In September of 1990, my mother passed suddenly, tearing a gaping hole in the fabric of our family. My sister hosted our Christmas gathering that year - just three months later. We all arrived so bravely that day, wearing the best smiles we could along with our festive sweaters and socks. Sipping homemade wassail, enjoying the antics of the children (God bless their joyful distractions), we tried to comfort one another without words as we each fought our own internal battle of memories and grief.
Toward the end of the day, my dad brought out a small plastic shopping bag. “I found these in a closet,” he said quietly. “Norma had … (he cleared his throat) … she had started Christmas shopping early.”
Each of us held our breath as he reached into the bag. Please let there be something for me. We leaned forward, willing Dad to hand us something … anything … from Mom.
We never received “big” Christmas gifts – not in the way children do now. I grew up in the era of Mrs. Beasley dolls, Tinker Toys and Little House on the Prairie books. Receiving a 48-color box of crayons was a big deal. In fact, I don’t remember very many of my childhood Christmas gifts. Just the few captured in grainy Polaroid photos.
What I do remember is everything else about Christmas.
Lying on the couch in the dark, awash in the red glow of three red plastic bells in the window. I spent hours watching those bells blink. First, the bell on the left. Then the bell on the right. Then the bell in the middle. Then all three. Blink. Blink. Blink. Si-lent Night … I am Home … All is Well.
Early on Christmas mornings, I knelt beside my brother at the window in my parents’ bedroom. From that one window, we could see the end of our road, a half mile away. Still in our pajamas, united in earnest excitement, we watched for headlights to turn into the end of the road. Few cars traveled that road, so any pair of lights had a good chance of being our big sister, heading home from her overnight shift at the hospital. SHE held the key to Christmas morning … nothing could begin until her little car was safely parked in the driveway. (We won’t talk about how long it took her to change her clothes, “freshen up” and eat something!)
And then there was the music of Christmas … Mahalia Jackson, belting out Sweet Little Jesus Boy, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Chipmunks, of course. Our church held cantatas and I remember the pride so deep it hurt my chest when mom would sing. She rarely sang those days, but usually at Christmas, she could be convinced to sing a solo at church or to harmonize with my two big sisters in a trio. Her clear sweet soprano sounded angelic to me.
Dust mopping floors, setting out special china, making thumbprint cookies … aunts and uncles … laughter …. Staying up late .... Everything I knew and loved about Christmas rushed through my ears now in a loud ringing, roar as Dad handed me a small, thin package.
“It’s not much,” he apologized.
Tears stung my eyes as I held the gift … afraid to unwrap it.
I have always been a “slow unwrapper.” You know, the one that everyone gets mad at.
“HURRY UP” everyone groans as I carefully separate each piece of tape from the paper. I admire the bow. I unfold the ends one at a time. I refold the paper …. Especially the tissue paper …
It’s all an elaborate stalling technique because I HATE WHEN I OPEN THE LAST GIFT.
I mean, come on! You wait ALL year for Christmas and then rip everything open in 5 minutes?? No way! Not this girl. I SAVOR every single gift … even if it’s a pack of gum … because all too soon, I will be holding the last one.
So imagine the anguish of that moment - knowing that I was about to open the last Christmas gift I would ever receive from my mom.
Dad was right. It wasn’t much – probably intended to be a stocking stuffer. I’m sure that Mom would have chosen something quite different to bestow as her last gift, had she known.
But let me tell you about the 25 years since that Christmas ….
Mom had arthritis. I grew up with this reality as common to me as a mother having brown hair or wearing glasses. There were good days and bad days. I didn’t understand or worry. Mom was just … mom. As the years passed, new names were assigned to her pain – rheumatoid, scleroderma, lupus. As a child, all I knew was that some days, she couldn’t wear her shoes. Some days, she rubbed her swollen fingers a lot. Some days, she had to ask for help with simple tasks like zippering her dress, fastening her watch band or opening jars.
When it came to opening jars, Mom knew every trick. She ran hot water over the lids. Whacked dents all around the edges with the butt end of a knife. Banged the jars upside down on the counter. And when all else failed, she called Dad who always said the same thing as he opened the jar, “You got it started.”
When I saw that my mother’s last gift to me was a jar-opening mitt, I had to smile. I imagined her finding it and thinking … HEY … another way to get this job done!
When you lose your mother at a young age, you don’t only lose the current presence of her in your life. You also lose an entire future of creating memories with her. While my mother did see me marry, she didn’t get to see me really grow up. I couldn’t brag to her about my first “real” job. She never saw my first home. She didn’t know about the youth groups I led.
She never held my children. I couldn’t call her for recipes, child-rearing advice, or just because. We never took a family vacation with her. I never sent her a Christmas card with the kid’s school photos. I never cooked a turkey with her. I’ve never been able to gripe about her to my friends – lovingly complaining about how she interferes or has unrealistic expectations or just plain drives me nuts.
(Friends … do you know how precious it is to have a mother to drive you nuts?)
For thirty plus years, I have missed her in a million little ways. But for twenty-five years, every single time I’ve needed to open a jar ….
SHE HAS BEEN WITH ME.
Together, we have run lids under hot water. We have whacked dents around the edges with the butt edge of a knife. We have banged jars upside down on the counter. And when all else has failed, I reach in the drawer for my mother’s last gift.
The small, now-dingy-white rubber “hand” fits perfectly inside mine. As I grip the jar and twist, I feel it slowly release and pop. I can almost hear her triumphant whoop. We did it! We didn’t have to ask for help this time.
And when we do have to ask for help, we secretly know that we “got it started.”
Often in the evenings, I cook alone while Wayne finishes evening chores and the kids roam the house. In those moments, it is just me and mom. Together, we’ve opened thousands of jars. Each time, I imagine her love reaching across all those years - over 30 of them now -to cook with me. To just be with me. To help me open the tough jars of life.
Mom would be amazed at the life I’ve built. She would be proud that I run a B&B. She would be in love with my children. She would listen to my stories. She would drive me crazy - I know she would!
She also would not believe that I still have this grubby old gift that she probably picked up for 50 cents ….
In the end, Mom’s final gift has become my favorite. It takes me back to her own kitchen – a warm place where she demonstrated her love with food, fun and a good dose of common sense. It reminds me of her weakness - the years of silent pain, the unseen tears, the determination to create a meaningful life anyway.
And most of all, this little “hand” recalls her strength – how she taught me to figure things out, to try new ways and to know when it’s time to ask for help.
Merry Christmas, Mom. Your gift was perfect.