I sat on the steps at my aunt’s house the Sunday after Christmas, 1992. I held my Christmas gift in my lap and watched the rest of my family mingle at the annual family Christmas party and exchange gifts. My little sister, Amy, was with a group of my cousins. They passed presents back and forth that they had bought with their allowances. Amy had also received a Pollyanna gift from one of my aunts; since our extended family was so large, my mom and each of my eight aunts drew names from a hat each year, and each one bought Pollyanna presents for the nieces and nephews whose names they’d drawn. I got a gift from my Aunt Marm, who had drawn my name. Amy got a gift from Aunt Cathy, plus others from our cousins, plus more from my Aunt Claire and Uncle John, who were also Amy’s godparents, and had gotten her a gift even though they hadn’t drawn her name that year.
My Pollyanna gift was a “Philadelphia Eagles” sweatshirt that was a size too small. I had tried it on, but didn’t bother telling anyone that it didn’t fit. Even if my Aunt Marm returned it and bought a new one, it wouldn’t have mattered. I hated football, had no interest in the Eagles, and couldn’t stand getting clothes for Christmas. I never understood what motivated my aunts and grandparents to get a twelve year old boy clothes for Christmas. So I sat and held the gift in my lap while I watched my little sister and my cousins exchange presents with each other. While I’d gotten other Christmas gifts from my immediate family on Christmas morning at home, at the big family party the sweatshirt was it.
Later in the day, a commotion erupted between my mother and my older sister, Dana. I didn’t witness most of it; I was still sitting on the steps, and all I heard was my mom shouting from the kitchen. Then Dana screamed and cursed at her before running out of the kitchen and upstairs. She locked herself in my Aunt Cathy’s room. Aunt Sharon, the youngest and “coolest” of my aunts, followed her to offer comfort.
I didn’t know what had happened, but I was pretty sure it related to the fact that Dana was pregnant at the age of 15, something the rest of the family didn’t yet know. Mom was trying to convince her to have an abortion. I later found out that the reason for today’s fight was because Dana showed up at the party wearing her Christmas gift from her boyfriend: a gold necklace that read “World’s Greatest Mom.” My mother had seen it, freaked out that the rest of the family would find out her daughter was pregnant, and snatched it from Dana’s neck. Before anyone could stop her, she had thrown it down the garbage disposal and hit the switch, grinding the necklace to bits. I didn’t much care for Dana’s boyfriend (a few years later they would break up, and he would later end up in jail for statutory rape of a girl even younger than my sister). But even though I didn’t like him, I couldn’t imagine what it felt like for Dana to watch as her mother destroyed the first Christmas present he had given her.
I sat on the steps and didn’t say anything about the fight. I usually didn’t get involved in these things. My mom surely didn’t want me telling the rest of the family that I knew Dana was pregnant. She had tried to hide it from me, but I had figured it out pretty easily when Dana moved out of Mom’s house and moved in with Dad. Mom had lied about the pregnancy, and said, “Your sister is feeling sick, and she’ll come back home as soon as she feels better.”
Dad was the one who told me the truth a week later; the truth I’d already figured out on my own. I didn’t blame Dana for moving in with Dad, though. If I’d been the one in that situation, I would have moved in with Dad, too. When Dana had her first broken heart at the age of 14, my mother had laughed at her tears and told her that she didn’t know what love was. Dana stopped going to her for help after that.
The fight at Christmas wasn’t the end of things between Dana and Mom. After the holiday, Mom took Dana on a cruise, just the two of them, so they “could have time to talk.” Later, Dana told me that on the cruise Mom said, “When I got pregnant in college, my mother told me ‘Well, you’re gonna get married.’ No one ever told me I had a choice.” Dana said that those words made her realize that if Mom had been given a choice, Dana never would have been born. I suppose I wouldn’t have been either.
Dana went into labor the next April, two months premature. We went down to the hospital, but Dana didn’t want Mom in the delivery room. I got the chance to see her for just a few minutes, fragile and scared, a kid with braces on her teeth about to have a premature baby. My mother called the police to try to force her way into the room against the doctor’s orders. She stood in the hall, screaming at the doctors and the police, demanding to be let in, despite being told that the stress would make it worse for Dana.
Eventually, after long hours on drugs intended to hold off labor, the doctors decided that continuing with the delivery was safer than trying to hold it off any longer. My niece, Ariana, spent her first days in an incubator with plastic tubes up her nose while the doctors tried to keep her pink, shriveled body alive.
