Ever since the boys were little, but just old enough to enjoy getting ready for Christmas, my grandmother, Bean, has always had a strong presence at Christmas. Sometimes it almost feels as though we keep her in boxes in the cellar and only bring her out once a year, but then she has a cheerful, rather idiosyncratic presence: Christmas banners with sequins and glitter that are hung in specific places, the Christmas tree skirt with sequins and gold fringe that is as old as I am, the stocking she made for my first Christmas with the elaborately decorated angel (the stockings became progressively less elaborately decorated with each subsequent grandchild, I’m afraid, but they have more conventional shapes, which makes them easier to fill, and having made five of them this week myself, I can understand how that happens), the plastic star covered in gold glitter with one slightly wilted arm, which is ceremoniously placed on the top of the tree each year. When the boys helped me cut out Christmas cookies years ago, cutting out the shapes with as little wasted dough as possible became a kind of game, when I praised them by saying that Bean would be proud of them and then they would tell me, “Look! Wouldn’t Bean be proud?”, whenever they managed to fit as many shapes as they could into a small piece of dough. Since Bean died in 1995, the boys never really knew her at all, but it was always somehow comforting to me that she had that kind of presence for them.
The Christmas after Amy died was the hardest. We had always shared Christmas preparations with emails and phone calls, comments left here and there, and travel plans in the years we spent Christmas together. I simply couldn’t do it without her. That year her big, silly “smiley face” ornament joined Bean’s star at the top of the tree, and Amy joined Bean as a Christmas presence.
Last weekend Seth and I went to get the Christmas tree together, which has become another kind of tradition. After we brought it home, rearranged the furniture and set up the tree securely and firmly in its stand, we both felt a bit uneasy, as though we must have missed something, because setting up a Christmas tree shouldn’t be that simple and uncomplicated. I suspect that what we were missing was an element of resistance: Peter always objected to Christmas preparations. Getting ready for Christmas inevitably entails moving things, rearranging furniture, interrupting the normal flow of everyday life. As a result, for me getting ready for Christmas always involved getting Peter out of the way and/or putting up with his vociferous complaints. Sara and I often jokingly threatened that one year the two of us would go to Albuquerque together to enjoy Christmas and just leave our grumpy husbands to ignore the holidays as they always claimed to want to do.
In the years when we went to the US or the UK for Christmas, preparations also required packing and getting to the airport or the ferry on time. For Peter and me, with our perpetually conflicting notions of how to pack and how long it takes to get anywhere, that was never an enjoyable, harmoniously shared experience. By the time we actually got to the airport, as a rule we were both still livid and barely speaking to each other, although there is nothing like a long, tedious journey to promote reconciliation and solidarity. I purposely assigned Paddy to Peter as a traveling partner then, because I knew I could rely on Paddy not to put up with any nonsense from his father, and not even Peter would risk upsetting Paddy in the most imperious phases of his life.
Peter was also a highly incompetent elf. While I loved setting the scene for a visit from Santa Claus, leaving tiny traces where Santa had come through the “magic door” to the chimney, labeling presents with special “Santa writing”, filling stockings to make them appear more exciting than the contents actually justified, Peter never grasped the concept of stockings. He never seemed to understand that “small” was supposed to apply to the price as well as the actual size stocking stuffers. Consequently, my stocking was always filled rather unconventionally and haphazardly (he always complained about the bend in mine), but invariably with a wonderful surprise. As ever, I will fill all the other stockings this year as chief elf, but I have asked to boys to make sure that mine is at least not completely empty.
What Peter did best, however, better than anyone else I know, was giving presents. Generous almost to a fault, he loved giving presents – not just at Christmas, but also in conjunction with traveling or spontaneously, just because something occurred to him or he heard something on the radio and went straight out to get the CD or book for me. Everything I wore for his memorial service was something he had given to me, and I made a ceremony out of getting dressed that day, remembering each occasion for every item of clothing I put on. Peter’s Christmas presents to me were always wonderful, surprising, delightful, uniquely special.
Choosing the right present for such an incomparably talented gift-giver was always a challenge too, especially since I was more concerned about costs, but that made getting it right feel even more wonderful. Sorting through Peter’s things now, I keep coming across presents I gave him too, remembering why it mattered.
As much as I have enjoyed preparing Christmas this year, thinking about all the people who have given us such kind and generous support, wanting to do something for others in return, I’m dreading the moment when it is time to open presents, because I know that it when Peter’s absence will be most keenly felt.
In years to come, perhaps Peter will have some kind of presence at Christmas too, although it is hard to imagine that right now. At the moment there is only absence.