So, Christmas is over and the night has now claimed Boxing Day, too. Ah, Boxing Day, my favourite day of the year. I feel as if I can now exhale: the rush and stress of Christmas is behind me and the holidays can truly begin. I love the day so much, I could dedicate a poem to it.
We had a quiet Christmas — just the six of us. It’s been a few years since it was just us around the Christmas table — we’re usually joined by family or other Western Australian ‘orphans’. I thought it might not feel like Christmas without the big cook-up, but it did. It very much felt like Christmas. And it was peaceful, which, for me, means a lot …
As a kid, each year I looked forward to Christmas with hope. The excitement swelled throughout December and climaxed on Christmas Eve when, in the middle of the night, weary and yawning, my family and I drove to the church for Midnight Mass. The stained glass windows glowed as the congregation trickled up the steps, and inside candles flickered amidst the smell of incense and the breathy odour of beer and wine. We sang each carol boldly and with joy, Dad standing tall with his hymn book, singing louder and more tunefully than everybody else.
Later at home, we’d leave out carrots for the reindeer and a piece of Lions Christmas cake and a Boag’s stubby for Santa.
Off to bed.
My sister and I would linger, eyeing the tree with its tinseled branches that sprawled over the empty carpet below. We knew that by morning, that carpet would be a sea of presents.
Santa won’t come while you’re awake.
We’d scuttle off to bed in our cotton nighties and lie between cool sheets, too excited to sleep as we’d listen to the rustle and bump of our parents setting out the Christmas presents.
I’d hear my sister shift in the dark. ‘I think I heard Santa,’ she’d whisper. Every year.
‘That wasn’t him,’ I’d hiss.
‘I heard his bell.’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
Quiet in there, girls.
‘It was his bell.’
‘Do you want to know what I got you?’ I’d say.
‘You use them to colour-in.’
‘Oh … I think I know what it is.’
‘And I didn’t tell you,’ I’d say.
Girls, if I have to come in there …
We’d settle for a minute, then my sister’s sheets would rustle again. ‘I hope we get the dolls Mum’s hidden at the top of the wardrobe.’
‘So do I,’ I’d say. ‘And Nan Allan, she always gives good presents.’
Right, that’s it. I don’t want to hear another word …
We’d shut up then.
The next morning we’d wake as the sun was pinking the sky, and creep from our room. Then, we’d stand in awe at the sight:
It looked as if the skies had opened and poured their heavenly contents onto our lounge room floor. Our sacks would be bulging with parcels, and we’d rip off the paper to find the dolls from the top of the wardrobe, and plastic jewellery, and bubblebath, and my brother would have new cricket gear and a Darth Vader doll.
As we’d finish unwrapping our presents, our mother would start unwrapping hers. She’d open her parcels and set them on the floor by the maroon velvet armchair, still in their boxes. ‘Well, better get moving,’ she’d say, and heave herself from the chair. ‘Got work to do.’
‘I know it’s not much,’ said Dad one year as he put his arms around her. He’d given her a white Royal Albert teapot.
It’s not much. It’s not much, my mother mimicked.
And that was the sign to leave. My sister, brother, and I would slink away to our rooms, because we knew what was coming.
Hope everyone’s having a lovely Chrrrristmas, she’d sing, rolling her ‘r’s’ and clashing dishes in the sink.
And the mood would plummet. We’d sit on our beds, dressing and undressing our new dolls as we tried to tune out the angry words and the yelling coming from the kitchen.
Couldn’t remem-bah. Couldn’t remem-bah. But he could remember if he was going fishing. Or to get beer. But couldn’t remember to get his wife’s Christmas present.
On it would go until the screen door hissed open as Dad took the torn Christmas paper out to the incinerator. He’d stay outside tinkering in the shed, while Mum stood at the kitchen sink talking to herself.
Go on, piss off and leave me to do everything. Weak as piss. Weak. As. Piss. Clang, clash. Hope everyone’s having a lovely Chrrristmas, as I’m standing at the kitchen sink on Chrrristmas Day. Yet another happy Chrrristmas in the Allan house.
