The Ghosts of Christmas Way Past, Somewhat Past, and Now 2020

There’s a format we follow in twelve steps meetings that is based on sharing your story with your drug of choice and it’s a pretty basic yet effective story telling tool that goes like this:

– What it was like
– What happened
– What it’s like now

I thought I could use this format to talk about Christmas. It’s almost Dickens-esque, isn’t it? Almost.

What it was like. When I was a kid we had truly magical Christmases. My dad would painstakingly put up outdoor lights that were likely to burst into flame at any moment because of the sheer volume of light per square inch of each bush and tree and the amount of illegal wiring was likely to kill us all in our sleep. We didn’t give a rip. It was truly stunning and my dad won the neighborhood decorating contest on more than one occasion if I remember correctly.

My mom would start ordering carefully and thoughtfully buying gifts for everyone from mail away catalogs in about June in order to have them all at our house or their house by Christmas. This was long before the days of Amazon and two day delivery. You had to be intentional and have a plan and be super organized. My mom has and is all those things.

I remember going downtown Chicago to look at the lights and windows and to this day as a 47 year old even though it’s evolved quite a bit, I am in a lifelong love affair with downtown at Christmas time. It’s magical. Hallmark can try to make the big cities out to be the devil but once you’ve tasted that bright lights big city holiday allure, you want more.

My mom would then bake her brains out. I remember the red and white twisted candy cane cookies, the jelly thumbprints, the fudge – oh my goodness I can taste that fudge right now.

My dad put up two full trees – one in the family room and one in the basement. Our family room was a sweet 1980s decor with lots of plaid and wooden mallards and an entire heavy stone walled in fireplace that got lots of action at Christmastime. It was heavenly.

My double shoulder-padded fully aqua-netted teenage self in the late 1980s, early 1990s even appreciated the shrimp cocktail and asti spumanti and bishops bread (a more delicious version of fruitcake that my mom made every year because it was my grammie’s favorite).

Speaking of my grammie, it wasn’t a good old fashioned holiday fiasco – I mean christmas – without my mom moving her own car out of the garage so grammie could pull hers all the way into the kitchen each time she barreled into town honking for about two miles before her impending arrival and often actually crashing through the over door. “That’s how we’d know she was here! She’d practically pull right into the oven crashing through the garage wall each time!” I’ve heard my mom laughingly recall many times.

This is my Grammie’s handwriting, which is why we keep old recipes really, isn’t it?

My dad always spent too much money and got too many gifts. While I don’t remember the specifics of all those gifts ( some I do, I mean I got some sweet Benetton clothing back in the day), I do remember feeling as though the time he spent picking things out for us and his expectation watching us open everything. You don’t ever want to tell my dad that you want to return something. BUT WE DID. And he got over it eventually. Ultimately, and still to this day, my dad is a gift giver.  It’s his love language to give extravagant gifts to those he loves and appreciates and the joy he gets in return is his joy.

When my mom and I had a conversation recently about our memories of that time that she worried that our extravagant Christmases might ruin us children. My brother and I grew up knowing over the top Christmases because that was the way they were in my dads family – he was an only child and his mom went way over her means for him. We humans want to recreate so many of our fondest most joyful moments with our kids and sometimes it works and sometimes it fails spectacularly. I’d say our holidays were spectacular. And my brother and I weren’t ruined because of them, we have other issues, but that ain’t one, I don’t think. If anything, I prefer a toned down holiday, a let’s not overdo it and certainly TAKE IT EASY ON THE GIFTS PLEASE kind of day. We have so much. SO SO MUCH.

But that worry my mom had is something so many of us feel about certain things – what will ruin our children. I worry about it all the time, what will they be in therapy for later in life. Because let’s just face it, we all have our stuff and it’s something we should all just accept that we need to do some work on ourselves as adults. Most of our parents did the the best they could and so many things are out of their and our control, we just need some help. And that is just to be human. We just need some help and some work on ourselves. So what?

