This year I will be celebrating Christmas in my own house for the first time and I am looking forward to it. Do we have any Christmas traditions? Not exactly… I remember Christmas as a child – my dad loved it but my mum wasn’t as keen. She’s not into materialism and I don’t think her own family memories of Christmas were great. We weren’t supposed to be into materialism but Dad showered me with presents every year. We liked Christmas and called Mum ‘Bah Humbug’. Most years we went to the temple. It was a feast much like on Sunday but Gopi made a Yule log. The gatherings at the temple dwindled. There were far fewer people around, which was a shame.
When I was a teenager, we spent Christmas with family friends. We were plied with wonderful Israeli pastries. Much better than Brussels sprouts. Then Dad met Kathy and we spent Christmas with her extended family. This was arguably the closest thing to how I imagined a normal family Christmas. I always liked this idea of a normal family. There were aunts and uncles, children of various ages, grandmothers, great aunts and we all squashed around the table, wearing party hats.
I wondered if normal families got on better because they didn’t have such differences between them. I was never close to our extended family or my grandparents. I thought that people who didn’t join unusual religions had closer relationships with their family, that it was partly due to all the rules and regulations and lifestyle changes that my parents followed. It was the same for most of the other people we knew – there was no cosy three generations Christmas because we were too different and we weren’t keen on the idea of a celebration that centred on meat and alcohol. Food seemed some sort of gulf between us.
In 2009 we started going to England to see my step-grandmother Dorothy (or Doff), as we thought she wouldn’t last much longer. Dad was never especially close to her but she was in her early eighties at that stage. I had a special pair of eating trousers to be worn over Christmas. Once I didn’t wear them and I deeply regretted it, having been there for only two hours. The pressure to eat was endless; a Mrs Doyle style of hospitality. It was time for a meal when you’d stopped feeling ill from the last one, with endless encouragement to have a snack, starting almost as soon as we’d finished a meal. I wondered if I was being fattened up like the children in Hansel and Gretel.
I moved to London in 2011 and would trek out there every year while Dad flew over. Public transport was variable. Rarely was there a train service the whole way. There might be a train from Liverpool St to Ingatestone then a replacement bus to Witham followed by a train to Braintree. Sometimes there was a direct service from Liverpool Street to Braintree but you still had to get the bus to Halstead and there were only one or two an hour. Even with a direct train, it took three to four hours. I made a cake and lugged it with me and iced it when I got there. Why did neither of us drive? It would have taken us an hour and fifteen minutes to drive. I tried to bully Dad into taking an intensive refresher course but he wasn’t interested. Once we got there, we were stuck there until the 27th.
We always had macaroni cheese on Christmas Eve. When she got too old to cook, I made it. I did suggest that I could make something else but they insisted on macaroni cheese. I like macaroni cheese. It is the sort of cheesy, vegetable-free carb fest I rarely allow myself. Every year we went through the bizarre process of buying gifts. Dad would ask everyone what they wanted for Christmas and they would tell him. He would decide that what they wanted wasn’t exciting enough. He would then ring me up and ask me to think of something more exciting, before proceeding to reject all my suggestions. I started refusing to engage with this maddening cul-de-sac of idea generation. If they said they want marmalade and socks, get them marmalade and socks!
I would get up relatively early on Christmas morning, feeling slightly bleary eyed. I always slept badly in the baking hot spare room with the single bed right next to the red hot radiator. I’m a poor sleeper at the best of times. She would get cross if we didn’t get up early, yelling up the stairs to try and get Dad out of bed. He ignored her, tired from work, tired from the seemingly endless journey to get over there.
The television looped the same news items on Christmas morning. An item on credit card refunds for faulty products, whether or not the Queen would be attending the Christmas morning service, the elderly swimmers who went for a festive morning dip in the Serpentine. I would be offered more than I could possibly eat for breakfast – cereal and toast and fruit and crumpets. She loved salt and offered me salt to add to peanut butter on toast. I wondered sometimes if she added salt to Marmite on toast.
