I dread the holiday season. As a psychotherapist with over 20 years experience in private practice, listening to clients’ sorrows, pain and suffering has been a tolerable part of the holiday blues.
There is another part inside me that cringes as the month of November approaches. I am overcome with fear and terror as memories flood of an earlier time in my life. My entire system goes into a state of acute alert. Every nerve in my body stands at attention, prepared again for the shock of a Christmas Eve I can never forget.
It is a movie that plays endlessly, over and over again inside me.
“No, no,” I cry out. “Not again.” Whether I like it or not, every holiday season brings back a Christmas time when I was alone with my mother in a hovel of a tenement back east. No matter how hard I try to push back the memory, to deny the impact of it on my psyche, come November it comes knocking on my door and insists on playing out, one more time, the Christmas Eve drama from my past.
It was Christmas Eve, 1943, and I was alone in the living room of our apartment on Trinity Avenue in the Bronx, with my mother in her bedroom. My older brother enlisted in the Navy and was somewhere in the South Pacific. My two older sisters were away for the holidays with relatives. Even though I was the youngest, the responsibility for caring for my mother had been left to me.
It was freezing outside and there was little heat in our tenement.
Everything was silent except for a groaning sound from the refrigerator, as if it were about to expire. My mother, more depressed than ill, was lying in bed with covers up to her chin, her body slathered with Vicks and Ben Gay, complaining of pain no doctor could find or diagnose. For most of my life this is the way I’ve remembered her: not sick enough for a doctor, not well enough to be on her feet.
She was an immigrant from the Greek island of Mytelene. She would moan, “Aach, aach,” and complain to anyone willing to listen, about the bitter, hard life she had bringing me up without the support of a husband. My father, a sophisticated man from Athens, left her two years before, and a day never passed that she did not curse him, or remind me all that he had done to make her life miserable.
Guilt was piled high and deep upon me as she spoke of the countless sacrifices she made for me, how she almost died at childbirth with me, and I should never forget it.
The apartment was quiet and dark, save for the lone lamp in the living room where I sat solemnly waiting for something to happen. Perhaps a knock on the door from a neighbor would break the deafening silence. I fidgeted around in my chair.
“This is Christmas Eve,” I said to myself, “and we don’t even have a lousy Christmas tree.”
I sighed loudly, hoping my mother would hear me and do something. Anything. After what felt like hours of dull despair, I could not stand it any longer. I went into the dark bedroom where my mother lay “ach, aching,” bemoaning her bitter fate. She had not even tried to get up and cook or bake something, or bring some holiday spirit, some small cheer into the gloomy place.
“Ma,” I started. “It’s Christmas Eve, you know? Aren’t we going to even get a tree or something?” She quickly shot back. “A tree? What are you talking about? Can’t you see how sick I am? If you weren’t so selfish, you would run to the nearest church, fall on your knees and pray to God to give me good health.”
Now it was my turn to groan. I knew her lines by heart.
“And besides,” she added shaking her finger at me from her bed, “where am I going to find the money? Your father, that ‘Koproskilo’ (rotten dog), left us penniless.” And once again, I heard what a tyrant he was, how he had mistreated her, betrayed her with other women, drank and gambled his money away. All men, she reminded me, where just like my father, no good and after only one thing. I would find that out for myself someday, just wait.
It took me many years in therapy to piece together her story and understand what happened to my parents.
Theirs had been an ill-fated, sight-unseen, arranged marriage between my cosmopolitan father from the city of Athens and my unworldly, peasant mother from a small, remote village on the island of Mytelene. My grandparents owned olive groves, leaving my mother in charge of the household. They left each morning to harvest the olives for market. My mother had cared for her five younger brothers and sisters at too early an age. She was burned-out and finished before she had her first child. She had nothing left to give her fourth child, a daughter, me.
I did not understand at the time, but coming to America from Greece was bad enough. Marriage to my father was an added insult. She felt alone and abandoned in a foreign land, married to a man who did not love her and had no interest in being a father with responsibilities. She was a depressed woman, bereft of hope. Another Greek tragedy.
I sat there until I felt the apartment and my mother’s depression suffocating me. With my last ounce of hope, I pleaded with her once more.
“Please, Ma, let me try to get a tree.” I begged. “Can’t you even give me a dollar for one?”
“No,” she shouted back. “Have you lost your mind? It’s too cold and dark out. Besides, where can you buy a tree for a dollar?”
“We should have a tree, “ I repeated, feeling I was talking to an impenetrable wall.
