It was my mother’s last Christmas, though we didn’t know it then. She was slower, I recall; less stately, less loquacious, less of her all round. The fierce pince-nez on the end of her nose, yet still, her summer rose blush dusted on sharp cheekbones, a black dress, that diamond brooch of twin flowers, pinned above her left breast. The nude stockings, the shiny shoes she could barely walk in, heels too high. And what a smile!
A festive smile so dazzling we couldn’t deny her childlike joy in everything the celebration brought, from early morning until bed. At midnight, no less. Despite her ninety-nine years, she wouldn’t dream of turning in early like a kid. It was her 100th Christmas, she wouldn’t miss it for the world. And it was her refusal to entertain the idea of oblivion that was so exhilarating. Her suggestion that Next Year we might have more expensive crackers, for example. She said this, squeezing a paper hat over lilac-tinted hair, tossing her cracker gift with disdain. ‘Cheap and nasty,’ she’d said, passing it to a grandchild ‘But next year …’
We put together a stocking, me and the kids. No matter that they’re in their twenties now, Suzy and Ollie both love the notion and the process. I see they’ve inherited her joy. My gorgeous boy and beautiful girl went shopping together one wintry afternoon, they returned with w-a-y too much, too expensive, though of course it was I who paid. A dish of stilton that would give her indigestion; a hardback book too heavy, her frail, knobbly hands wouldn’t support it; a silk scarf in neon orange, at odds with her whisper-white complexion. A sugar mouse, for nostalgia’s sake, and a candle she’d forget to blow out.
The retirement flat would be ablaze if I let her take it home.
Instead, later, over Christmas lunch, I’d placed that fir-smelling candle at the centre of the feast ‘so we can all enjoy it’. By the time she was repatriated she’d have forgotten. Well, that was my hope – turned out, her memory was still pin-sharp and better than mine.
‘We had real wax candles on our fir-tree when I was a girl,’ she always said. We were gathered by our fake tree on Christmas Eve, listening to Carols from Kings at 3pm. I’d like to say I was making mince pies like Delia Smith in the book, but they were from Sainsbury’s. Still, I’d always loved the way she recalled her father, never known to me, standing on a chair, lighting the candles, and I pictured her pre-war teenage self, on a chintz sofa, feet curled up. The kids couldn’t believe they had – Real candles? Are you kidding? – but yes, she said, and sometimes the tree caught fire. I loved the nostalgia of that image, the zero health-and-safety of it. You’re so old, I remember thinking, looking at her sparrow-like hands, gripping an already-empty sherry glass. You’re out of time, I thought, I can’t believe it.
You’re older than my antique table, right over there.
After that Christmas, and earlier this year, she got her card from the Queen, six months before her Majesty died. I wept when they announced the news. But what was I weeping for? Our lost monarch, or my mother’s generation, soon to be erased? ‘Are you sad?’ I asked her on the phone. ‘Not really,’ she said. ‘King C – let’s see how he does.’ I don’t know why she called him that. A reluctance to accept in-with-the-new, I expect.
So that Christmas morning, she joined Dan and I in our bedroom, along with the kids, and her pale sapphire eyes were as sparkly as the bedside lamp. It was early – 7am, she was already awake, an excited child. Unfurling her stocking, she ripped off the holly paper in a flash. She held up bath cubes to her nose and wrinkled it; I was never sure if she preferred Lavender or Rose. I’d searched high and low in our local chemist for those ancient treats. She’d no interest in watching the kids open their stockings. Once the attention was off her, she shut her eyes and snoozed. That made me sad. I remembered similar from when I was a kid. I had no siblings to take the strain and I was solo on Christmas mornings; my mother and father were never really concentrating. It’s only been these last fifteen years, since dad died, that she’s been so excitable at Christmas. Like it’s new again, and an experience to savour.
Later, after turkey lunch, which was to be her last, it was present-giving time – we all had a neat little pile. I finger-dipped through mine, caught in the moment. By then, I’d had a glass too many of the fizzy, and Dan was sweating over Christmas pudding, warming the brandy, finding matches and singing. I had gifts from the kids, from him, and from cousins. I’ve never been one to get excited over presents, not really; maybe I don’t feel I’m deserving, it wasn’t a thing when I was a child. Yet there’s always been something carefully chosen by mum. In recent years, the carer has done the shopping.
But it’s always been something good.
Last year, faux diamond earrings – you’d never tell the difference. The one before, a voucher for Dan and I, a long weekend in a beautiful hotel. The year before that? A cashmere scarf in palest pink. ‘Don’t go wearing that with your awful tweedy coat,’ she’d said. Anyway, I riffled for a while through my gift-wrapped mound, whispered to Suzy – ‘D’you have something from Granny?’ ‘Sure,’ she said, holding it up, the label inscribed in my mother’s floral hand. Dan also, I checked. And Ollie.
There was nothing for me.
I didn’t mention it. We unwrapped each gift, one by one, to savour the moment. My mother, I saw her watching me, deep-set eyes, and those hooded, papery lids. Her blusher was brighter than ever, her lipstick so red. She always took the greatest of care with make-up, as if it were a disguise. ‘Well, that’s me done, my last gift, thank you darling,’ I’d said, giving Dan a kiss. I couldn’t help but glance at her. She was staring at me hard. A challenge if anything. ‘I dare you!’ she seemed to say. ‘Go on, ask.’
But why would I do that? I’ve never requested anything significant from my mother; she’s always been reserved, one step removed, I suppose. Later, in the kitchen, preparing tea and iced Christmas cake that no one had room for but would certainly eat, I folded myself into Dan’s wide embrace. ‘Happy Christmas,’ we said, a little drunkenly, with soppy we’re-too-old-for-this smiles.
