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JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

Why I’m celebrating Christmas alone this year

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My mama’s love language was gifts.

She wasn’t very present. But she was about her presents.

So Christmas was her time to shine. Some years, when the money was good, toys and clothes and gadgets were packaged and piled around the tree.

Others, when the eviction notice was underway and the lights were off, she cried. And cried. And cried.

She needed to give. Be it a homecooked meal of fried chicken, greens, and buttermilk biscuits or a perfectly wrapped present reeking of the Virginia Slims that killed her, gifting made her feel whole.

She loved it so much that when I graduated from college, she started mashing Thanksgiving and Christmas together. We celebrated them over the course of a weekend every year. An Osterheldt Thanksgivingmas, with stockings and lights and a tree.

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Part of it was about logistics. My sister, mother, and I lived different lives, in different cities and states. It made more sense for everyone to just do it all at once, freeing up Christmas for other family trips.

But more than anything, she hated waiting for Christmas. She loved giving as much as receiving and few things made her giddier than opening a gift early.

My mommy made lists. The kind of lists a kid makes. And she wasn’t shy about asking for something like a TV, a laptop, or every Eddie Murphy movie ever made.

She’d start talking about her birthday, Christmas and Mother’s Day months before the date.

And depending on the year, she’d throw in Easter and Valentine’s Day.

I gave her a hard time about it, but I looked forward to her asking me for something wild. The last thing I bought her for Christmas was stacks and stacks of expensive adult coloring books and fancy coloring pencils, markers, and such.

When she died in May 2016, so many of the things I’d bought her over the years were barely used. The Birkenstocks were hardly broken in. An authentic Cowboys football jersey still had the tags on it. The Crocs that nearly broke my fashionista heart to purchase had been worn maybe once.

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I know she was sick, but some of these presents were many years old. Sorting through her closet and drawers was taking a tour through a dead woman’s wish list.

Even before small-cell lung cancer ate her, she was sick with many other things. Ailments kept her from traveling. Depression made her hard to talk to. She refused to quit smoking. And her house was so tobacco-ridden it triggered my asthma.

So we hadn’t actually spent the holidays together for at least five years. There were a stack of reasons we couldn’t be in the same room, but I kept sending gifts. Even when she sent me a cookbook for couples and parties the month after my marriage fell apart. She was funny like that.

I used to think her obsession with presents was because she wanted things and needed to buy people stuff to validate herself.

Now I know, giving was her utmost expression of love. She’d cook you a good meal. She’d make you laugh until tears poured from your eyes. She’d keep you in the pages of her Bible, giving you her quiet thoughts on prayer notes, too.

And if she had the money, she’d buy you whatever she thought you wanted. Even if you didn’t want it at all. I have a cropped puffer jacket to prove it.

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This will be my third Christmas not hearing her voice and not surprising her with a small post Thanksgivingmas present.

I keep getting invited to Christmas dinners and asked about my plans. I appreciate the love. Don’t give up on me.

But this year, I’m going it alone. It’s taken me a lifetime to realize it, but we all have permission to sit a holiday out.

It’s a made-up thing that has little to do with my faith. I don’t feel bad. Or need hugs. I just feel like something’s missing.

And it’s my mama. I think I was always missing her, even when she was alive.

Although we hadn’t spent the actual day together in many years, I don’t feel at home anywhere without her right now.

Grief is ugly like that. It comes and goes. This year, Christmas is the trigger.

So I’m looking for her in deep belly laughs and old comedies. I’m digging through her Bible. I’m attempting to taste her food in old recipes. I’m walking through Chinatown, looking for the occasional whiff of second-hand smoke and black tea so I can smile through my coughs because that is the scent of Althea.

And I’m buying an obnoxious present. One I won’t use much but will serve to make me smile and remind me of the complicated woman who loved me.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.

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