Christmas Eve 1989 was our first without our mother. The tree was up. The presents were wrapped. But there was a deep sense of melancholy in the house. Nothing felt the same.
I was 17, and I didn’t expect things to feel the same. Nothing had felt the same for the past seven months. Our entire lives had been turned upside down, and we were still trying to find our way through the chaos. Christmas was no different.
My sister and I had long stopped believing in Santa Claus. And, indeed, there was only one thing we wished for that Christmas — one thing that could never been found under a tree.
We wanted our mother back.
We missed her at Christmas more than ever. Because she was the center of our family celebrations, just like she was the center of our world. Everything felt wrong without her. Not just because she wasn’t there. It was the little things we never realized she did.
I spotted one such thing on my way down the stairs on Christmas Eve. I could see our three stockings hanging over the fireplace — one less than last year. Two of the three were already fat with secrets. The third hung limp. My father filled our stockings, but he didn’t bother to fill his own. I realized that he had probably hadn’t filled his own stocking for at least 21 years. It was one of the little things we never noticed.
“Come here,” I called to my sister, my voice urgent.
“What?” she replied, already annoyed at my tone.
“Look!” I pointed. “We’ve got to fix that.”
She stared at the limp stocking for a moment. She looked back at me with her mouth slightly open.
“Let’s go,” she said.
I grabbed the car keys and shouted at my dad that we’d be back. We headed out at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, desperate to find a store that was open.
How could we not have thought about this? And, indeed, at the same time, how could we have known? It mattered more that we fixed it. We were on a mission. This was one small thing we could make — well, not right. But not as wrong.
It was not going to be easy. We lived in a small town. It was late. Shopping was limited at the best of times. On Christmas Eve at 9 p.m. in the 1980s, everything was closed. Kmart. Albertsons. Vons. Thriftys. Sav-On. Everything, it seemed, except the mini-mart at the gas station.
Thrilled when we saw the lights and the customers at the pumps, we headed for the aisles of candy, nuts and snacks. We piled things on the counter — Corn Nuts, Necco Wafers, Tootsie Rolls, candy canes and little treats we knew our father liked.
Pleased with ourselves, we smiled at each other when Dad saw his stocking the next morning. He probably had more junk food in that thing than he could eat all year.
We still felt the presence of loss more than anything else that day. I can’t remember a single gift I got or anything we did. But I do remember that mini-mart and the smell of gasoline and the little thrill I got when I saw the tub of Corn Nuts, 3 for $1.
And I remember laughing with my sister. And my father’s look of surprise. And a stocking so full, it couldn’t hang from the mantel.
And that made a truly terrible Christmas just a little bit more bearable.
For those of you who are experiencing loss this Christmas, I wish you one small moment like this one.
And a bag of Corn Nuts from the gas station too.