We’d hide in our rooms, spooning pink food into our dolls’ mouths and watching it run out the other end. My brother would waddle in, kitted out in his new cricket pads and gloves or whatever gear he’d got for Christmas, and ask us if we wanted to play. We’d tell him to go away because we were angry that Christmas was being ruined. So he’d waddle out with his shoulders sloping and sit in his room on his own playing with Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.
Eventually, Dad would return and say, ‘We’d better get going to your mother’s’, and my mother would say she wasn’t going because she didn’t want another day of watching everyone pissing on. The arguments and yelling would continue. We’d hear a crash as something was thrown and broken. My sister would start crying and I’d walk out and yell at my mother, ‘Just stop it. You’re ruining Christmas.’
My mother would turn and yell at me that it was my father who was ruining Christmas, not her. Couldn’t remem-bah, that he couldn’t remem-bah his wife, but could remember his fishing. And his grog. Didn’t worry about anyone else because he knew she’d do that. She’d remem-bah for him, good ol’ Geraldine. She’d slave away in the kitchen while everyone else pissed off and had a good time on Christmas Day, and she’d get all the food ready while everyone else enjoyed their day, because it was all about them, no one gave a shit about her. What a pack of selfish bastards we all were. Hope you’re all having a lovely time, everybody, while good ol’ me does all the work.
My sister would cry again, and ask Mum to please come to Nan’s and can’t we all just have a nice Christmas.
Mum would start crying, saying that no one wanted her there because she was ruining Christmas, and then she’d blow her nose.
So I’d cry and say that I was sorry I said she’d ruined Christmas, that we should have gotten her better presents, and I really did want her to come to Nan’s, so can’t we just go?
Finally, we’d pack the ham, the trifle and the pav in the eski, and another eski for the grog, and pile into the car clutching our dolls. We’d sit red-eyed in the back seat with a sinking feeling in our bellies as we drove to my grandmother’s for Christmas dinner where we’d pretend none of it had happened.
That was all a long time ago, but every December, these feelings return — the ghosts of Christmas past and the feeling that I’m not allowed to enjoy it. But none of this is my kids’ fault, and because I want them to have a happy Christmas, I tamp down my own sadness and try to be swept along by the kids and their excitement.
So I prepare for Christmas: setting up the Nativity, decorating the tree and our home, cooking Christmas food (not that I do much of that), buying the presents. Meanwhile, the kids keep a countdown:
I see their excitement growing, while for me the sadness of Christmas past sits there. The kids see me cry for no reason and wonder why—it sounds trite to tell them that I’m grieving for a child whose Christmases were ruined.
Over the years, I’ve made a number of private vows to my kids—one of these was that Christmas would be happy. And peaceful.
I’ve done my damnedest to bring peace to our family at Christmas. Actually, I’ve done my damnedest to bring peace to my family, full stop. Yesterday, as I sat around our table surrounded by family and chatter, food and bon bons, my thoughts drifted across the continent to a lady who, because of her hurtful actions over many years, once again was not contacted by either of her living children at Christmas. And, despite everything, that made me sad. For many years, I tried to tell her that what she was doing was hurting me, and later I tried to show her a peaceful family, but she still chose another pathway.
For me, Christmas will always be tinged with sadness, but I have a dream: that when my kids have their families, they’ll be able to join in the fun of Christmas without sadness and without guilt because, for them, Christmas will be associated with happy memories.
I have an even bigger dream, too: I hope that one day there won’t be just six happy people around our Christmas table, but sixteen, or twenty-six, or however many we become.
At least it’s started, this new, happy Christmas tradition. And that, I believe, is the best Christmas gift I could give my kids.
I want to thank all of my readers this year. You have been so encouraging, supportive, and kind, and given me the confidence to keep writing and find my voice. I can’t thank you enough.