Family is always a minefield and the holidays plus booze just exaggerates all that, but these days I don’t remember much of that. I remember the fireplace and the Christmas albums on the record player – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis. I remember the cookies and the delicious food we didn’t get very often except on these special occasions. I remember the smell of my moms perfume and my dads cologne as we all got dressed up to go to Christmas Eve church services.

I remember going to church and singing Christmas carols and feeling a warmth come over me that I had craved my entire life. We all felt it back then. That one moment at the end of the Christmas Eve church service when we were all one. That is what I miss the most about our world today and wish my kids could feel. I hope they feel even an ounce of that in the kindness we pass along and that is shown to us daily. That is what we all crave, I believe. That communal love and warmth. We feel threatened when others don’t believe the same as we do and so we retreat or lash out, instead of trying to understand – to find any loving common ground.

We would open all our gifts on Christmas Eve, except for the ones from Santa, and I would then commence a fashion show. I remember it so fondly and see my kids doing this same thing already and it is just a warm blanket of continuity. Of some things never change – they just take a detour along the way.

What the hell happened. Somewhere around 20 years old, I got lost. I lost sight of what really matters. I was in pain and comparing not not measuring up self and everything and decided to just quit on life so I drank until I wasn’t there anymore. There but not there. Alcohol served that purpose so well. I have a friend that said something like this the other day, “any time you bring up something from before sober Katy it kind of knocks the wind out of me” I think because she didn’t know not sober Katy and to think of the stories I share or tidbits it seems unbelievable that she was me. But she was me and she is me. I remember drunk Christmases to a certain extent. I remember being at church drunk on Christmas Eve and really believing that change was possible. But not following through for a long time.

I told my husband the other day that I feel like I don’t exist. I don’t have my job any longer and feel as though I cannot get one solitary thing accomplished all day long right now and he responded with, “you help the kids all day so you accomplish a lot” and I just have to rest assured that that is my purpose right now – I am mothering in ways that so many of us never thought we would. And isn’t that the most noble thing we could be doing?

I’m out here living my second chance life and almost every day in between the frustration and the loss of patience and the bouts of sadness that accompany daily life right now are the remembrances that smack me across the face. I remember feeling so lost and depressed and lonely, just devastatingly lonely and that nobody in the world could possibly understand how I was feeling and what I craved most in my life. I remember the before times – before my husband and in laws and our current lives of cats that chose to stay with us a while and certainly before my babies. I remember never wanting children and being so sure of that. The only thing I know for sure now – especially after this year – is to never say never.

Because even this year isn’t nearly as bad as it was back then.

I get to be sober and live life in a way that I am proud of and can make a difference and am able to give and receive love.

Ask me if I sob every time I hear this.

Going through the hell that is infertility and IVF and emerging with these miracle babies is enough to make me thank the gods for this life every minute of every day, let alone sobriety. Those two things alone have made me the most grateful and hopeful person you know, but you won’t get any toxic positivity from me. My friend reminds me that she knows there’s darkness with me, so she can stomach my dumb annoying hopeful optimism too.

I have this second chance life and the minute I start to forget that – that I act as if this this is all some suffering that I was put here to experience – I’m doomed. So every day and this year especially and far more dramatically than even the last four years which have been A LOT well, I pick myself up and the thing that helps the most is getting out of my gd self. Talking with other people, helping people, just by listening or guiding or picking something up and walking alongside is how I manage. I am a care taking people pleasing person to my core and while my whole sober life I’ve worked on that – on not getting lost – I’ve also come to accept that that is really a beautiful life affirming gift I have of feeling so deeply for other people and wanting to help so badly. So at 47 years old, I know myself and I can wade these waters with so much more grace than even a few years ago. Add in being a mother and a sober mother at that who also quit smoking this year completely and yeah, I’m heaping on the grace here.

Ask me as my kids and I are all crying one day during remote learning how that’s going. But then also ask me on most other days when we are not crying but actually laughing and learning and moving together as a cohesive unit how we help each other along every day all day. ALL DAMN DAY EVERY DAY.  What a gift it is to be sober and alive.

