I’ve always loved Christmas, even when it was difficult, which in my childhood, it often was.
My parents announced their separation (which became a divorce) while the tree was still up in our living room. I was six; my brother was nine. We had just returned from my mother’s parent’s house and there was a huge snowstorm that prevented my father’s parents from visiting us in Brooklyn as planned, so they took that opportunity – the night we were expecting another round of presents and cheer – to tell us that my father was moving to Manhattan to live with his girlfriend (who became his wife).
I have very little memory of Christmases before that year. After that year, ours was always a divorced Christmas: two trees, two nights for opening presents, and one massive dinner with “All My Parents,” as my brother used to tease, referencing the soap opera, All My Children.
My mother was always very busy leading up to Christmas. She’s a goldsmith and Christmas orders were a huge part of her annual earnings, so she didn’t have time for perfection, though she did try. We would get our tree after the 20th at the earliest. She and I and maybe my brother would buy it on 7th Avenue and carry it home ourselves. We kept the box of ornaments in the basement, which was scary – creaky old steps led to a dark cluttered catacomb with a roaring oil furnace burning in its depths. My mother always said: “Be careful,” when I’d head down for that box. And, “Put on shoes!”
She and I would decorate the tree and though I never said this out loud, this was what I thought as I removed each ornaments from the tattered cardboard box: Before, before, after, before, after, acknowledging that a dangling ball or a mirrored apple was added to the collection before or after the divorce. (I still have some of those ornaments and I can still tag each one with one of those words).
Divorce defined my childhood. We were one of the first families we knew that split up; my best friend’s mother referred to me as “from a broken home.” I was mortified every Tuesday when I had to bring a suitcase with me to school. I was embarrassed and ashamed when the school directory came out and I was one of very few families – the only one in my class – with two addresses by my name. Still — or maybe because of that — my mother managed to make Christmas epic every year. She’d bake the cookies she must have baked before at midnight on Christmas Eve as if without those homemade green and red sugar coated stars and trees, Santa wouldn’t come. She’d be frantic as she rolled out the sheets of dough, but she’d get it done. She’d do most of her shopping a few days before Christmas. She’d say, “Don’t go in my room!” As Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s bags multiplied, tucked into the shadows of her personal space. She’d creep into our rooms after we were (supposedly) asleep on Christmas Eve and stuff our stockings with excellent gifts. In the morning, after we’d opened the goodies in the stockings, we’d find towers of presents jammed all around the tree. She’d spend way more than she could afford I’m sure, but she wanted it to be special. And it was.
At my dad’s, which was always the “Eve of Christmas Eve,” we would politely take turns opening gifts around the perfectly trimmed tree, cleaning up the paper before it even landed on the spotless floor. At my mother’s, we would tear through the boxes, tossing ribbons and screaming with delight as my mother’s boyfriend watched with what appeared to be genuine happiness and smoked cigarettes. (To me, the cigarette smoke was like chestnuts roasting on an open fire – cozy and warm.) Our cat Sally would roll around in the mess until she found the perfect box to curl up in. (We never had tinsel because, aside from the fact my father thought it was “tacky,” if Sally ate it, she would barf.)
But my mother never made a card. Even when my parents were married, there was never a card. Maybe it just wasn’t a thing then, though I do recall other family portraits atop our mantle.
So when we had our first child, I made my first Christmas card. My son was a little over 1-year-old. (He was born in August so our announcement covered as a holiday card that first year.) My husband and I drove out to our favorite beach at sunset, dressed our boy in a red jacket, and shot out first Christmas card pic, which was a wide shot of our toddler watching the surfers ride California waves under an orange sky. It was epic. I had the shot duplicated and handmade the cards. The following year I had my son scribble with red and green markers then added a picture of him sitting on our beloved dog. When my daughter was born, I did that card by myself, too, taking one hundred pictures to yield one of my son holding her, both of them with adorable smiles. We never did a family shot because my husband was never there when we could shoot. He was a Stedicam operator (now a cinematographer) and was at work most of the time. If I asked over the weekend, he’d stall, the daylight would escape, and I’d get upset – why won’t you help me? Don’t you like sending the cards?