As my family embarks on our holiday, I wish you all peaceful times with your families, because that, for me, is what this time of year is really about:
Oh, Louise, your writing is exquisite. You are able to describe your feelings so that I could feel your pain. I realize how lucky I am to have grown up in a happy family and I feel sad for you that your memories are so different. Beautifully written. I wrote a blog on Christmas as well, but it mostly concerned the food changes in my life. lol. I know that you will be published soon because you are becoming better and better. Lots of hugs and thank you for your present to your children.
Betty, your words mean so much to me. Thank you. And now, I’ll check out your blog post …
Thankyou Louise. Beautiful, heart felt post. I’m sorry you feel those old feelings each Christmas…the body always remembers, even when we don’t remember the details… I experienced attending the Freefall this year unlocked many memories I thought I didn’t remember… and still they keep coming like yours…. freefalling into my subconscious, then conscious, ready to be processed and healed, Looking at the wonderful photos of your family and furbaby, I get the feeling a lot of your healing may be being with their sweet energy.
Thanks for commenting Nicola. You are right, some part of us always remembers, and it’s buried deeply. Every December I feel it returning, then, on Boxing Day, I feel it start to lift.
The thing is, from talking to my uncles, I think Christmas was always unhappy for my family.
And you are right about healing through your kids. I’ve mothered my kids as I wanted to be mothered — not that I’ve done everything right — and through that I’ve healed a lot of the damaged child in me. And I try to let the love of my husband and my kids in, which I find hard sometimes, as I still think of myself as an unworthy recipient. But at least I’m aware of all these foibles. Being able to write and tell my stories helps, too. Finally, I have a voice, something I didn’t have as a child.
Louise, this is powerful, painful, honest and courageous. And so beautifully written. I’m sad for our suffering but pleased that your writing is a part of my life. I read your words and feel I’m sitting with a friend who not only undertands, but is a gifted writer. When I read “..we pretended none of it had happened.” the breath left my body.
When my son was born I too determined every Christmas would be special and filled with love. You are doing an amazing job. It’s not easy to mother well when you have known such suffering, but, Louise, you are doing it. That’s why your Christmas photos filled me with such joy.
Thank you, Louise, for the sharing of story, for not stepping back from the pain but writing into it. I long to one day read your memoir. And yes I ‘liked’ this story because although the subject matter is painful, the writing is amazing.
Have a wonderful peace filled holiday with your family.
Hugs Tricia xx
Thanks for all of that, Tricia. It’s really not hard to write these stories — they’re sitting just below the surface, and writing them down is like opening the floodgates …
You are right, it’s not easy to mother and not repeat the mistakes of the past — sometimes I have. Sometimes I’ve been really selfish. Other times, I’ve gone too far the other way in trying not to do what was done to me. I’m too scared to stop trying, though — those childhood patterns are so deeply etched in my subconscious, I’m scared they would surface if I let my guard down …
As for my memoir — I don’t know. It’s easy to write snippets here and there, but to write a memoir would mean spending a long time in some very dark places. Plus, I’m not sure how interesting it would be to anyone else!
Thanks again for your kind comments and your wonderful support. You have a fan here — I so admire and respect your writing. Looking forward to what we can discover in 2014!
I have no words, Louise. This bittersweet post was exquisite though heartbreaking. I’m glad you were able to have a peaceful and happy Christmas this year. Memories like those you described so vividly never really go away do they? But hopefully they fade into the background as sweet new ones are made instead. Hope you can really enjoy a relaxing holiday now. x
Thanks, Adele. They are vivid memories, indeed. To be honest, most of the time, my life is good and I’m happy as they’re tucked away in the recesses of my brain — where I’d like them to stay permanently. But, they don’t. Every now and then, they surface, and Christmas is one of those times when they like to come visit …
Jesus, Louise, you are such a damn fine writer! Honestly, on reading this post, apart from reducing me to tears, I thought, why I am bothering to write when there’s Louise Allen raising the bar yet again with her superlative writing.
