I love the holidays, mostly. I love the decorations and the music, the elaborate meals, the cards, and the school choir and band concerts. I love the ways in which we allow ourselves excess during this time of year, because so much of the year—at least for me—feels like I’m doing the opposite. I don’t just mean gluttony, either. I mean spending more time with my kids, staying up late to play Settlers of Catan or watching the Nightmare Before Christmas, or baking mountains of cookies and decorating them. There’s a feeling that it’s okay to indulge that permeates this time of year, and that isn’t present at any other time.
Of course, I qualified my statement—I love the holidays, mostly. The “mostly” is because this indulgence, this love of excess, comes with a price tag.
In an essay that you’ve probably already read, this is where the writer segues into the costs of buying gifts, of the debt that accumulates at this time of year. In that essay, the writer details the fact that American retailers depend on the holiday season to turn enough of a profit for the year.
This is not that essay.
My dad first went into rehab to treat his alcoholism the weekend after Thanksgiving, 1987. I was about to turn 14 and a freshman in high school. I also had a paper route, and I sometimes used my wages to buy things I needed, things my brothers needed. I was not a savior, though. Just as often, I spent my money on soda and candy and lip gloss, indulgences which allowed me to briefly feel like a normal teenager.
My brothers and I were living through a kind of suburban poverty that it would take years for me to understand, or put language to. We lived in a nice subdivision, surrounded by well-kept houses and manicured lawns, but in our house, we struggled to get enough to eat, to have warm clothes, or shoes without holes. I knew what poverty was supposed to look like: housing projects or ratty apartments, dangerous neighborhoods, bars on windows. It didn’t look like having a paper route, for example, and being able to buy a Dr. Pepper, or fritter away quarters on Ms. Pacman.
That year, my dad gone, we were especially broke, so I used my paper route money to buy the family a cheap, ridiculous-looking tree for $20. My dad stayed in rehab for 8 weeks—straight through the holidays. Christmas morning felt like an afterthought. It was so minimal that I have almost no memories of it at all. My mom managed to get me a stuffed teddy bear as a gift—with what money, I have no idea—and I felt indifferent toward it. That indifference made me angry. The rest of the neighborhood and all of my friends were celebrating, getting huge gifts, sitting down to meals that cost more than a week’s groceries for us. They were inhabiting the spirit of excess that I remembered from when I was little.
I think, in so many ways, my understanding of the holidays has been informed by that terrible Christmas: the house dark all the time to save electricity; the tree trimmed but unlit; my brothers and I uncharacteristically quiet, wandering from room to room, escaping into The Hobbit, or The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe whenever we could.
I think, sometimes, that my entire embrace of the excess of the holidays stems from those months: let us get the biggest tree we can fit into the house, let us cover it with a thousand bulbs that twinkle and flash, let me wrap a stack of presents with colored paper and ribbons, let us bake hundreds of sweets, let us never be hungry, let all the shoes be warm and dry, let it never get dark again.
Every year that I’ve been a single parent—some nine years now—I’ve tried to embrace that excess while simultaneously holding worry at bay. Because the reality of being an adjunct professor is that the next term is never guaranteed. And the reality of academia is that fall term always ends right around the holidays. So the act of embracing excess is an act of faith: there will be food next month, there will be clothes and shoes, and the power won’t get shut off.
This year, that leap of faith is not truly necessary. I make it knowing that I have a full schedule next term, the term after, and in the summer. I buy smoked salmon for my mom and wine for my brother knowing that my college is already planning the following academic year, and scheduling me to work. I make it knowing that I was able to cash out my small, but not insignificant, retirement fund in my old state so that I could pay off $8,500 in credit card debt, do major maintenance on my car, and still put money in the bank for an emergency.
My dad went through rehab twice—once in 1987, and again later in 1988. The second time he didn’t relapse. In the process, my family lost our house and cars, and moved back to the city my parents had both been born in. My dad had earned his law degree before going into rehab, but once he was sober, he realized something else was wrong, and in 1991 he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, which he most likely contracted working as a prison guard before going to law school. My last Christmas with him was in 1996. He died in February 1997.
But I remember the way he tried, after those terrible years, after the lost house, the lost cars, the terminal diagnosis, to make Christmas special, and I understand, too, how much of a leap of faith it must have been for him. How every Christmas morning after he was sober, he was the first to wake. How he’d cook my brothers and mom and me this giant, almost obscene breakfast, with a kind of maniacal glee. “Have some more potatoes!” he’d say, then turn up the Christmas music. My father was not normally like this. He was biting and acerbic and darkly funny, and this was optimism and joy. When it was time to open presents, he’d insist that we go one and at a time, taking turns, something he had never cared about before. He wanted, I think, to make it last, to stretch the few remaining hours of excess, because he knew how long the rest of the year was.
This is the fourth essay in a multi-part series.
Heather Ryan earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon in 2006. Her non-fiction has appeared on NPR and Salon among others, and her fiction is forthcoming in the Southern Humanities Review. The first issue of her graphic novel The Imaginarium—about what happens when a teenage boy descends into the dark, fairy-tale world of schizophrenia—is forthcoming in October 2014. She’s currently finishing her memoir Now Entering America, about a failed road trip and life as a single parent and writer. She starts her new job teaching at a small community college in Washington state in the fall.
Photo: Kevin Dooley