Saturday, December 29, 2012

Good-bye Momma, Good-bye Christmas

I'm having a difficult time getting a handle on exactly what I am feeling this week. Several of my good friends who also lost their mothers this past year have expressed deep sadness and a sense of loss especially on Christmas.

I do genuinely miss my mother, and feel sad at her passing, but I also feel a sense of relief that I could finally let go of our three decade long battle over Christmas.  It stopped being my holiday thirty-two years ago when I converted to Judaism, but it continued being a bone of contention between me and my mother.

Our conflict had less to do with religion than with the mother-daughter relationship. My mother, although a life-long Methodist, was what I liked to call a "loyal dissenter." I have so many memories from childhood of my mother whispering commentary in my ear about how various things being spouted by preachers were "not believed by everyone." My mother believed whole-heartedly in God the Father, and thought that Jesus was an important teacher, but she was openly (to me) skeptical about most of the conventional Jesus story from birth to death (or resurrection). She didn't really understand my conversion, but she didn't overtly object to it either. However, she did object, frequently and volubly to my not celebrating Christmas. To her this was my rejection of our family history, but even more so of her as a mother and her efforts each year to create a "real" Christmas experience for her family. Something she felt cheated of in her own early childhood (her own mother was a severe asthmatic and would not allow Christmas trees or greenery around the home).

It is only from a distance that I can see that she did not really enjoy creating these family Christmas. She viewed it as a challenge, to find the right gifts, wrap them appropriately, have the right tree, and fix a perfect dinner.

My memories of the last Christmas that I spent in California with my family (1981) just before I began my conversion process, are dominated by Mom's anxiety about everything being just so. Her anxiety was so great and so grating that my brothers decided to go to a movie (The Life of Brian) during the hours while the turkey was cooking and invited me to come with them. At the time I was just so delighted that my (younger) brothers actually wanted to have me go with them, that I did not think about how our disappearance for two hours was going to increase my mother's frenzy.

For years following my conversion, my mother would actively pump me for details: Was I going to get a tree this year? Why not? Was I going to send cards? Who was I going to send cards to? What would I say in them? Was I going to go Christmas Caroling? Was I going to go to church?

Paradoxically, I never found it unpleasant to spend Christmas with my in-laws, who accepted our religious differences, did not try to change me, and simply welcomed me into their home for a family meal. Sharing another person's celebration is quite different from being pressured to engage in that celebration directly.

I consciously and deliberately avoided going "home" for Christmas for a number of years. I broke down one year (1985) because my first husband had just moved out, and I needed to go home and lick my wounds after the semester was over. It was not a good move. Much of my visit involved a battle with my mother over why I would not go to church on Christmas eve. Now if she'd been asking me to accompany her to church, I might have felt differently about it, but she didn't want to go, she just wanted me to go. I never went at Christmas time again. In 2001 I went for three days from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22 to celebrate my father's 90th birthday, but I would not stay for Christmas.

Our struggle over Christmas only ended with her death this year. Finally there was no one left to make me feel like I had abandoned her, when I stopped celebrating Christmas.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Winter Meditations

I have always liked winter. When I was a child in California, winter was when the rains came and the hills turned green instead of brown. I liked wearing sweaters and wool more than I liked sundresses.

The thing that I have come to love best about winter is the bareness of the trees. In winter the architecture of the world is easier to perceive. I have always seen a parallel between the world in winter and human life in times of stress and difficulty.

I did not always take comfort in that revelation. When I was young I focused on frailty, on loss.

For the winds are bitterly iced
between trees that,
having lost their summer leaves,
are no longer seen as intertwined,
but only tenuously touching a few brittle twigs
here and there;
solitary in a gray world that prevents
even the insubtantial companionship
of a shadow.
December 11, 1972
As a young person I perceived (often falsely) the failure of friendships to survive stress. I mistook temporary solitariness for abandonment.

Over the years, however, I have come to cherish winter as a time of bareness and spareness. Living as I have now for many years with woods and forest all around, winter is a time when the world opens up, when secrets are revealed. Having seen more of human life,  and where once I saw bleakness and abandonment, today  I see strength, resiliance and people reaching out. It is in the hard and cold times that people draw together, offer each other support.

In winter
nature drops her disguises,
forest opens to sky,
rock cliffs are bared,
sheltering leaves fall away,
wind whistles through
tenuously touching twigs.

Walking the forest floor
one sees further, more clearly,
steps more surely
among rocks and fissures.
November 2, 2008

It is interesting to me that I used the phrase "tenuously touching" in both poems - an unconscious echoing. But there is a tenuous drawing away and a tenuous reaching outward. It is the latter I perceive today.