What a gift it is to be sober and alive. What a gift it is to be sober and alive. I’ll hold you close and hold a space for you until you are ready, do you hear me?

What it’s like now. So after going back and visiting all those memories of my childhood Christmases, what it – WHAT IF – all of our parental stressing about what these kids are missing out on this year is not even that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.  I mean, hear me out.

Being a parent now and experiencing being on the other side of creating a magical Christmas for our own kids, my perspective has changed. When people talk about the holidays being magical and what we remember from our childhoods, I believe it all now at 47 years old. I don’t remember any of the heated arguments that I am sure happened, I don’t remember any of the stress about spending too much money or getting too many gifts or doing too many holiday activities because I only remember how it all felt. THE activity in the old days was church. None of this Polar Express breakfast sleepover with cocoa Santa while pampering the reindeer nonsense.

the care they take of each other is my honor to witness

I see my husband along with so so so many others killing themselves this year to hold onto their jobs, their security in an entirely unstable world to keep their families going – crossing our fingers that it just keeps being there. He goes up to our home office every morning and we barely see him for 9 hours until he’s done at 5pm and I just love him so much for his loyalty and his steadfastness and his willingness to keep going- for now, this is our life and I am so proud of him. He reminds me of my dad in that regard.

I lost my job of close to 20 years when I did nothing to deserve that loss. I know I am far from alone on that, and people are suffering far more than we might be and my ego can and will recover, but this will always sting. My *former* Boss called yesterday and I hope one day to have an actual conversation with him without getting emotional, hasn’t worked out so far this year. But that’s because what we had mattered. It will always matter. I don’t know what getting back to work looks like for me, but for now, I am mothering full time and I am grateful.

My best friend moved out of Chicago this year. My brother and his family moved back to the suburbs of Chicago this year. I have feelings about all that, but mostly it’s that I didn’t get to hug my girlfriend goodbye and that we still haven’t hugged my brother and my sister in law and my four nieces and nephews hello. We have outdoor visits with my in-laws that have been lovely given we are in Chicago – but the weather has cooperated up until now. We have become accustomed to social distanced, outdoor visits, and that’s our norm for now.

We are still here. People and events are swirling around us and we are just trying to keep hold of what we have until it shifts us again and we adapt. We will make our moves when it feels right for us to do so.

I often say if life were fair, I’d likely be dead. I’ve put myself in unimaginable situations and ingested amounts of alcohol and sadness that I should never have recovered from. But here I am, dammit.

We haven’t seen my parents – who live in Arizona – in a year. That is unimaginably sad and if any of us dwell on it too long it gets really dark so we’ve all kind of gotten in this routine of yeah it really sucks but it is temporary, we will see each other again, and we really do have much to be grateful for. Because that’s all true.

WHAT IF what these kids remember looking back on this year is how they felt. NOT what they missed out on. I see so many parents stressed the eff out about giving their kids a magical Christmas by doing all the things and the “normalcy” of the holiday is so sad this year, but is it really? Not to go all Hallmark movie on you here (though I have watched 847 of them this year) but what is the holiday about? Family. Love. Gratitude. Great food. Rest. Kindness to those around us.

The spirit of the holidays can be found in your religion if you choose to have one or in your general humanity and gratitude (my religion) which we all have even if it seems hidden or lost or dormant for years, I can tell you we all have that humanity in us. The Grinch was so super lonely and sad he acted abhorrently but when he was shown love and forgiveness and the slightest bit of tenderness his heart grew. I’m not naive enough to believe all humanity can be fixed with some shared roast beast (vegetarian for us please), but I do believe in us enough to know that we have to keep trying.  Do we not believe that this year?

Even with all that’s been taken away from us this year our humanity still stays. Even with all the division and us vs them of this year we are still here together. And if we don’t get our shit together and start healing in tiny ways and forgiving and loving more we are honestly all doomed.  Blaming and shaming does nothing and only makes us feel worse. Resist. Fight for what is fair and right. Fight for the underdog. Root for the one you think can never do it. That’s me right there and if that’s you, I’m rooting for you too.

