In the movie “Steel Magnolias,” Truvy states, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
I’ve always empathized with this poignant quotation. Moments of sheer joy are made much more appreciable by the challenges we face. Because of this, it’s no surprise that my favorite memory of Christmas is also the most painful.
I was ten years old. The holiday had started pleasantly enough. My mother had been in a committed, long-term relationship with her boyfriend, Roger, and we were all becoming close with his family. When Roger’s mother invited us over for dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve, we eagerly accepted the invitation. We opened gifts, listened to Christmas carols, told jokes, and ate a festive Christmas dinner. It seemed like a perfect holiday
I was sitting with my sisters in the living room, “Winter Wonderland” playing on the radio, when we heard Roger’s mother raising her voice.
“How could you DO this to her on Christmas Eve? In front of her children? Roger, you get your tail out here and you talk to this woman!”
We overheard snippets of conversation. My mother tearfully exclaiming, “Who were you on the phone with? Who is she? Who IS she?”
Roger’s mother beating on his door, “How can you behave like this? Is this how I raised you to treat the woman who loves you?”
Huddling together with cups of hot cocoa, my sisters and I deduced what had happened– my mother had overheard a phone conversation between Roger and his “other” lover. Completely unaware that we knew what had happened, Mom walked into the living room with a smile on her face and said, “Okay, girls, let’s go home and get ready for Santa!”
Feigning ignorance, we piled into the car in silence. The roads were more ice than asphalt; the car skidded and struggled, so slowly that I wondered if we were moving at all. We passed one wreck, then another, then another. There were closed roads, detours, police cars, vehicles smashed into trees. Finally, surrendering to the ice and snow, my mother turned the car around– and regretfully went back to Roger’s mother’s house.
We were shivering in the falling ice when Roger’s mother opened the door. “There’s no way we can make it home,” my mother pleaded. Roger’s mother invited us to sleep in the living room. I caught a painful glare between my mother and the man she had dedicated years of her life to. My mother, sisters and I silently climbed onto the sofas and floors, huddled beneath layers of thick quilts.
That night, to protect us, my mother cried quietly into her pillow. To protect her, we all pretended not to hear. The night passed slowly, in the cold and in the pain. Early the next morning, just as the sun came up, we drove home. My mother’s apologies came as a cascade as she steered down the melting roads.
“Girls, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that I ruined Christmas. I’m so sorry. When we get home, you’ll all get your presents. I got you all something really special. I was so excited to give it you. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
When we arrived at our own warm house, my mother sent us all back to bed for a few minutes, telling us that Santa would make an early-morning arrival. We had known that Santa wasn’t real for several years, but it still seemed strange that the gifts didn’t magically arrange themselves overnight in our absence.
We “woke up” after 10 minutes and then, pretending that it was a normal Christmas morning, we walked into the living room to see– sitting in our very own house– a COMPUTER.
We never thought we would see one of those in our own home. At the time, computers were something that wealthy people owned. Some mystical, magical machine that all of your neighbors coveted. My sisters and I stood, slackjawed, at the sight of the machine, in our own living room, beside our own Christmas tree, in front of our own stockings.
We were speechless.
Tears in her eyes, our mother giddily showed us all the things it could do. You could write a letter. Print a card. Play games. And– WOW– it came with AOL. The internet. You could talk to people on the other end of the country. Research anything you want to know about. You could find pictures, movies, poems, stories.
“One day,” my mother explained, “When you’re grown-ups, everyone will have one. And you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.”
We then discovered all the other gifts that “Santa” brought. Candy. Movies. Video games. Books. Clothes. Shoes. In retrospect, I realize that my mother must have spent several years’ savings to make that Christmas happen.
Roger wasn’t part of my mother’s life anymore. We knew, in that moment, that they would never get married. That Roger’s sweet mother would never be our grandma. That the dream of a “normal” nuclear family was no longer within arm’s reach. But, that Christmas morning– with the fire burning, the toys arranged under the tree, and a real computer in our very own living room– we probably looked like the happiest family in the world.
And, in that moment, I think we just might have been.