A changing of the guard at Christmas this year
BY KATE WALTER | For the first time in six decades, I didn’t spend the holidays at my childhood home in Paterson, New Jersey. My 93-year-old mother recently fell and she was not up to hosting Christmas dinner. Last year, she made a big turkey with trimmings and served 25 people. My nieces set the table and added vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. I brought flowers and good wine.
We squeezed around the antique dining room table while the kids sat at a smaller one set up in the living room. The tree was in the same spot where it’s stood since my grandparents built their Victorian house more than 100 years ago. The Nativity scene was on top of the piano where I once took lessons from my late father.
I used to bring Slim, my Jewish girlfriend, who had a good voice and loved singing carols. My conservative Irish Catholic mother was surprised when I came out after college, but she eventually accepted Slim into the family.
As a liberal gay writer, who couldn’t wait to flee to Greenwich Village 40 years ago, I was the rebellious middle child who had the rockiest relationship with my parents. My older sister was the star child, scholarship winner, and best friends with my mother. My younger brother was the baby and only boy, “the little Prince” who could do no wrong. Now they are both married, with adult kids, and live in suburbia.
For years, I clashed with my mother, accusing her of being too controlling. Dad defended her while my brother and sister huddled close to my folks. Even now, they still go to my mother’s house for their birthdays and she makes a cake. Years ago, I’d told my parents I thought this was juvenile, so they would schlep into the city for my birthday.
I was the one who resisted the family rituals that never changed over the years. But now, ironically, I wanted nothing more than to return to my childhood home for the holidays.
After my father died in 1999, Mom became more open. She accepted that my niece was not raising her sons Catholic and my nephew was living with his girlfriend. She was incredibly supportive when my partner of 26 years broke up with me and I felt lonely and lost.
“You guys were together a long time,” said my mother. “It’s just like getting a divorce.”
My energetic mother refused to slow down, even after two knee replacements. This fall, she was busy closing our Jersey Shore cottage. When she went to the laundry, she tripped on a platform, fell and gashed her knee. A neighbor drove her to the E.R. She needed 22 staples.
My practical mother remembered to put a note on her car so it wouldn’t be towed from the lot. My brother picked up Mom, who stayed with his family for a few days, but she insisted upon going home to finish packing.
Two weeks later, she held her annual holiday party, where she made the traditional plum pudding with her great grandkids, using the recipe my grandfather brought from Ireland. My niece Monica shopped for the ingredients but Mom directed as usual. The little kids had fun mixing flour, eggs, milk, currants, raisins and candied fruit into a big pot. Everyone stirred and blessed the pudding with the sign of the cross. My mother said it in Gaelic.
By the end of the night her leg was swollen and she had to elevate it. But the pudding was tied in cheesecloth and ready for the main event.
In mid-December, Mom left her house in Paterson with my niece to go the cemetery to place a wreath on Dad’s grave. As they closed the gate, my mother lost her balance. She came down again on her knee, reopening the gash that was starting to heal.
This time when she went to the emergency room, she needed plastic surgery. My sister met them in the E.R. at St. Joe’s Hospital in Wayne and the surgeon worked on my mother for two hours. Admitted to the hospital, Mom was put on intravenous antibiotics. When I visited, she said how disappointed she was.
“But I want to host dinner in 2015,” she said with steely determination.
I felt sad because my mother loves being active and loves this holiday. Now she was immobilized. The doctors said it would take six weeks until she fully recovered, but she was out before December 25, and spent time recovering at my sister’s home.
After Mom had helped me through a bad breakup, we finally became closer. Now I was confronting her frailty. I was glad to have a big extended family. No way could I hold a dinner party in my small West Village apartment, and I am not a chef.
So my 37-year-old niece Monica stepped up and graciously offered to host Christmas dinner in her rustic lakeside house in suburban New Jersey — with a fireplace! She and her doctor husband have three adorable girls. I like playing Aunt Kate and bringing gifts to my great nieces and nephews.
Monica wanted to make it relaxing for my mother. I was grateful that at my age I still had Mom in my life, but I had to accept that we’d light the plum pudding in a new place. It took an accident for our feisty matriarch to step down.
When I got there, my mother was in the TV room, with a glass of red wine, watching a classic holiday DVD with her great-granddaughter. I kissed Mom hello. She was cheerful, ready to enjoy the evening.
At Monica’s spacious house, the adults sat at long tables on the large sun porch, turned into an all-season room; the kids ate in the dining area. The place settings featured fancy china with holly leaves.
My niece made the traditional turkey dinner along with a Moroccan stew, over quinoa, for us vegetarians. She even had organic wine and pale ale.
For the first time, we were not cramped into one floor of an ancient house in a bad neighborhood. Now the kids ran up and down the stairs and played in the yard before dark. My five nieces joked about not having to do the dishes — a big chore since my mother didn’t have a dishwasher. Everyone was relieved they could pull into a long driveway and not have to look for parking on the street.
Monica’s husband, who my mother describes as “tall, dark and handsome,” rose to give the toast.
“We’re so happy to have you at our home,” he said, “but whether we are here next year or back in Paterson, the most important thing is that we are together as a family.”
As we raised our glasses, Monica turned to me and said quietly, “We’re never going back there.”
The next generation was taking over. The change was good.