Tuesday, December 27, 2011

All The Christmases That Were

[I wrote this back in December 1997, when I still lived in Tofino and my health was beginning to fail. At this time of year, looking back through all the Christmases, I sometimes like to re-read some of this history, though a lot more has been added since 1997.]

This year, for Christmas, I decided to make each of my four children a small collage of their childhood photos. I spent one evening down on the floor poring through my multitude of albums, revisiting those busy years which seem , in retrospect, to have flown by at the speed of light.

There were all their faces, alight with laughter. Kids playing, mugging for the camera, on jungle gyms, kids grinning through stacked tire-holes, one face atop another. Lisa and Jeff, hanging upside down by one leg each from the metal bar. Jeff and Steph, upside down, butts to the camera, grinning at me through their legs. Jon with his first rocket, his new bike. Jeff and Steph, arms wrapped around each other, beaming. Jeff and Steph dancing, faces aglow with a gaiety too great to contain. Lisa leaping into the air, her mouth square, shrieking her joy at getting the clogs she wanted so badly. Jon fishing, hiking in the hills. Jon on a roughly made raft, poling up the lake in the dead of winter. Lisa cuddling a furry little pet under her chin, looking out at me with the same tender softness I see in her eyes now, cuddling her children and her kittens.

Jeff and Jon, plastic swords over their shoulders, marching to some Tolkien-like music we all loved during winters when my boys read Lord of the Rings over and over. Jeff, tongue out comically, his head inside the mouth of the concrete Ogopogo outside City Park, pretending he was being eaten by the monster.

All of us, up Knox Mountain, flying kites. All of us strung out in a row on bikes. All of us, having a winter picnic at Gyro, on ground white and frozen, grinning around our sandwiches.

And there are all the Christmases, when somehow against all financial reality, magic happened in our living room, and the wee hours of Christmas morning resounded with happy shrieks and an orgy of gift-opening. Now I dont know how I did it, but I remember being determined that, on that one day of the year, my kids would have what they most wanted. I was trying to make up for the reality of never enough money, never quite enough food, and all the days when they wanted things in silence that they never asked for, because they knew our lack of money by the contents of our fridge.

That Christmas magic lasted until my children hit their teens, when our family blew apart for a time as they explored drugs, alcohol, and paths that took them away from me and any magic I might have available. My throat closed over a massive lump, looking at their shining faces in the years when I could still afford some slight protection, or so I thought, and had not yet learned that the most perilous years yet lay in wait, full of dangers far scarier than my children's worst childhood nightmares. We entered those years all unaware and unprepared, and none of us came out unchanged.

What the photographs dont show is the other side of Christmas, in the years when my heart was aching for my children, when I valiantly traveled from place to place among them, bright smiles and cheerful wrap belying the hidden pain, the unspoken words one or the other of us were not yet able to say. Christmas lost its magic for me in the years when Lisa was away from home, and Jon. And in the years when Jeff, so sunny a youngster, made his lonely trek through the valley of despair.

I remember the Christmas concert just after Lisa left home, and the depth of sadness in my heart and on my face as I watched the two children still with me, the sweet sound of children singing piercing me through. Another year, another Christmas, Jeff, pale and wan, singing "if I were a swan, I'd be gone", me encouraging his talent and brilliance, at the same time trying to anchor him to this earth he had such a fragile hold upon.

Some Christmases we spent scattered, me traveling among my children. Some we spent together, with inner distances between us we did not mention, our smiling faces turned to the camera, our secret pain and memories hidden within.

There are no photographs of the fractured Christmases, when one or another of my children was either physically or emotionally distant from me. No photographs mark the passage of those years of family unraveling and reweaving. Years when I learned to pad protective layers around my heart, cling firmly to my life and carry on, believing in the power of a mother's patient, steadfast and unconditional love - and the healing powers of the passage of time - for my children to make their inner journeys away from and back to me.

Back and forth among my children, as the years passed, I traveled, a little shorter, a little tireder, a little more frazzled with each year. Encouraging, supporting, trying to instil my belief that life holds goodness and wonder, once we are ready to let go of the pain. For a time, I thought the Christmases we once had only came with small children and were forever gone.

This year was the right time to give my children some of their childhood photos. There had been years when it hurt too much to look at those young, shining and innocent faces. Then came years when I took pictures of scenery and tried to heal myself from all the pain and struggle. This year, I could look. My children are on their own journeys now, the time of healing of memories, and they are finally coming to a place of peace and happiness.

And I am traveling too, to the season of life when time becomes more finite, when there is a lot of looking back and summing up, and a wish to pass on all the love and gifts and wisdom one posseses while one still can.

