A friend recently posted on Facebook, as part of her Christmas message, to “not look back on Christmases past”. I can, to a degree, appreciate such a sentiment. After all, not everyone’s “ghosts of Christmases past” are pleasant or welcome memories.
We all have ghosts. Anyone who says they don’t is in a state of denial deeper than an ocean. If one has a past, then at some point, their future will be inhabited by those ghosts. And, like a recalcitrant child, putting off dealing with them is not going to bring about a positive change in their behaviour. Ghosts cannot change… it is not their nature.
My friend’s post brought to mind some of my own ghosts of Christmases past, some of which cannot be dismissed as nothing more than the product of a bout of gastric upset brought on by a bit of undercooked mutton or half digested potato, if you’ll pardon my rather clumsy attempt to paraphrase Mr. Dickens.
“Past is prologue.”
I was four years old when I first heard that phrase. It is from a Russian proverb and part of a lesson taught me by my grandmother on my mother’s side, Nana Marie, whose namesake I am proud to be. I can still remember sitting in Mama’s parlour on a damp, chilly winter’s afternoon, surrounded by the smells of lavender, lemon, Nana Marie’s liniment and the warm scent of her carefully prepared tea. There were many afternoons such as this.
The lesson that particular day was, once again, on the past and the future; how one shapes the other but is not a final determination of the outcome of the latter. Nana Marie, in her strong, slightly rough voice – as Mama would say, Nana Marie was a bit too fond of her Russian cigarets (forbidden inside Mama’s home, I might add) – expounded on the past and the future with some regularity, as if it were more important than almost anything else, to understand. And, as I would come to learn, it was.
From a very young age, I learned many important things… from Mama and Papa, and especially, from Nana Marie. I learned that as resolute as the past was, so it was that the future was equally fragile.
The past is a portent of one possible future. How well we understand our actions, and their consequences, in the present… which will be tomorrow’s past… can give us the opportunity to play a far greater role in our future than one who simply accepts that the past has set their future… “le destin est le destin, et ne peut être modifié”.
But, I digress. This post is supposed to be about Christmases past.
I have many happy memories of Christmases from my childhood, although not all were as such. My sixth Christmas was one such happy one, when my wish for all things Hello Kitty was granted, after some considerable expenditure of time and effort by Papa.
My tenth Christmas, while tempered with the absence of my father, was not as somber as one might have thought, given the circumstances. Papa, you see, had left us on the eve of my tenth birthday, leaving behind two broken hearts with only the meager comfort of a small note left, expressing his sorrow at leaving… abandoning… his family. I think that particular Christmas was made tolerable, in no small measure by my mother’s resolute strength and determination, of course, but also by the fact that we were both still in a stage of denial, believing that any day, despite any evidence to support such a belief, that Papa would walk through the door and our world would once again be whole.
It would be fifteen years before Papa would walk through the door of a room I occupied and two and a half years after the passing of my mother.
In the intervening years, denial finally gave way to acceptance and we both moved on, hearts still bruised but determined that there was a life out there for us that past defeats should not… and would not… diminish.
My eighteenth Christmas, and sophomore year in college, would find me with my second lover, Annabeth Harrington, my Psych professor from freshman year. Fueled by an almost insatiable lust for one another, we were both still basking in the glow and the memories of a dinner we had attended some months earlier at the White House. Yes, college life was everything… and more… that I had hoped and dreamed it would be. .
That year, however, would be the last “joyous” holiday season for a while.
Not long after the beginning of my senior year and only days before my twentieth birthday, my past caught up with me. To be more precise, a rather hastily ‘dispatched’ boyfriend – “beard” really, but that is a story for another day – from my senior year of high school… whom the years since had turned into a raging psychopath… kidnapped me, and together with his equally psychotic “girlfriend” spent the next six months raping, brutalizing and torturing me to such an extent, it would have made the Marquis de Sade vomit on his bedclothes.
Needless to say, Christmas that year was not celebrated. Not in the customary manner, at least. By December of that year, I was having great difficulty keeping track of time and days passing and really could not have told you with any degree of certainty, the month, let alone date or day of the week. By December of that year, I scarcely knew night from day. I suspect, though I try not to dwell on the thought; that Brad and Natasha “celebrated” Christmas in a manner befitting two sick, depraved minds.
