What does Christmas mean to you? For me, it is a season of secrets, of rustling bags filled with tissue snuck into the house when no one is looking, of cookies and candy canes, and everywhere the scent of pine. As a designer, I can’t help but decorate every room, adding fresh cedar boughs and glittering lights here and a crystal bowl filled with red roses there.
As enchanting as this holiday is, it also brings with it memories, some delightful, some more painful to recall, and as the years go by, all stir my emotions, and fill my heart. My recent book signing at Holiday House in New York City brought me back to a Christmas long ago, the last one I spent with my mother, Grace.
Holiday House, a designer show house, was founded by Iris Dankner, a breast cancer survivor, in 2008. Iris wanted to combine her two passions–interior design and fundraising for breast cancer research–when she saw a lack of high profile interior design events in the New York City area benefitting women’s issues. Thanks to her vision, talented designers from across the country arrive every fall to transform the historic Academy Mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side into beautiful rooms highlighting a holiday or special moment in life.
Me with Iris Dankner, December 2, 2014
I lost my mother when she was only 51, to breast cancer. I immediately knew I wanted to help the Holiday House mission in any way I could, even as my thoughts turned to a Christmas season long ago.
My mother was in the hospital, and realizing that her time was growing short, she was focused on me with a singular intensity. On one visit to her hospital room, she greeted me with excitement, and showed me a gift she had painstakingly created for me the night before. I walked to her bedside, and she handed me a simple brown paper bag.
“Look!” she urged me. I saw the bag was empty, and for a moment I was confused. Then I saw her handwriting on the bag, up one side, and down the other. From memory, in the dark hours of the night, my mother had written down our family tree on the only paper she had. She wanted so much for me to remember who I was, and where I came from. I gazed down at the names written on the bag, marking marriages and children, year after year after year.
I found it hard to focus. There were tears in my eyes. We were members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but that’s not what the bag was about. I understood that this was family, blood thicker than water, the people from whom I came, and the cousins, aunts, uncles, and other connections that surrounded me still.
I was an only child, and my mother knew that when she left my side, my world would be a little bit lonelier place. But she wasn’t finished.
“Over in the corner, there’s a gift for you. Bring it here,” she told me. I did as she asked, carrying a bulky package to her bedside.
“Open it!” she urged me.
I shook my head, imploring her. “No, not yet. Let’s wait for Christmas. You’ll be home by Christmas, and I’ll open it then, under the tree.”
My father stood by my side, and added his voice to mine. “That’s a much better idea! You’ll be home, Grace, and Trudy will open it on Christmas morning.”
I felt my mother’s disappointment, but to my relief, she acquiesced with a smile.
Mom didn’t make it home for Christmas. She passed away on December 6th, with me and my father by her side. In my grief, I had forgotten the gift that waited for me under the tree. But on Christmas morning, it was there.
I slowly unwrapped it, wanting desperately to stop time, knowing I was opening the last gift I would ever receive from my mother. As I pulled away the last bit of paper, a soft, warm quilt tumbled into my lap. Made by my mother’s hands in my favorite colors, and in her final days assisted by my aunt, Elysa Knight, she had sewn a Double Wedding Band quilt to cover my bed. I smoothed my hands over the fabric, amazed at her handiwork, already feeling the comfort she had left behind, and the love that went into it.
I always thought of my father’s family as my “artistic side.” My dad was an engineer and inventor, his brother a furniture designer, his sister an artist. I had somehow lost track of the artistry created by my mother and her side of the family: the crocheting, embroidery and hand sewn goods that filled our home all through my childhood. I knew then that I was doubly blessed with artists on both sides of my family. I was already working as a interior designer, and cherished the creative work that filled me with passion and my days with joy. Now I knew more clearly where my gifts came from.
I only have one regret–that I didn’t open my mother’s last gift to me in that hospital room, where she could have witnessed my delight. But perhaps it was better that way. Instead of letting her watch me unwrap the gift, I think I shared with her my hope that she would return home one more time, to spend one more Christmas with my dad and me.
Although she didn’t leave her hospital bed again, she was at home with me on Christmas Day. She had been with me every day since I was born, and on Christmas I was wrapped again in her love as surely as I was wrapped in her quilt. It was my last Christmas with my mom, and she taught me her last lesson. By making her final gift to me something that was unique, made with her own hands, she showed me more than I realized. As the years go by, I know that the last gift wasn’t only a quilt. It was how to live life, and how to fill it with light.
It was how to celebrate Christmas. But even more than that. It was how to celebrate Christmas with Grace.