It’s time for reflection on Christmas 2010–my first Christmas without Michael.
Christmas is such a time for memories, and 31 years of marriage left me with memories galore. Like our very first Christmas, when we bought a real tree and Michael had to trim off the lowest twigs to make it fit in the stand and he chopped his thumb to the bone with the carving knife. We never forgot my taking him to the ER for those seasonal stitches. And like that same year when Michael wanted to do stockings but he bought everything except the stocking so he crammed the stuff into a brown paper bag he labeled “Christmas Bag” with a ballpoint pen. I saved that precious little bag for years, and would give anything to have it now.
Michael was the one who made Christmas what it was in our home. He loved the holiday, and his love dictated all sorts of Spencer family holiday season rules. Thou shalt not play Christmas music before Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving thou shalt play all the Christmas music thou wishes. The Advent wreath must be set up and ready to go with new candles by the first Sunday in Advent. The candles are lit as part of a family worship time at Sunday dinner each of the four Advent weeks. There must always be plenty of eggnog in the refrigerator, and it is to be consumed full-strength — not cut with milk by the faint of heart. No gifts are to be opened before Christmas morning. Then it’s gifts first, stockings last. Oh, and until his mother came to live with us, Christmas morning began with Michael calling his parents to say, “Christmas gift!” (That tradition never had much of an explanation; it was simply fun, I guess.)
I expected the first Christmas of my widowhood to be difficult and it was, though it certainly could have been worse. Throughout the whole season my grief was more raw than it otherwise had been of late, my emotions less predictable. I didn’t feel much like decorating. I wanted to delay putting up the Christmas things anyway so I could focus more than usual on Advent, but I knew that decision was partly an excuse. My heart just wasn’t in it. I set out my four-foot Chrismon tree and my little fiberoptic evergreen and could have called it finished. But bless Noel’s heart. She said, “Mom. I can’t stand the thought of you sitting there in that house without a Christmas tree. I’m going to help you.” So together we assembled branches B through K, strung the lights and hung the homespun ornaments. We agreed that Dad would have wanted more lights, but we thought we had plenty. (We remembered him exclaiming, “Lights! Is that all we’ve got? We need more lights! I’m just going to have to drive to town right now to get more lights!”)
I did feel better once the tree was up. Michael would have wanted me to have the tree, that’s for sure. I dutifully wrapped gifts and listened to Christmas music. I planned the menu for our Christmas family dinner and bought the groceries. I even did some baking, which further boosted my holiday mood. And yet I both dreaded and looked forward to Christmas Eve.
I don’t know how Christmas took on such importance in Michael’s life, but he never lost its sense of magic or his own sense of wonder. Even after our children had long stopped waiting for Santa, he still loved to use NORAD to track the jolly old elf through the sky. When the kids were small he made sure they not only left cookies and milk for St. Nick, but also an apple for Rudolph. Sure enough, the next morning they would find the apple core lying in the front yard right where Rudolph had spit it out. (Clay still remembers standing on the porch gazing at that apple core, utterly amazed.) Michael’s love for the holiday wasn’t just the secular side, however. His deepest awe was reserved not for flying reindeer, but for the very Son of God tucked gently into a feeding trough by a carpenter’s rough hands.
Between Santa and the Savior, Christmas Eve with Michael was a very special time, indeed. After an early dinner of turkey and all the trimmings we would go to church, then come home and light every candle in the living room. With all the lights off except the candles and the tree, he and I would sit on the couch, listen to glorious music and sip eggnog before filling the stockings and retiring to bed.
Just the thought of Christmas 2010 seemed very bleak. How could it even be Christmas without my Michael? At least I had plenty to do on Christmas Eve. Clay and Taylor would be driving in from Lexington that night, and I wanted to do some advance cooking for the next day’s dinner. I did my best to keep the music going, even as I remembered that keeping the music going was always Michael’s job. Instead of cooking us a special Christmas Eve breakfast served on Mom Dorothy’s antique white dishes I ate…Hmmm. I don’t recall what I ate. Lunch was me standing at the kitchen sink munching cheese and crackers. Instead of turkey and dressing for dinner, I almost forgot to eat at all. At last I sat down at the table with a little bowl of clam chowder. Noel and Ryan had gone to their church over an hour away. Clay and Taylor had not yet arrived. The music had stopped playing. I was alone for the first time ever on Christmas Eve, and I cried into my clams.
But before too long Taylor and Clay arrived with luggage and gifts and hugs and kisses and all was right with the world, except…they were tired and went on to bed, so I drove to Midnight Mass by myself. I returned to a quiet house. Nobody tracking Santa. No shimmering candlelight or background music. No snuggling on the couch with glasses of chilled nog. Just the quiet I’m becoming accustomed to, but a sad silence all the same.
The next day Noel and Ryan came over mid-morning and spent the whole day and evening with us. We played Christmas music all day. We opened gifts that morning. Yes, presents first, stockings last. Then the young folks played games while I cooked a fine turkey dinner. We shared a few remembrances of Dad during the meal, then carried on with laughter and lively conversation. The eggnog flowed freely. Michael would have been pleased.
Yet no one placed a call that morning to exclaim, “Christmas gift!” And the worst thing of all? We forgot to light the Advent candles. We didn’t read from the beloved Book of Family Worship. I didn’t even have the Advent wreath on the table, for crying out loud. What was I thinking? That’s it; I wasn’t thinking. Michael would have been very, very disappointed.
So I get mixed reviews for my first Christmas on my own. I did some things right; I did some things wrong. OK, bad wrong. I survived, though, and that’s the main thing, isn’t it?
The worst thing about the first Christmas without Michael is the simple fact that it won’t be the last. There will be next Christmas without him, and the next, and the next, and– I feel as if I’m suffocating when I think of the future. Oh, I’ll keep surviving. Hopefully I’ll get even better at this. But I will always, always miss the magic.