My twenty-first Christmas, and my first one with my now wife, Christina Anne, was not the festive occasion it might otherwise have been if the preceding fifteen months had been different. Tina tried… she tried so hard that first year… to bring back some degree of normalcy to my life. But when one has nightmares even in broad daylight and wakes up in the middle of the night… every night… screaming in such agony as only a soul tortured beyond it limits can…
It was not a good time for either of us and more than once I, and I’m sure Tina must have as well – even her compassion had to have its limits, questioned God’s wisdom in putting Tina in my path on that fateful day in September of 2006. That was the day I boarded a plane with a bellyful of booze, a pocketful of pills and a one-way ticket to St Louis. A few weeks prior, in the women’s shelter I had been staying in, I had sat and watched as a young girl let go of that last thread that she had been hanging on to and let the pills take her into oblivion. Lost in my own pain, I was powerless to stop her. And, if I am completely honest with myself, I didn’t want to stop her… not really. I wanted one of us at least, to finally find some peace. In my despair, I thought I was helping her.
Weeks later, boarding a plane in Boston, I prepared to let go of my last thread as well. I had helped no one.
They say that time heals all wounds, but that isn’t true… not completely.
It is love that heals.
Time is a construct of man… an arbitrary measurement of the progression and passing of one’s life from this existence to the next. But, love…
Love is the ‘life’ that our Creator breathes into our souls.
Love healed me, for the most part anyway, and brought two souls closer and closer with each passing day and the good memories began to outweigh and out measure the bad. Christmas would once again become a time to not only celebrate our Savior, but to also celebrate family and friends and the future.
The past could not be forgotten, but it also could not set in stone, the future. Not if we didn’t want it to.
Christmas 2008 – Candy Canes and Bittersweet Memories
My mother, from whom I had been estranged since shortly before my seventeenth birthday, when she discovered I was a lesbian and disowned me, passed away in March of 2008 after a long battle with breast cancer. Christmas that year was the first year that I did not hold out, as I had for the last six years, a tiny flicker of hope that she and I would reconcile and put the past behind us and that Mama would at last accept me… accept who and what I was.
Christmas that year was bittersweet.
Tina’s mother – her parents had come out from back East to join us for the holidays that year – finally and fully accepted me and asked if I wouldn’t call her “Mother Shaw” instead of the formerly and formally imposed appellation of “Mrs. Shaw”.
I cried… I cried tears of joy.
And… I cried tears of sorrow. My future mother-in-law had finally accepted me, but…
My own mother had passed away several months before, having never accepted who I was and now she never would.
Christmas that year was bittersweet.
2010 – A Year of Reconciliations
We all have milestones in our lives… some might say millstones, the weight of some of those events a burden on our shoulders, growing heavier as the years bring us ever closer to the day that we shed these all too fragile mortal coils and transcend to wherever it is our own personal belief system portends. We all have events in our lives that shape and celebrate our life; events that are not always of our own choosing, but nevertheless an important and integral part of our journey.
March of 2010 brought me back once more to the tall, white Vermont marble marker; the symbol of the final resting place of my mother’s physical form – her soul and spirit, I knew, were now in Heaven and she was free of pain and all of the other burdens our corporeal forms are afflicted with.
Unlike the previous two years, however; I was not dreading this visit. While “happy” or “excited” might not be the customary emotions one feels when paying their respects to a loved one lost, I was both. I had finally – with the help and guidance of a truly amazing friend – reconciled with my mother. I had at last opened my heart and found something lost a long time ago.
I had rediscovered an eternal truth about mothers and daughters. The love of a mother is eternal and neither time nor circumstance can ever change that or take it away. I had forgotten this a long time ago. I had grown selfish and buried that truth away. I had become a martyr to my own fears and uncertainties. I had come to enjoy too much the role of “poor little Veronica.”
But Regan changed that. She taught me how to bring myself back. I reconciled with my mother and to this day, I talk to her up in Heaven… every day, without fail.
I’m sorry… I’m digressing again. Next thing you know, I will be talking about cupcake recipes… chocolate cupcake recipes.
Where were we… ?
March 25, 2010.
Tina and Ali have already gone back to the hotel and Julie, the family attorney, and I are preparing to leave as well. The weather is growing worse, the rain coming down harder. I am chilled to the bone, but do not want to leave. Mama and I say our tearful good-byes and I make my way back to the car, where Julie is waiting… when it happens.
A man approaches the car. He calls my name. Something shifts in my brain… and time stands still. The thunder in my ears is not from the weather, but the sound of a million thoughts and images crashing and swirling in my brain… a dervish of emotions that, mercifully, overload my brain and I crash.
The last time I saw or spoke to my father was the evening before the eve of my tenth birthday… 14 years, six months, and 8 days ago. And, in those 5,303 days, I never… not once… hated my father for what he had to done to my mother and me. Not once! I felt a lot of things, a lot of emotions, but hate was never one.
Until now… until that day in the cemetery, on the second anniversary of my mother’s passing, when my father walked back into my life. On that day…
On that day… I hated my father. I hated him with a passion! The heat of my hatred could have turned forests to ash. The heat of my hatred for the man whom I had once loved more than anything else in this world, besides my mother, could have burnt the sun to a cinder!
