My husband died three years ago this February, and I know you grew up underneath the same shadow with your father. My son is fourteen, I’m afraid he will never have any joy whatsoever again.
More than anything, I want his Christmas to be awesome, but I am at a complete loss. Does it ever get any better?
Decades ago. The downtown was decorated with tinsel and little plastic bells hanging from streetlamps. Santa and his reindeer were strung across the rooftops of mainstreet.
The fiberglass Santa had his right hand outstretched in a perpetual wave to passerbyers. Though, something was very wrong with Santa. Very, very wrong.
But more about that later.
Anyway, I was in town with my mother. We were shopping for the holidays.
My father had died a few years earlier. My mother was not the woman she used to be. She was sad. So was I.
Also, I had gained roughly fifteen pounds that year because I was, and still am, an emotional eater. This is why football season continues to wreak havoc on my body. Also, I have had a lifelong love affair with Chili Cheese Fritos.
That holiday season felt like torture. Everyone else was happy, but not us. We couldn’t laugh, joke, or crack smiles.
We were going through the motions, doing what regular people are supposed to do during December. Gifts, festive music, cheap decor, blah, blah, blah.
That day in town, my mother turned me loose in the department store. I had fifteen dollars to spend on friends, foes, and kin.
Oh, how times have changed. Today, fifteen bucks wouldn’t even buy an iPhone charger.
I wandered through the store with no idea how to spend my money. After all, why should I care about stuffed animals, jars of pepper jelly, barrels of popcorn, or cheap perfume? The world was falling apart.
I found my mother in the checkout aisle. I approached her with empty hands. I gave the fifteen dollars back to her.
“You’re not gonna buy anything?” she said.
We wandered outside. I carried bags of gifts she’d bought. We strolled the sidewalk at a snail’s pace.
That’s when we noticed a small crowd, gathered beneath the fiberglass Santa suspended over the street. People were pointing, hands over their mouths, snickering.
My mother started laughing when she saw what they were pointing at.
It was vandalism. A local high-schooler named Marty Daniels would go down in history for removing all Santa’s fingers with hedge clippers, except for the middle finger.
Kris Kringle appeared to have bad case of road rage.
My mother stared at Santa’s obscene gesture, aimed at all God’s creatures. Her laughter became uncontrollable.
The dam inside us broke. We both laughed until our stomachs hurt. She howled so hard she had to lean against a shop window and cover her face. I almost became incontinent.
She dropped her bags, chest heaving with each cackle. And I pressed my face into her chest. Our laughter turned into crying.
We held each other like a couple of fools. And after a few moments, we realized people were staring at us. They were congregated on the sidewalk, no longer looking at Santa, but at us.
Of course, they knew why we were crying. They probably knew more about my family than I did.
My mother wiped her tears, and faced her spectators. But she couldn’t contain that laugh. She glanced at Santa and started again. So did I. So did the others. We all laughed.
Then, a few people took turns hugging us. They wrapped their arms around my mother and me, one at a time, placing cold cheeks against ours. They whispered things like: “I’m praying for you,” and “Call me if you need anything.”
This embarrassed me so bad I almost slinked away and hopped a train for Greenland. The last thing anyone wants is pity. But every time I looked at Santa, my sadness turned into humor.
That night at supper, my mother started giggling about it all over again. This time we laughed so hard we couldn’t finish eating. Our hysteria ended in an full-body embrace. And lots of tears.
And I’ll never forget what my mother said:
“God, I miss the way we used to laugh.”
That year, instead of repairing Santa’s fingers, community officials placed a baseball glove over his defiled hand. My mother and I still talk about it today. And we still chuckle.
Nothing I can write will make your life even one ounce better. I don’t know if your Christmas will be merry this year.
But I do pray for you. I mean it. I pray you will remember good things instead of bad. I pray that you find a way to smile, and relearn how good laughter feels.
And above all, I pray Saint Nick doesn’t shoot the bird this year.
It really does get better.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.