The 1987 holiday season was the last one I spent with my mother, and gave every impression of becoming the worst Christmas ever.
My father was away at the time, sent up to a court-mandated stay at a rehab facility after a cop found him pulled over on a roadside. My dad was trying to change a tire while shitfaced. When the cop asked if he needed help, my dad told him to go fuck himself. He was hauled before a judge (who owned the local package store) and sentenced to a month in a substance abuse program (run by the judge’s wife).
His absence left my mother alone to deal with things, a task she was increasingly incapable of as her own mental instability began to enter its terminal stage. She grew increasingly agoraphobic and embattled, and it only got worse after a November incident where a fight with her mother led to my aunt’s husband smashing in our front door and him and me wrestling on the front steps as the cops arrived.
Given a choice, my mother wouldn’t have left the house at all, but that option was taken away from her by my father’s departure. Someone had to go downtown to pick up my dad’s veterans’ benefit check from City Hall, cash it at Woburn National Bank, and use the small stipend to buy the port wine and smokes that kept my mother going. She couldn’t or wouldn’t do it alone, so my brother and I would walk downtown with her each Friday afternoon.
These trips were quite…nice…in a weirdly dysfunctional way, once you got past the series of panic attacks my mom would undergo during the first leg of the journey. We’d trudge along and talk about Greek myths and Tolkien and impressionist art, her twitchiness would subside a bit and one could see flashes of person she used to be. Besides the requisite carton of Marlboro Reds and gallon of industrial-grade hooch, we’d also stop at small shops to pick up enough food to get us through another week. It also gave me a chance to check in at the local CVS to see if they had the latest issue of Iron Man — the only comic I was reading at the time and then in the middle of the “Armor Wars” storyline.
A family chatting and shopping in the center of an old New England town — it felt downright homey and traditional, despite the Bukowskian overtones of this particular experience. But the truth was any sense of normality was welcome in a world where such moments had been growing fewer and farther between.
We hadn’t thought much about Christmas at that point. Money was tight, my dad was away, and there were too many other things to be concerned about. No decorations were hung, no presents were bought, no holiday dinners were planned.
The idea of celebrating only came up after we walked past a florist’s place which had opened up in one of the storefronts we passed by on the route home. The place was new, but had already achieved the “dead retailer walking” vibe which affected most new downtown businesses after a couple of weeks. Im three months, the place would be boarded up or hosting some other doomed venture, but on that day they were selling miniature Christmas trees for a fiver.
“We should buy one” my mother said, and we did.
We set it up on the table by the living room window and decorated it with the best and most significant ornaments from our family’s stash. My mother was exceedingly proud of it, a small yet significant totem of the normalcy her troubled psyche had been seeking, too.
A couple of days later, my buddy Damian and I decided to hit up the Toys R Us across town to windowshop the latest videogame stock. Before we headed out, my mom gave me a twenty and told me to pick out some inexpensive gifts for Lil Bro. I picked up a half dozen Starcom figures from the clearance aisle and a VHS collection of Gumby shorts, and still had change left over. My mom and I wrapped them and placed them under the tree.
I wasn’t expecting anything, but a couple of wrapped gifts with my name on them mysteriously appeared after my dad was released a couple of days before the holiday. They turned out to be a pair of sturdy leather work gloves and a cut-out bin cassette compilation of Chuck Berry’s greatest hits.
The former made sense to me, because I needed a decent pair of gloves when I was out delivering papers or riding my bike to school in sub-freezing weather. I didn’t really understand the latter, though, until I tagged along with my dad on a discount cigarette run to New Hampshire a couple of years ago.
“This car has a hell of a stereo system,” he said as he simultaneously attempted to light up a smoke, fiddle with the stereo buttons, and weave his Mustang between a fleet of tractor-trailers.
“Hey, listen to this.” He jabbed a button on the steering wheel and “Johnny B. Goode” blasted from the speakers at an earshattering volume.
“DO YOU LIKE CHUCK BERRY? I LOVE THIS STUFF. USED TO LISTEN TO IT AS A KID ON WMEX.”
A quarter century of confusion gave way to perfect clarity. I wanted to say something, but nothing came to me. There was no point in spoiling the moment.
When my dad got out, he was sober. We spent our Christmas together at home, talking about history and listening to Christmas selections from my parents’ collection of 78 RPM records.
In my heart, I knew things weren’t really going to get better. My mom’s mental health would continue to deteriorate and my dad eventually would fall back into his dysfunctional habits.
At that moment, however, it didn’t matter. Despite everything, we had carved out a moment of peace and happiness for ourselves. It was ephemeral but it was real.
It was one of the worst periods of my life, but it was the best Christmas I’ve ever had. Even now, thirty years later, when I ponder what the holiday means to me, my answer is “a moment of peace amidst the madness.”