Dana finally agreed to let Mom see Ariana in the incubator. After all the arguing and fighting, Mom stood there next to Dana, looking down at the tiny, struggling baby, and said, “I hope she doesn’t die.”
Early in 2002, I was fighting with my mother. I had dropped out of college, and I was barely holding a job. I slept in most days, lacking the energy to be bothered to get up and do anything. I had gotten fired from a job as a cook at Friendly’s when I called out because I couldn’t be bothered to drive through the snow to get there. I’d gotten a new job cooking at another local bar and grill, but I wasn’t particularly motivated and I was barely pulling part time hours.
My mother kept hounding me to get back into school, without bothering to ask why I had stopped going to begin with. All she was worried about was the money thrown away on tuition, not caring that it had gone towards a major I wasn’t motivated in for a career path I no longer cared about. Eventually, after one too many arguments, my mother told me that I either needed to get back into school or else get a full time job and start paying her rent. I decided I’d rather pay rent to someone else, and that if I was going to move out, it’d be to someplace warm. I packed everything up on a whim one day late February and drove five days cross country to move to San Francisco.
For the next year I lived alone in California in a studio apartment with just enough room for my bed and my computer desk. I had a second chair in case company ever came over, but none ever did. There wasn’t enough room for a Christmas tree, but since I was spending Christmas alone, I didn’t bother even trying to squeeze one in.
Christmas that year consisted of phone calls to my family, three thousand miles away on the east coast. My parents each sent me gift cards for Target and Best Buy, since it was cheaper and easier than paying shipping for actual gifts. They had been divorced since I was ten, so as usual their gifts were separate. My mom’s gift card came with a Hallmark card, and she’d written a long note in it about how she couldn’t understand why things were so rough between us. We hadn’t spoken much since I moved out, and I didn’t care to keep her updated on my new life.
On top of the gift card he send, my dad mailed me a box of Whitman’s Sampler candy, which had been our traditional stocking stuffer my entire life. The only actual gift I got that year that wasn’t a gift card was from Dana. She sent me “Kingdom Hearts” for Playstation, and wisely included a gift receipt. After I received the gift, I called her up, told her how much I loved the game, and how I had already bought it for myself a week before and had been playing it since.
I ended up trading the extra copy in for the special edition DVD collection of “Back to the Future.”
By 2003, I had left California. The rent was just too expensive, over $1,000 for a tiny studio apartment. I had friends in the Seattle, Washington area, and I had heard good things about that region. I ended up moving up there, where I found an apartment twice the size for half the rent.
My family sent me gift cards that year, but I didn’t send anything back. I was $12,000 in credit card debt, most of it from living expenses related to my time in California, along with moving expenses for the thousand-mile move up north. I was working full time at Burger King and barely scraping by on minimum wage. Working in a restaurant was the only way I was able to feed myself; all of my coworkers were in equally bad situations, so we helped each other sneak food out of the kitchen without the manager finding out. I was living mostly on French fries and chicken sandwiches, plus the occasional sausage biscuit for breakfast.
I didn’t end up alone for Christmas that year, however. I was seeing a girl named Crystal, who I had met when I was still living in New Jersey. We’d started a long distance relationship in the summer of 2003, and she had flown out to visit me for a couple of weeks in July. She decided to plan another trip for Christmas, and this time she brought her family along.
Crystal had a timeshare that let her book stays at a number of different resorts around the country. She booked a cabin at a mountain resort about an hour east of Seattle. She flew up with her mother and her teenage brother, and they rented a car for the week. I was too busy working during the week to spend much time with her, but I had a three-day weekend for Christmas, and I spent it at the resort.
When I got to the resort, I gave Crystal the only gift I gave to anyone that year. The Burger King I was working at had been selling Christmas ornaments based on “The Cat in the Hat” characters, as part of the promotion for the movie that came out that year. I’d won a set of them at work as a prize for being the only cook in the restaurant who kept proper track of when the pre-cooked food went bad and had to be thrown out. Of course, I’d been cheating the timers on the food warmers, but the manager never found that out. Without any money to buy any other gift, I gave the ornaments to Crystal. When I told her they had been a prize, it made her cry. She said she was touched that I would give her a prize that I’d worked so hard to win. I didn’t tell her about how I’d cheated.
The rest of the Christmas weekend was awkward, trying to find time to spend alone with Crystal while her little brother was hanging around. The cabin only had two rooms, and the sleeping arrangements had Crystal and her mom sharing the bedroom, while I shared the pullout sofa bed with her brother. We managed to sneak off here and there for some alone time. The first night we slipped into the backseat of the rental car and steamed up the windows while snow fell outside. The next day we nearly got caught making use of one of the empty rooms in the recreation lodge.