This holiday season may look different (as every commercial tells us right now), but it really can still be magical. We are missing loved ones and money and stability can be elusive but what we can do our best to provide each other with is love and belonging and cozy comforts.

We make gifts and we write and we photograph and we create and we share. All those things are free. All those things are what last. The smell of the hot chocolate, the decorating of the gingerbread cookies. The forced pictures with Santa can wait this year. We’ve got too big kids in last years Christmas jammies with the feet cut off because pandemic growth is REAL Y’ALL.

My mom sent me various recipes from our memory chats and I am planning on making one or two. The past Christmases there would’ve been no time at home to do so. There would’ve been less interest on my part. But this year in an effort to feel closer, I’ve taken the time. My motivation is low for many things this holiday season, but being home and creating a warm inviting and baked good filled couple weeks feels doable. I’ve baked my brains out this year. And I had some good help.

My daughter has this way of making sure everyone and every critter around her is cozy. She will make a bed for you or a stuffy or a spider within two minutes and make sure you have everything you could want to be cozy. She is so good at making people feel cared for and loved and that love language is something in my blood and bones and caretaking breath I breathe. She dances and sings non stop and loves fashion. She loves treats and can make a special occasion out of a Tuesday afternoon and she spins around and falls while standing still. If I could take a look back at me as a child, it would be exactly Bebe. Except she’s even more confident and lovely and perfect.

My boy wants to make me laugh so hard each day that I cry. He looks at me sometimes and can tell I’m worried or nervous or sad and he will do something that is sure to make me howl and you cannot pay enough money for a service like that. And yet he is so fiercely sensitive and loving with animals that my heart grows 19 sizes each day because of his 45 year old man wisdom and 7 year old boy heart. He loves nothing more than discussing lego and star wars and marvel characters with his dada and he is fiercely loyal and protective of his sissy. He learned ride his two wheeler recently and what a sight his big smiling face was in the midst of so much grey.

They had a whole plan to make a basket of goodies for the delivery folks this season and executed it flawlessly.

These kids have the power to cut through anything and bring me back to gratitude. Sometimes I just want to wallow but there’s no time. I used to have the luxury of sitting at work in front of my computer for hours and feel boredom. I haven’t felt bored in years and years now and while at times I wish I had just a minute – just one – to turn it off and be by myself, the truth is, it might kill me.

My dear husband is the mostly fiercely loyal human I have ever known. He does what he says he will do and he is here. He is always making us laugh and he is instilling all the things in our kids that I have not been able to. He also remembers to thank me and tell me I am doing a good job and listens to me cry as needed. He is a treasure and I am so thankful for him. And while we bicker and get on each other’s last nerves this last year, there is nobody else I could or would do this with.

So yes, while so much is terrible and sad and I have resentments that I will rightfully hold onto because none of this year had to be this  bad and it is absolutely due to bad choices made by many but I cannot keep fixating on that or I’ll lose my mind, we are here in this moment thank you very much. However,  I get to spend Christmas with the 3 people on the planet that I would pick to spend Christmas with. Is there anything wrong with that? I am the luckiest.

Our two cats are very spoiled this year and they each have a stuffed stocking and many gifts beneath the tree that these kids picked out (from what we already have in our house) and wrapped. Baby Gum and Dida are getting Llama Llama books and toys because those are their favorites.

Baby Gum and Dida, BFFS.

There is no guide book for how to process and deal with grief that this year has brought us. Sure, we’ve had loss of lives and time and jobs and homes and security and faith in humanity is hard to swallow in so many ways. So much time lost this year with loved ones and time is something we cannot retrieve.

But also, there is regained hope in humanity and strength of leadership and HOORAY FOR SMART PEOPLE AND SCIENCE and medical staff and scientists and all this blossoming out of the ashes to form something better. Something brighter than we could have ever imagined.  I keep seeing people saying FORGET 2020, but I don’t want to.  We must remember. I never want to forget the protests and the uprising this year against systematic racism and injustice. I will never forget the insanity of this year and the election and answering all our kids questions as best we could because it’s ROUGH to be a parent this year in so many gd ways. This year was HUGE in so many ways that I never want to forget and our kids will grow up learning and remembering this year in ways we won’t comprehend for years to come.

