It’s a matter of attitude, his brother told him. They can sense losers and they’ll eventually dump you, so you might as well treat them like shit from the beginning, he continued his lecture on seduction. As far as treating women like shit, his brother did live by that rule. He usually empathized with the girls his brother dated –even now that he was forty, the girls he dated were rarely over twenty.
He empathized, because he saw those girls being treated the same way he was treated by everyone, less then, somehow handicapped, inferior human beings. Then he got angry with all of them, the ones he met, those he’d never know, but who flocked around his brother and other men who behaved the same way. Most of these girls were beautiful, educated, sophisticated, yet they allowed to be treated like dirt… They allowed to be lied to, ignored, used, and when they were cast away, they kept coming back for more abuse.
Hopes and dreams weren’t for the likes of him; every time he forgot what his mother taught him, he needed to be put in his place… and life never failed to do so. Nevertheless, anger started to bubble inside him. Much as he tried to tell himself otherwise, he still felt he didn’t deserve to be overlooked this time. Moreover, his mother’s words were gaining a grotesquely unfair tone and his brother’s haunting image infuriated him even more. Exhaustion got the best of him, but his sleep was fraught with frustration distorted memories shaped into nightmares. Nothing makes for a scarier nightmare than reality.
Frames by Ana Linden is now available on Amazon.
Don’t tell anyone about this, his father’s words ring in his ears as though he were sitting next to him. He then got out of the car and asked his youngest son to take his place behind the wheel. You’re the first one I’m teaching how to drive, remember this, but it has to be our secret for now. He was sixteen and his older brother, seventeen at the time, was soon going to be old enough to get his driver’s license… yet he and not his brother was the first one to be taught. His father’s words had a magical effect, suddenly erasing the morning’s tears and humiliation. For once he was ahead of his brother, for once he was the more important one… probably the only time in his life. He spent the rest of the day driving around the deserted industrial yard, improving his skills, absorbing every piece of information his father had to impart. You’ll be a great driver, son.
Frames by Ana Linden is now available on Amazon.
After all those hectic holidays, you have no idea how much I appreciate a fairly predictable December, ruled by my own festive routine. I used to believe that routine would be the death of my spirit. Now I welcome predictability as the unexpected antidote to maddening, unexpected December drama. If routine means boredom, but it also means no hysteria, emotional blackmail, manipulation or drama of any kind, then by all means, I’m good with being blissfully bored. Continue reading “My December Survival Kit – Part 2”
A particular scene from Ally Mcbeal keeps popping into my mind these days – must be the season… For those of you who don’t remember/know, Ally Mcbeal was a somewhat atypical lawyer show in the late ‘90s. I remember liking it back then just about as much as I liked SATC, although they were very different (some magazine articles insisted on the fact that a girl had to choose between the two shows, but I just didn’t see it that way). Continue reading “My December Survival Kit”
Now I have my own ornaments and stories to go with them. I somehow managed to hold on to a box of four glass baubles I got at some point in middle school, while shopping for Christmas presents with my best friend at the time. I can just see the store and how we went in looking for something entirely different. I spent a hefty part of my savings on these ornaments and a similar set that I offered my grandmother that Christmas (one of the very few presents she actually liked). They’ve miraculously survived the years and journeys and they went on every tree I’ve had ever since, even when they didn’t match the general colour scheme. Continue reading “No Trendy Christmas Tree For Me, Santa (Part 2)”
Note – I wrote this piece a year ago, so that is why some of you might get a slight déjà vu feeling. But I want to share it again; I usually get somewhat nostalgic in December, and this is a small part of my personal story and the way I perceive the holiday season and it’s trappings.
She frowned and immediately dismissed the idea of a Christmas tree.
“I’ll get one when I can afford to decorate it properly,” she concluded, “not with all that cheap tacky stuff.”
Oh… I couldn’t help feeling my friend’s not at all veiled dig at me. So my Christmas tree was cheap… and tacky. Well, I could certainly give her “cheap”. Continue reading “No Trendy Christmas Tree For Me, Santa”
You know how you don’t much care for a certain kind of food, and then you suddenly crave it? I went through that with bananas and melons. Now it’s happening again… only it’s not food, it’s countryside.
