Bitter/Sweet Thoughts on Christmas Morning

I'm sorry, friends. Not one of my happier posts. You might want to skip it today. I had to get this out, though. Just had to. 

Behold the Hausfrau family's Christmas Bush. They sold it under the guise of it being a tree, but there is little tree-ness about it. It stands about 5 feet tall, there is no pointy top on which to place the vintage Noma twinkling star. The branches poke out haphazardly, here and there wherever they please. The traditional triangle tree shape has given way to a stout mass of needle-emblazoned branches. Hanging ornaments on this thing was actually easy, since there was no narrowing towards the top.

It's a bush. And that's perfectly okay with us.

When I was little, we had a fake tree. It came out of a box the day after Thanksgiving and went back into the box shortly after Christmas. I was a kid, it didn't occur to me that there were people who had real trees. All I cared about was the pile of presents underneath it, and why my brother had two more than I did and why did mom and dad like him better?

When I first met my in-laws, it was Christmastime. I walked into their charming riverfront home and was greeted by a majestic Fraser Fir holding court in the living room. Tastefully gaudy Radko ornaments twirled silently in the soft glow of tiny white lights. The smell...oh Lord. The smell was what got me. It smelled like love and forests and security and cookies. I wanted to throw the smell on the floor and roll around in it like a cat does catnip.

We've only ever had real trees. Before Divorce, we made a grand show out of going to a tree farm and cutting one down. The kids remember nothing of those trips except for wrestling in the snow and the hot cocoa. I'd like to think that some day they'll recall them with more fondness than they do now. But that's for them to decide.

After Divorce I was determined to carry on the tradition. Especially so when the kids came home from Dad's house and announced that his tree was a FAKE. That pronouncement, along with the one that at Dad's house, Santa wrapped gifts instead of leaving them free and unfettered under the tree on Christmas morning, cemented my decision to keep Christmas real at my house. Real and true. I attempted the tree farm, once. A single woman and four kids does not a fun tree farm trip make. The lots are easier and the trees smell just as lovely.

There are no trees, real or fake, at my mom's house anymore. She doesn't move much, her legs have mysteriously stopped working. Parkinson's was the guess for a long while but was eliminated after some tests. She lives in a room. A single room. When I visit her, I stand at the doorway of that room, the room that was my bedroom and is now her world. She has a toilet chair, a laptop, a small television and an ashtray.

"Hi Jenny, it's your mom" her messages always start that way, as if there is another person with a Harvey Fierstein voice calling me, ever. "I was wondering if you could come over...." The messages she leaves me are always the same. Sometimes I answer her calls, other times I can't handle it and I let them go to voicemail. And when I listen to the messages I am consumed with a sad anger, a bitterness that stings my eyes and squeezes my heart.

My mom loves her cigarettes. I've only known her as a smoker. She smoked while I was in her belly, she smoked when I was a baby and a toddler and a school girl. Mom and her smokes. I stole them from her when I was a teen, hiding the absurdly long Virginia Slim 120's under whatever kind of hat I fancied at the time. I quit when I was pregnant with Charlie and aside from a brief, pathetic backslide after The Divorce, where I'd hide in the garage and puff away when the kids were with their father, I haven't looked back.

I hate cigarettes. Loathe them. I hate the smell, I hate the way they bounce on the road after being tossed from some careless asshole's window. The bright orange coals bobbing and weaving and sparking beneath the tires of the cars, like a tiny meteor shower.

I have become my mother's own personal cigarette shopper. She can't drive and her husband won't get them for her. There are times I simply refuse. "No." I tell her, without further reason. "No, mom."

Other times I will give her my excuses: I'm broke. I'm busy. It's embarrassing for me to buy them.

But usually, I do it. I drive to the convenience store and walk from my car to the swinging door and filled with resentful shame I approach the register.

"I need to buy cigarettes for my mom" I always begin. I think sometimes they don't believe me. I want to show them my work badge, the one with the name of my school district plastered over the mug shot photo. "I work at a school!" I want to say. "I hate cigarettes!".

