Making Friends with Grief
New contributor Emily Eades reflects on love, loss and honoring absent friends this holiday…
My parents had been hippies in the 70s. They met late one night when Mum was hitchhiking. Dad scooped her up in his battered Cortina, and they moved into a squat by the sea. By the time they’d had me, the moonlit road trips, daisy chains and denim flares had been swapped for a life more ordinary. But their parenting remained bohemian at best. Chaotic, unpredictable and with a flagrant disregard for rules – we might have had a fastidiously tended vegetable garden and freshly cooked food on the table but, between that, pretty much anything could, and did, go.
Which goes some way to explain why as children we adored Christmas even more than most. To us it wasn’t just the magic of presents, parcels and heaving plates of ham – Christmas was our twinkly full stop at the end of each wild and frenetic year. For a household so haphazard, our parents took an unexpected military precision-like approach to Christmas tradition. And as children with little structure, rules or discipline, this sense of order was wondrous.
From 14th December onwards (never earlier), our rambling, crumble-down farmhouse was transformed into a den of festivity. My mum, ordinarily free-thinking and frugal, subscribed to a more is more approach when it came to decoration. Reams of silver angel hair tinsel adorned the house. We hated it. But she insisted. We were forever finding tangles of the stuff down sofa backs come spring. Every greetings card and streamer (yes she insisted on those, too), had its perfectly mapped-out position and place. Mum, often parentally untethered, transformed into a sparkling matriarch – whipping up meringues, mousses, mayhem and endless festive magic.
This year will mark our 15th Christmas without her. She died tragically one chilly February night, leaving a gaping hole in our lives. And of course Christmas has never quite been the same again.
In the years of dislocation and disarray that followed, we tried to craft Christmas into a new post-mum shaped design. I tried celebrating with friends, not celebrating at all and there was the year Dad and I eschewed the season altogether and escaped to a remote Goan beach. But nothing ever felt quite ‘right’.
It took 14 years before I was brave enough to face the Christmas music and come back to what I know. And so it was that last year, my husband and I drove the knot of frosty b-roads to my father’s house to take my childhood decorations from the attic where they’d been waiting patiently for me to return. As I smoothed decade-old dust from smooth glass baubles, the heady rush of remembering almost floored me. In all the ways Mum was absent from my day-to-day life, suddenly in the familiar trinkets of Christmas, she was everywhere.
And so this year, as Christmas fast approaches, conversely it’s comfort I feel, not dread. I bought my little boy an advent calendar, just as Mum had done religiously for us as kids. And as we ceremoniously prized open the first door, it wasn’t just December 1st we said hello to, we also ushered Mum back in. Family traditions play out like a dot-to-dot of memories strung in time – in returning to the old I feel connected to her in a way I’ve not done in years. So this December 14th we’ll continue unpacking the past, one angel-hair-entangled decoration at a time, and with them, a little bit of mum.
Of course, there’s still sadness. But returning to the rituals we once shared is proving a port in the storm. I plan to make her famous pavlova, play Sinatra on the stereo and dance to jazz until dawn. And once everyone’s sat down for dinner, we’ll pick angel hair from the tabletop and raise a glass to Absent Friends.
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