I would have smiled at the sight of that coffee cup, had I not been so displeased to find myself there. I was invited to have a seat at the dining room table and I was flanked by the two of them, one on each side. My eyes wondered around the room I had known my entire life, a room which was unchanged, a room which didn’t feel familiar at all. I wasn’t saying anything. Neither was she, but I knew that look, that fidgety stance, when she just waited for a person’s first sentence in order to pounce on them with all sorts of accusations. Continue reading “Angles Of The China Pattern”
Some little girls fantasize about finding Prince Charming and having that perfect wedding day. I couldn’t wait for the moment I was old enough to have my first cigarette. The future may have been an unclear notion, but one thing I knew for sure – when I grew up, I was going to be a smoker.
I don’t know what my first spoken word was, but the first one I learnt how to write was “mother” and the first one I could read was “cigarette”. I learnt how to read and write by myself one summer, before going to school, and I couldn’t wait for my mother to come home so I could show her my new skills. Funny, she wasn’t as pleased as I expected, especially when I pointed at the cigarette image in my book, mentioning it made me think of her. Continue reading “Will I Be Pretty, Will I Be Rich… Will I Be A Smoker?”
Winter holidays are probably that time of year when ghosts of our past are most likely to come out and dig their dirty fingernails into wounds closed long ago, hoping to pry them open and make them bleed once more. And if there’s ever a chance for them to succeed…
Well, at least that’s what this time of year is like for me. So here I am, lights twinkling in the tree, Christmas songs playing… and I’m angry dancing in my fuzzy bathrobe and equally fuzzy slippers while brushing my teeth, late at night. Before you say it, no, I can’t blame this on too much mulled wine; that’s simply who I am. Continue reading “Christmas Ghosts”
Come December, I see her photo pop up on my phone and I know we’re going to have the same conversation over and over again. Sometimes I don’t even answer, because I’m already too irritable to put up with the depressing rant. I’d rather be the one calling her, when I know I can take it and perhaps even help.
The hypocrisy! Those two hate and trash each-other all the time, and today they were hugging in the middle of the town! They were talking about the holidays and inquiring about each other’s families. As though anybody believes that act!
They only give presents to receive more expensive ones. They’re not fooling anyone.
Please… they only decorate their homes to show off and make everybody else feel miserable. Like we don’t know… Continue reading “My Own, Personal Grinch”
“I don’t want any apartment plants, they’re just not my thing.”
That was my usual go-to reply whenever somebody wondered why there were no plants in my home. “I’m not good at taking care of them, I have neither the time nor the patience to keep them alive,” I would continue, if they insisted.
That was the easiest way of avoiding a conversation on a topic that was somewhat unclear to me too. I liked decorative plants. Yet I knew I didn’t want them in my home.
Frustrated and tired, I was walking fast towards the exit of the large store – one of my last hopes of finding the perfect curtain rail. Continue reading “Layered Emotions”
I leant over the small fence, resting and taking in the view. My feet and I were no longer on speaking terms, but it wasn’t really as bad as I had feared.
Once I no longer had to focus on breathing and on stepping the right way, memories and thoughts started bubbling in my mind, all at once.
I looked at the tents spread a few metres below me, trying to remember when I last slept in something like that. I was still in my teens. Look at them, they seem such feeble structures… yet they were the epitome of shelter and safety during those trips of ours. In many ways, I was a creature of comfort, even as a child; and nights spent in a tent didn’t quite go with that part of me.
Looking at them now, I experience a different kind of gratitude and satisfaction, this time deriving from knowing I don’t have to make that compromise anymore. Sure, we used to have fun back then – we were together and we were escaping… That was it, the escape… That’s why climbing the mountain, the hike itself, were less satisfying now than I remembered them being back then.
It wasn’t an age thing. Anything that wasn’t home, anything that allowed us to detach ourselves from our families and everyday lives was bliss. For a while, we were in a different universe. We could pretend we wouldn’t go back. We could attempt to believe in freedom and convince ourselves and each other that everything was possible. After all, why shouldn’t it be? If we could push our boundaries like that, if we could conquer and survive nature, then nothing could stand in our way.
My mind went blank this time too, the same way it did back then, allowing all my resources to focus on the physical effort. Not thinking of anything was comforting, but not in the same way. Now I was calm; back then, I felt such a rush simply by not thinking of anything anymore… But now I don’t need to forget about going back home, there’s nothing scary waiting for me behind the locked door. Now it truly is a trip, not an escape. This time I feel like I’m travelling, not running away without looking back.
