This is my second Christmas season without my mother, and so far it's been harder than the first. I had known that the first year would be hard, and all I really cared about was surviving it. Activity was my friend. My sister Kathy and I spent the fall wrapping up her estate, selling her house, sharing her prized possessions with family and friends.
We talked every day. Much of our connection was activity-based. Was her account closed? Were the papers signed? It was hard, but I had known that it was going to be hard — so I accepted it, put on a happy face and made it through the holidays. Survival was success.
This holiday season has been much harder, possibly because my expectation was different.
Ah, but expectations are so often wrong. Everywhere I look I miss my mother. For years, she had joined my family — which includes her only grandchildren — for Thanksgivings and Christmases. Thanksgivings were not only about the turkey, but also about my mother's cornbread dressing.
Over the course of a few days, we would make it together and bake it in her cornbread pan. This year, the pan travelled to New York City where we made the dressing in a hotel room and cooked it in the home of my sister-in-law and her husband. It was wonderful and warm. I missed my mother.
For years, my mother's Christmas present to me was addressing my family's Christmas cards. This year's four-hour marathon of writing addresses by hand left me with the job done, but with a terrible, deep ache in my soul. I missed my mother.
The incredible sadness is something that I can't explain, and something that, quite frankly, I am having a hard time accepting. There are mornings when I want to pull the covers over my head and stay in bed, but I get up anyway. There are afternoons that seem to drag, and piles of work that I look upon as useless and unnecessary. Some are still there. I've heard that grief comes in waves, but often this has felt more like a tsunami.
I'm 48 years old, and I miss my mother. Not only for her turkey dressing and card addressing, but mostly for being my constant champion and safe harbor.
Christmas is my daughter Maggie's favorite time of year. When asked why, she responded, "because people are nicer at Christmas."
When we retrieved the Christmas decorations from the attic, Maggie and her brother Robert pulled out their nutcrackers and lined them up on either side of the Christmas tree. Over the years, my mother had given them these nutcrackers. She would pick them out months before Christmas and wrap them, then allow them to be opened a few days early so Maggie and Robert could put them to use before Christmas Day.
As much as they loved the nutcrackers, their favorite gift from her was Santa's marching band, an electronic set of eight bears that ring bells and play Christmas songs. It made its way from her house to mine when the children were very small. The bells are loud, and the children would play the songs incessantly. At times I wanted to curse my mom and break the bears — but I did not.
This year, we once again pulled out the members of Santa's marching band and hung them on the tree. Maggie often requests that we turn off the Christmas music and listen instead to the bears.
Christmas is my favorite time of year, too, but for different reasons. While I love all our activities — the annual trip to get our family Christmas tree, the trip to get our picture with Santa, Christmas Eve at my mother-in-law's, and going to the home of my husband's aunt and uncle for Christmas Day, Christmas is more than fun family-filled activities. Christmas brings me hope.
For me the magic of Christmas is the hope that it brings. The story of the birth of Christ, the hope of life everlasting and having a God who loves us enough to send his only son to save us. This magic can be seen in the faces of those we love, as well as in the faces of those we meet. As for the bears, their songs no longer drive me crazy, but instead, remind me of my mother — and her love.
Jackie Gingrich Cushman is the co-author, along with her father, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of the book "5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours." Read more reports from Jackie Gingrich Cushman — Click Here Now.