By 2004, I’d managed to straighten up my financial situation a bit. I’d found a new job, working at a Pizza Hut in Bellingham, Washington. I’d quickly earned a promotion, thanks in no small part to my previous management experience working for another Pizza Hut back in New Jersey, the same one I’d met Crystal in. With my increased pay, I managed to pay off a few of my credit cards and put a down payment on a 2004 Chevy Cavalier. I also saved up enough to fly back home to New Jersey for the holidays.
I made arrangements to stay at my sister’s townhouse for the week. I booked my plane tickets, took time off work, and once all the plans were set I emailed my extended family to let them know I’d be in town. A few days later, I got a rather nasty email from my mother.
Mom and I had been on short terms since I’d moved out two years before. I rarely called her, not because of any anger or resentment, but simply because we didn’t have much to talk about. We kept in touch with the occasional email, but that was about it. The email she sent me before Christmas unloaded a lot of the things that hadn’t been said over the last couple of years.
I sat at my computer, reading the email, getting more and more irritated with each paragraph. Mom told me that she was upset that I never called her, and that she felt as if I only contacted her when I needed something, like copies of my old tax returns. She wanted to know what was going on in my life. She hadn’t even known what was going on in my life when I was living with her. I’d learned when I was younger not to trust her with such things.
I kept reading the email as Mom continued on about how she felt betrayed, and how she didn’t think it was right for her child to treat her so disrespectfully. At the end of the email, my mother told me that she didn’t feel like she could be in the same room with me for Christmas. Not unless I told her I truly wanted her there. If I didn’t, she said, she would leave the state and spend Christmas in Maryland with my Aunt Marm. She demanded a reply so she could decide what she was going to do.
I sat in my cold apartment for awhile and considered what to write. It was true that I hadn’t spoken much to my mother for two years. I had, however, always tried hard to be civil and polite in our communications. I answered her other emails when she sent them, and while I didn’t keep her updated on my life, I at least hadn’t been directly rude to her. I saw no reason why we couldn’t spend Christmas together, exchange gifts, and share a hug. Not wanting to live with someone isn’t the same as not wanting to ever see them again.
My main concern, however, was for my sisters and my niece, who was eleven years old that year. My mother hadn’t asked them whether they wanted to spend Christmas with her. They weren’t being given the choice. I was. I was being told I had to decide whether any of us got to see our mother at Christmas, since if Mom left the state to avoid me, none of them would get to see her.
I didn’t want that burden. I didn’t want to be the one who decided for the whole family. I wrote my mother back and told her this. I told her it wasn’t fair for her to put it on me, and to have me take the blame if my sisters and my niece didn’t get to see her. I told her that she would have to make that choice herself.
Christmas was being held at Dana’s townhouse that year. Since I was staying there for the entire week, I told my mother that I would be at Dana’s place on Christmas morning. If Mom was going to be there too, that was fine. If she wasn’t, that was fine. It was her choice, not mine. I refused to tell her what she could or couldn’t do.
I sent off the email, but no reply came. A week later, when I got off the plane in New Jersey and then arrived at Dana’s, I found out Mom had already left for Maryland. We spent Christmas without her. It was just me, my niece, Dana, and my little sister Amy. I also had the chance to meet Amy’s fiancé, John. No one really talked about why Mom wasn’t there. My sisters gave me Best Buy gift cards for Christmas. Crystal gave me a “Do it Yourself” chili cooking set. My mom didn’t get me anything.
Later that night, we headed to my dad’s house to exchange presents with him. He gave me the usual stocking stuffer box of Whitman’s Sampler candy, some gift cards, and a check for $100. We had Christmas dinner at dad’s house, and after dinner we got into our usual RISK match. We’d had a lifelong ongoing competition, but it had been a few years since we played, since I had moved away.
In the summer of 2005 Amy and John got married. I flew back to New Jersey for their wedding, and invited Crystal as my plus one. My mom met her in passing; “in passing” has always been the most contact my mother and my girlfriends have. After the ceremony, my mom hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I’m glad you came.” We didn’t talk during the reception.
By year’s end I was missing my family, and decided it was time to move back home. I’d had my fill of independence and living far off without a safety net. Dana’s roommate had split, and she had a spare bedroom in the townhouse, so we decided to be roommates after I moved back home. Crystal flew out to Washington to help me move, and we drove cross country together with everything I owned in the back of a Budget rental truck. I got into New Jersey on Christmas Eve, with about $10 left in my bank account after the expense of a cross-country move. I didn’t buy anyone any presents that year.