Those feeble tents made for good shelter, in spite of all their uncomfortable features. We were resilient too, and if we had to, we could look after ourselves – occasionally, even after each other. Our dysfunctional families were what we had in common. Only now do I realize how dangerous some of our escapades had been. Our parents rarely knew what we were up to, and most of the time we were sure we preferred it that way. But did we, really? You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t ask for money. You can have all the money you want and do as you please, as long as you aren’t in the way. You can do whatever you want, as long as you get good grades. You can do whatever you want, as long as you keep up appearances and don’t embarrass the family with scandalous behaviour. Each one of us received their freedom at certain costs, and we chose to enjoy it together, because we understood and supported one another.
Then we started choosing our own paths, building on those shaky foundations, structuring our beliefs and characters. So we grew apart, because dysfunction was no longer enough. When constructive, destructive and self-destructive tendencies manifest themselves within each and every one of us, often all at once, while we struggle to find our way, it takes more than dysfunction, we need to have more than that in common. Or at least that was the case for us.
You get much clearer a perspective from that place, thinking back and appreciating the present. I take the Sprite bottle my friend got me. I don’t normally have fizzy drinks, but I wanted something sweet, something I would have liked back then. The two of us remained close and in our own personal, very different ways, we found some sort of balance. The kids we were would be pleased with the adults we are, I realize while staring at the forest, the mountains and the tents of past, present and future. We may not have kept in touch with the others, but these days one finds out things even without trying. So we know that some of them followed in their parents’ footsteps, no matter how much they hated the perspective back then. They now have dysfunctional families and children of their own, who try to escape. Dysfunctionality breeds dysfunctionality. Some are somehow frozen, unable to be self-sufficient, constantly relying on their families or partners for support. Some lead normal, average lives, somewhere in the middle, completely ignored by certain people, utterly envied by others, depending on perspective.
We all failed, we all succeeded, it just depends on the moment and the point of view. But what I think we could all agree upon, if we were to meet around another camp fire, sharing stories and dreams, is that the stability we silently craved is one shaky, complex and tricky structure, that constantly needs to be propped up.
She had a “cat that ate the canary” look on her face, but I chose to ignore it. I was too tired, too hungry, and the only thing I craved more than food was a cup of coffee. If nothing else, you could always count on her to have a fresh pot handy when she was home.
I blindly reached for a cup, but my fingers wrapped around what turned out to be a wine glass. Nothing was where it was supposed to be and I was pointed to the most illogical place for a coffee cup. She had taken upon herself to reorganize my kitchen cabinets, the way she would have liked them to be. The same way her mother used to do to her… the same way her mother-in-law used to do to her, until they took back the spare key they had so gracefully offered her. Who cares that this is my home, not hers? Who cares that she knew what a nuisance this type of behaviour can be?
As I was being given a tour of my own kitchen, I tried not to choke on the cigarette smoke. Who cares that I’m not a smoker?
“Do you like it?”
I hate it.
“It’s fine. It was fine before too…”
I was a student and it was the first time my mother was visiting me, in my own home. Of course I wanted everything to be perfect… as close to perfect as it could be on a student’s budget. Sure, everything was old, but I took pride in how spotless and tidy the place was. I had worked really hard to get it in such a decent shape. But I didn’t feel like arguing after the long day I had had, considering everything I still had to do that evening.
“Did you go out today?”
“No, I was waiting for you to come back. Do you really have to spend this much time at the university, even when I’m here?”
Ok… just let it go… breathe and ignore her… one more sip of coffee… you can do this…
“Well?…” She gestured widely around the kitchen, clearly waiting for some sort of comment.
“Have you nothing to say about all the work I had to do for you today?”
I knew that tone of voice. Just breathe, choose your battles.
“Oh, you mean the cabinets… thanks, it was very kind of you, but you really shouldn’t have bothered.”
“The cabinets? Is that all you have to say? I break my back for you and that’s the thanks I get, you don’t even notice… you and that husband of mine, two peas in a pod, just taking me for granted.”
I looked around carefully, only to notice that aside from a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke and some dirty dishes in the sink, the kitchen was just as I left it. Then she angrily grabs at the old fridge, pulling it aside.
“Can’t you see I cleaned behind the fridge,” the voice is shrill, bordering on hysterical.
Forgive me for not using my X-ray vision… and for being one of those few deranged people who don’t go looking behind the fridge, first thing when they get home. But most of all, sorry for not generally noticing you cleaned a place that had already been scrubbed clean and disinfected only one day earlier. And that was only the second day from a three week visit…
Those who know me, tease me about being a neat freak… but I’m nothing compared to the neat freak my mother used to be. Whenever this tendency of mine seams to take an unhealthy turn, I remember her scrubbing the spaces between the tiles with a tooth brush when I was child. That will never be me.
