I’ve blocked out large swaths of my childhood. There are large, gaping holes in the landscape of my memory, my mind acting as something like a psychological gopher, digging underneath certain places in my memory until the earth falls in beneath them. It’s a coping mechanism I’m sure, one I suppose I will eventually have to confront, but if the things I do remember are any indication, I’m not in any rush to till the land.
I remember one Christmas in particular. I remember the house we lived in. I remember the living room, and the tree standing tall and bright decorated next to the fireplace. I remember waking up early, as children are prone to do on Christmas morning, but laying in my bed terrified that I would get in trouble for waking anyone else up. There’d been a fight the night before after I’d gone to bed. And I didn’t know what I was walking into. I remember realizing, after laying there a time, that I would probably also get in trouble for not waking anyone up; for not pretending everything was great and normal and that I was any other kid with any other family. That my tardiness would delay the rest of the day and that the tension that would result would lay at my feet. I got up quietly, sliding down the side of my high poster bed. I stood outside my parents’ door for a long time, my heart a gong beat in my chest, before quietly entering and whispering as quietly as I could manage for my mom to wake up.
I remember sitting cross legged on the floor, very aware that I was supposed to be happy and grateful, unwrapping presents neatly and calmly, smiling on cue, thanking on cue. I remember looking out the patio doors and wondering if I could survive in the forest, live on the land, and make friends with the woodland creatures. It was a common fantasy I had then.
I got in trouble later. I don’t remember why. But I remember feeling humiliated and enraged as I stood crying in my room later gingerly pulling on tights over tender places on my legs and promising myself that this would be the last time I cried about anything. Even if it killed me. I didn’t cry for years after that.
The holidays have a way of making me feel like a kid again. And not in a good way.
As any kid of divorced parents will tell you, the holidays- Christmas in particular- have a way of being so burdened with emotional landmines that it’s hard to enjoy it. Who will you spend the day with? Where will you have dinner? Are the presents equitable? Am I spending equal time with both parents? It is a constant emotional push and pull that tends to make the holiday season even more exhausting than it inherently is.
It’s especially difficult when all your parents are the type that shouldn’t really ever be in the same room.
I don’t remember a Christmas as a kid that I much enjoyed, of the ones I do remember. In many ways, the things that chafed me about them were the kind of petty things you aren’t mature enough to gain perspective about as a child; I was well aware of the differences between how my little brother was treated on Christmas morning and how I was and I internalized it as my dad and my stepmom loving me less. I was intimately familiar with being required to retreat to my room alone and in silence to entertain myself while my dad slept after working all night. And later, to not opening presents together at all. There were years that there were no presents at all, and hell, no tree. Things that as an adult I have a bit more perspective on.
But there were other years. Years of pretending to like the man my mother was married to at the time, of playing the happy family opening presents when we were anything but. Years of guilt trips about where I’d be, who I’d be with for the important moments of each holiday, sure that I was neglecting the missing parent in the process. Always finding myself missing someone, something that could not be there. There were more, worse things I won’t commit to paper, but I remember.
Every year around Christmas, I convince myself that this year I will try harder, as though this is something I could just want hard enough and maybe it will happen. I buy thoughtful gifts for the people I love- the only part of this time of year that I really love. I tell myself I will get a tree and decorate it and that there will be Christmas morning with my god brothers and godparents which will, predictably, be awesome.By Christmas however, I find myself moody and withdrawn, emotionally drained and rubbed raw. I am tired of trying and plotting and trying to appease. I am tired of driving from house to house timing my stay so that I may make the next stop. And I tell myself that I am an adult now, that it is not my responsibility to manage these emotional scars I did not create but was born into. And yet every year I find myself at the same place, wanting to retreat until spring, looking for some shelter and finding none. This Christmas will be no different. I will be defeated by it and I will kick myself and I will withdraw and nurse my wounds alone. But I suppose the victory is still in hoping against hope, year after year, that this is the year that will be better.