By Caitlin Kelly
Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanzaa, I bet you carry some powerful memories of those dates, especially from childhood. Some are happy, some painful.
Some of mine:
I’m 12 and my mother and I are living in a brownstone in Montreal for a year, at 3432 Peel Street. We have a meal with local friends, then board a British Airways flight to London with decorations across the middle aisle — and a holiday meal — then have Christmas dinner in London with my aunt and uncle. Three Christmas meals in 24 hours!
I’m 14 and my mother and I are living in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a city south of Mexico City. We live in a walk-up apartment building in a residential neighborhood, Lomas de San Anton. She attends CIDOC and I go to a school just up the hill. We know no one. We have no telephone, just a pay phone on the corner. The only people who know and care about us are far away in Canada or the U.S. or England. She is bipolar and decompensating more and more as we head toward Christmas Eve, when a friend my age is arriving for two weeks from Toronto. Things are getting weird — and I have no one to tell, nor the language to describe it.
My friend arrives on the worst night of my life, then and now. My mother is in full-blown mania, driving Mexican highways with her vehicle lights off. I’m in the camper van with a student of hers, an American who’s maybe 19. We’re terrified and captive. We collect my friend. My mother drives to an industrial town and drives the van into a ditch, where there is no way to get it out again.
We leave. My friend and I are alone for two weeks, at 14 and have some great adventures traveling around by bus as I speak enough Spanish by then and we somehow have money. She goes home (I have no recollection of how) and I move back to Toronto and move in with my father and his live-in girlfriend (later my stepmother) who I haven’t lived with in seven years. I never live with my mother again.
We never discuss the events of that night.
It’s 1996 and I’m two years divorced after a miserable two-year marriage and my mother flies to New York to visit me, but gets off the flight from Vancouver already tipsy and carrying some liquor in a paper bag. My boyfriend has driven to the airport to get her, and meet her, and I am mortified. She and I have a huge fight and she leaves to go to a local hotel. It’s Christmas Eve — and it’s chaos and misery again. I go to a nearby church, as I can’t think where else to go late at night on December 24. I squeeze into a pew beside a family (whose daughter has my name!) and belt our some carols, grateful for warmth and light and refuge and peace. My mother leaves the next day.
We never discuss this.
Jose and I have discussed getting married. We’ve been living together for a few years and he has bought a lovely vintage engagement ring. We attend Christmas Eve service at the same small church I ran to that Christmas Eve in 1996, and as we leave the church, it’s starting to snow.
“Let’s go to the lych gate,” he says. The small structure, typical of English country churches, has two benches, and a roof. “I know Christmas Eve is one of bad memories,” he said. “I want to rebrand this evening with a happier memory.”
Then he proposed!
Do you have any special memories of the holidays?