By this time, I just wanted to escape. The tree now seemed tremendously important, despite the obstacles my mother put in the way. I believed the tree would make a difference to the darkness of the apartment and my life. Perhaps it would not only cheer the dismal place up, but by some miracle, my mother might even venture away from her creaking bed and get into the holiday spirit.
Once more I went back into her bedroom and stood silently at the foot of the bed, waiting. Without speaking, she took her purse from beneath the pillow and carefully gave me a single dollar. Before she could change her mind, I grabbed my jacket and with the dollar tight in my fist, ran down the stairs, two at a time to the street.
It was so cold I could see my breath in the winter air.
The streets were deserted. A thin crust of snow had turned to ice and I walked carefully, not to slip and fall.
Everything was quiet, except for the icy wind that stung my face like needles. I dug my hands deeper into my jacket pockets and fought the wind, head down.
I headed for Union Avenue. It was always fun to shop there on Saturdays with my mother because the clerks were generous with their samples of olives, cheese and fruit. But now, all but one store was closed. As one of the produce store owners was about to close, I asked him, “Mister, do you have any Christmas trees?” I hoped he might have a few hidden in the back of his store. “Do you know where I can get one?”
“No, girlie. Don’t you know there’s a strike on?” he said as he closed out the till. “We ain’t got none this year.”
But I didn’t want to give up and go home yet.
I walked on to Prospect Avenue. Then I saw two enormous, giant Irish policemen walking towards me. This felt promising.
I stopped in front of them, feeling very small and scared.
“Officer,” I began, but I could not say more as I choked up with tears and began to cry.
“What’s the matter?” one asked.
Through my sobs, I told them of my search for a tree.
Once again I heard, “But don’t you know there’s a strike on, little girl? There are no trees.” I kept crying and shook my head, no. “I have to have one,” I said desperately.
They exchanged looks and between them each took my hand.
We walked, checking with the few last store owners who were closing up on Prospect Avenue. Somehow I felt hopeful as we walked up and down the streets.
Late shoppers eyed me with suspicion. Their silent stares seemed to ask what crime might this little girl have committed to be walking between two officers of the law. I began to shiver.
My teeth began to chatter. I felt so cold that finally I, too, gave up.
What an idea that I could get a tree on Christmas Eve.
My mother was right. I was crazy. Through my chattering teeth, I turned to one of the policemen and said, “Maybe I better go home now; it’s getting late.”
Then, as we turned to walk back, a huge truck rounded the corner piled high with Christmas trees. One of the policemen whistled and hailed the truck down. Tires screeched, and the truck came to a halt. The policeman ran over and talked to the driver for a moment, pointed to me, went to the back of the truck and took down a tree. To this day, I’m still not sure what magic that policeman wove to get it for me.
The tree seemed huge before me. The policeman steadied the tree for me to hold it. I was stunned, in shock that the tree was actually standing in front of me. Even now, I can remember the smell of the pine and how the bark of the tree hurt my small fingers as I held onto it. I shoved the crumpled dollar in the policeman’s hands, thanked them both and ran home, half carrying, half dragging the tree behind me.
When I finally got home, steam was singing from the radiator, and the apartment was warmer than before.
My mother responded long enough to sit up in bed, mystified.
Then she reminded me we only had a few tree ornaments and most of them were broken. “That’s okay,” I said, and I searched deep into the closets until I found two dented boxes with old ornaments and used tinsel. I decorated my tree with care, and to me, it was the most beautiful Christmas tree in the world.
I wish I could say my mother smiled when she saw the tree, or embraced and praised me for my courage to venture out alone in the cold night to find one. But hers was a small world of sorrow she could not escape. She could never know that the tree was a symbol of a deeper faith within me that helped me survive that Christmas Eve and my desolate life.
You may be wondering what has changed over the years?
How has the memory of that Christmas Eve affected me today?
I would be lying to you if I said each Christmas is better, happier and more joyful. The truth is that every holiday season I am catapulted back to that cold Bronx tenement, alone again with my Greek mother.
Some things have changed. I am kinder to myself each year.
With the help of a nurturing therapist, I hold that small, lonely, deprived child of mine a little closer. It is hard, but I have learned to slow down, listen inside more attentively to the needs of that 10-year-old that were never met many years ago. Instead of running amok, I stay close to home. I sing Christmas carols in church. I buy the tree earlier in December and it stays up till late January. When I venture out, I make a point to reach out to those friends and relatives who know who I am, where I came from, who understand, love and accept me.
I’ve come to see that particular Christmas tree from my past as a part inside me with strength and courage that helped me persevere when it would have been easier to give up in defeat.
The tree that night was a symbol of hope for that kid who was desperate for something to hold onto. It still is.