I'm a 47 year old divorced preschool teacher, buying a pack of Mistys. "The blue ones..." I say. "The long ones," I add.

When I bring the smokes to my mom she shoves money at me. "Take it" she croaks, her huge watery brown eyes meeting my contemptuous, sad blue ones. Some days I take the money. Some days I don't.

She opens the pack like a kid on Christmas morning, and before you can say "CANCER" the room is filled with the noxious scent. It makes my nose burn and my eyes well up and fills my body and my mind with memories. I need to escape, need to go back to my safe world, where there is no cigarette smoke and no bad feelings and no toilet chairs and cat shit everywhere. I need to go home.

I drive away from that house, my hair and clothes reeking even though I left just minutes after she lit up. I put the windows down, now it's freezing outside and I drive and drive, the cold air caressing my cheeks, making the tears on them feel like tiny sharp icicles. I cry, almost every time I leave her house. I cry and I get mad and I ask God or whoever why? Why can't I have a normal mom, a normal family. Why can't I have a mom who is busy golfing with her friends or gardening or curled up on a couch reading a good goddamned book? Why do I have the mom who is addicted to nicotine, who sits in a room day after day just waiting for the weather guy to come on and tell her what it's like outside?

Why did I have the just plain bad luck to be born into a family where dysfunction is as hereditary as the color of your hair or the tilt of your nose?

Somewhere inside of me is a good daughter. She reminds me of the times, the times I did have a fun mom. A mom who walked and drove and who sang along to Pat Benatar with me in the car. We'd sing at the top of our lungs "HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT" and I'd look over at her and admire her auburn bob haircut and her cool patchwork jean jacket and the way she could hold a cigarette and the steering wheel with one hand. I love her, I'd think to myself. Singing with my mom in the car. That made me happy.

Today I'm home. Home with my kids. Home with them and our dog and our Christmas bush. I have a ham to make and Roadside potatoes to bake. I can admit to you guys that when the kids came home from Big Daddy's last night and announced that Secretary's ham was dry and her cheesy potatoes sucked, I beamed inside. Today our ham will be moist and our potatoes will be crispy deliciousness.

Our home doesn't smell like cigarettes, there is no animal crap on the floor and no monsters come out at night to hit my kids. We opened presents this morning and now I look around, I see William with the body pillow he wanted, lying on the floor reading his new book. Henry is wearing the fuzzy Batman pajama pants I got for him and Molly has changed three times, trying on the jeans and the sweater and the footie pajamas. Charlie is sad today. But he'll get through it, I know he will. Christmas is hard for him and I get it.

We're going to a movie tonight, as a family. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", I think. We'll clamber into our little car and sing along to Justin Timberlake: "SIPPING FROM YOUR CUP TIL IT RUNNETH OVER (Jay Z: uh, uh)....HOLY GRAIL". We have fun together, my kids and I. I make sure that when they are my age they'll have good things in their heads, good memories of the times we had.

I never tell them that I worry. I worry that someday it'll be me sitting in a room, wearing Depends and staring at a little screen waiting for the weather guy. I worry that someday they'll let my calls go to voicemail and they'll listen to my message, the one I leave all the time. Asking them to bring me martini fixings or Red Vines or a box of wine or shrimp pad thai. I worry that they'll feel pity for me, or not.

Tomorrow, Christmas will be over. Life will keep chugging along and I'll buy more smokes for my mom. I'll stifle the rage and the grief that shows up whenever I cross the threshold of her home, shove it back down for the millionth time as I hand my mom the blue pack of Mistys and she slides a folded twenty at me.

"Take it" she'll say, her yellowed fingers already peeling the plastic from the box.

Her eyes will leave mine and look back at the screen as she lights her cigarette and waits for the weather.


  1. We're at my parents' for part of winter break . . . I do find it interesting and challenging to be the mother and the daughter simultaneously.

    I know what you're talking about here is so much more than that, but I had to chime in with that little tidbit. For what's it worth, from the outside, I can't imagine how your kids will forget some of these times the five of you have had together and the sacrifices you've made for them.

