WRITTEN ON December 19th, 2011 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Holiday
I spent the morning wrapping gifts and drinking coffee out of a Christmas mug that I inherited from my mother-in-law, Carol. This probably doesn’t sound significant to most people, but it was actually an incredibly emotional couple hours for me.
We lost Carol to colon cancer at the end of August. She was 63 years old. This will be my husband’s first Christmas without her, and I’m acutely aware of this. For months I’ve been doing the “I’m not hovering hover,” trying to gauge his emotions while also trying to keep things as routine and normal as possible. When the person you love most in the world loses a parent, you kind of go into overdrive. You do everything humanly possible to make it easier on them. You plan and host the memorial service lunch. You clean out their apartment and deal with the lawyers and the real estate agents so your dear one doesn’t have to. You keep the spirit of that lost person alive as much as you possibly can, even if it means decorating your house with a tacky Christmas village you’d never have imagined you’d actually care about the year before.
But in doing all of these things, I’ve found that I really haven’t thought that much at all about my own sadness. Until this morning.
I’ll come right out and say that my mother-in-law had a tendency to drive me nuts a lot of the time. This post would be completely disingenuous if I didn’t admit that up front. To me, a young woman raised in a time and in an environment that allowed me to believe that anything was possible for women, that confidence is a girls best friend, that I was smart and worthy and capable, Carol often seemed a victim in her own life. It irked me that she depended so much on her grown sons for her own happiness (how obtuse of me to presume to know anything about the complexities of motherhood.) That she often seemed scared of her own shadow. I felt like she was a bystander in her own life, waiting for other people to include her or make plans for her. Always doing what everyone else wanted to do. Too often it felt like she turned things down before really even trying them, sure she wouldn’t like it, positive that that’s not how she was supposed to do things, stymied by how it would look or what other people thought. She was as traditional as they come, and it often seemed as though she was from my grandparents generation, rather than the hippie culture to which my own parents subscribed.
When I met her, I was a 23 year old wild child just out of college, living out loud in New York City, millions of girl friends at my finger tips and the stories of Carrie Bradshaw and crew filing my head (a more shallow, vapid role model there never was.) She was a 53 year old mother of three “adult” boys, recently divorced and trying to make a new life for herself. Hindsight being 20/20, I now realize she was terrified, but at the time, and to my trumped up, impenetrable ego it came across as weakness and timidity, and it bugged the hell out of me. Looking back, I kick myself for being so insensitive to many of her greatest worries and fears. How could I have judged how she felt or acted, when our experiences had been so vastly different?
The bottom line is that she loved with a huge heart, and that she raised three boys who know how to love well and fully. A gift that cannot be overstated. Her gift to me, given before Kevin and I even met.
Over the decade that I knew Carol, I came to see she was a lot more layered than I first gave her credit for (isn’t everyone?) I like to think I did a little layering myself, as I grew up and into true adulthood. I came to see that despite our differences, we had a great many things in common. I used those things to form the basis of my relationship with her, and now I cherish them as fond memories of the woman who so lovingly raised the man that I couldn’t live without.
Carol loved Christmas and everything about it. She loved gift giving and making merry, celebrations and being surrounded by friends and family. We were much alike in this way. She loved nothing more than spending a day in the kitchen baking all kinds of sugary treats to lavish upon guests, especially her children and grandchildren. She wrapped Christmas gifts carefully and beautifully, often including some special touch like an ornament with the recipients name on it. And she made a mean Manhattan.
While cleaning out her apartment this fall, I came across her massive collection of Christmas wrapping and ribbon. To me, this is the true spirit of my mother-in-law, and looking through the huge boxes full of tissue, raffia, wired bows and 35 different kinds of cards this morning, I found myself longing to talk to her for the first time in many months. Turns out that in trying to make sure my husband was ok, I didn’t even realize that I missed her in my own right.
I want to sit with her and tell her all the gifts I got for hubster this year. I want to tell her about how her future grandson is kicking up a storm and making my bladder seem the size of a grain of sand. I want to snap a pic of all the gifts I just wrapped and text it to her, because I know only she would truly appreciate the symmetry of the massive green bow I tied, or my use of her red and green holly twine. I can picture her face lighting up at these little anecdotes. She loved nothing more than being kept in the loop, feeling in touch with the people she loved in her life.
As I wrapped this morning, drinking coffee out of her Vermont village Christmas mugs and listening to Perry Como (her favorite) crooning “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” I felt as though she were looking down on me, guiding my choice in matching bows and nodding in approval at my use of a snowman card here and there.
I suspect I will wrestle with guilt over her loss for a long time. While I tried my utmost to be there for her whenever she needed someone, I fear that I was never as emotionally available to her as she needed me to be. I will always wonder if I could have been more generous with my time, if I should have picked up the phone and called more, or included her more. These are the things we grapple with after losing a loved one. Did I do enough? Was I there in the right way?
I’m always inspired by stories of giving at this time of year. News reports of Kmart secret Santas, Toys for Tots bins over-flowing, a run on turkeys for the local food drive. Ever the optimist, I truly believe that Christmas puts people in the spirit of giving, and that the act of giving is what makes people so merry throughout the month of December. But this year, do me a favor, dear readers. Rethink generosity. Look around at the faces of the people closest to you and imagine how you could be more generous of spirit with those you see every day. Include the woman who has been trying to finagle her way into your coffee klatch – maybe she needs it more than you do. Smile at the family members that drive you to drink (come on, we all have them) and swallow the nasty comment that bubbles its way to the tip of your tongue. Be magnanimous when your mother calls you for the tenth time asking what you want for dinner a week from now, and let your dad drag your suitcases in from the car, even though you can perfectly well do it yourself. Try to recall what it was like being a teenager when your 15 year old niece or nephew sits sullenly in the corner playing on their new iPhone. Let your parents hug you even if you’re 45 years old. Lend your laugh to socially awkward Uncle Mel’s jokes, rather than rolling your eyes and looking for the door.
Be grateful for the people that you love in spite of themselves (and remember that they love you in spite of yourself, you brat). This year, give of your soul and your love and your time to those closest to you, because someday you’ll wish they’d call you to annoy you just one more time.
Carol’s Christmas Manhattans
Carol would make these in a pitcher and chill for several hours in the fridge. Family legend has it she inherited the recipe from her brother-in-law Steve. Wherever it came from, it’s the only Manhattan I’ve ever liked, and boy do I like it a lot (not in my current state, however!). Sip it slowly in front of the tree, ice cold.
Mix equal parts Canadian Club Whiskey (this is important – other whiskeys and bourbons are too strong) and sweet vermouth (such as Martini and Rossi Rosso) in a small pitcher. Add three or four dashes of Angostura Bitters and several maraschino cherries, along with a healthy glug of the cherry juice. Muddle the cherries around in the pitcher to release their flavor. Chill for several hours, covered. To serve, pour over a lot of ice (crushed is better, if you have it), add a stemmed cherry and a small spoonful of extra cherry juice. Toast your loved ones and enjoy.