Many things have changed since that visit of hers. Many things will forever stay the same. She no longer cares about having a spotless home; but she bitterly criticizes everybody else. I no longer care about her approval, but I do tend to go overboard when expecting her for a visit. I do eventually manage to step back, take a deep breath and say to myself, “The hell with it, nothing will ever please her anyway.” Last autumn, just before her impending visit, I had that revelation while polishing the exterior of my entrance door. The following day, she was waiting for me to find my keys in my bag, while noticing my neighbour’s door.
“What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they know the door is the first thing one notices about their home?”
“Don’t you know that’s possibly the last thing anybody cares about?”
I smile and she smiles back, because she chooses to consider such comments part of my strange sense of humour, cynical ways.
Many of us spare no effort in our endeavours to change that often perverted order of things, where we become our parents. Difficult as it may be, it is doable; and it can often be a great self-control mechanism. Yet it can only go so far… Certain things are beyond our control, I realize while staring at a recent photo of my mother. Tired and in a foul mood, with no makeup on, she looks exactly like my grandmother when she was about her age. So I wonder… as the years go by, will I end up hating my reflection in the mirror, simply because I might feel my face belongs to somebody else more than it does to me?… All I can hope for – worst case scenario –is to only ever see that reflection in a mirror, and not when the two of us are face to face.
Part Three – My Own Christmas
I didn’t know it then, but that Christmas Eve would stay with me for as long as I would have memories to hold on to… not because it was fabulous, but because it was the first time I felt and understood what it was all about – what I needed it to be all about.
It was just the three of us listening to Christmas songs and staring at the flickering lights in the Christmas tree… my Christmas tree, as I felt the need to point out several times that year. We were 16 or 17 and it was the year that my grandmother had decreed that I was too old to have a tree. Well, if I was too old for a tree, then I was certainly old enough to do things however I saw fit when it came to Christmas in general. Faced with a minor family drama and a harsh blow to her perfectly loving grandmother image, she gave in and allowed the tree. That concession, however, would cost me all my Christmas gifts, I was warned. I didn’t mind, a few pairs of socks and another ugly scarf were definitely worth giving up.
It may not have been the most beautiful Christmas tree that I ever had growing up, but to this day it remains the one I treasured the most. We were all somewhat sad and ashamed sitting around that tree, my best friend, my boyfriend and I, that year… Yet we were also so very happy, so very content, finally so very peaceful. My best friend and I had gone shopping for the tree the day before and then he helped me get it home, spending hours and hours in the December cold and snow, trying to find the greatest one I could afford. That was as fun and pleasant as it should have been, the way both of us had forgotten it could be.
Once I finished decorating it, once my home was finally calm and quiet after my grandparents went to visit some of their acquaintances, the three of us had the unbelievable, unexpected chance to simply feel it was Christmas. Presents – small, thoughtful and amusing tokens of appreciation – discretely found their way under the tree, when the others weren’t looking. Between the carols, the smell of the tree and the Christmas wrapping paper torn open and spread all over the floor, we could laugh and be light-hearted, we could forget that uncomfortable sadness; we felt relieved, because somebody had thought of and cared about each and every one of us that year. We had each other, and that was all that mattered. We understood each other, we knew each other’s stories and we supported each other. It was as safe, calm and blissful a moment as any of us could have. We shared hopes and dreams; we shared painful stories of Christmases past and present and for once they didn’t hurt. We didn’t know it back then, but we were already forging our own traditions, we were deciding what we would never become, because our families had taught us what we hated most about human beings.
That’s how my grandmother found us, lying on the Persian rug near the tree, wrapping paper spread everywhere. Were we drunk, she wanted to know. No, we were not. Well, good, then it was time for us to clean up and go to wherever we were heading that evening, because she was expecting guests and we were in the way. But not before she opened her own Christmas present from me. I don’t remember what I got her that year, but after making a face and muttering a thankful ‘I suppose it’ll have to do’, the gift was deemed worthy to be seen by her friends. I adjusted my extremely short dress, I put on my extremely high heel boots and my nice coat and off we went, to wherever we were going to go. Apparently we were the cool kids, so we were going to attend a fun party and/or go dancing with our equally cool friends and acquaintances, whose parents weren’t particularly interested to know where and how their children spent Christmas, as long as they weren’t in the way.
