First Christmas without Ma: Her box of decorations made me cry at last

Struggling after 30 years away, I’m reminded it’s the small things that are important

Back at Ma’s old house, I climbed into the attic. In a cobwebby corner was a cardboard box, ancient, battered, packed to the gills with the Christmas trinkets I’d know since I was five. Every single gaudy bauble, every moth-eaten felt robin was there. Photograph: iStock

Back at Ma’s old house, I climbed into the attic. In a cobwebby corner was a cardboard box, ancient, battered, packed to the gills with the Christmas trinkets I’d know since I was five. Every single gaudy bauble, every moth-eaten felt robin was there. Photograph: iStock

 

“It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees.
They’re putting up reindeer,
Singing songs of joy and peace,
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on . . .”

I’ve always loved Joni Mitchell’s River, such an antidote to the Slade/Wham/Maria Carey screeches and schmaltz we endure in shops, on radios, in malls.

A grinch? No. I’m a full-throated lover of this festive season: the sparkling lights, the indulgent extras, the anticipation of a chilly walk to whet the appetite, the serendipity of running into friends on Dublin streets and those impromptu festive pints in cosy snugs that follow.

The decorations will be low key. There won’t be a tree

Christmas is imminent. Newspaper columns, magazine articles and Instagram posts show people decorating houses, gorgeous images of children and tinselled pets in front of glowing fireplaces. Heart-warming festive glimpses but, this year, I’m struggling to muster up my normal festive bonhomie.

The reason is that this Irish Christmas will be the first without “the Ma”: my mother Emer, who died this summer. I decided to return from London after 30 years to look after her elderly sister, now alone in the family home.

Back in those warm summer days, as I struggled with grief and the tangled administration of moving my entire life between the two countries, I was worried if I’d have the wherewithal to “do Christmas” here.

Hardy handiwork

My childhood Dublin Christmases were marked by Ma going full tilt with home made decorations. She was a consummate gardener and an award-winning floral arranger.

Christmas week meant a trip to the Victorian Flower Market (closed only last August) where Ma would buy blocks of green Oasis, the florist’s foam base, piles of pine branches and the waxy, white berries of mistletoe. Ivy strands and the snowball-like blossoms from a Fatsia Japonica would be gathered from our garden.

The bannisters were wound with lacquered ivy leaves. She once surprised us by putting an entire pineapple on top of the newel post of the stairs, in a bed of festive greenery. The brother and I took turns to try and knock it off its perch, him with tennis balls, me with small Dinky cars.

My mother’s handiwork was hardy: the pineapple stood firm. There was a festive floral table centrepiece, fresh garlands of entwined holly, ivy and mistletoe over the doors, a magnificent home-made wreath on the front door with pine cones, hazelnut twigs and sprigs of blood-red berries foraged from the lanes of north Co Dublin.

What a legacy I’d inherited from her. I took a deep breath and set out to make some version of festive cheer in Ma’s old house. I went to my storage unit (that contains all of my London house contents) to see if I could find the two wicker baskets of my cherished ornaments, collected over the years I’d lived abroad.

No sign of them, packed behind mattresses, wardrobes, couches and seven foot high, five feet deep boxes of books. Dispirited, I gave up.

Still with us

Back at Ma’s old house, I climbed into the attic. In a cobwebby corner was a cardboard box, ancient, battered, packed to the gills with the Christmas trinkets I’d know since I was five.

Every single gaudy bauble, every moth-eaten felt robin was there. Even the 40-year-old wooden crib, still missing its donkey and, inexplicably, one of Joseph’s legs, was perfectly packed. As I unravelled these brown paper packages, I started to sob: probably the first time I’d had a good cry since Ma died.

Small things. Small but important things.

I gathered up those precious geegaws. I wiped off the dust, made them regain their sparkle. My Aunt told me that we won’t send Christmas cards this year: “You don’t do that when you’ve had a bereavement”.

So, the decorations will be low key. There won’t be a tree. Instead, I’m going to decorate the mantlepiece with greenery from the back garden, planted by Emer; branches of trees and shrubs, tended by Emer; the newly polished trinkets, bought and cherished by Emer and lovingly caressed by me years ago.

It’ll feature that 40-year-old robin who’s seen better days and three cream-coloured candles, lovingly wrapped up years ago.

It’s the right thing to do: to have this bit of Ma’s legacy in the house this first Christmas without her.

It’ll warm my heart to know she’ll be with us in those tended green leaves, branches and shoots with all their promise of new growth, new life in 2020.

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