The Guilt of Christmas Past
By Nancy Stack
It was a cold evening in December, and the air frosted the back of my neck. My husband pulled groceries from the car and glanced at the Christmas tree standing in a bucket of icy water.
“I’m surprised you haven’t decorated it yet,” he said. “I thought you liked Christmas.”
I unlocked the back door of the house. “Not anymore,” I said.
That was before my mother had died. Mom had loved Christmas. Each December she lugged out boxes of decorations, all given to her from people she loved: a foil-covered star from her father; a pinecone glittered by her youngest son; cloth ornaments embroidered by her mother.
But Mom had died six years ago. At first, I loved getting out her decorations every year, looking at her handwriting on the boxes, remembering everything she’d enjoyed about Christmas.
But not now. Grief had calcified memory into strange shapes, and reminders of Mom only unleashed memories I would rather forget. I’d been given a great childhood, and as adults, my mother and I had been friends. But I’d been a rude and defiant teenager, and nothing that I did as an adult could ever make up for that. Unpacking Mom’s Christmas boxes now was like opening boxes full of memories, and every memory filled me with remorse and guilt.
Maybe this year would be different, I thought. I hauled the boxes of Christmas ornaments out of the shed as my husband set the tree in the stand.
I unwrapped a small porcelain dove – and remembered my mother’s white face as I walked into the house at 2 a.m. when I was 18.
“I’ve been waiting up for hours,” she’d said, her hand to her throat.
“So?” I’d brushed past her into the kitchen. “So, don’t wait.”
I shoved the dove onto a branch.
I picked up a white cloth ball, stitched and tasseled by my grandmother – and remembered a phone call from Mom after my grandmother had died.
“I wish you’d come up and help me decorate the tree.” Mom’s voice sounded stronger; the cancer seemed to be in remission.
“I can’t, Mom,” I’d said. We’ll do it next year.”
But Mom had died six months later and next year had never come.
I dropped the ornament back into the box.
Maybe, I thought, I should set up the manger scene. I’d given the nativity set to Mom one Christmas, rubbing gold paint over the figures in a back room so she couldn’t see her present before Christmas morning.
I unearthed the box and pulled out the small figure of the Virgin Mary. I stared at the small plaster-of-Paris face; it seemed to look back at me blankly. Mom and I had loved each other. Why couldn’t I remember any of that now?
God, I don’t know how to be any different, I thought. Is it supposed to be this way when someone dies?
The next day I described my confusion in a letter to our pastor. I sent the message and sat hunched in front of the computer until Don’s answer appeared on the screen.
You need to do three things, he wrote.
- Make a list of everything you could have done differently in your relationship with your mother.
- Make a list of everything your mother could have done differently with you. Then forgive both sets of lists.
- Make a list of the good things about your relationship and reflect on things that bring you a sense of joy.
I stared at his message. I knew that Jesus’ death on the cross doesn’t just change how we think—it changes what we are. I had prayed for God to forgive me for my behavior years ago. Then had I never accepted His forgiveness?
It was no wonder I had problems. I had never allowed God to fully enter this relationship.
But Mom was dead. Would forgiveness make any difference to us now?
Asking God’s Forgiveness
Snow covered the ground and shadowed the limbs of trees by the time I was ready to make Don’s three lists. I sat down at the computer and began the first assignment: to catalogue everything I regretted in my behavior towards my mother – and to accept God’s forgiveness for it.
God, I wrote, forgive me for being rude to Mom.
… Forgive me for treating her with disrespect when I came in late.
…And forgive me for not helping her decorate her Christmas tree the last year she was alive.
I paused, struck by something that I had forgotten: I hadn’t gone up to help her that weekend, but I’d driven to see her two weeks later. In fact, I realized, I’d visited her as much as possible when she was sick. Making this list seemed to be separating grief into two separate strands: allowing me to sort out what I had done wrong from what I only regretted.
But the list was long, and tears rolled own my face as I wrote. Forgive me, I kept saying. Let me forgive myself. I didn’t feel forgiven. But I had borrowed enough faith from Don to believe that healing could occur whether I understood what was happening or not. Mesmerized by my own faults, I’d lost sight of what was important–Jesus, triumphant, bigger than sin, or the past, or even death.
Forgiving the Other Person
The second list was even more painful: to list the wrongs that my mother had done to me and to forgive her for them.
Remembering Mom’s faults seemed a heartless thing, like criticizing someone who could no longer answer. But Don had written that this was an important step in resolving grief. Repressing the hurt and disappointment in a relationship instead of forgiving the other person keeps guilt and blame in high gear, he explained.
God, I began, I forgive Mom for doing things that hurt me.
Guilt, sadness, and elements of rage flickered inside me as I typed systematically through the years Mom and I had been together. I ignored the emotions and wiped my tears on my shoulder. The important thing was to keep writing.
Somewhere in the past, distorted grief had covered over my memories like grapevine shrouding a tree. But each line of forgiveness cut the base of the vines, giving me a glimpse of the truth that lay underneath. Gradually, the image that I had of my mother changed from an icon of saintliness to a real person – a warm, funny, human person, my mother.
I glanced up and saw the snow edging the wooden windowsill. Something new occurred to me. I was making this list in winter; I was forgiving my mother now. Mom wasn’t trapped somewhere in the distant past. She wasn’t locked forever in the kitchen with a belligerent 18-year-old daughter, nor was she still struggling with her last Christmas tree.
Mom was well, strong, and happy, in a world more beautiful than anything I could imagine. I had frozen my mother in time when, all the while, she was living radiantly in the present.
Being Thankful for the Relationship
At last, I was ready to make the third list–to remember all of the good things about our relationship.
God, thank you that she taught me how to make pies when I was a child, I wrote. Mom would give me a little piece of dough, and I’d roll it out just as she did.
Thank you that she wrote to me every week when I was overseas. I’d written back, and a new, rich way to communicate had begun through the mail.
Thank you that it was so much fun to give her presents. She had a gift of being able to receive anything–the gaudiest jewelry, the ugliest statue, the clumsiest poem–and see through the present to the love it represented.
I found I was smiling as I wrote, and I was surprised to find a completely new emotion besides the usual feelings of guilt and sadness. It was gratitude. Why, Mom and I had experienced many wonderful things in our relationship. The dual acts of forgiveness and thanksgiving were changing my perception of our life together.
At last, I walked into the kitchen and poured the last of the coffee into my cup. I glanced at the boxes of Christmas ornaments on the counter, packed and ready to go out to the shed. An old brown box stacked on the top showed my mother’s handwriting: Manger Scene.
My mind clicked into its usual litany. Remember when you didn’t go up to help her that last Christmas?
I stopped the thought. This time I could look at the box and remember something different.
Twenty years before, Mom had opened the manger scene for the first time on Christmas morning. “Oh,” she said, bringing out each figure and standing it on the carpet. She handled each plaster piece as if were made of crystal. “Oh, honey,” she had said. “This is just beautiful. Did you make this yourself?”
I stood in the kitchen and smiled, remembering. “Merry Christmas, Mom,” I thought.