That day, I told my father that I hated him and that I would never forgive him for what he had done to Mama and me. I told him that I never wanted to see or hear from him again… ever! I told him to get in his car and drive away. I told him to drive so fucking far away that I never crossed his mind again!
But… hate cannot survive where there is love. And I did still love my father. And suddenly the realization hit me… I was going to lose my father again! I had already lost my mother and now I was going to lose Papa as well! Again!
I could not let that happen. I would not let that happen!
And so began the long, painful process toward reconciliation. A tentative letter sent. The anger was still there and I wanted… I needed… answers, but more than that, I needed my father.
Fast forward a few months…
Tina had been hiding something from me for months. I told her, more than once, that her little ‘subterfuge’ was futile, because I would find it eventually. Each time, Tina just smiled and walked away. I spent weeks… months… searching every square inch… every nook and cranny… of our condo for the Christmas gift she had hidden away. I even went to her office in the downtown JusticeBuilding and searched. My efforts were to no avail and by Christmas Eve, I had resigned myself to being completely and totally surprised.
By mid-morning Christmas Day, the stack of brightly-wrapped gifts… save for one each for my inamorata and myself, which would be unwrapped that evening… that had been artistically ensconced under the eight-foot Noble the night before was now transformed into a sea of clothes, books and jewelry on the sofa and the thick, white Barbara Barry area rug was covered with bows, ribbons and wads of wrapping paper. A cup of freshly-brewed Ethiopian Sidamo sat before me on the coffee table, ignored as I buried my nose in a first edition (UK) of Thoreau’s Walden.
So engrossed in the book was I that the telephone, on the end table beside me, had rung several times before the sound registered. I reached for the handset, only to have it jerked from my outstretched fingers by Tina. I looked up.
“It’s probably just work,” Tina stammered, a flush rising on her slender neck.
“You’re not going in? Today?” I could hear the disappointment in my voice, mirrored, no doubt, in my eyes as I stared up at her.
“No, no, no… of course not, baby girl. I promise!”
The sincerity in her voice was unmistakable and mollified, I returned to Thoreau. So wrapped up in the book was I that I was only dimly aware of the sound of the doorbell several minutes later. Moments after that…
“Feliz Natal, minha princesinha!”
I looked up… the book fell from my lap… I shrieked!
To this day, Tina swears that my feet never touched the floor. She says that I literally flew over the coffee table, across the living room and into the arms of my father, without once letting my bare feet touch the floor. All I remember is that one moment I was sitting on the sofa and the next moment my 5’ 3” body was firmly attached to my father’s chest, my arms tightly wrapped around his neck, the scent of Old Spice and cherry pipe tobacco caressing my nostrils, laughing and crying at the same time and trying to talk through the tears of joy…
“Papa … Eu te amo … Eu te amo … Eu te amo … Papa … Papa … oh, eu te amo tanto!”
It was several minutes before I calmed down enough to detach myself. When I finally did loosen my grip and Papa lowered me to the floor – Papa stands at 6’ 6” – I looked up and saw that his dark eyes, like mine, were bright with tears. In that moment I felt such a rush of love for my father that it left me light-headed and I felt faint.
Over the next three days, the only time I let Papa leave my side was when he slept – there was no question of him staying in a hotel – and when he was in the bathroom. Well, I take that back. I did watch him shave… just as I did when I was a little girl, except I didn’t stand on the toilet this time.
And twice during Papa’s stay, Tina had to drag me out of the guest bedroom at three in morning, where she found me sitting in the big, wooden rocking chair… watching Papa sleep and offering a silent prayer to God, thanking Him for bringing my father back to me.
This is one Christmas past that I will always look back upon. A father and daughter were reunited. How could I not look back?
And so it is…
I live with these ghosts of Christmases past. Some are good. Some are not as welcome as others, but I have found something else out.
They are all necessary.
Past is prologue.
To truly and deeply love, one must remember and accept this…
Just as the Earth accepts that the rain will always follow the sun; so it is that sorrow will always follow joy.
And when sorrow, like the rain, has had its season… joy, like the sun, will return.
I think it was C.S. Lewis who once said…
“The pain now is part of the happiness then.”
I believe… no, I know this…
The pain then is part of the happiness now. But…
Love will always conquer pain.
Because it isn’t time alone that heals. Time without love is only the ticking of a clock on the mantle. A reminder that something needs done… that something awaits.
Love is eternal.
Merry Christmas to all.
I wish you peace and good health.
I wish you success in all you endeavour.
I wish for your ghosts to not be too restless.
I wish you love.
Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw
25 December 2013