You know that old saying, if you want to make god laugh, tell her your plans? Welp. Here we are. This year has been a hot mess and we are ready to turn the page into something we never could have dreamed up. We must walk through the darkness and the uncertainty to get to and really appreciate the light. As a recovering alcoholic, I know this to be true. I promise you this is true.

My mom and I have spent hours and hours reassuring and comforting each other through the last year. She has always been a caretaker to everyone in her life. She has learned boundaries and how to say no, but being a caretaker is a precious responsibility that I’ve learned is to be nurtured in and of itself. The writing of words is part of her care taking and it’s now part of mine, the tucking in, the making sure the groceries are ordered and all our home supplies are exactly where we need them to be when we need them are my strengths right now.

Taking care of each other is the most important work we do in our lives. I remind myself of that when I feel invisible. I remind you of that today as I know many of you feel it too. When you feel as though everything you do each day doesn’t really matter or you aren’t contributing in meaningful ways to the greater good, look around you at the people you touch each day. What do they see think feel when they look at you? Love. It’s messy and loud and silent and vast and tiny all at once and we are providing that care taking. I really could not be more proud of us.

In some ways we’ve never liked each other less, but in other ways we’ve never loved each other more. I know that’s true in our house, and likely yours too. We just need to keep getting out of bed in the morning and making a choice to keep going. We’ve done it this long, we can keep doing it as long as it takes to be safe. My kids haven’t been in their school since March 13, 2020, and I’m good with them not being back in school until it’s safe for everyone there. Long haul. I know we are privileged when I say our little dining room 2nd grade classroom is working out swell and again, this is a blip on our screen. We won’t ever go back to the way things were, so we are using this time to learning new ways of doing things and I’m excited about that. I see these teachers killing themselves daily and it’s reflected in the growth and learning and kindness and the continued team building and confidence boosting that is happening right in our home both on and off screen and I’m so thankful to be a part of it. The daily reminders to each other of what a good job we are all doing is heartening to say the least. I’m thankful these kids get to hold onto their little kid-ness longer as a result of this.

Happy Holidays to you and yours. Do something kind for someone else and then for yourself. Remind yourself of all you’ve been through and how far you’ve come. Scream in the mirror that you’re still here dammit and if you’ve come this far, you can’t stop now. We are playing the long game here. This time is a but a layover and we are destined for greater places. We must choose belief in that, in each other, in ourselves. Because after all it’s Christmas. And anything can happen at Christmas if we believe hard enough. OK, I’ve watched entirely too many Hallmark movies, but still. I love you, I am so so proud of you, don’t drink, reach out for help, we can do this. Next year won’t necessarily be better, but it won’t be this. And hope is on the horizon. As my girl would tell you, you are doing a really good job *heart emojis*.


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RELATED (Holidays have always been hard. I’ve written about it many times. This is a different hard but not insurmountable):

Cozy is a privilege 

I never knew early morning was my favorite until you

I burned the heck out of some spritz cookies and I’m calling it tradition

Next year all our troubles will be out of sight – LIES

4 Replies to “The Ghosts of Christmas Way Past, Somewhat Past, and Now 2020”

  1. Oh honey—just read it and I think it reflects this moment in time perfectly. So many memories for me, and such honesty. As always, you probably just stopped someone from drinking and helped her continue on the way she wants to. Excellent job. Xoxo

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Words are inadequate in attempting to comment how much I loved this writing and most importantly, this writer! Wonderfully created and illustrated with vivid stories of Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey kiddo, I think I am “following” you now. Not exactly sure what that means but it can’t hurt. I always did like your writing and this piece is no exception. Glad you and family are well. I’m getting more aches &pains but otherwise ok. No Covid-19 but I know several folks who have had it. If you still get FB check out the pics of my grandkids & granddogs. Every minute with them gives me another day of life I swear. Bless your heart and soul.

    Liked by 1 person

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