My Uncle Dick always said December was a bad month. His mother, my grandmother who lived with us, had died in December, and I remember we had to put the Christmas tree out of sight. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we weren’t allowed to play music in the house. At the time I thought that was one of the superstitions Italians lived by, like not wearing red to a wake, not saying the word accident in a car, and not looking at a dog when you’re pregnant. But no, my parents were serious. No music.
Since my sister and I were of concert age, we had a lot of good songs in our repertoire, which we used to sing while hand-washing and drying dishes. We were not at all pleased with this “no music” rule, and hated that our tree was relocated to the unheated porch from our living room where we could enjoy it. My younger brothers didn’t seem to mind. In their minds, Christmas would come anyway.
Prior to my mother’s passing, she listened repeatedly to the three tenors from her in-home hospital bed, hooked up to her oxygen, my Aunt Judy beside her, my father watching disinterestedly in the background as he rolled his meatballs for the holidays. “Nessun Dorma” was pretty much on repeat, and they would talk with pride about my grandfather playing the timpani at an opera house in New York.
The last December of her life, my mother would move from the hospital to rehab to my parents’ home in Lakewood, New Jersey. I called her daily, sometimes from my New York City office where on a clear day I had a view of the Statue of Liberty. I couldn’t help but think about her parents passing through Ellis Island on their way to Hoboken.
Throughout her illness, my mother always assured me she was fine. Only one time I remember her admitting she cried, when in rehab someone sang, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” The thought of her unhappy haunted me worse than the times I’d seen her gasping for breath. But now I had a second song to compete with “Nessun Dorma,” which had played in my head since my last trip to the hospital. Though my mother did not die in December, the damage had been done. I never heard that Christmas song again without thinking of her alone in rehab; it had the same affect as the Ave Maria, which routinely slammed me back to my family’s funeral masses.
By the time my Aunt Tessie passed in December, I had a house that was regularly visited by my siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, pre and post-repasts. We never hid our tree or denied the family music. We went the other way. We broke out the wine and sang together. We ate pound cake, ham, cookies, and pastries, told familiar stories, trashed people who didn’t show up for the wake, and otherwise bonded in disbelief at the thought of another one of us on the other side.
We took it very personally when Dean Martin left us on Christmas Day--my uncle claiming it was proof that December was as bad as he insisted. None of us pointed out how many people had passed in every other calendar month, because frankly he was very entertaining. But in 2015 when Uncle Dick took a fall in December, there was a mild, understated panic that immediately called to our minds his “December is a bad month” prediction.
It was a wrap-up year for my family. Our house in New Jersey had been for sale, my daughter Emily had gotten married, my daughter Elizabeth was settled in Suffern, my son Sam had moved to Florida, our Golden Retriever had passed, my husband, Steve, was leaving his job in the city, and we were about to take our empty nest to the Pennsylvania countryside. So when my uncle, the last of my mother’s siblings, died on December 18th--the day of our house closing, it seemed all too fitting.
We couldn’t have the family over for the pre or post-repast gathering because we had just handed off the keys. Instead we picked up pizza and went to my cousin’s house to help each other absorb the shock. My cousins told me he passed while “My Way” was playing; I didn’t envy them such a popular radio song. At least I would only be on a hair trigger for “Nessun Dorma,” “Ave Maria,” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”
I don’t face December with trepidation. But I have grown to understand why our Christmas tree, an access point for memories, was stuck out on the porch. And I get why there was no music the year my grandmother died. Music can sear your heart and mind so permanently, your normal, grown-up defenses can’t protect you. A familiar melody, and suddenly you’re looking into the eyes and soul of a departed loved one, grieving as though they just left you.
My mother knew she was no match for the tree or music. I’m not either. I’d just rather acknowledge the heartache and go down crying.