As for Christmas, well, I guess for many of us it throws up all sorts of emotional flotsam and jetsam, just that you nailed it, Louise. p.s. the dialogue between your sister and you on Xmas Eve was exquisite. Now when’s your memoir or novel coming out? xx
Aww, Marlish, you’ve made me blush. I feel exactly the same when I read your work, which is good, I think, because it means we’re enjoying each other’s work.
I’m always pleased when something I write resonates with others — it means what I’ve written can’t be totally stupid!
I’m glad you enjoyed the conversation between my sister and me — I will never forget the excitement of lying in bed talking about what might be in our sacks the next morning. I remember hinting so hard about the coloured pencils that I’d got her, and when she guessed I consoled myself that I hadn’t really told her.
Thanks especially for all of your support this year — you always make me feel so good about my writing and I need that encouragement to help me through the times when I think what I’m writing is crap!
Agree wholeheartedly with Marlish and everyone else who’s commented here. Beautiful, straight from the heart, staring into the abyss and drawing back. I think this is one of the best pieces I’ve read from you in a year of super posts. I wish for you more happy Christmases and a creative and joyful 2014.
Thanks, Rashida, for this lovely comment and for all of your support this year. Thanks for the positive feedback as it is always hard when posting something like this, especially about Christmas, where there’s a pressure to paint it all rosy. Which it certainly wasn’t and isn’t …
Such an evocative piece Louise. The hope that you and your sister held for each Christmas, despite and possibly heightened by the disappointment of each one before, is tangible. It sounds like you have channelled the pain into something positive for your own family. I hope the shadows of your childhood Christmases continue to shorten with every year. have a lovely holiday.
Thanks for commenting, Jacquie. Yes, my sister and I were true optimists, ever hopeful that that each Christmas might be different …
I hope you enjoy your holiday, too. See you in 2014! (I might get a chance to write that blog post while I’m away …)
Oh, Louise – this is devastating. Such exactitude of observation from the innocent eyes of children. And your brother toddling off alone . . . broke my heart. It reveals all too clearly how the fracture lines of sorrow and anger ramify. You are part of the courageous army. I know many members of this army who have made it their mission to break such generational chains. Who refuse to pass out the negative parts of their legacy – without denying those parts that were good. More power to your love and efforts. And many more peaceful Christmases for you all. Liana
Oh Liana, it means so much to me that you’ve visited and commented and liked what I wrote. Thanks so much. And I love the idea that we are an army, fighting off a negative legacy. Sometimes I feel like an explorer, feeling my way without a map. That’s why I had to read so many books and talk to so many experts.
Best wishes to you for the holidays and see you again in 2014! x
Hi Louise, loved your post, I think we must have lived in the same household. We did a lot of ducking in our house to avoid the flying plates. Like you I have taken a different path for my children, lets hope other mothers have to. There is a generation of that white elephants in rooms that none wants to talk about. Have a great break. Rae xxx
Hi Rae, Thanks again for commenting. I know a lot of mothers who have chosen to parent differently. Hopefully, our kids will be happier and we’ll have better relationships with them as a result — I’m hoping that you reap what you sow.
You know I think a lot of people of that generation were very bitter and angry for one reason or another. Sometimes we learn lessons from our parents in topsy turvy ways. It’s awful that any child has to be the rational one in the parent/child relationship. Looking forward to more posts in 2014 now that I’ve found you.
Thanks for your comment, Pinky :). I agree completely with what you said: there is always a reason why a parent is bitter or angry and behaves the way they do — they’ve often had very damaging experiences themselves. However, while that is a reason, it is not an excuse. We all have a choice in how we behave. We all have a conscience and know when we’re doing the wrong thing. I use the example of Hitler — he most likely had a very damaging childhood but it doesn’t excuse what he did. At some point along the generational timeline, someone has to say: The damage stops now.
I’m glad you enjoy reading my blog! I hope I can keep up the momentum in 2014!