While my children were growing, I was growing too, willy-nilly. I did some growing up, some growing whole, some seizing of the reins of the galloping wild horses that were my children in those years. There were times when I felt utterly unable to cope, knowing I had no choice but to cope with what felt like too heavy a load. My children were floundering in treacherous waters, and somehow I had to encourage them from shore, throw life preservers, guide them through. Sometimes I felt like I was hanging onto the tail of a lashing dragon, that was wagging me. Sometimes a distance came between me and my kids' realities, when everyone was communicating but no one was really listening.

Those years are finally past. My children are coming to terms with life then and life now. No longer children, they are assuming the reins and taming their own wild horses.

There have been other changes in these years. Grandparents' faces are now missing around the table, and I find myself the matriarch and Grandma. But my children have been coming home for Christmas these past years, and I've been feeling some of the magic creeping back into that day for the first time since their teens.

This year was like the Christmases of old, kids disappearing under a sea of wrap, their heads poking out above the surface. Jon, giving me the best gift he could possibly give me, in gifting his brother with a ghetto blaster for his music. Jeff, more himself than he has been for years, hovering protectively over freshly caught fish Jon was cleaning, like a young priest, tenderly patting and reassuring them. Lisa, wracked with pain, and full of tears, yet filling also with a new strength and awareness of her worth and her rights as a human on this earth.  Strong enough to  hold her head up bravely under judgment of those who do not know, in order to live her truth. Gifting me with the honesty of her communication. And Steph, who for so long sought family outside of our family, hurt by the turmoil of her siblings' adolescence, now finding it with her brothers and sister. Our family has grown strong at the broken places.

My friend Mahara had a similar Christmas with her children, her son giving her the verbal gift of forgiveness first thing Christmas morning, reducing her to tears. As we remark on the growth we are seeing in our children and the richness of our new relationships with the fine young adults they have become, she remarks, "Our Christmases will be different from now on. There is consciousness growing in our children." And she is right.

I know I feel less lonely on my path, now that my children are so strongly embarked on theirs. I feel proud of the journeys they are making: journeys of the heart, of finding and living their own truth - pride in these young people who show so much heart and courage and honesty.

This year, once again, we took the Christmas photo. This year I have been privileged to see deeper into who my children really are, the greatest gift they could bestow upon me. We are now a mutual cheering section for each other, as we compare notes on the journey. We've traveled a long way since last year's photo. My health has been faltering, my body exhausted from decades of pain and struggle, wanting only rest. Two of my children still struggle with painful demons, but their lights are beginning to outshine the darkness and it is an awesome sight, brighter than any yuletide tree. Sometimes I feel it is by my sheer determination that we will all make it safely through.

If I had one gift I could give them it would be the incredible gratitude and reverence I have for life, just life. I have made it through my dark times because there has always been blue sky and sunshine and trees to lift my heart up in thankfulness. I wish that heart-lift for them, that gift of seeing past the pain to all the beauty that is available to us when we are ready to reach out for it.

Sometimes I worry about what might yet lie ahead, knowing I dont have the strength for much more. I feel the deep tiredness of someone who has been paddling very hard for a very long time. My mother's heart is always braced against the possibility of unbearable pain, should anything happen to any one of my children.

This year, the difference was, my children were helping me, and easing things for me. And it felt really good, like we're all in this together, so maybe I dont have to be so strong any more.

As I am losing strength, my children are gaining it. With what pride I survey my life's work: four very special young people who have emerged from some very perilous passages with the mark of the wayfarer on their faces, and new knowledge, compassion, caring and strength shining from their eyes. We are now journeying together, and can recognize and applaud each other's progress as, by different paths, we make our way. The cycle of life is turning, turning, and my children are leading me Home.


  1. Beautiful post, Sherry. Sadness and hurt indeed; but in the end you made your way and embraced one another. Beautiful children, by the way! Old photos are sometimes magical!

  2. oh, Sherry, this brought me to tears and shook me with fear and love both. i had to go hug my children. and also to think about my own parents, and how when i've needed help i've loathed to ask for it, felt guilt (still) for asking for it, assumed they did not want to give it. why? so much pain for us to bear, so much, and so much beauty to behold. thank you so much for sharing this. and i am also grateful that so many years later you are still here and sharing with us... not losing or leaving. whoosh. thank you, big love to you.

  3. This is beautiful, Sherry, so heartfelt and full of hope and pain, but so much love as well — SO much love.

  4. I'm sitting here with blurred eyes as I try to respond. It brought up the divisiveness that took over my family when I left my husband many years ago. One daughter chose to stand by her Dad and ostracized me from her life for three years. The other daughter and I actually lived together for a time, and held me close...I am so grateful. The turmoil and pain that led to my leaving came back as a big lump in my throat as I read this and tried to hold back my tears. And I was reminded too of my growing up years in even more chaos and hurt... But I realize how everyone has burdens and pain...no one is exempt. Thank you, Sherry, for sharing so openly your dear, motherly humanity.


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