meI was on a board suspended between ladders above a three-story ladder that I finally knew for sure was an adult. He was bathed in wallpaper paste, grayed with plaster dust, and 28 years old. Pet Shop Boys played on the radio and for the first time in my life I was free to spend Christmas doing exactly what I wanted, which was making a wickedly upright floor fireplace that my husband and I had bought a year earlier.
I felt almost tripply alive, reckless, given the danger posed by our awkward first steps in decorating the home. If we wanted to hang 12 foot strips of wallpaper from a board at the top of two staircases, there was no one to stop us. We were in this together, we only answered to ourselves. But even though we remember it as one of our happiest moments, the funny thing about Christmas 1987 is that while we know that the Pet Shop Boys had the No. 1 single, none of us can remember anything we ate or drank. . . It probably involved pizza and Indian takeout, but all I can remember is the smell of sugar soap.
To decipher this scene, you must go back 10 years. I was in my first term at university when a letter arrived, written in my father’s handwriting and conveying the news that my mother was in the hospital. There was nothing to worry about, she was fine, but she had just had an operation to remove her left breast. Could you tell my little brother?
My parents were from a class and generation that didn’t believe in sharing their problems too much. Neither of them had been to college and they indirectly enjoyed the idea of a carefree student life. My father built me a bicycle, which was quickly stolen. My mother came to stay – illegally – with our pet parrot, who screamed loudly for attention but loved the cleaning staff so much that no one caught us. Then another letter came: Mom returned to the hospital because the cancer had spread to her right breast.
If I had wanted to flee to a desert island, my parents would never have held me, but they were hospitable and fun, and missing Christmas seemed unthinkable. Herb Alpert’s cheesy Tijuana jazz mingled with Christmas carols from King’s College, Cambridge, as we seamlessly transitioned from meal to meal. Fudge and sloe gin were always on hand. Even the cookies were filled with something extra. After college I moved to South Wales to train as a journalist, but was always rushing back to Sussex in time to decorate the tree, often with friends in tow.
Then my father’s health began to fail. After Mom and Dad ended up having major operations in the same week in 1982, but in different cities, my brother and I had to manage their convalescence in shifts, with the help of kind friends who had been drawn into our family circle by me. the hospitality of the parents. The balance of attention had shifted. Returning home became a duty and a choice, nostalgia seized the pleasure, and learning to cook a goose the way my mother did became a matter of urgency.
When my boyfriend and I decided to get married, my parents’ gift was a deposit for an apartment. I knew Mom wanted to see us settled, but it was a race to find one in time. As we carried our belongings up the stairs one snowy February morning in London, 60 miles away in Sussex, my mother’s pelvis collapsed. He never saw the flat because in the summer of 1987 he died.
Three months later, the stock market crashed and a major storm brought chaos to the streets, uprooting most of the trees in our local park and making the roads to my parents’ house briefly impassable. In the solipsism of pain, it was as if the stars had aligned to mark my loss and the world was howling with me. But just when I was beginning to wonder if something would ever be normal again, a miracle happened: My father was invited to spend Christmas with some old friends in Jamaica. For the first time this time of year, it would be carefree, parentless.
Every culture has its mourning rituals, and I have always liked the Caribbean tradition of the “nine nights”, a period to hang out, exchange songs and stories while everyone waits for the soul of the dead to pass. It feels like something I drank during my cosmopolitan early childhood in Nigeria, but looking back, I realize it belongs in the hectic months surrounding my mother’s death when it all escalated and I reviewed a play about it in the Albany Empire in Deptford, south London. . It must have struck an especially resonant chord in me because I had hurried back to work, leaving me no time to sit back with the memories, recapture the happy moments, make peace with the sad ones, and find my adult self in them.
Those 12 days climbing a ladder took me to the other side. There were no carols, no Christmas tree, no geese, just dirt and soggy wallpaper scraps. From them came beautiful blank walls, on which we would paint our own colors, our own traditions. I would never make fudge, and life is definitely too short to fill a cookie. There was always music, but no more Christmas carols from King’s.
The soundtrack for this release was a song my parents would have certainly known and loved, revived by a band they would never have heard and probably wouldn’t have liked even if they did. It was a recovered and remodeled tradition, in a defiant, self-indulgent ballad about accepting the conflicting emotions of love and loss: You Were Always on My Mind. I can only thank the ghost of last Christmas that not everything happened a year later, bringing us Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine.
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