‘Mum didn’t give me a gift,’ I recall saying, and I started to cry.
‘She’s old,’ he said, kissing my eyelids, first the left, then the right. ‘Forgive her. A slip of memory.’ She’s never forgotten before, I said. And there was something in the way she looked at me that made me think it was deliberate. The old animosity snaking in. It’s dissipated over the years. Don’t, mum, I thought. I’d believed we’d left it all behind.
I’ve never known what caused it. Why she was so aloof.
That generation, I’ve always supposed.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel ridiculously upset. All through Boxing Day, I know my tone of voice was off. ‘Breakfast in bed!’ I pronounced, as had been our tradition in recent years, as I settled the tray on her lap. I’d filled a vase with holly, spread her toast with marmalade, just as she liked. ‘Thank you, darling, ‘she’d said, her words a little blurry, her teeth not yet clipped in. ‘You’re so good to me’, she added. WHERE’S MY PRESENT? I wanted to shout. But I didn’t because I am far too polite. Suzy said, when she realized I was upset: ‘Shall I ask her?’ ‘Don’t bother,’ I’d replied, ‘it’s silly of me, I know.’
‘Take her home, Dan,’ I said, a day earlier than planned. ‘Leave the candle here.’
So, our parting wasn’t as tender as perhaps it had been in the past. My mother’s lips felt cold to my hot cheek when we said goodbye. Her blue eyes lingered on me too long, even as she clutched that damn pine-scented candle. I knew she was challenging me. But no, I wouldn’t respond, I wasn’t going to play that game. Silly Ma. I’m too old.
It was only after I knew Dan was safely on the road, with my mother’s tiny, zipped suitcase shoved in the boot, that I found a gift balanced on the pillow in my bedroom. A sticky label attached, the ones that come free with a charity mail-out. I usually throw them away but not my mother. She’d written on it: ‘To my daughter.’ That was odd. She’d never called me that before. I’d been christened Evelyn, but I was only ever Evie. Except during our painful years, when I was a teenager, and she was full-on menopause.
Then it was Evelyn all the time. But—
‘To my daughter. Open it, now I’ve gone home.’
I remember shutting the bedroom door, quite hard, in fact it slammed. Downstairs, I heard the kids still playing Christmas tunes, ones we were all heartily sick of, but which they clung to, stubbornly, trying to regain the festive feeling they’d lost years before. I flopped on the bed, feeling half a stone heavier after all that rich food. I caught sight of myself in the looking glass, holding my mother’s present. A woman past her prime, but not yet too bad. My hair lightly peppered with grey and expensive caramel streaks. Dan likes me to look after myself. I’m still working. I’m still part of ‘the gang’ at the office, though I know when to slip away from Friday night drinks, if things get raucous. I’ve not been cancelled yet, I’m still relevant. The gift weighed so heavy in my hands, though it was barely ten centimetres by twenty. She’d wrapped it in silver paper, with a satin ribbon bow. The carer must have tied it.
My mother never did fussy.
I opened the package.
There was nothing inside. Just an envelope, an old one, brown and creased. It felt feathery light, I recall thinking, from being touched too many times. Where a sticky tape barrier had once sealed its flap, there was only dark shadow. I lifted the flap. I didn’t know what I was about to see, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. What sort of gift was this?
It was a Death Certificate. Dated 24 December 1960. There was a girl’s name on it: Eleanor. Mother: my mother. Father: my father. Deceased at three months old. This little girl, who shared my birthday: 24 September 1960. This little girl— then she would be—
My mother had enclosed a note.
‘Dearest Evie. Your father never wanted you to know. He felt it would upset you, that you might feel a lesser half. But since his death, I’ve pondered on what to do, every single year. This is my 100th Christmas, can you believe it? The guilt of not telling you has grown too much. In earlier years, when you were young, the pain was excruciating. But these days, I try to celebrate it – because it means I have you. My special, beautiful daughter. Yet I think it’s time now that you knew. Forgive me. She’s always in my heart.’
I think I called out then for the children. I showed them the paper as it floated from my hands. They sat on the bed, asked questions, and I cried, and so did they, so many tears, but what sort? Tears of joy, sorrow, sadness, guilt – I don’t know. Yet, perhaps I did. Tears of relief, I’d say, because all my life, I’ve felt half of a whole. That Christmas, last year, I finally knew why. I’d had a sister all along. My mother’s secret, here, on my bed.
A secret we could share now.
Mum and I, we didn’t speak of this straight away. I celebrated New Year with Dan, we went to a dinner, and my mother stayed at home, she’s never liked to celebrate it. The kids disappeared off to a party. In the middle of January, finally, I decided to Skype her. Her pale face swam into view, as she settled back in the armchair.
‘You got your gift’, she said.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I asked. ‘What happened – mum?’
‘I didn’t have the words.’ Her face forlorn. ‘She died in her sleep. No one’s fault.’
‘Next Christmas, we’ll celebrate her properly,’ I say. ‘It will be different. Even more exciting!’ My heart was already open to the pain my mother had suffered, and that I was yet to process. But I was happy, also. Memories, thoughts, the truth – we had it all to come.
But next Christmas never came for mum. She died soon after.
I wore a black dress, high heels, red lipstick, for the funeral. I pinned her diamond brooch on the left breast of my coat. I insisted on a wreath of flowers, and I laid it on her grave: From your daughters, it read. From E & E. With so much love.
This Christmas, we’ll have a toast, a joyful one – with expensive crackers, too.
‘To absent friends,’ I’ll say. ‘To those we’ve lost. To Eleanor. To mum.’
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