We cannot chose the family we are born in, but we can chose the family we make for ourselves, the people who are closest to us, with whom we share the most intimate moments, memories and experiences. Yes, I believe that Christmas is a family holiday; but what I have learnt is that family is not always determined by DNA, not for all of us. My family are those very few people who have always accepted and appreciated me for who I am, those people who have always been there for me, offering their support in hard times and sharing my happiness in joyful ones, those people who have appreciated my doing the same for them. As it happens, none of them are related to me. And it’s all right.
Like I said, I make my own traditions. I choose when and how I decorate the Christmas tree. I choose to bake those delightfully delicious goodies every year – in spite of her countless flaws, my grandmother did manage to teach me some of her baking secrets. I choose to get nice, meaningful gifts for my dear ones, and sometimes I will buy them months before Christmas. I also choose not to judge or appreciate people and measure their affection only based on the presents they offer me. And for the past few years, I have also chosen to spend Christmas at home, nowhere near any relatives.
For years I have frantically chased all sorts of unattainable holiday goals, only to end up being disappointed, only to end up thinking of that bittersweet Christmas Eve, wishing for that sort of peace and acceptance. I decorate my home early in December and for years I’ve left this cosy place in order to try and gain acceptance and appreciation from people unable to accept or appreciate anybody. I refused to be alone on holidays, fearing I would be unhappy, only to learn the same lesson, time and time again – the worst kind of loneliness is the one you feel when you’re surrounded by people you don’t like. For years I left behind the people who cared about me so I could be with my… family. No more.
I have people who love me. In spite of my cynicism, I have reasons to be thankful and celebrate on Christmas, and I will do it my own way. I am not perfect and I have long ago given up trying to be, so I have accepted that there are people I will never be able to forgive, just as I will never be able to be nice and good to everybody. But once in a while I need to try to be especially nice to those I hold dear; I have to appreciate myself and the beautiful parts of my life. For me, Christmas is such a time… because I get lost in my own life and I need a reminder to stop and offer all these small pleasures to myself and those close to me. I will not apologize for who I am. I will not deny my own values, no matter what others may believe. And I will feel and celebrate Christmas the way I find it appropriate, allowing for bittersweet happiness and relinquishing all guilt and disapproval. You see, I no longer care about what the world or my family expect from me.
Have a nice December, everyone! Whether your celebrate Christmas or not, make sure it’s your own choice and not one forced on you by family or society.
Part Two – The Reality
The choir started singing all those beautiful carols we loved. That was the best part of it and I didn’t want her to miss any of it. I’d go get her, I told my grandmother. I was handed my coat and scarf and in a low voice I was warned there would be trouble if I caught a cold, thus ruining everybody’s holidays. I snuck out as discretely as possible, but disgruntled looks from some of the older ladies could not be avoided.
There she was, on the bench in front of the church, just where I expected to find her, smoking a cigarette. Her face was cold, sad and pale, and her fingers trembled slightly as they moved the cigarette back and forth. We could hear the choir from the bench outside the church and that’s where we stayed and listened to the carols that year. Pieces were falling into place – even if I was still very young, even if I couldn’t quite explain it, I was starting to understand why my mother didn’t want to be there in the first place and why my grandfather kept his distance, refusing to take part in that charade every Christmas.
I was the cute grandchild and my mother was the beautiful, independent, accomplished daughter. Our sole purpose on this world was to make my grandmother proud, I was starting to understand back then. What better time of year than Christmas for the entire community to envy her for her success as a mother and grandmother? What better time of year for the entire community to console her for the shame her ungrateful daughter put her through, refusing to get married? What better time of year to throw her to the gossip hungry wolves, thus punishing her for refusing to present her with a doctor or lawyer son-in-law she could brag about to all her friends?
We listened to the carols from outside, so the cold winter wind could protect us from the cold, vicious, judgemental ‘Christmas spirit’ inside the church. It had gotten particularly festive that year, when my grandmother brought the priest over, so he could better threaten my mother with eternal damnation for not being married… Words no man should ever address a woman, especially in the presence of her child, were uttered. Sharp, bitter, cynical, yet polite comebacks eventually left him speechless and with a proud demeanour my mother said goodbye, turned away and left, still holding my hand as I was struggling to keep up with her fast pace. She knew him as a child, I later found out; they used to play together and be friends; they were the same age, they were still so young, both of them under thirty, yet it all seemed so old and ugly…
Christmas is a time of giving, my grandmother taught me. Christmas is a time of giving, because that’s the only way to prove to those around that you have plenty to spare, maybe even more than them, therefore you are better. There was great bliss in discovering other ladies’ Christmas feast was by far not as rich or as well prepared as hers. It was her personal victory if another woman’s household wasn’t immaculate as hers; she really didn’t pay any attention to the fact that many of those women – her relatives included – also had fulltime jobs to worry about.