This is one of those things that now, 23 years into my marriage, I’ll always remember as the beginning of the end. It meant a lot to me to send those cards – he sent them, too. But it was an inconvenience. The kids sometimes cried. If he was working, he didn’t want to be bothered during his precious down time. The only way for me to get him to help was to “nag.” By the time my daughter was two, I gave up trying. (I know she was only two, because that year, after I’d purchased the card stock (on which I would have the greeting (always different!) printed before having the cards cut and scored), I was so elated – and exhausted! – that I pulled out of a back alley and T-boned a silver Saturn while my daughter was in the car. (No one was hurt) By then, I had accepted that I was on my own. It had been important to me. I wanted him to help, but I acquiesced. It just wasn’t worth hearing him say: “I don’t even want the stupid card.”
I was alone with those two little kids months at a time, so when I did get to see my husband, yeah, I had a lot to complain about. I was lonely, I was frazzled, why didn’t he call? I was becoming that wife who cries and begs. He didn’t like to hear about my childhood – it made me sound “damaged,” so I couldn’t explain what the card meant to me, or how nice it was for me to be part of a community that exchanged holiday cards at all. One card, not two.
There were a few years that it timed out and he did take the photo, but mostly, year after year, I found a spot in the yard or on the porch, stuck them in a red shirt or dress, and shot it myself.
My daughter started performing in the Nutcracker at age five, which was a four-month volunteer commitment for me. Yet I still made the cards and glued the photos to the front of each one. I addressed them late at night. I licked all the envelopes until my tongue hurt. And it was worth it. I have a stack of them in my desk – the cards from every year – and seeing them, reading the greetings, remembering my children at 8 or 9 or 12 – brings me joy. I’m thankful I persevered.
For the past two years, I’ve caved and had them made online. They cost more, but it’s so much easier. I gave in to convenience. And I was sick of being a martyr. If he wasn’t going to help, I would make it easier on myself. Lord knows I wasn’t going to complain.
This year, there is only a remote chance there will even be a card, because we are planning to divorce. It’s only been a few months since we decided and we’re not fighting (because I no longer care that even in this age of Find-Your-Friend apps, I never know where he is). We’re being civil. We have too much to untangle not to be, plus the kids. So last weekend, I very nicely asked: “I will get the cards made again this year, but would you take the photo, please?” Straight forward, no whine, magic word. If he did, I would do everything else and he could send them to his family and clients like he always does. He agreed, but the weekend came and went sans photo. I didn’t pester or nag.
We can live without a card – it’s weird now anyway, hypocritical, a lie. But they’re still our children and like it or not, we’re still a family. Very few people even know – not even my father knows, so not sending a card might be a tip off, though that’s really not on my mind. As my wasband (the word I’m using for “engaged to be divorced”) always said, I’m the one who wants the damn card. I like it. It’s a tradition I’m not ready to forsake.
So I tried to get the kids – who are now teenagers – to pose. My daughter came down wearing only a red hoodie with the hood cinched around her face. She refused to change, so I took a bunch of shots like that, with her naked legs and her hands covering what was left of her face, and threatened to send it to everyone we know. Still, she refused to change.
“Then we’re not having a card,” I said, because she had mentioned a few days before that she wanted one.
“I changed my mind,” she said. “Who cares about the card?”
“Fine,” I said, and walked away. It really is too close to Christmas. It will be a nightmare writing out addresses last minute. Screw it. Saves me times and money. Why would I even care?
I texted wasband and told him I couldn’t get the shot. “I guess it’s their choice now,” he replied, meaning I suppose, if the kids won’t comply, that’s that. But as other cards arrive at my house every day, I think: those kids didn’t get to make the choice. Mom or Dad – hopefully both – wanted to send a holiday card. They wanted to show their friends and families around the country how their children have grown, they wanted to be a part of the mantelpiece collection, which is something I love seeing each year – all these children smiling at us, wishing us happiness and joy and peace.
“I’m sad about the card,” I said to my daughter this morning as I was driving her 30 miles to Project Gratitude to make care packages for families displaced by the fires.
“Then make it.”
“It’s too late. I’d have to get it done today. You and your brother would have to let me take the photo today.” I was thinking about the before and after and how right now, we’re stuck in between. We were listening to Ed Sherran and I was feeling a little sad about the whole situation, probably just because it’s Christmas. (Truly, most of the time, my prevailing emotion is relief.)
There’s a dad in my neighborhood whose wife left him somewhat suddenly. They have a son the same age as ours. The Christmas after they split, a card with just the dad and boy arrived, smiling at us from the bleachers of a baseball park. It was super sweet. I saw that dad a few months later and told him how much I appreciated his effort. I knew it was hard to do and not just the photo/card selection/ordering part. It took balls for him to send that card.
“I thought about it,” he said. “It was weird, but I really didn’t want to stop sending Christmas cards.”
This afternoon, I managed to get the shot.