This winter (2017/18), Christmas and the following couple of weeks, have been particularly difficult for me because they have been filled with memories of my mother. January 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of her death, and I can’t help thinking back to that last Christmas, when she was so ill but so determined to have one last celebration.
Mum always loved Christmas. She loved having a big tree, as big as would fit in the living room, and every treasured bauble and length of tinsel was brought down from the loft and lavished over the tree. Next came the planning, cooking and freezing of countless treats, sweet and savoury. She was a great cake baker and pastry cook, and would make vast quantities of mince pies, sausage rolls, little vol-au-vent cases, a huge fruity cake, and anything else that took her fancy. She and Dad didn’t drink a lot, but probably spent 90% of their annual alcohol expenditure just on Christmas drinks. When I was a child I remember our treat of a bottle of wine for Christmas dinner was always Mateus Rose, the only wine, I think, that they had ever heard of! Then there was whiskey, rum, gin, sherry, port, and all the mixers necessary.
About two weeks before Christmas, the round of visiting friends and family started, and we tried to see everyone in the run up to Christmas, sometimes several times, as we went to their house for drinks, then they came to ours. Small spontaneous parties broke out here and there, as the numbers of visitors waxed and then waned again. It sounds like a very boozy time, and I suppose it was. The whole process culminated in Christmas Day, when we took presents to Nan & Grandad and popped in to see Auntie Lucy and Uncle Bob, ending up at our friends Dick & Eva – all within walking distance in the village, which was just as well as none of the friends or relatives were stingy with the bottle! I remember one Christmas Day, Dad drank so much of Dick & Eva’s rum that he disgraced himself on the walk home and as a result didn’t much fancy the huge meal Mum had so carefully prepared. He was not allowed to live that memory down!
When she was diagnosed as terminally ill, it was October 1992, the leaves were turning gold on the trees on the drive back from the hospital, and the sun was shining; it always seems wrong that the sun was shining. Sadness descended on the house, but Mum didn’t let the doctor’s diagnosis that she had only a couple of weeks to live deter her. She was certain she would live to enjoy another Christmas, and she did, although the memory of that time is painful to those of us she left behind. The meal was huge, as always, although I think I cooked most of it that year, but she no longer had much appetite and it tasted pretty dust-like to me. And she had not been able to go out to visit friends (many had by this time already left the village and moved far away), and she was estranged from a couple of her sisters so no visits there. In fact, she did not really want people to know how sick she was, and I think the only people who visited were Janet and David, friends for many years. So it wasn’t really like the Christmases she had used to plan and cook and decorate for. I hope she enjoyed it, I think she did, but it took a lot of her dwindling resources of energy. She saw in the New Year, and phoned me up to wish me a happy 1993. She had done what she had set out to do, see another Christmas, and she was satisfied. A week or so later, she went back into the hospice, and on 19th January she slipped into a coma and died.
Although I cherish all the memories of Christmas from my childhood, the memory of that last Christmas will always haunt me and colours my attitude to Christmas as a whole to this day, twenty-five years later.