Christmas is also a time when you need to know how to receive, my grandmother taught me. It took a while for me to understand that from the many presents there were to be found under the tree on Christmas morning, none was actually from her. She was to receive presents from her family, not to offer them; and they had to be nice, expensive ones, the kind that would trigger her friends’ and acquaintances’ envy. ‘Why… you shouldn’t have…’ was the usual response… but god forbid you hadn’t done it. You were going to be in trouble for it until the following Christmas, when out of the goodness of her heart she would give you a chance to make amends for it. Proper etiquette had to be observed – no matter how nice the gift offered to her might have been, it would lose all its value had you offered something more valuable to someone else. Thus I learned about another Christmas essential – gratitude…
Christmas was about the tree as well – after all, it was the first relevant thing our guests would see, so it had to be nicer than the one any of them might have had at home. She would dramatically collapse on a chair next to it, sipping some wine from one of her crystal glasses, complaining about how exhausting it had all been for her. All the preparations were meant to make her family happy, but did she ever get anything in return? Did anybody ever show her any gratitude? Of course not… No matter who the listeners were, they were always quick to console the poor, unappreciated lady, and to praise her splendidly decorated home and her extremely delicious cooking.
From one Christmas to another, the mirage of that ideal family was more and more difficult to maintain. My mother started finding more and more reasons not to visit over the holidays. My grandfather finally retired. Times were changing rapidly and all of the sudden, she had to live with the idea that her social status would never be what it had been. There was no need to pretend to care about the less fortunate anymore. There was no need to have a wonderful Christmas tree, since there were no relevant guests to envy it anymore. There would still be baking for several days before Christmas, because much as she liked to pretend she was sacrificing herself for all of us, baking was something she actually enjoyed doing, just as she enjoyed the taste of those delicious treats.
Most of her Christmas traditions were still observed, especially when it came to giving and receiving gifts, but the situation became increasingly ridiculous as time went by. While somehow managing to maintain her aura of innocence and goodness to the outside world, the old lady was not able to forever frighten her own family into submission. One by one, most of us managed to break free and live our own lives…
I was presented with so many facets of Christmas over the years, both within and outside my family… so I could only do one thing, since I wasn’t going to deny the holiday and its positive symbolism: I had to make Christmas my own. I had to chisel my own traditions, if I was going to survive it; that’s what I learnt and struggled to accept early on.
Part One – The Illusion
The house was filled with that delicious smell of baked goodies. Vanilla and a variety of other aromas I was too young to know or recognize conspired with my grandmother in creating that warm, heavy, divine, mouth-watering smell that could mean only one thing: Christmas was only a few days away.
It was the final element in that trilogy of olfactory sensations that I have associated with the winter holidays from a very early age. The oranges were the first harbinger of the impending festivities and as I stood by the big fruit bowl, scratching at one of them with my little nails so I could carry its perfume with me, I knew there wasn’t long to go ‘till the much expected moment.
Then came the tree. My grandfather was never too involved in all the preparations, but getting the tree was always his job and I was his trusty sidekick. It was our little tradition: we would scour all the Christmas tree markets until we found the perfect one, I would choose it and he would carry it home. I don’t know about him, but that intoxicating fir tree smell would make me completely forget about the freezing cold wind, about the icy patches on which I really needed to watch my step and about the snow, which somehow managed to find its way into my boots each and every time. The serious, respectable, stern man became a child again, analysing fir trees, laughing more than I would see him laugh during the entire year and always indulging me, all the while knowing that the one I chose would inevitably be too tall. He’d be the one severely reprimanded as soon as we got home, but little did he care.
So when the baking also started, I knew it was time for my mother to arrive and for a long time that was what Christmas was all about for me. Once that finally happened, the two of us would decorate the tree and do the last of the Christmas shopping for that year. Among all those activities, she would work on answering all my questions about Santa and trying to convince me he was real. You see, that was a story I never fully believed, so each year she struggled to convince me, until her patience invariably reached its limits, resorting to the so very effective argument, “Because I said so.” As soon as that was taken care of, we could continue decorating while listening to carols. New decorations got lost among the older ones, my mother would share Christmas stories from her childhood and we would conspire on playing all sorts of silly little harmless tricks on my grandparents, the way she used to do back in those days she recollected.