This year, Christmas was at my little sister’s brand new house. My mother had decided to spend Christmas in Maryland again. It was therefore just me, my sisters, my niece, and my new brother-in-law, John. I saw Crystal later that night for dinner. She gave me a shirt.
I got my usual gift cards with the usual excuses that I was too hard to shop for. Everyone knew if they bought me a game I probably already owned it. I spent most of Christmas morning with a small pile of gift cards in my lap, watching everyone else open their presents from each other and from Mom. There were some group gifts as well, just like when we were kids. My parents used to always give me and my sisters board games addressed to all three of us. This year the board game was “Apples to Apples.” The card with it was addressed to Dana, Amy, Ariana, and John. But not to me.
2006 was a year of transition. Crystal became upset that I spent too much time with Dana and Amy. Not because she had any problem with my sisters per se, but because they were both heavy pot smokers, and Crystal knew the only time I’d take a hit was when I was around my sisters and their peer pressure. Crystal didn’t want me around pot, not even in the same house with it, even if I almost never touched it myself. I told her I wouldn’t alienate my sisters over their casual drug use.
We got into an intense argument about it over the phone one day. I invited her to come over to Dana’s house for dinner, and she refused. She then told me that she didn’t even want me there. I tried to explain that to me, smoking pot was no different than drinking alcohol. I asked her how she would feel if I told her I didn’t want her to be around friends and family members who drank. She actually said that if I had asked that of her, she would respect my wishes. Yet I told her that I would never make such a demand of her, and that she shouldn’t make it of me, either. By the end of January, Crystal and I were no longer speaking.
Throughout the year I saw my mother from time to time. If she came over to see my sister or my niece, I was there. She got used to talking to me again, though I still didn’t tell her what was going on in my life or introduce her to anyone else I dated. She asked me for favors when she needed a ride to and from a doctor’s appointment, or help moving furniture. I always did whatever she needed, because she was my mom. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you’re getting along; when your mom asks for help, you just do it.
When Christmas rolled around, I decided to go the extra mile with my holiday shopping to make up for having no money to spend on presents the year before. I decided I still wasn’t getting my mother anything, however. When I mentioned this to my sisters, Amy said, “Well, I know she’s getting you stuff.” I shrugged and said I didn’t care. A few more gift cards and some clothes wouldn’t make up for the previous two years.
We held Christmas 2006 at the townhouse I shared with Dana, and it was the year of duplicate presents. None of us knew until it was too late that we’d all bought the same things. Amy and John both bought each other Madden ’07 for Playstation 2. John got three radio controlled dinosaurs, one from me, one from Amy, and one from my mom. Both Dana and Amy got me the Mario Brothers version of Monopoly.
My mom sat off to the side while we opened presents. When my sisters handed her the gifts they’d gotten her, she sat them next to her without opening them because she was focused on us. Instead of just letting us open our presents, she had stories to share about each one.
She got me a $200 suede winter coat, and was worried about whether it was the right size or if I liked the style. She also gave me and my sisters each one of the ceramic plates that had been passed down from my grandmother. They had winter scenes painted on them, and they had hung in our hallway for my entire life. She told us they were part of a larger set that had been divided up among her and her sisters after my grandmother died. She wanted to keep them in the family and pass them along to the next generation, so she passed her share of the set along to us.
She also gave me the plaque with the Cantrell family crest on it, the plaque which had hung in our home my entire life. My sisters had both changed their names when they got married, so I would be the last Cantrell. She told me that as the last Cantrell, I should be the one to get it.
There was also a scattering of other gifts, none of which were gift cards. Each one had been hand selected. I sat there, stunned, looking at the two presents that sat next to my mother: one from Dana and Ariana, and one from Amy and John. I hadn’t gotten her anything.
I felt like a jerk. I thanked my mother over and over again for the gifts, and tried my best to show how sincere my appreciation was. I also silently vowed to make up for it when my mother’s birthday came around.
Later in the day, I took a nap, and when I awoke Mom was gone. The rest of us headed over to Amy’s house. Dana and I took one car together, and something came up in conversation.
“I probably shouldn’t even tell you this,” she said.
I glanced at her and studied her facial expression. She didn’t look happy. “What?” I asked.
“I talked to Amy,” she said. “Mom talked to her, and apparently she was really upset you didn’t get her a present. She said you ‘ruined Christmas.’”
I was silent the rest of the car ride. I ended up deciding not to get mom anything for her birthday after all.