience on the subject. When I lost a set of parents and grandparents within two and a half years, I was completely lost. Immobile. Dead inside. Terrified that I would be literally eaten up by a world that was described as cruel and indifferent. Allow to me segue for just a moment. I was extremely (some might say abnormally) close to my mom and dad and my maternal grandparents. I made no decisions about life until I cleared it with them. I was a classic codependent. When they left this earth for their heavenly home, life as I knew it ended. One of my biggest scares was who was I going to spend the holidays with? Of course I had my brother, but he had married and he was a part of another family and I was more than welcome to join in their celebration, but it didn’t feel the same. Who was going to get me everything on my Christmas wish list? Who was going to have the well appointed table with the “to die for” brunch? Where was I going to spend Christmas Eve night? How in the world was I going to function from “Black Friday” until New Year’s Day? And those well meaning people who sent me “My First Christmas in Heaven”, thank you. Not.
That first Christmas without Mother was a dark one literally. As my brother and I stood at her grave with our poinsettia, it was cold, cloudy and just beginning dusk. I cried. My brother was agitated. We stood just long enough to know that neither one of us wanted to do that again. My sister in law was there as well, and bless her heart, was patient and let us grieve. We drove back to the house in silence, knowing that the next chapter of our lives was going to be different, but neither of us knew how it was going to be written.
I have to say that time has passed from that dark and cold Christmas Eve. The sun does shine and the days do get brighter. I promise. Please allow yourself the time to grieve, especially if this is the first Christmas without someone special. Don’t dwell on that that cannot be changed. Don’t wish to turn back the clock. It doesn’t happen. Time does heal a deep wound, but there is a scar. The scar fades and then it becomes a pleasant memory.