Auntie Maggie and Dad’s cousins Jim and Ann came over from next door and we all exchanged gifts. It was always lovely, to give and to receive. It was nice to have goodwill and generosity. Doff usually wrote us a generous cheque each. I was always tremendously grateful for this although there was something uncomfortable about taking from someone you didn’t really know that well. One of those cheques paid for my wedding dress which is a lovely way to remember her.
At 11 am, she would start reminding me to have the lunch ready in time, even though we weren’t eating until 1:30 and it only needed twenty minutes in the oven. The reminders would come again at half hourly intervals. Jim and Ann next door got very stressed and voices might be raised in the kitchen. I did offer to help but was always told it was ok, I didn’t need to. I felt a bit impotent. ‘No really, I am very useful’, I wanted to say.
Every year Doff would ask us how many sprouts we wanted. We usually agreed to eat two or three each and every year she bought twice as many as needed before wondering out loud why the sprouts hadn’t been eaten. Maggie got her hostess trolley out every year, laden with vegetables. Doff made us a pie one year, a nut roast en croute the next. (I was 22 that year, I’d never tried nut roast before.) I took over the job but wasn’t quite sure what to make. A mushroom wellington seemed to do. After lunch we had Christmas pudding. There was cream and ice cream and custard available. There was trifle and Christmas cake and there were mince pies offered endlessly. It never all got eaten.
Everyone got deafer and deafer. The individual conversations got louder and louder and no-one could hear anything. ‘I SAID, ‘WHERE’S THE POURING CREAM!’, Dad bellowed for the third time. After the meal, she would fall asleep. We would laugh when she woke up. ‘I wasn’t asleep!’ she would protest. ‘Yes you were’, we said.
Time moved very slowly on Boxing Day. We went out for an Indian meal that day. Something to break up the day. I drank endless cups of tea, even more than usual to mitigate the stillness, the boredom. She tried to start rationing the cups of tea on Christmas Eve as she was concerned the milk would run out. Dad loudly encouraged me to drink as much tea as I wanted. The petrol station was open on Christmas Day and he was usually desperate to have an excuse to stretch his legs. We went for a walk to escape the stifling warmth and still atmosphere. As she got older, she slept more and more. I don’t think any of us ever had a real relationship with her. It was very hard to keep conversation going. My tendancy to rabbit away endlessly came in handy.
The Christmas cake I lugged there would never all get eaten and we would have to lug it home again. I would try to leave most of it in the freezer for Dad to eat next time he visited. By the 27th, we were both going up the walls. I just wanted to be on my own to eat some green vegetables and not have to listen to anyone else’s political views. Leaving was always an endeavour. Jim often gave us a lift to the station, which we were immensely grateful for. God help you if you wanted a taxi on a Sunday or a bank holiday. There only seemed to be one local taxi driver. We usually queued up to get a replacement bus from Ingatestone, the crowds moving painfully slowly in the freezing cold. Then we got the central line. We weighed up getting off at Stratford where it was much easier to get the suitcases on the DLR but then stand in the cold for twenty minutes at Lewisham station. Or we could get off at Liverpool Street and drag the suitcases through the tube and over the road to Cannon Street and get a direct train home. Six of one, half dozen of the other.
Every year when we left I made my dad promise that he would live somewhere accessible when he was old and infirm, not somewhere that was on top of a hill or so difficult to access by public transport. As Doff got older, she got slower. We were amused by the suggestions she made, trying to talk us into getting the bus down the hill to the village which was less than ten minutes walk away. She reminded us time and again to be careful outside when the ground was frosty, questioning if it was safe for my six foot father to carry a hot dish next door in the twilight, in case he tripped over. She became less house proud and stopped cooking. We no longer ate at a laid table adorned with cream jugs with lace doilies, jam spoons and sugar tongs. (There was even a special jam bowl!) I’d grown up eating cross legged on the floor; I didn’t know how to use a knife and fork. She had very old fashioned ideas about doing things properly and was horrified. But now we ate macaroni cheese on the sofa in front of the television.
