by Peter Aguero
It was Christmas time. I’d just finished my first semester of college and things weren’t looking too good for me and my mom.
I got home with my laundry while she was at work and the house was an empty husk. She’d sold the dining room set and her bedroom set. Also her piano, which she’d had since she was a kid. Pretty much everything was gone, save for our beds, the couch and the kitchen table. In front of the couch was one TV that had working sound on top of another TV that had a working picture. The rest of the stuff, my dad had taken four years before when he left. My sister had moved in with my dad for her own reasons and the house, a three-bedroom split level, was just too big for my mother. Especially with me away. I’d been telling her to sell it, but she was stubborn. She was like, “No, after the divorce I want to keep the children in the house that they grew up in. I want to keep things so there is some stability.” But pride goeth before a fall. She was a nurse. She worked as many hours as she could on a drug rehab unit, with a part-time job at a perfume counter to supplement. It just wasn’t enough and the bills were catching up with her.
I’m doing my laundry when she came home and I ask her what happened to everything. She told me not to worry about it and she made dinner. We had tomato casserole, canned tomatoes and Wonder Bread with American cheese. Kind of a ghetto lasagna. We were eating at the kitchen table with the two chairs that were left because the other one I broke and the other one I also broke. She says that we’re not going to get a tree this year. There’s no money. There’s just no money. The mortgage was due, the bills were late, and she owed a portion of my tuition. The rest of that, I took out in loans. My dad wasn’t helping. Also, she added, there wouldn’t be any presents. She’d bought a little something for my sister, but since we lived together, we were like a team. We’d just suck it up and not buy presents. She says, “You know what we can do? Let’s cut out pictures from magazines and catalogues of things that we would get for each other if we could.” Then we laughed about it. Then we cried about it. Then we laughed again, because we’re family and we’re friends and we have no other way. Sometimes you just have to laugh.
The next day, she goes to work and I decide that I’m going to do something about this. I went to the local Christmas Tree farm. I figured that they’d give me a deal because I used to date their daughter. it turns out that they wouldn’t give me a deal. Because I used to date their daughter. It was about $60 for a tree. I said screw that and I went home and cut a tree down from our sideyard and brought it into the house. it had about ten branches. It wasn’t even a pine tree. it was some kind of stunted oak. I go up into the attic and get our decorations down. I put about 20 ornaments on each branch and strung all the lights . When she came home, we just laughed and laughed.
Over the next week, I set myself to cutting out pictures of everything that my mom ever wanted. I got her a Jacuzzi. A picture of one. She always wanted a bottle green Jaguar convertible. I cut out a picture of that. Jewelry, diamonds, gold. I cut out all of these pictures. It was sad. But I just wanted to see her smile. Money had put a wedge between us and every day she kept us in the house drove that wedge a bit deeper. It was killing her. She was distant. I was losing my girl. So if cutting these pictures would fix that, if I had to be an erstwhile character in an unpublished O Henry story, so be it. I’m 19 years old and I’m pretty dumb, but I know enough to know that somehow, this is beautiful. We would strengthen our bond and we’d never forget this Christmas. We’d put our love under this no-budget tree and it would be enough.
Now it’s Christmas Eve. I went to midnight mass with my buddy because when you’re catholic and under the drinking age, you can’t go to a bar to see your friends. You have to go to church. My mom didn’t go to midnight mass anymore. Four years ago, when my dad finally left us for good, it was during the opening procession of Christmas eve midnight mass. In front of everyone my mother grew up with and socialized with. So she doesn’t go to midnight mass anymore.
The next morning, I get up and collect my clutch of folded-up presents and put them under the tree. I had tied them with scraps of ribbon. It actually was pretty sweet. I hear my mother stirring and she emerges from the stairs to see her baby boy kneeling by the tree. She looks at the drift of papers and starts. She says, “Oh. Excuse me for a second.” She heads back upstairs and returns a few minutes later. We begin to open up her presents. She’s opening up a new car and jewelry and a new dining room set and a new bedroom set and a new piano. Better, newer versions of everything that she’d sold. I open mine. She gave me three: a picture of a bag of Reese’s peanut Butter Cups, a picture of a pair of Homer Simpson slippers, and a picture of a karaoke machine. All from the same pharmacy catalog that was up in her bathroom. She’d forgotten. I tried not to be crushed. In her harried state, I don’t think my disappointment registered. She went upstairs to make pancakes and we ate in silence.
If you go to my mother’s current home, the one she shares with her husband, you can go down in her basement and revel in an archeological wonder. Our lives are in layers of strata, of things and remembrances. If you find the box from the winter of my 19th year, you’ll find a small velvet bag. In that bag are scraps taken from magazines and catalogs, including diamonds and a karaoke machine. If you dig just a little deeper, you’ll see my belated Christmas present, one that she sent to me in the mail when I was back up at school. It’s a picture, not from an ad, but an actual photograph. It was my mother and she’s standing in front of the house. In her hands, she is holding a “SOLD” sign. And that is how, three months after Christmas, I got my very best Christmas present. I got my mom back.
Peter Aguero is a storyteller and teacher living in NYC. He was the winner of The Moth Stories GrandSLAM Championship in March 2009. He’s also the lead singer of The BTK Band. Check out his music and watch his videos here.