Come Christmas morning, there were presents under the tree for everybody. At that time, I had no idea that not all families could enjoyed the same pleasures we did. I didn’t grow up to be a religious person, but in those days both my mother and I indulged my grandmother, dressed up as elegantly as we could and joined her to church. I was to be quiet and well-behaved, but most importantly I was to be thankful for everything my family was offering me.
Some of what we had, we were supposed to share with others on Christmas. We had relatives and close friends come by our place and we would return their visits. Everybody would wear nice, festive clothes, gifts would be exchanged and there was laughter to be heard around the tree. The good china, the fancy silverware and the expensive crystal would make an appearance, as we were going to always share a delicious home cooked meal with our guests. As the impeccable baker that she was, my grandmother always had little goody bags ready to be trotted out and handed out when our guests were finally heading home or for us to take to all the homes we were visiting from Christmas Eve until the New Year’s.
Our friends and neighbours behaved in a very similar fashion, from what I can remember. We often knocked at their doors, offering little packages of homemade goodness and in their turn, they would share some of their feast with us. My job was to help wrap up everything and small branches cut off our too large Christmas tree or bits of mistletoe were my special touch. Old clothes, washed and carefully packed, were being taken to some destination unknown to me, where others needed them; I wasn’t sure why or how, but I didn’t spend any time wondering about it during those early years.
Christmas was a time of magic, of dreams come true, of love and sharing, it was the time of year when I felt cared for and safe more than at any other given moment, it was when that which I desired the most became reality. For the innocent child I was, that trilogy of smells was the promise of bliss. That trilogy of smells still makes my heart beat faster… even now, so many years later… even now, when I know better…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as Dickens said it so wisely… and I would eventually understand it clearly.
I poured the batter into the baking tray and when I was done, I licked the spoon. It tasted good, the flavour was just right… wasn’t it? I licked the spoon once more… something was missing. I could just see her face, I could just hear her voice, “Well, even I could have baked something like that. But I appreciate the effort, darling.”
I’m a good baker… not open-my-own-bakery-undiscovered-talent good, but good by comparison to many other women my age who have a life and also like cooking/baking. I was running late and I went for my safe and fast desert, my somewhat personalized lemon sponge cake. I could prepare that with my eyes closed, one hand tied behind my back, I used to think… until today.
Baking powder! I ran all the ingredients in my head and that’s what was missing. Damn, damn, f***, f***, damn! I felt like throwing the whole thing out, baking tray and all. But then I’d have to start all over again, and judging by the way things were going, I would never finish it without blowing up the kitchen. So… after having used three more eggs than the recipe called for simply because I failed to separate the eggs properly (I must’ve been 7 or 8 when this happened to me last and I always laugh when I see others messing it up – this’ll teach me), now this. Ok… I put in the baking powder at the very last moment, I mix the whole thing right in the baking tray, hoping for the best and that’s that. I know that if it doesn’t rise properly, I’ll just throw it out and give up on preparing any desert whatsoever.
She’s a terrible cook and she can’t bake to save her life, but god forbid I make a mistake. So I triple check the temperature and timer and in the oven it goes. No time to watch it, I have so many other things to do. One restless look and I can see it’s rising nicely. Kitchen decluttered, dishes washed, I can stop for a moment and enjoy the delicious smell… and wonder why the oven timer has stopped ticking, yet it hasn’t rung. Yeap, it was back to 0 and kept quiet about it. By this point, I’m eying the unopened bottle of red and feel like saying, “the hell with it”. Instead I just pull out the baking tray, hoping it wasn’t too late. Any other day but today…
I was going to sprinkle some powdered sugar on top and serve it with a scoop of my own homemade ice cream. Instead, I carefully cleaned the slightly burnt bottom layer, and covered it the best I could with dark chocolate glazing. She won’t notice I baked the sponge for too long, that much I know. There won’t be any ice cream on the side, because my evening continued along the same lines and I gave up on preparing it.
Pointless to say, the rubbish bag broke as I was trying to pull it out of the bin, spreading all that stinky mess on the kitchen floor… Once it was all collected and safely double bagged, I threw on a decent maxi dress instead of my chocolate and flour covered ensemble and good thing I did, because several of my neighbours were standing right in front of the building, bickering about some imaginary issues. A teenage girl with perfect hair gave me a disapproving look. Just you wait, my friend… You’ll grow, up, move away and one day your mother will be paying you a visit… then you’ll know what this feels like… One mean, piercing look and she was staring at her toenails. Ha!
