The Seven Days — A Hopeful Holiday Week
The week between Christmas and New Year's always brought hope my mom could be "normal." Now I'm grateful she never was
On Christmas Eve, the pre-vintage phonograph played the background score for the annual decoration of our very silver tree. Artificial trees were a thing back then, but this one was no ordinary evergreen imitation. In all its silvery, shimmering splendor, it was a fantasy that could never be mistaken for something mundane that grew from the Earth. Perhaps that was my mother’s point, after all.
She pronounced the tree “incredibly chic” (never, I’m sure, considering the possibility that it was also highly flammable). Although my mother was the style arbiter who chose every sparkling ornament as well; the actual decorating work was left to one of my two live-in aunts and me. The music announced the beginning of our Christmas Eve ritual and was always a high-low rotation of the holiday hymns my Aunt Lilly loved and my Alvin & The Chipmunks Christmas Album. As we placed each hanging bauble, we inhaled the anisette cookies, fig bars, and fish dishes that my Aunt Lena was responsible for whipping up.
The seven days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve were the most magical time of year for me. They were days full of hope. Maybe this year, my mother will always be here with me. Maybe this year, she will love me more.
My mother was as mysterious as she was elusive, always onto something or someone else and seeming to forever be just beyond my grasp. Then, I was always in chasing mode, in longing pursuit of something fleeting. Looking back from my perch now, it’s so easy to see how stories can twist in a young child’s mind. Stories that seem to be true but in fact, are not true at all.
As the only child of such a preternaturally beautiful, larger-than-life mother, the spell that she cast upon me (and everyone else) remains vivid 30 years after her death. Dorothy. I had worshipped her — idealized her, really — and danced around the pedestal of a goddess no mere mortal like myself could ever hope to become. Not resembling her became the underpinning for the stories I told myself about why I didn’t seem to be a priority or fully loved.
My mother’s outside-the-lines unconventionality just reinforced what I believed. Her total abandonment of domesticity — and of day-to-day mothering — went completely against the grain of the conservative 1950s I was born into. Defying her era’s constraints, my mother designed a life that suited her needs, planting her two spinster sisters-in-law — my short, plump, fairy godmother aunts — into our tiny Queens, New York, apartment and quickly turning my daily care over to them.
She fully owned her rebel persona, dismissing fussy schoolyard moms who knitted sweaters and made heart-shaped sandwiches with a wave of her hand. Ahead of her time, she was the only mother I knew who worked. In truth, she didn’t want to and hated its office manager ordinariness, but our teetering finances required her income. She made up for her disappointment, however, by going out four- to five-nights each week with friends and admirers who jockeyed for their spot in her orbit. It was an admirable independence a generation ago that would probably be applauded by many women today. But it all left the lingering effect of not being enough to hold onto her.
My mother blew in and out like a VIP guest walking the red carpet between her bedroom and the front door. “My darling girl! How are you today? Come! Follow me and help me change.” I’d scamper alongside in that tight squeeze of an apartment, wondering what other excitement had flushed her cheeks so perfectly. And in the build-up to the holidays, she was especially absent. I’d hear her late-night arrivals from my bed, a whiff of scotch mixed with her signature Estee Lauder perfume finding its way through my open door; the rustle of shopping bags being secreted away in closets; the indecipherable murmurs and low whispers.
Ah, but in that week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, she was — finally, if not mostly — mine. Up first on Christmas morning, I’d sit on the orange Chesterfield sofa in our living room, positioned so I had a sight line straight to her closed bedroom door. Knocking would have been unthinkable, so I’d wait — an hour, sometimes two, depending on how late she had been out the night before — my eyes on the brass knob, anticipating its turn. Finally, she’d appear in her satin gown and robe, her tousled red hair swept upward, her face dewy and pure as we scanned the bounty under the tree. As a child, I did not make the connection that all those presents were not from a white-bearded man, but from her. It was the part of the story that I didn’t know.
I loved every moment spent at my mother’s side as she lounged around in that magical week — even when such close contact made me wonder how we could possibly belong to one another. And then, when the days melted into New Year’s Eve, I’d watch her get ready to reenter her social swirl. Her accoutrements would be spread wide across her vanity, a treasure trove of glamorous transformation. Finally, she’d pick through jewelry options like the towering pearl-crested pinkie ring or the golden globe for her index finger, and then slip into a sultry gown before disappearing into the night.
To ease our parting, we’d have a little toast to the new year together, my glass full of ginger ale. When I was seven, there was a surprise after our “Cheers.” Her eyes sparkled as she lifted the lid off a box. “For you, Debbie, from me.” The poodle puppy I had dreamed about made real by her. A boxful of devotion and love.
We are often deluded — and even more often, we delude ourselves. Now it’s so clear that everything I am today I owe to her — she was the mother I needed to become me. But then, I missed the cues. I didn’t realize how top-of-mind I was when she was away from me. How she believed that she had orchestrated the best loving and constant care for me with my aunts. How she loved me in the only way she could. This really is the year things will change, was all I thought then, as I nuzzled that puppy.
A lifetime later, I wrote my mother’s story, and in so doing, I learned how a writer thinks. And that is the lens through which I look at everything now. A writer’s mindset is the final gift she gave me so many years after her death; a gift that prompts me to ask myself this failsafe question for absolutely every situation: What am I missing?
Deborah Burns loves inspiring others to see possibilities and opportunities. Connecting the dots and building ideas is her hallmark, whether as a media chief innovation officer, a consultant helping companies invent and reinvent, or as the author of two award-winning books: Authorize It! Think Like a Writer to Win at Work & Life and Saturday’s Child. Her latest book — and third genre — is The 7 Days: A Classic Nursery Rhyme Made New. As Burns reinvents the rhyme that inspired Saturday’s Child’s title, The 7 Days connects the dots in her own life and introduces children to the traits they need for emotional wellness and growth.