Christmas Grief, Christmas Gifts


photo credit WAA-Indiantown Gap National Cemetery

As the holiday shopping season kicks into its final frenzy, I feel both anticipation and sadness; anticipation for buying gifts for my immediate family and sadness that my mother and father are no longer here to be a physical part of the celebrations. My mother loved to shop but unfortunately or fortunately depending on your view, I did not. My childhood memories include shopping at our local department store with me begging “when are we going to leave?!” and my mom desperately trying to get whatever it was she needed.


What I wouldn’t give today to be able to spend an afternoon aimlessly shopping with my mom and treating ourselves to a cup of coffee and something sweet to eat after our purchases were complete. Part of the irony of middle age is that I now have the time and more money to spend on people I cherish but they are no longer here.


Christmas shopping outside of buying for my young children used to be somewhat of a burden to me, an item I had to check off of my holiday to-do list. I wanted to give my parents special gifts but I didn’t have a large budget and it was difficult to find what I thought was the right gift. My father was notorious for returning gifts because he didn’t “need” them or didn’t want his children spending money on him. He grew up during the Depression and never had a great need for material things so I usually settled on food items that I knew he would eat or at least could not return. Poppy seed nut rolls like my grandmother used to bake and nut and cheese platters were an annual staple.


Buying gifts for my mom was both easier and harder. It was easier because my mother was a very feminine woman who loved perfume, and soft and pretty things.It was also harder because as I grew into motherhood myself I felt my gifts were an inadequate expression of my love and appreciation. Some years, I hit the right note. The year my husband and I gave her an electronic photo album loaded with photos of her and my father with my kids was a hit. But other years found me wandering the mall (pre-Amazon) looking at scarves, sweaters, slippers and ultimately giving her something a little too practical and generic.


The last Christmas my mother was alive was spent at a nursing home in my hometown. She was recovering from a broken leg and was doing well with her rehabilitation. She loved our golden retriever but we couldn’t bring him in to see her in person so my husband brought him to the window so that she could at least see him playing outside. Our gifts that year included a nativity that my older son purchased from a charity at his school and a thick red shawl that I hoped would both keep her warm and feel like a hug from us even after we had left to return to our home a state away.


My mother passed away the following summer of 2013 and my father passed away from cancer December 28, 2014, three days after Christmas. He had recently moved into an assisted living home and was living his final days peacefully in hospice care. The home was decorated beautifully for Christmas and the festive holiday atmosphere should have clashed with the sadness of his impending passing but somehow it did not. My last Christmas gift to my father was an automatic electronic candle surrounded by a fragrant wreath of fresh greens. I placed it in his window overlooking the chapel in the courtyard where the light of the candle reflected in the stained glass window.


Remembrance is all I have now but it turns out that it is enough to fill my heart with joy. I have many wonderful memories of baking, decorating, and yes, even shopping with my mom. I can still picture my dad sitting in his favorite recliner cracking walnuts while my young children watched in fascination. The only gift I can give to them now is to make sure the grave they share at the national military cemetery where they are laid to rest is covered with a wreath through Wreaths Across America. The site of thousands of wreaths in neat rows across the snow is a sight to behold and gives me comfort.


I no longer feel guilty, either, for some of my lackluster gifts throughout the years. As an almost empty-nester myself, I now realize that the many times my husband and I loaded the kids and dogs in the van and hit the highway was the best gift I could have given to my parents. The love and memories that they gave me throughout my life was the best gift they could have given to me.


So when my grown children start bringing gifts of nuts and scarves, I will understand. I will tell them that it does not matter what presents they bring. Their presence will always be the  greatest gift.