Christmas at home always drove me insane, and I attribute that fact to my mother.
As the youngest of five children, and with both parents and a grandmother all living under the same Italian Catholic roof, I was keenly aware of how tight money was.
That’s how madness starts, you see— through necessity.
As a simple matter of survival, my mom shopped by buying items in bulk, never threw anything out that could possibly be used later, purchased anything on sale in case someone might need it some day, and made coupons a way of life. This led to such holiday traditions as all of us kids trotting down to the grocery store and buying, say, two cans of corn each because there was a “two can per person” limit on the purchase. Or on Christmas day we had to open gifts by neatly cutting the tape with scissors because wrapping paper is not only expensive, but it’s still in plenty good condition for next year’s presents.
So let’s do some math. Between all the two-for-one coupons and the “buy $75 of groceries, get a free turkey” type of offers, my Mom’s garage is a veritable Costco of canned goods, paper towels, toiletries, pastas, rice, and cans of cat food for a pet that has never lived within our house. She also has three full freezers, jammed with frozen free turkeys.
I don’t want you to think we were poverty-stricken, but my Mom was never quite sure if wrapping paper or canned corn would ever go on sale again. And, to be fair, she has adapted with the times. She now buys for eight adults instead of five children and three adults, because we are all grown up, after all. The only problem is that Nana and Dad passed on years ago, and all of us kids have moved out.
She’s not, however, a hoarder. There’s nothing suspicious growing in the unknown corners of the house, no rotten food or a forgotten dead animal, and items regularly cycle through the various bedrooms to various charities. My sisters and I just call it OBSD: Obsessive Bargain Shopping Disorder.
Unfortunately, that blissful state of denial isn’t possible during Christmas because all of my siblings, with their spouses and children, are at Mom’s house. At the same time the TV’s blaring and everyone’s talking over it, and in order to get from one room to the next you have to step over the pile of old videos Mom’s going to give to the church at some point, but not quite yet because she has to go through them to make sure there’s nothing important on them like the Mary Tyler Moore Special, Murder She Wrote repeats, or the Carol Burnett Reunion that I recorded for her 20 years ago.
And amidst all this chaos, my mother, who secretly wishes she could entertain like Martha Stewart and who goes out of her way to make everything very special, will break something in the kitchen and shout, “Dammit, we can’t have nice things!”
That expression was the kicker. I mean, who’s she talking to? God? Us? She says it like the chaos is our fault, but come on!
A couple of years back I got a reprieve from the madness. I was working in Canada on a film and spent Thanksgiving with my friend’s family. Let’s just say, they’re the antithesis of mine.
Derek’s father is an architect like Mike Brady, having built the farmhouse they live in, and Derek’s mother is so domestic she was like Carol Brady and Alice combined. We woke each morning to freshly baked muffins, eggs from the farm, and pancakes that Derek’s mom wouldn’t think of making with a boxed mix. Thanksgiving dinner was turkey and dressing, a potato casserole and fresh vegetables (never canned), and rolls Derek’s Mom made during the meal, and wine his father brewed in the barn… And, no kidding, I was given some strawberry rhubarb jam to take home as a lovely departing gift.
On that morning, feeling more rested than I’ve ever felt on a holiday at home, I thanked Derek’s mom for all her hospitality and complimented her on everything for the hundredth time. She said quite simply, “It’s how I find my joy.”
Christmas soon followed, and as I arrived at my mother’s house, with noises thrashing out of it like the Apocalypse had arrived, I was immediately overwhelmed. Inside, one sister was playing with the children, my brothers-in-law were talking about day trading, and it seemed like every TV, toy, and radio was turned up to full volume. The tension immediately rose from the base of my back and crawled along my spine.
Mom spotted me first. Her face lit up as she cheered in this singsong voice, “I get the first kiss!” and trotted over so that my nieces could beat her to me. But after the kids kissed me Mom saw the look of intense, overwhelming exhaustion on my face. She grew concerned. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” was all I could manage. “I just need an aspirin.” What could I really say? She’s my mom, and it’s Christmas.
“I’ll do you one better!” she grinned in victory and opened the cabinet above the microwave to reveal rows of Advil, Tylenol, Bayer, Children’s Tylenol, Tylenol PMS, Tylenol Cold, Aleve and Midol, which I didn’t even know they made anymore. Rows and rows and rows of pain relief! She took out a whole box of Advil and handed it to me, proudly saying, “Keep it. Vons had a sale…”
Suddenly, I melted. When I saw Mom so excited about this little gift, I realized she had done what most people would consider a chore— feeding a family of eight on a very tight budget— and turned it into something she could enjoy. And amidst this house of noise and clutter and watching where you walk for fear you’re going to crush something valuable, my mom was finding her own personal joy by taking care of everyone in the family, the only way she knew how.
Suddenly, none of it seemed insane at all — it just felt very nice. And with that understanding I leaned forward and gave her hug.
“What’s this for?” she asked.
“‘Cause I love you,” I answered simply, and as I let go my arm knocked over a glass that broke in the sink with a crash like a chorus of screaming Angels.
Mom whacked me on the arm, gave me a look, and muttered, “We can’t have anything nice.”