The Least Wonderful Time of the Year

The dried figs set me off. 

Tightly packed in their plastic drum, they look as unappetising as they always did. The figs that every Christmas throughout my childhood appeared next to the box of JL dates and tin of Quality Street on our sideboard. The figs that, come the first week of January, would be thrown out in their entirety.

I am in my local supermarket and the music blares over the loudspeaker: ‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year.’ And I start to cry. I sob next to the figs and the dates because this is the very worst time of the year. It’s the first Christmas I won’t have my mum.

Mum died on April 17th after a fall 18 months previous left her incapacitated and dependent on carers for her every need. The end was sudden and unexpected, and the “firsts” without her keep coming. 

My parents’ wedding anniversary (April 18th; she almost made it), Mother’s Day, my brother’s birthday, my birthday, and now Christmas, which I’m dreading.

I’ve spent just four Christmases away from Mum in 61 years and although the actual day was not spent with her on those rare occasions, we still spent the preceding days together, exchanging gifts and reminiscing about the past.

Mum loved this time of year and even from her chair, nursing a broken kneecap, she managed to shop – and how. I swear that one of the reasons Jeff Bezos is a billionaire is because of the amount of stuff Mum bought online from Amazon. In the Christmas of 2017, she insisted on checking herself out of the nursing home where she was recuperating, against medical advice, because she was determined to have Christmas at home; she was hysterical because she hadn’t written her cards. That was the beginning of the downfall in a big way – emotionally, physically, practically. 

Christmas killed my mother.

My brother Nigel and I have nothing but happy memories of the annual festivities. The excitement began in the autumn with the arrival the catalogues featuring dozens of new toys and games. ‘Don’t tell anyone I buy from catalogues,’ said Mum, a warning it took me years to understand was because no one should know she had to pay in instalments.

How I loved those toys: the sea of red, yellow and blue plastic that was Mouse Trap, Booby Trap and Hats Off (we had a poodle called Emma, who was very good at Hats Off: pressing her paw on the lever and sending the plastic cone high into the air); the sophistication of Masterpiece, where the aim was to sell artwork; the excitement of Cluedo. Nigel and I spent weeks trying to guess what Santa might be delivering, an illusion that was soon broken when I discovered a bike under a blanket in my parents’ wardrobe and when the postman arrived with a radio for Nigel and a record player for me. Mum was furious they had handed the parcels to us and ruined the surprise.

The build-up in the preceding weeks was filled with excitement, laughter and anticipation. The advent calendar (I used to wake early and rush downstairs to open the day’s window before anyone else got to it); the arrival of the tree (always a real one) and the heady scent of pine; the box of decorations – long chains of colourful crepe, lights (always broken), a special frosted crystal bauble that was my particular favourite, the fairy, who looked as if she’d just done 15 rounds with the Angel Gabriel. Piece by piece, as it all came together, we knew we were loved.

On Christmas Eve, we put down the saucer of milk and biscuits for Santa and, when we no longer believed, were allowed to open one present. This was also the time we were allowed to dive into the sweets and nuts. How we loved cracking open those nuts with the silver device that ensured you’d still be picking up bits of walnut shells from the sofa in July.

And then, the day itself. Waking at 5am, we sat on the stairs, coughing loudly and praying for Mum and Dad to wake and come down to watch us open present after present: a symphony of paper-tearing and the dog barking wildly with excitement, the scent of turkey already taking up residence in her super-sensitive nose. We wanted for nothing.

The presents didn’t stop when we became adults and this is the first year I won’t be receiving anything from Mum and, of course, the first year I won’t have anyone to buy for, my friends and other relatives having long ago decided that we really didn’t need anything and that the money would be better spent on food and wine.

Mum’s presents were always so thoughtful and she took great pride in keeping up with her children’s lives and choosing accordingly. She was especially thrilled when she bought me Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in 2011. When I had all my jewellery stolen some years ago, Mum gradually replenished the supply every birthday and Christmas and she had exquisite taste. She bought me so many things useful for travel, which has become my favourite pastime. She was excited when she discovered a book of Sylvia Plath’s artwork, remembering how much I admired her as a writer. She bought many fabulous clothes for my brother and also contributed hugely to his rugby book collection.

I have her iPad and it’s painful to see the thousands of e-mails coming through from all the online stores from which she made purchases. Eden, Zulily, Liz Earle Beauty Co. Every time I use my facecloth from one of the many wonderful Liz Earle presents Mum bought me, I am tearful. She swore by its cleansing properties and daily I am reminded of her tiny hand wiping the last vestiges of the day’s dirt from her increasingly fragile face, even though towards the end she rarely left the house.

Present buying was always Mum’s domain; I had a wonderful father, but shopping was never his thing. Mum had to choose her own Christmas presents from him because, on the rare occasions he chose them (just before the shops shut on Christmas Eve), they were disasters. I’ll never forget how her face fell when she opened the amethyst necklace and ear-rings: pretty enough, but more suited to someone of 90 than 40. 

Then there was the year of The Bird. Oh, goodness, that was ghastly. Mum opened the box to reveal a hideous china bird ornament and, initially, feigned pleasure. It took less than half an hour for all that to change: ’Why would you think I’d want a china bird?! I hate birds!’ Not since Dad accidentally left the tea-cloth in the turkey after cleaning it out and baking it along with “the bird” (how Mum hated it when he called it that; clearly, she really had a thing about birds) had voices been raised so much.

After Dad died in 1990, Mum came to me for Christmas, firstly to my home in Bath and later in Cardiff. She was able to drive at the time and arrived with a car packed to the gills with food and drinks. We could have gone on safari for six months and not wanted for anything. She was a great cook and always brought her homemade Christmas cake and puddings. Her greatest disappointment, when she was hospitalised, was not being able to make them.

No Christmas was complete without the proverbial row over the Queen’s Speech. Mum a Royalist, me a Republican, I refused to watch it. Mum never watched it either, but every year made a big deal of wanting to. When she was no longer able to drive, I used to pick her up from her house in Bristol and, one year, spent a tortuous motorway journey during which she admonished me for not having set her Sky box to record the speech. 

‘I’ll come off at the next turning, go back and do it,’ I said, impatiently. 

‘No, don’t bother.’ Then we passed the turning. ‘I can’t believe you didn’t record it.’ 

What I wouldn’t give this year for that annual row.

Mum’s Bichon Frise Maddie always accompanied her on these visits and I had to be prepared for the dog being sick on every cream rug in my house when she overdosed on turkey, slipped to her under the table by Mum. Maddie always had her own dinner anyway, but Mum could not resist her pitiful Oliver Twist impression, silently begging for more. The dog had to be put to sleep in January 2018. I’ll even miss the hours I had to spend trying to coax her out from the bushes in my garden, her stubbornness as integral to her personality as her greed.

With my having taken over cooking duties in recent years, Mum was content to just watch TV. She loved her soaps, but as I, because of my job, had already seen them all, I left her to enjoy them, even though the volume at which she had the TV meant that I heard every word. I’ll miss that noise.

I’ll miss her jumping with fright every time she leaned on the dishwasher and it sprang into life; the horrific mess she made making her porridge in the morning; the disapproving looks when my brother or I opened another bottle of wine: all those niggling things that were irritations of Christmases past suddenly feel like gifts to treasure: memories to make me smile and be thankful for 61 years when Christmas really was the most wonderful time of the year. 

Happy Christmas, Mum.