In one of my favorite movies, When A Man Loves A Woman, the Andy Garcia character says goodbye to his stepdaughter as the parents separate. He leans down and whispers, I’m sorry for all the kinds of daddy that I was or wasn’t since I met you. Of course, he’s been a great father; and I’ve seen the movie enough times to understand the poignancy of his apology. I still cry though. I still think, without relent, of my many failures as a mother, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister, and an advocate.
The morning sun raised an azure dome after a night of rain pattering on my metal roof. I slipped my crippled feet into the new wool clogs with which I gifted myself for Christmas. I crossed the small space of my galley kitchen to boil water in the coffee kettle and scrambled soft eggs in my favorite pan. The toast glistened with a light smear of Katrina Taggart’s jam. Crows crossed the span of the park overhead, calling their Friday message to each other. Then my tiny house fell still and a space opened for memories of Christmas past.
My son has his own life and I will not see him this weekend. He came down to St. Louis on Labor Day for my birthday though; and I bid myself to be content with what time he gives me. My sister Joyce came out to California twice this year, for Easter and Thanksgiving. I take the grace of her effort to my heart; I wrap it in left-over tissue and place it beneath my tiny tree next to the heavy box which she sent. We will open our packages from each other via Zoom tomorrow. Tears will be shed. Laughter will be shared. The ghosts will be quelled, at least for a pleasant hour.
I’ve wrangled an invitation to breakfast on Christmas Day, at the home of Greta Jenkins, the woman in whose office I work. She promises aebleskiver, a traditional Danish breakfast treat which I’ve seen on television but never eaten. Though different from our Austrian schmarren, nonetheless I expect it to be both delicious and deliciously sentimental. We will drink dark coffee and juice. Her husband has gotten himself stranded (though safe) in the Sierras but hopefully her daughter can make the journey from Grass Valley in time for dinner.
The rest of Christmas day will see me back at home, snug in my rocker under a handmade afghan. Both came to me from my friend Tracy and occasioned one last rearrangement of my cozy sitting room. Under the low ceiling of the loft bedroom, I will listen to NPR and think of my mother, of candy cane cookies and chocolate-covered cherries and the sound of reindeer on the roof which I have never quite figured how she managed to create.
Although my parents raised us in the Roman Catholic Church, I do not claim to be Christian. I comfortably concede the existence of angels and suspect that some universal spirit, a deity or an intertwining presence, guides humanity. Christmas has not been about the coming of a savior for me in many years. I might be proven wrong when I die, but I have done my best to embrace what I can of the religion of my childhood without being hypocritical.
I didn’t raise my son with religious underpinnings either. As a small child, he once gleefully answered Yes! to a lady asking him if he knew whose birthday it was, at my friend Katrina’s church one Christmas morning. It’s Uncle Steve’s birthday!, Patrick chortled. The woman gasped, but my child could not have made me more proud in that moment. Christmas Day is, indeed, Uncle Steve’s birthday.
But we do not celebrate that occasion any more. Stephen Patrick Corley laid himself down beneath a tree and left this world 24 years ago. He would be 62 tomorrow. He loved his nephews and nieces; his lost daughters; his siblings; and his mother. I still miss him; but somewhere inside of me, a little nugget of him survives.
That nugget emerges when I buy myself fancy socks which he also favored; or play Brokedown Palace, easily high on the list of his favorite songs. Alex Loesch created an amazing mural on the back of my tiny house to honor my little brother, an angel resting beneath a willow tree next to a river. I strive to think of “your friend and mine, Stevie Pat” as eternally peaceful, free of the pain which tortured his soul.
As evening falls tomorrow, melancholy might rise within me. A tear or two might trickle down my face. I will cross again into my little kitchen, this time for a cup of tea. With the steaming mug and a little plate of sandies at my elbow (made by a neighbor with walnuts rather than pecans, to which I am allergic), I will let the memories flow. From my childhood, with the eight Corley children walking to midnight mass, to my son’s boyhood in our Brookside home, sixty-five Christmases will march before me like little tin soldiers or sturdy nutcrackers. The lights which I’ve strewn throughout my house will twinkle, like so many lights before them over the years. I will surrender myself to the warmth of the tea, and the buttery goodness of the cookies, and the sweetness of the lingering thoughts of other Decembers, in other places, far away from here.
It’s the twenty-fourth day of the ninety-sixth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
The tree which my son Patrick gave me for my first Christmas in California has endured.
The painter Alex Loesch with the completed mural tribute to my brother Stephen Patrick Corley, 12/25/59 – 06/14/97
Happy Holidays to All.
Please enjoy this version of one of my favorite Christmas songs.
Be well. Stay safe. Gather your loved ones close to you.