    1. Thank you Nina. It's something you don't consider when planning on becoming a mom, is it? How are you going to juggle being a mother and a daughter? Tougher than it sounds.

      Thank you for reading :)

    2. My children were 4, 6 and 8 when my husband and I divorced. He married quickly and I understand the little joys when "they" make mistakes. Let me add that it has been over 30 years and all of that has healed and we are one happy family. Anyway, we all carry pain from our childhood and, try as we may, we also give it. Don't be too hard on yourself. My children are wonderful and I have tons of grandchildren and a new great grandson. We are all very close and love each other much. I just wrote on this subject and thought you might enjoy reading. Blessings, Dody


  2. I'm now the long distance daughter that visits my mom for long weekends or weeks at a time, with my kids. Like you, sometimes I can help and sometimes I can't. Sometimes it all annoys me, and sometimes I'm accepting. It's not cigarettes but other things I could rant about and sometimes do. Especially on holidays.

    1. Thank you Ilene. It's good to know we aren't alone in this. Hope you had a lovely holiday, and thank you so much for reading.

  3. Couple things: You are a good daughter and a wonderful mom. And your bush is beautiful.

  4. Don't apologize for the sad parts... life is full of it, as I am just wearily learning in my early 30's. Who are we if we can't share this burden with our friends, or the internet? ;-). We just got through the 2nd x-mas without my Dad, and it went rather well, but at this point I'm always trying to repress thoughts of what will happen in time to the rest of my family. So morbid, wow now I even feel like apologizing!

  5. I've come to the realization that every family is dysfunctional. Some families just hide it better. I hosted Christmas Eve at my house for my cheater ex and his immediate family. If I hadn't done it, I'm not sure my kids would have seen anyone but their father. I'm the queen of dysfunction. I'm the leader of the pack holding a sign thus says 'I never pretended that I was normal.'

    You are a great mom and I'm sure a great daughter. Your kids are going to look back on these Christmases as the happiest ones ever.

    Merry Christmas Jenny.

    1. I may have stolen your title :)

      I even bought my ex's Christmas present for a present from my 15 year old. Funny he reports back that dad loves the smell of it. I was only with the man for 13 years, I better know what he likes.
      Still talk to his children's mothers and families here and there, still in contact with his family and do things for one another on occasion

  6. hubby just quit smoking...going on the third week. fingers crossed our teens can see his efforts and see him succeed. I love that you are making it fun for your kids. Keep it up! You are awesome and they will remember that.

  7. Ah, mums.
    I was blessed with wonderful in laws who unfortunately live several hours ago.
    My own mother has a raft of issues which I spend my life keeping at bay do they don't destroy my life. It's exhsusting, frustrating, sad and a lot of people don't understand.
    But our strength is in being a aware of this and controlling the path our lives take.

  8. Two quick things...

    1) I have not met your kids but I imagine they are as resilient about life as you are (I mean that as a good thing). You have carried more than the average person but you're still on your feet and still able to see past the pain.

    2) Mothers!! OMG! Let's meet and bitch together. (bitch with love of course ;) )

  9. I know you had reservations about sharing this, but I'm so glad that you did. As others have mentioned, there really is no "normal" family, and those who claim to be are probably more messed up than the rest of us.

    But I can relate to so, so much of this (mostly buying the cigarettes for my mom and always ALWAYS making sure the clerk knows that they're not for me.) There's always the draw between enabling and guilt, between what we want to do and what we feel compelled to do as a daughter, a wife or a friend.

    Anyway, what happened in the past is the past, and we can't escape it but we can move on. You have built a safe, loving home with your kids and have started your own new traditions. I think that's all kinds of awesome.

  10. I stopped by via Suburban Correspondent because of your title, stayed to the end because of your beautiful writing, and am commenting because pieces of this post resonate with me.
    For the past 2 days, my father has woken me with a phone call, despite the fact I talked with him yesterday afternoon. He is confusing me with my sister, and he can't remember talking to me yesterday. My mother (they divorced 30 years ago) refused to acknowledge the severity of her cancer and made life miserable for all of us. I felt guilty for following her lead and desire to pretend she would get better, allowing her to avoid real conversations.

