As a Vermonter, I grew up with snowbanks that towered over my head and frosty bedroom windows, ideal for drawing hearts and flowers in the morning light, the chill nipping my fingertips. Winter meant ice skating on the corn field behind our house, the fading yellow stalks poking through the ice, building snow caves, and playing King of the Hill. When I was very little, winter meant the wonder of Santa Claus and hoped for gifts.
But the winter I was 12, I can’t remember celebrating Christmas. I have one distinct memory from this holiday season. I am sobbing uncontrollably and my sister is trying to comfort me. She is giving me a silver necklace with an intricate design and words circling it in Greek and English, “To err is human, but to forgive is divine.” I wore this necklace every day for months, and then it disappeared, forever lost like the memory of other presents I may have been given, other moments of connection. It is like an archeologist came along and dug up four to five days of my life, in the heart of the Christmas season, and carted away the artifacts. I can only gaze at the snow-rimmed hole and wonder.
But this story began in late September, when the leaves were turning burnished gold and flagrant red, and school was in full motion like the wheels on a school bus rolling down the highway. One weekend night, I woke up to the sound of loud, cracking slaps and then screams, “Oh, God! Oh, God! Save me!” Through the adjoining wall, I heard my mother pleading as her body fell and slammed against walls and the floor. Pinned in terror to my bed, I burrowed into pillow and blankets, not moving or helping. God, and I who was much closer, became cowering children under sheets, just listening, not answering. When the morning light arrived, all was silent and stayed silent, until the lightest of whispers arose.
By mid-afternoon, my mother and her partner finally emerged. My mother’s eyes were forming rings of purplish-blue bruises, her nose was swollen, and her lower lip was torn. She walked gingerly, every movement creating discomfort. Her partner appeared untouched except for marks embedded mid-finger across three fingers where (I later learned) my mother had bitten him. They told me that he had “fallen on her” in the night. Then her partner kissed us goodbye and traveled back to his home in a nearby state. He left us to the women’s work of washing the blood from the linens and rugs.
Over the next few hours and days, my mother’s numbness and shock faded. My 15-year-old brother, who had been away during the beating and clean-up, came home. Before my mother’s partner could return, we packed our bags and fled from our home in southern Vermont and went to Burlington where my older sisters lived. I hadn’t seen my sisters in over a year, because my mother’s partner had forbidden us to have contact. My mother had agreed.
For the next two months, we lived in a fishbowl of chaos and terror. My mother, brother, and I commuted to school and work every day for four weeks. In the two plus hours we were in the car, we would look for cream-colored Chevrolet Impalas, expecting to be chased down or run off the wet, leaf-splattered roads. Even in school, I never felt totally safe, as I feared he would show up. And what? That’s what you never knew about this man…….what…….was next.
As the gray of November accumulated, we settled into an aging apartment house approximately 10 miles from the home we still owned, but feared to return to. As the snow started to fly, I began to hope that we were disentangling our lives from what had been a six-year odyssey of unpredictable rages followed by cloying remorse. I hadn’t stopped breathing shallowly, but a small part of me was reconnecting with my older siblings, was stretching into their fragile embraces.
Then on the last day of school before the holiday vacation, my mother didn’t come home or call. There was a long silence enveloping the days that followed, the quietness in the darkest part of the year echoing the isolation and abandonment. It could have been any week on the calendar, a string of unidentifiable days, except all around us I could imagine some people were eating a holiday dinner of turkey or ham, rustling paper off from gifts, sitting next to a fire, singing carols.
Snow might have fallen or not, trees etched white or black-limbed against the dark December sky. I only remember the feeling of overwhelming terror stretched tightly like a painting’s canvas against its frame and the anxious questions that erupted. Would my mother be coming back? Was she safe? Our father had died when I was six; was I completely without a parent now? My siblings didn’t have any answers. Maybe I ran out of questions. At some point, we realized my mother was probably with her ex-partner. I started to fear what this would mean for all of us.
A day or two after Christmas, my mother returned. I can’t remember her facial expression, her words, what she was wearing when I first saw her again. A miracle occurring before my eyes, as sure as if I was at the birth of baby Jesus, but I have no sensory experience of it. Someone told me she was going back to her partner. My brother vehemently protested and was given the option of living in northern Vermont with a paternal aunt we barely knew. I was so afraid of my mother’s partner, I asked to do this, too. I was simply told, “No. This isn’t an option for you.”
It is a day or two after Christmas. I am dressed in a red, white, and blue crocheted vest, white shirt, and navy blue corduroys. I am newly twelve and my breasts are just starting to bud. I have a growing sense of popularity with peers at my new school, having started seventh grade with a friendly, if tentative smile. I hope to create a world away from my home that is different, safe, sane.
But in this moment, my sister is holding my shoulders while I sob, trying to give me a necklace, a keepsake to take into the heart of winter. There are tears running down her face, flowing quickly from blue-green eyes so close in color to my own. She is telling me, “It will be all right,” although she knows this is untrue. “It will be all right.” “He fell on her in the night.”, rhyming lines of nonsense, big fat tongue-twisting lies. In this moment, Christmas is an illusion, a backdrop, as close to the real thing as Santa’s Village in New Hampshire in the dead heat of August. There is nothing to hold onto but the words, “To err is human, but to forgive is divine,” and the fading imprint of my sister’s embrace.
There have been decades of snow, sleet, ice, and crystalline frost since the unforgettable Christmas I can’t fully remember. Many of my Christmas celebrations since have been gentle and loving, filled with the scents and sounds we want to associate with this holiday.
But in the past two years, I have turned back toward my 12th Christmas. It is because of this year, I learned the deepest meaning of bringing light into the darkness. I, like others, know the shadow sides of families and holidays only too well, some children’s realities beneath the surface of twinkling lights, Jolly Santa, and The Polar Express. For each and every one of these children, I pray the mystery of resiliency will protect and guide them through. I try to find comfort in remembering we learn compassion through suffering; we heal from facing our own darkness. And always, always, there is a gentle light within, our true essence, waiting to greet us. To tell us when we are safely home.