I was polishing the outside of my entrance door when a neighbour gave me a crocked smile, staring at my short shorts (the ones I normally only wear in the house), while insidiously wishing me a good evening. What, you don’t dust and polish your door? Neither do I – normally – and neither does my mother… but boy, will she passively aggressively criticize my not doing so. I can just hear her, “You’re so lucky you’re not married… You can clean when and if you feel like it!” Her own home is an indescribable mess these days, but that’s not the point, right?… It was time to throw in the towel and call it a night… and perhaps open that bottle and have a nice glass of red wine. But first, I need to clean the toaster too, how did I forget about that one?
There’s a special kind of hell that only a mother can inflict on you, especially when only distance can keep things civilized between the two of you. I’ve long ago given up on pleasing her, I can accept some things are simply impossible. I normally manage to distance myself and ignore her criticism and offending comments. This time, however, I don’t have the energy to argue incessantly on a daily basis… I’m trying not to give her reasons to criticize, so hopefully in return, I don’t throw back all the venom gathered over years and years of not at all motherly behaviour on her behalf.
My grandmother was one of those persons who manage to transform silence into a guilt inducing, “think about what you’ve done wrong” ordeals that only a cherished adult can inflict on a child. Only later did I understand the manipulative power of such loaded silences and the fact that they were equally efficient weapons against any adult in the family, as they were not meant to keep in check only children. But this most efficient weapon backfired eventually – it was bound to happen after having been used so efficiently for a lifetime, even when it was not needed.
There are so many kinds of silence and they serve so many purposes, but it was primarily a means of attracting attention in my grandmother’s case. The punishment side of it was merely a bonus, I latter understood, after I had already given up on figuring out what I had done wrong in order to deserve the much dreaded silent treatment.
It always followed the same pattern: you got home and all of the sudden you were persona non grata, whose kind “hello” didn’t trigger a response anymore. Naturally, one tries to find out what they did to upset the dear old lady, and that was generally when one also gets the all too familiar, snappy “You know very well what you did wrong, and it’s too late to make it better now,” followed by a very disappointed, “I’m such a martyr” look.
Nobody ever knew what triggered the silence attack, because nobody ever did anything to deserve it. My grandmother was a very verbal, argumentative, bickering lady whenever a mistake had actually been perpetrated, whereas the silence was merely a way to become the centre of attention, to be consoled and cuddled, begged for unnecessary forgiveness, which she would eventually half-heartedly grant, after having had enough of somebody’s grovelling and little favours offered in exchange for her clemency.
But her strategy soon failed to produce the same results with me; logical thinking worked its magic, even if I was just a child: I hadn’t done anything wrong, I knew that for a fact, so why was I supposed to apologise and have imaginary remorse for never committed mistakes? Navigating through the tormenting guilt her unuttered words instilled in me in spite of all my logical thoughts, I discovered a completely new and precious side of silence: I could finally do my homework or read the books I liked without any interruption from my generally very curious, talkative and intrusive grandmother. Without knowing it, I had offended her silence; and I had consequently offended her, thus almost deserving my punishment.
Silence had turned against her, leaving her powerless, and that was when I learnt that the first one to talk lost the imaginary battle of wills between the two of us.Why would I have been the first to utter a word, when I was so quietly comfortable with all my books, while she was all of the sudden alone and in desperate need of a listener, of somebody with whom to share the latest gossip? So she would eventually enter my room like nothing had happened and start talking and talking and talking – we were friends again, all was forgotten.
Nevertheless, her strategy worked wonders with everybody else, including my grandfather, getting her everything she wanted, from that feeling of control and superiority to a nice leather bag, a trip to the mountains or whatever she felt entitled to receive from those around her. Yet I still cannot help wondering why they refused to see what lurked behind the silence of the old, but not often dear lady. Is it really easier to fall prey to this sort of manipulative silence than to confront it?
After all those years I became as talented at throwing silence in people’s face as my grandmother was – how else would I have defeated her, after all? Yes, I can master silence now, but I choose not to become a pitiful creature who uses it in order to get undeserved and unnecessary attention. Once you learn to be silent both in a positive and a negative way, you also learn how to break silence and transform otherwise uncomfortable moments into a source of genuine communication in this overly verbal, often unable to establish real connections era.