    Your kids have a mom who enjoys their company and laughs with them, who lets them relax and be themselves. That is a true gift.
    Also, you have a real Christmas tree (bush) and I would like to roll in that catnip. Mine is fake because my daughter-in-law is allergic to them... which means I may never again have a real tree.

  11. Jenny, this post as well as all the previous comments you received, is one of the best, most honest articles I've read in awhile. Thank you for writing from your heart. I can relate to so much of what has been said. And, I'm still laughing at the comment....."your bush is beautiful" !!

  12. Hey Jenny, just to chime in here to say I'm living with that same family. I haven't had a mom my entire life who 1)loves me unconditionally, 2) supportive, 3)fun or good to be around in any way. Mine is a martyr sitting in her condo complaining about her pain, life, gossipy family crap I care nothing about, and saying 'she can't go on like this, maybe she should just die'. I had to write her off years ago.

    But the good news of being raised by someone like that is I realize what I don't want for my kids and how to love, and be free with them to go with their flow.

    I can't and won't enable my mom anymore and that's a tough thing to learn. I'm not here to be here hand-holder and to tell her 'it will get better' or 'it will be alright'.

    I have another friend who is a writer, he's in his early 60s now, who was glad and relieved when his parents finally died. They tortured him so, questioned everything he did, and gave mountains of unsolicited and shitty advice. He wrote about this in his weekly notes and that was in the late 90s. I think this shows that lots of people have these kind of dysfunctional families. The family you wrote about with the big house, real huge tree, located on a river is the aberration, not the norm. Those people barely exist in my small world.

    Finally, I thought your bush was swell. Who the heck judges Xmas trees anyhow? They are real, fake, big, small, fat, thin, who gives a fuck in the bigger picture? I thought it was admirable that you would even take the time and effort to get one and decorate it. That would be too much work for me.

  13. Thanks for showing this side of you. It's why we all read you ... we know it will be real. It brought to mind my favorite line from a Robyn Carr novel. "Son, I don't know why life has to be so hard. I wish to hell it weren't." We ride the rodeo bull of our lives and turn the oh shit moments into a whoop, hanging on for the sheer joy of the moments that don't suck.

  14. The only thing I would change about that post is the apology at the beginning. No apologies needed. That was perfect. I am in awe of your talent. Thank you for everything.

  15. Oh my goodness, where have I been the whole time you have been writing? A Facebook friend shared your HuffPost "totes" piece and I have reading your stuff for the last hour. Thank you so much for your honesty and for your sense of humor. You're on my blogroll and in my prayers.

  16. Ditto Charlotte.
    Jenny, I LOVED your Totes piece. Laughed out loud with tears, which is why I landed here.
    This blog reminded me so much of my mom. I had all those same feelings. She stroked. Yes, that is what we said, turned it into a verb. I remember the time she phoned me to say she had to go to the bathroom... could I come over and help? Of course I lived 26 minutes away. What she really wanted was her cigarettes and little soldiers. We had to buy the tequila in tiny bottles because if we bought a big one, she would drink too much and fall out of the wheelchair, and that was never fun. But it made my 26 minute drive necessary almost daily. She died two years after stroking; cigarettes and a stroke do not go together well.

    There is the mom you remember and love with all your heart. That is the one I prefer to remember now. And I always wish I could have been a better daughter. I did the best I could.

    After she died (on my wedding anniversary - just so I will never forget my wedding anniversary), I went to her house to clean. On the second or third day, I remember bursting out in tears because I could no longer smell her. Aren't smells amazing as memory triggers?

    Your honesty about your emotions is touching. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Reading your blog has reminded me how helpful I found writing at the beginning of my separation, but I've let it slip a lot with lack of time and you know the craziness of life!
    The writing is pretty raw, but I've found it pretty carthatic.


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