It was painful to watch her. She was permanently out of breath and started to move very slowly indeed, shuffling instead of walking, eventually needing a zimmer frame. Sometimes she asked for help but sometimes she insisted on doing things for herself, forgetting that she had become old and slow. I watched her nearly dip the kettle into the washing up basin full of water in the sink. We worried about her trying to cook and injuring herself when she wasn’t there. She relied on Maggie to do her shopping even though she was pretty much the same age and was struggling with arthritis.
She started struggling with the stairs and had a stair lift installed. Dad had a go in it and we laughed. It was better to laugh rather than think about the realities of our own mortality. I thought of the Bhagavad-Gita verse: As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age… The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change. It certainly was bewildering. It was scary to think about getting old and no longer being able to look after your own personal needs. Unable to shop or cook or get into the bath, she refused to get carers until she fell over and couldn’t get up again; the ambulance took three hours to arrive. Social Services supplied carers but were useless. She paid for her own carers who were still a bit useless but we were a bit less worried.
I made Dad promise that when the time came he would agree to whatever help might be needed. People talk about not wanting to be a burden on their family but it struck me that the burden was refusing to engage with the fact that you’re getting old. If you don’t want to burden your family, admit that you need care. I wonder if it is about not wanting to engage with your own mortality or perhaps being too proud to admit that you need care. Is it a British attitude of not wanting to make a fuss? Our neighbour is run ragged, driving up to Coventry on her days off to see her parents who refuse care despite the fact that they are obviously not coping and she is always worried that something will happen to them.
I wonder if it was a generational thing. People never used to live this long and if they did, they probably had local family to care for them. Both Dad and I had watched Doff get old and infirm and had seen how lacking state provision was. I imagined myself, an only child, as a stressed working mother, worrying about elderly parents. Quitting my job to move the family to Belfast to care for them would not be an option. (This of course raises important questions that society seems to think women should shoulder caring responsibilities, conveniently forgetting that most households need two incomes. And indeed that women are people, not just grunts to spend their lives doing endless unpaid work.) I imagine some sort of mad scenario of building two granny flats – one on either side of an imaginary house for my divorced parents to live in. (Our end of terrace house would of course not be conducive to building two granny flats.)
Dorothy went into hospital in March with a lung infection, shortly after her ninety first birthday and passed away in late April. We knew that she would be well looked after in hospital and that there would be no falls, no accidents, leaving her to wait for hours for someone to come and pick her up. It seemed kinder that she shuffled off her mortal coil when she did, given the decline in her quality of life, the creeping dementia and her distress at no longer being able to look after herself anymore.
We went up for the funeral to air the house and sat in the garden, mulling over how strange it was that she was gone. Dad collected a painting that his late father had done, a copy of an LS Lowry. The funeral service was lead by a cheery vicar who sang all the hymns very loudly. We all went to the pub across the road to eat cheese sandwiches and drove back to London.
I thought about families. I never had the sort of closeness to my grandparents that the girls I knew at school did. And Dad was never close to her either. I suppose I’m not really sure what to say except it seems a shame we didn’t have more of a relationship.
We’ll certainly remember her this Christmas. Having spent nine Christmases at her house, the prospect of having it at home feels very different. The Doctor will go and see his family in the West country. We’ve only spent Christmas once together, when we were on honeymoon in Thailand. What do I want Christmas at home to be like? Many of my colleagues are really invested in cooking everything. Especially the roast potatoes. I like roast potatoes but none of this traditional fare means much to me. I plan to buy as much as possible. I can’t cope with what we did for my dad’s sixtieth again. Work has been busy and I’ve packed too much in around it. I refuse to buy into the huge amount of work that women typically do at Christmas. I’ll make the pudding. I’ll prep the veg to roast and the green beans but I’ll just buy everything else. We could have trifle and Christmas cake and mince pies but they won’t all get eaten and I’m just not going to make that much. I’m not that excited by dried fruit although I do like Christmas pudding. I might make tiramisu instead of trifle. (And anyway, the Doctor starts making mince pies in August so by the time Christmas rolls around, I’ve usually had enough of them.)
This year our guests will come for a few hours and go home. I always enjoy wearing my dreadful Christmas jumper. As Father Ted says in the Christmas special, ‘A nice, normal every day Christmas with no surprises.’